You probably associate summer solstice with warm, sunny days conducive to lying about on beaches soaking up the sunshine. Not so here at the northern tip of Sweden, on the road to Narvik, Norway. Spring hasn’t even made an appearance here yet, and it’s mid-summer!
The harsh climate takes its toll on life on mountain slopes at 68 degrees north latitude. Above the treeline, there is a lot of exposed rock, covered in places with lichen. A miniature forest about I inch high clings to rock crevices where moisture is greater, and what flowers are present, are tiny miniature copies of lusher vegetation down below.
We’ve made our way from Stockholm to the far northern limit of Sweden to Abisko national park, where even the pines have dwindled to non-existence and the surviving birch trees are dwarfed. The mountains still have quite a bit of snow, and spring flowers are just making their appearances. It’s the time of the summer solstice, with 24 hours of light, and midnight hiking is popular. The scene outside my cabin at Abisko Turistation looks like this.
Life is challenging here in the land of the midnight sun at 68 degrees north latitude, where the sun shines all day for about 3 weeks around the time of the summer solstice.
Russia!! More specifically, St. Petersburg, what a gorgeous and hospitable city. A two-day, whirlwind tour of palaces, gardens, city sights, museums, etc., but no biology, unfortunately. What contrasts from new, modern skyscrapers and malls to old Soviet style offices and huge apartment complexes to 18th century or earlier palace constructions. It’s definitely spring here, and we hit two of the 9 sunny days they average here each summer.
The best way to see the forest and prairie scenery in Bielowieza is to grab bikes and tour the countryside. Many roads to some of the small villages are less traveled by car and perfect for birding bikers. Here are a few of the things we saw.
The Wisent, or European bison, is a look-alike of the American bison, but its genetics tell a different story.
As the story goes, once upon a time between ice ages, steppe bison wandered the grasslands of Europe, Asia, and North America, traversing the Bering land bridge during glaciated times. Cut off from Asia when sea levels rose, the steppe bison in North America underwent moderate changes to become the buffalo we recognize today, but then suffered huge declines in numbers when railroads through the central plains brought hunters that killed off huge numbers of them.
The steppe bison was also hunted extensively, and may have gone extinct from overhunting about 11,000 years ago. But aurochs (European progenitor of cattle) and Steppe bison matings in Europe produced hybrids (now known as Wisent) that survived the hunting pressure, perhaps by retreating deep into the primeval forest.
Wisent numbers also declined precipitously with settlement and expansion of agriculture in Europe, but a few remained in the small forest fragments, like the one near Bielowieza.
Hybrids usually are less fit than their ancestors, largely because they are less fertile (e.g., mules), but in the case of the European bison hybrid, they appear to have survived both hunting pressure and the extreme cold of the interglacial periods better than their steppe bison ancestors, and retreated to the forest for protection.
How do we know this? A fascinating study compared animals in cave art paintings with DNA fragments from bison remains of 15-50,000 years ago and found transitions in the DNA that coincided with animals represented in the cave art. The animals represented during the coldest periods were the short horned, less humped at the shoulder, Wisent.**
Captive breeding of Wisent at the Bison reserve just outside Bielowieza attempts to track genetic ancestry and propagate animals that could be released to the wild, but wild Wisent exist in small herds through the forest-grassland spaces in eastern Poland. They are mighty hard to spot — judging from our early morning explorations of the area.
The Bielowieza forest is surrounded on the Polish side by farmland, much of which is hayed for dairy cattle. Polish farmers seem to prefer haying their meadows of grasses and forbs, rather than planting monocultures of alfalfa. As a result, forest visitors (the human variety) are treated to a colorful scene of perennial blooms, very similar to that we see in Minnesota prairies, only with a lot more color.
We were amazed to find a number of the same species present in Polish prairies as we might find along roadsides in the U.S. Of course we call these weeds, and perhaps they are in Poland, too. Or perhaps they really are part of the natural prairie mixture.
Imagine getting a glimpse of what a mature forest looked like during the Middle Ages, say around 1400 A.D. New oak, linden, and yew trees were just starting to grow in the few sunlit gaps in the forest then where some unfortunate older trees had fallen.
Light gaps created by fallen trees in Bialowieza forest in the eastern edge of central Poland provided space for new seedlings to start their journey upward toward the light.
Amazingly, some of those very individuals are still standing today in the Bialowieza forest, one of the last true remnants of Europe’s northern temperate hardwoods. They escaped the axes of Prussian loggers, the devastation of World War I, and the bombs of German invaders during World War II. They tower over the rest of the forest canopy, some of them climbing straight up 200 feet or more.
The forest primeval is a special place with great diversity of species, as well as ages of individuals, an almost closed canopy that lets in little light to the shaded forest floor, and an open, spacious understory with short ground cover, most inviting to the casual hiker.
But we stay on the marked paths here, because this is a well protected area, nationally and internationally. Root systems of large trees need protection from the soil compaction caused by hundreds of visitors walking nearby to marvel at the height and girth of these trees.
Around every corner of the path, there are slight changes in the forest structure and composition. We find a new set of species in wetter areas than drier ones, and stagnant pools harbor another small ecosystem of life.
Water pools in some areas of the forest, creating smaller ecosystems within the forest ecosystem. Salamanders, frogs, dragonflies, iris, ferns, a variety of aquatic plants, and plenty of mosquitos could be found here.
One could spend dozens of years studying this place and not know all of its secrets, but today we got a brief glimpse of something unique in the world.
The Warsaw zoo occupies almost 100 acres of forested land across the Vistula river from the Old Town of Warsaw. Although the city, including the zoo, was largely destroyed by the Germans during World War II, it has literally risen from the ashes, to become one of the most beautiful European capitols.
I was particularly interested to see the zoo after reading “the Zookeeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman. Zoo director Jan Zabinski’s pioneering efforts to provide spacious housing with natural habitat for his zoo inhabitants have again been realized. The enclosures for gorillas and chimps far surpasses those I’ve seen at other zoos.
Jan brought “workmen” to the zoo from the ghetto to help rebuild enclosures, and they were subsequently hidden in small rooms under animal enclosures, until they could be moved from the zoo to outlying farms, and eventually to hopefully escape from the Germans.
Today, you wouldn’t know all that transpired here 70 years ago, because it is as peaceful and scenic a place as any you could visit.
read more about Warsaw in my other blog, Traveling Two: http://sbchaplin.wordpress.com