More than 44,000 islands make up the archipelago off Sweden’s east coast, and they are a popular destination, especially during Midsommer festivities. A ferry trip to one of the most distant islands, Üto — site of one of Sweden’s oldest iron mines — was a great way to end our European tour. Some of the sights included:
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.
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.
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
“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.
Marked transformations of the landscape and its inhabitants occur daily now in the upper Midwestern U.S., as the weather is warming up. I took an early morning walk around the settlement ponds beyond the backyard and found quite a few changes since the week before.
The trees have leafed out, the grass is greening up nicely, and wildlife has again taken up residence there.
And of course, a symphony of Chorus Frogs added their music to the landscape.
Each day brings new surprises — stay tuned for next week’s report on the pond.
On a morning walk around Cave Creek ranch near Portal, Arizona, we happened upon a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers working on their nest hole.
Arizona Woodpeckers are unusual in that they are brown and white, instead of black and white, with the male having a small patch of red on the back of its head. They are really inhabitants of the Mexican oak and pine forests, but make it into just the southeastern tip of Arizona in the Chiricahua mountains.
Although they are obviously good at drilling holes, these Woodpeckers forage primarily by flaking off the bark from oak, walnut, or sycamore trees to probe for insects or larvae under the outer layers of the bark.