the top of the world

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!

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park, some lakes still have ice, and the vegetation hasn’t recovered from winter.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

Prime beach front just waiting for the defrost…I assume these cottages probably house avid fishermen.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

We think these are reindeer pens, used periodically by the nomadic Sami herders to pen their animals during the spring or fall, in between migrating between summer and winter grazing areas.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

Summer cottages, idyllic havens far from city life. No roads to them, no phone, electricity, water or indoor plumbing, and far away from the neighbors. Plenty of fresh water nearby though.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

There are some small towns on this long stretch from Abisko to Narvik, Norway. The mountains in the background make this a very scenic drive.

Narvik, Norway

The bus trip ends in Narvik, one of many towns in Norway on a long, deep fjord. On this side of the coastal mountains, there is more rain, milder temperatures due to Gulf stream influence, and much lusher and taller vegetation than we saw on the eastern side of the mountains in Sweden.

Spring poppies, Narvik, Norway

and spring flowers! Poppies, lilacs, flowering trees, tall birches with large leaves, a welcome sight, after all that snow and ice.

Above the treeline

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.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Exposed rock and patchy vegetative cover on Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

The views of the mountains are spectacular as we climb Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Below our feet, a carpet of tiny plants and lichen have colonized the rocky crevices.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

The vista is 270 degrees of spectacular, snowy mountains and u-shaped glacial valleys. In today’s perfect sunny weather, we could stay and look out at the horizon forever.

Willow catkins, Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Tiny willow plants send their catkins upward, the tallest plants I found.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Some plants, like the trailing azalea, spread by sending out horizontal branches that cling to the rock surface on Mt. Njulla.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

The flowers buds are minuscule, the open flowers barely measure a couple of mm across. The leaves look almost like succulents, which might be a water conservation strategy in this arid environment. There are no pollinators around yet.

Northern Wheatear, Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

We hiked the mountain hoping to see reindeer foraging on the high slopes. But the only evidence of their presence was some poop.  This Northern Wheatear was the only bird we saw or heard on our hike. They breed in rocky habitat in Northern Europe after migrating from wintering grounds in Africa.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Then, its back to our cozy cabin for dinner after a long day of hiking.

City of contrasts — old and new

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.

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg , what a contrast after looking at city dwellers residences.  The interior is covered with thousands of square feet of mosaics depicting the life of Christ.

Canals in St Petersburg

Canals in St Petersburg connect the dozens of islands that make up the city.

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg is one of four museums of art and antiquities that make up the Hermitage. Only 20% of the more than 3million acquisitions are displayed at any one time.

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg. Summer residence of Peter the Great, on the Gulf of Finland

Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg

Catherine’s Palace, St. Petersburg, ornate and lavish with its own set of art treasures

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

Guardians of the desert

South of Tucson, Arizona, Saguaro cactus dominate the landscape with their giant trunks and arms reaching up, like those wacky, inflatable tube men you see along the highways, advertising a big sale of some sort.

Saguaro cactus forest

Giant stems of Saguaro rise way above the rest of the vegetation, like giant sentinels.

Saguaro cactus

Life stages of the Saguaro shown here–from an early (25 yr old) barrel shaped youngster, to 75 year old cactus just growing its first arm, to a mature many-armed giant 200 or more years old, to the woody remains of a dead Saguaro.

Saguaro are not only a dominant plant form in the Sonoran desert, but an integral part of the life cycle of this community.  It’s flowers provide nectar and pollen to insects, birds, and mammals, and its fruits are sought after by humans as well as many other desert animals.

Saguaro flowers

Flowers appear on the tops of the cacti in April, remain open for less than 24 hours, but provide huge amounts of nectar and pollen to attract pollinators.

Saguaro flowers

The Saguaro flowers are loaded with pollen from the hundreds of stamen projecting out the floral tube. Bats and birds reach the nectaries at the base of the flower with their long tongues.

After Gila Woodpeckers have drilled out nest cavities in the dense wood of the Saguaro, a variety of other bird species may use the nest holes as protection from the sun’s heat and for their own nests.

A pair of Gila Woodpeckers nesting in Saguaro

A pair of Gila Woodpeckers nesting in Saguaro. Cactus Wrens and  Elf Owls might get a chance to use this nest hole once the Woodpeckers are finished with it.

