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

German Geese and other sights

The North American contribution to Europe — Canada Geese, the dominant species in parks world wide, and here in Kiel, Germany.

Canada Geese in Kiel, Germany park

Canada Geese in Kiel, Germany park

other sights of our daytime wandering through the botanical garden, the Old Town, and beach area.

Moorhen in the old botanical garden

Moorhen in the old botanical garden

Bullfinch

Bullfinch in old botanical garden

Ropes course, city park, Kiel, Germany

Challenging ropes course, city park, Kiel, Germany

Beachfront at Kiel, Germany

Beachfront at Kiel, Germany. Summer sunshine beckons on a warm day.

Old Town, Kiel, Germany

Old Town, Kiel, Germany. The city was 80% destroyed in WW2, so the “old buildings” were rebuilt. The streets are largely deserted and shops and cafes closed on Sunday. Everyone is at the beach — except us tourists.

bright spots in the gloom

“Raindrops keep falling on my head…” all week, as I eagerly await the next field trip outdoors to see what spring weather has brought us in Minnesota.  Meantime, trees and bushes are putting forth a variety of gorgeous blossoms.

Northern Lights Azalea-

Northern Lights Azalea will brighten up anyone’s spirits with its bright pink blossoms.

bleeding heart-

Long strings of Bleeding Heart flowers stand out against its dark green foliage.

raindrops-on-columbine-

Columbine flowers droop with all the heavy rain.

A splash of color

Needing some color to brighten up the dull winter shades of gray here, I stopped by the Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul.  Now if only this amazing collection of orchids and other blooms was attached to my house…

Como Park Conservatory sunken garden

A variety of poinsettias are planted in the sunken garden room during the holiday season.

Como Park Conservatory

A few fish nibble at the toes of the statue at one end of the long reflecting pool.

como-conservatory-orchid

A variety of orchids bloom along winding paths through the other rooms of the Conservatory.

Some orchids flower only once or twice a year, so they must make the most of the time the flowers are viable to insure that they get pollinated.  They entice their pollinators to visit with a variety of traps and lures: some plants use fragrances or nectar to attract insects; others use color and nectar to attract birds; still others mimic female insects that males seek to mate with.  Some species coat the landing pad with wax that causes insect visitors to fall into a watery pool formed by one petal; the only way out of the pool is, of course, to squeeze through an opening at one end of the pool where the pollinia (pollen sacs) are then deposited on the insect’s back.  Such clever strategies!

The end result is a huge variety of shapes, colors, and colorful designs that delight the human eye as well as the potential pollinators.

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid

como-conservatory-orchid

a closer look

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

coneflowers-disk-vs-ray-florets-

Coneflowers — they all look the same, right?

Maybe not — let’s take a closer look.

coneflower-ray-vs-disk-florets-

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.

coneflower-ray-vs-disk-florets-

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

coneflower-ray-vs-disk-florets-

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.

coneflower-ray-vs-disk-florets-

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

coneflower-ray-vs-disk-florets-

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.

coneflower-ray-vs-disk-florets-

And so ends the lifespan of the flower…

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

Garden beauties

The wildflowers are at almost peak color and diversity in the backyard, and happily this year, quite a few butterflies have made an appearance there for the first time in several years.

monarch butterfly-

It’s always great to see Monarch butterflies flitting about — this beautiful female spent far more time sipping nectar from the coneflowers than she did laying eggs on the milkweed. Numbers of Monarchs have dipped precipitously in the last few years, due to a number of stressors along their migratory route.  Hopefully this will be a good year for Monarch production.

red admiral-

A well-worn Red Admiral with a rather large bite out of one of his wings is one of several of these butterflies that frequent the coneflowers in the backyard.  This is one species that does not seem to have suffered population declines in recent years.

american lady

An American Lady (sometimes erroneously called Painted Lady which is a different and related species), with its bright black and blue spots on its hind wing, is closely related to the Red Admiral.  This is another very common species across the U.S.

american lady

Part of its forewing looks just like that of the Red Admiral, but those two big eyespots are unique to the American Lady.  The butterflies we see in MN (and other parts of the northern U.S.) are most likely offspring of more southerly distributed butterflies that migrated north in the spring.

great spangled fritillary-

Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies are another widespread species across North America.  It’s one of the larger butterflies (> 2 inches), a little larger than a Monarch.  Larvae feed on native violets — plenty of those in the backyard.

great spangled fritillary-

With its combination of black slashes on the top of its orange wings and large white ovals on the other side, it can be difficult to tell this species from other fritillaries, but the wide buff band between the two rows of white spots differentiate this species from Aphrodite and Atlantis Fritillaries, with which the Great Spangled overlaps in range.

backyard garden-

Where the excitement takes place in the backyard…

What else is in the garden today?  A small Gray Tree Frog matches the leaves on which it is resting.

gray tree frog-

flowers and stone walls

Why is it that spring flowers look so much prettier next to a stone wall?  Chilly spring weather in Wales and Scotland didn’t slow down the spring blooms.  Maybe they get a little extra warmth from the re-radiation of heat from the stones in the walls next to them.

spring flowers and walls-

spring flowers and walls-

spring flowers and walls-

spring flowers and walls-

daffodils and stone walls

Well, the daffodils aren’t right next to the wall, but there are lots of stone in this shot…

Hadrian's wall, England

But there were no spring flowers planted next to Hadrian’s Wall near Carlisle, England. This monumental construction across the narrowest width of England measured 73 miles long, 10 feet wide, and 20 feet high — built in 2nd century A.D. to keep the “barbarians” out of Roman-occupied Britain.

