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 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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
And of course, they make wonderful subjects for aspiring photographers…
We think of Spring as a wonderful time of rejuvenation and regrowth, but until leaves and flowers actually start appearing on plants and grass begins to green up and grow, plant eaters are still faced with barely anything to eat. Having eaten through their stored food and consumed anything that was half way edible over a long winter, animals could be faced with a starvation diet just as lakes are thawing, temperatures are warming, and days are getting longer.
But here’s the solution a little Red Squirrel found today — eating the buds of the buckeye tree outside my porch window. I saw him nipping off buds and tearing into them, peeling back the outer layer and dining on the juicy interior of the little embryonic leaves within. And he saw me watching him…
And then I watched as he nipped off another bud and devoured it as well.
Young buds probably have higher nitrogen and mineral content per unit weight than more mature leaves would, nutrition meant of course for the development of new leaves. So this is a pretty smart choice for a Red Squirrel that might be down to its last acorn in the larder.
We returned from wet, but very green California, to a very dry brown and gray Twin Cities landscape, but then immediately drove 100+ miles north to spend a long weekend in the Gull Lake area north of Brainerd for a return to a snowy winter landscape.
I never thought I would say that I miss winter, but it’s true this year — during the winter that wasn’t. Our weather columnist reports that “Twin Cities winters are now 5.4 degrees warmer than in 1970”. True fact: Minnesota’s climate is warming, making it more like Missouri than the Minnesota of 50 years ago. True fact: “February 2017 has set over 9800 records for warmth across the U.S., compared to just 250 new records for cold”. (Star Tribune weather, Feb. 27, 2017))
Last week, our newspaper reported that 500-1000 small pan fish (crappies) had succumbed when lake ice melted and near-shore water warmed, leaving the fish without adequate oxygen. Great for local Bald Eagles, not so great for the fish populations in warming lakes.
As climates change, animals and plants get out of sync with their normal cycle; e.g., birds begin migrating and breeding before prey populations are present to support their offspring and plants bloom before or after their pollinators are present. Climate changes are a challenge for all of us.
More on this subject in an interesting article on Vox today: “these maps show how early spring is arriving in your state”.
A bright, sunny day in mid-winter in the northern U.S. makes it look like a good time for a walk in the backyard — but, one step out the door and I know it won’t be fun at all. The air temperature is -7 F, and there is a stiff wind blowing. This makes for a very short walk, snap a couple of photos, retreat indoors again. Why bother? Because I got to wondering how trees manage these sub-freezing conditions. Obviously, standing still in this kind of weather would be lethal for any warm-blooded creature, so how can trees withstand freezing solid for six months of the year? Or do they?
The short answer is that they don’t actually “freeze solid”, because the same changing light (decreased photoperiod) and fluctuating temperature conditions in the fall that bring on that wonderful display of fall color also induce physiological changes in plants called “cold hardening” that prevent freezing.
Photoperiod and temperature signals in the fall cause plant cell membranes to become more permeable and flexible. Sugars produced by the leaves move down to storage in the roots, and water follows the sugar movement, so cellular contents become much more concentrated. So concentrated in fact, that they lower the threshold for freezing dramatically, to -30 F or more. In addition, cells produce protective cryoproteins that act like potent antifreeze agents. Residual water trapped between cells may freeze, but the now shrunken and flexible cells remain uninjured, and ready to restart their metabolic engines when spring weather thaws the ground, the roots take up water from the soil, and the sap rises in the plants’ fluid transport vessels (xylem and phloem).
In effect, trees and other plants that survive the sub-freezing conditions of northern winters are in a static state of super-cooled dormancy, still liquid and viable, although metabolically quiescent. Waiting…
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…
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.