And of course, they make wonderful subjects for aspiring photographers…

Sonoran desert landscape

Sonoran desert landscape

Between the raindrops

Brief glimpses of sun between rain clouds overhead made the spring flowers sparkle as I was walking around Los Gators Creek park in San Jose, CA the other day.  Here’s another taste of spring for those still mired in the gray blahs of winter.

Almond blossoms along Los Gatos Creek

Almond trees have been so wet for so long here the branches are growing a thick layer of lichen on them.  The muddy creek in the background has flooded the sycamores that usually line the banks.


Redbud flowers are just now emerging after several weeks of cold, wet weather.

Flowering crabapple

Only a few flowering crabapple trees have burst into bloom

Los Gatos Creek flood

It’s the verdant green of the new grass that really signals spring. The soil is squishy from heavy rain, the excess now runs off to fill the creeks to overflowing.

butterflies in the desert?

Even though the landscape looks (and feels) arid, southern Arizona seems to be a mecca for butterflies, perhaps because of the diversity of vegetation and flowers there.  Although we were busy photographing birds, the colorful four-winged flyers demanded our attention as well.


The Queen butterfly is a close relative (same genus) of the Monarch.


Adults sip nectar from a wide variety of flowers, but the larvae usually feed on a species of milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) that contain toxic chemicals that the adult butterfly retains, making them distasteful to predators.


Painted Lady butterflies were one of the most numerous species in the gardens at Ventana Canyon Lodge in Tucson.


The Texan Crescentspot butterfly is a small, narrow-winged butterfly found in Mexico and throughout the southern U.S. Its distinctive crescent moon-shaped spots on the hind-wings make it easy to spot.


Before I looked closely, I thought this was just another checkerspot butterfly but the distinctive antennae and large eyes make this a type of skipper — a white-checkered skipper.


Another butterfly with a distinctive name: this is the Southern Dogface, one of the many species of sulfur butterflies. I assume the black pattern on the top side of the wings gives it the distinctive name.


The Tailed Orange butterfly grows its “tail” (a pronounced point on the lower edge of the wing) in the late summer/fall months. Earlier in the year, this butterfly was a more brilliant orange, with distinctive black markings on the topside of the wings, and no “tail”.  


There were so many of these tailed orange butterflies feeding on this late blooming Salvia, they almost looked like dead leaves hanging down from the vegetation.  The species is unique in having not only two sexual morphs (male and female black patterns on the top side of the forewings), but two seasonal morphs (one with and one without tails) as well.

Another good reason to visit beautiful southern Arizona!

Stocking up for the winter

We wait all summer for New England Aster to show off its beautiful lilac-purple to bright pinkish flowers, and it never disappoints.


Dense clusters of flowers attract a variety of pollinators in the fall with bright-colored flowers, lots of pollen, and nectar.

Besides being a very attractive addition to the garden, New England Aster is an important late-season resource for pollinators, especially Monarch butterflies as they fatten up before fall migration.  Flower nectar and pollen are energetically harvested by lots of bee species, as they top off their hive or overwinter nest supplies.


Honeybees, which I rarely see in my backyard, were numerous on this patch of New England Aster and were collecting both nectar and pollen.  This bee already has good-sized pollen baskets on its rear legs.


Common eastern bumblebees (center) were probably the most common bee on these flowers, but shared the resources with at least five other species of bees and a couple of species of Syrphid flies (hoverflies), seen in top left.


Both a large bodied (about as big as a honeybee) and a smaller bodied hoverfly worked the flowers. These are bee mimics, presumably avoiding predation by pretending to be fearsome stingers.  However, they have no weapon defense except their coloration, and have only one pair of wings (unlike bees and wasps which have two pair) with which they hover over and between flowers.


A smaller green sweat bee is unperturbed by the far larger bumblebee foraging next to it. There isn’t really much competition when there are so many flowers in this patch of aster.


I assume bees can smell or taste the presence of nectar in a particular flower, so some of the flowers got worked over very intensively by some bees that probed their tongues into every recess in the collection of disk florets in the orange center of the flower.

Honeybees and bumblebees are particularly good dispersers of flower pollen, as it easily attaches to the spines on their legs or hairs on their heads and bodies, as seen in the photo above.  The smooth exoskeletons of the body and legs of the hoverflies and sweat bees make them far less effective in transferring pollen from one plant to another.