Castles and birds on Anglesey Island

The northwest coast of Wales has miles of coastal marsh and extensive tidal flats that provide us with viewing spots of the diverse bird life here.  Even on rainy mornings, we can photograph the wildlife in protected blinds (or “hides”, as they are called here.

chaffinch

The male Chaffinch is (of course) more colorful than the plain brown female. Why are all the finches in the UK so much prettier than those in the US?  (Photo by Debbie Reynolds)

Willow Warbler

Willow Warblers are quite common, flitting around in the shrubbery.

Aberogwen nature preserve

Everywhere we walk is a feast of green, blooming wildflowers, and scenic castle walls.

A quick journey over the bridge to Anglesey Island brought us to the quaint town of Beaumaris, which as a coastal city had to have a castle. A busy morning of birding meant that we had to stop here for lunch.

Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey island

Beaumaris Castle, another construction of Edward I, as part of his master plan to subjugate the Welsh, was built about 1000 years ago, but looks remarkably good for its age.  During its occupancy by the British, ships could sail right up to the moat surrounding the castle walls.

Bluebells

I never get tired of seeing the Bluebells (or Harebells).  This courtyard in the Penmon Priory at the northeast tip of Anglesey island dates to the 6th century, although parts were rebuilt in the 1600s.

anglesey-puffin island

Here are the avid birders looking for puffins on Puffin Island, and seeing a few new species of nesting birds on the cliffs.

The highlight for today was stumbling across the nest of a Moorhen, tucked into the reeds about 20 feet from the walking path.  The hen (we think) sat patiently on her eggs placed on a raised platform above the water, while her mate (we think) swam nonchalantly by, feeding on some slimy looking algae.

Moorhen on her nest

Moorhens are a type of rail, closely related to Coots.  The red and yellow bill (and matching red spot on their legs) make nice accents to the black, brown, and white plumage.

Moorhen feeding on algae

Moorhens are omnivorous, consuming not only algae and plant material from the marsh in which they live, but may eat amphibians and small rodents if they can catch them.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds.

Flora and fauna in Hyde Park

We had a lovely day of sun, rain, sleet, mini-hail pellets, strong wind, and more sun as we walked about 9 miles around and through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in London.  Spring is well on its way here, with an assortment of wildflowers blooming and a flush of new green leaves on the trees.

A kind of Harebell was blooming under the sycamores along with some daffodils.

A kind of Harebell was blooming under the sycamores along with some daffodils.

There are dozens of Harebell (Campanula) species worldwide.  The most common ones have a circumpolar distribution, from North America through Europe to Asia.

There are dozens of Harebell (Campanula) species worldwide. The most common ones have a circumpolar distribution, from North America through Europe to Asia.

Tulips and other spring cultivars brightened up the landscape as well.

Tulips and other spring cultivars brightened up the landscape as well.

Expansive lawns of precisely groomed grass were remarkably free of birds, dogs, and people.  Who wouldn't want to walk, run, or roll on this lush carpet?  It's possible I wasn't supposed to be walking on it...

Expansive lawns of precisely groomed grass were remarkably free of birds, dogs, and people. Who wouldn’t want to walk, run, or roll on this lush carpet? It’s possible I wasn’t supposed to be walking on it…

A stray Wood Pigeon wasn't finding much to nibble on among the dense carpet of grass stems.

A stray Wood Pigeon wasn’t finding much to nibble on among the dense carpet of grass stems.  This is the largest pigeon in the UK, about 1.5 times the size of the common pigeon that we see in the US.   It’s rather attractive…for a pigeon.

Mute Swans are the native swan species of Europe.  They

Mute Swans are the native swan species of Europe. They were introduced to the US where they enjoyed great success in depleting submergent vegetation.  Their populations increased so rapidly (10% per year) that they are now treated as an invasive species in the US.

Male swans get quite aggressive toward each other at this time of year.

Male swans get quite aggressive toward each other at this time of year.

The Brits have great affection for their swans.  Killing or eating one is punishable by death (a law still on the books, but it hasn’t been enforced lately), and injuring a bird or collecting its eggs is liable to get you a £5000 fine and some jail time.

some other notable images from today…

The amazingly expansive chocolaterie in Harrod's department store.  Food is biological, right?

The amazingly expansive chocolaterie in Harrod’s department store. This is just one of more than a dozen such counters.  Food is biological, right?

An intriguing glass sculpture that resembles masses of polyps and marine worms hanging in the entrance of the Victoria and Albert museum.  I forgot to ask them what it was supposed to represent.

An intriguing glass sculpture that resembles masses of polyps and marine worms hanging in the entrance of the Victoria and Albert museum. I forgot to ask them what it was supposed to represent.

just passing through

Another first for the backyard the other day…a pair of Purple Finches visited the sunflower feeder.  They typically breed north of me in the cool, coniferous Canadian forests, and most of the U.S. population winters south of me in the eastern U.S. in mixed woods, hedgerows, and open fields, so I rarely see them.

male purple finch

Often described as a sparrow dipped in raspberry jam or juice, the male Purple Finch has a rosy pink glow from the top of his head to the base of his tail, and in bright stripes down his breast and flanks.

Male purple finches might be confused with male House Finches, but their color is much pinker (than the red of a House Finch male), and extends much further down their body.

male house finch

A male House Finch for comparison. Brown stripes cover its flanks, and the red color is usually seen only on head, neck and breast (not the back and flanks).

male purple finch

What a handsome guy!

male purple finch

Pink everywhere — it seems hard to mistake a male Purple Finch.

female Purple Finch

Quite unlike her mate, the female Purple Finch is streaked with brown and has a thick brown stripe through the eye. Their thick bill is useful for crushing large seeds, or extracting nectar by crushing the base of flowers. In the summer, they consume a lot of insects; in the winter, mostly seeds, fruits, and berries.