If you live east of the Rocky Mountains where New England Aster grows, you might have noticed the profusion of aster flowers that has suddenly occurred over the past couple of weeks.  I assume synchronous blooming like this over widespread areas is probably triggered by the changing daylength, and is advantageous in pulling in large number of pollinators to maximize pollination and seedset in these asters.

the birds and the bees

In late September, there are far fewer flowers for the bees and birds to visit — the bees to collect those last remaining dregs of pollen and nectar before the snow flies, and the birds to harvest what seed might still be remaining in flowers that bloomed more than two months ago.

Giant Hyssop is a favorite of the bumblebees these days; its profuse blooms always attract a variety of pollinators, especially when the sunshine can get through the clouds to warm up the air a little.


The bumblebees generally start at the bottom of the flower head and spiral around upward walking over some flowers, poking their antennae into others, and every now and then inserting their entire head into a particular flower to glean whatever nectar lies at the bottom of the floral tube.


When the bee gets to the top of the raceme, it makes a short flight over to the next one, beginning again at the bottom and working its way up to the top.  

Flower stalks already being worked by one bee seem to be off-limits; there would probably be little nectar left in the flowers in that case.  But every so often, a couple of bees try working the same flower patch…


Looks like better foraging on the hyssop flowers than this very attractive but apparently unrewarding purple flower that I planted but have no idea what it is.



oops, this one is taken


This isn’t a tandem bumblebee hook-up; the one on top (right side up) is actually flying toward the camera, away from the bee that was originally foraging on that stem.

Overlooking this busy bumblebee activity was a mixed flock of Goldfinches, House Finches, and White-throated Sparrows, all of which were much more interested in the seeds left in the wildflower garden than the flowers there.


Their bright red color has faded to a rosy hue with the fall feather molt. This little male spent several minutes picking out lilac seeds from dried up remnants of flower clusters.



A juvenile White-throated Sparrow watched what the House Finches were eating, but didn’t seem interested.

a closer look

What do you see when you look at a patch of flowers?


Coneflowers — they all look the same, right?

Maybe not — let’s take a closer look.


The central (cone) portion of these Coneflowers (Rudbeckia species) are distinctly different in shape, with yellow tips emerging from different places in the cone.

Sunflowers, coneflowers and other members of the Compositae (or Asteraceae) plant family actually have two types of flowers on their floral structure.  The colorful petals are sterile ray flowers (produce no sexual structures) designed to attract insect pollinators, while the tiny yellow projections from the central cone are the disk flowers that project first male (pollen), and then female (ovary) sexual structures.  When fertilized, each ovary houses developing seeds, which cause the central cone to swell in size and in height.


A newly emerged flower has an almost flat profile, with a central disk that shows no projecting disk florets at all.


Later, a single row of disk florets emerges, and then fades after a couple of days, giving way to the next inner row of developing disk florets.


A cone is starting to form on this older flower, as the last rows of central disk florets emerges.


The seed head is almost fully formed here, and eventually the aging flower will drop its rays (petals), so that just the cone of developing seeds remains.


And so ends the lifespan of the flower…

Leaving a tightly packed seed head, ready to be harvested by hungry seed-eaters.

Up and over

By the third day of hiking, you’re supposed to feel more acclimated and used to the altitude.  Hah!  The air just kept getting thinner as we climbed, but the views kept getting more and more spectacular.

Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

Rockbound lakes, stubby trees, and lots of granite.  The major peaks of Desolation Wilderness were mostly visible as we hiked, making it easy to navigate even if we did lose the trail.

Dick's Peak, Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

My daughter and son-in-law (far left) had time to break out the camp chair and admire the view of Dick’s Peak before I arrived at the pass.

Dick's Pass, Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

“So where do we go now, grandpa”, the kids wonder.

Dick's Lake, Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

A view down toward Dick’s lake where we camped the previous night. The last time I took this shot (mid July about 22 years ago), the lake was 3/4 frozen, and surrounded by snow on the hillsides.

alpine garden, Dick's Pass, Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

I found a hillside alpine garden, where the snow must have just recently melted. Stunted 2 foot pine trees and compact alpine plants dotted the landscape.

alpine garden, Dick's Pass, Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

The grandkids are off again, ready to hike down the pass to the next destination. They didn’t even see me, where I stood in my little alpine garden.

Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

The view on the other side of the pass — it’s about 1000 feet down. That little bump sticking up at the top of this shot is our next destination — Pyramid Peak.

Desolation Wilderness, Sierra Nevada

and down we go…