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.

Biking around Bielowieza

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.

House in the village of Teremiski

 Farm House in the village of Teremiski

Forest road near Bielowieza

Forest road near Bielowieza

Prairie near Bielowieza

Prairie near Bielowieza, patch of a kind of thistle ?

Prairie orchid, Bielowieza prairie

A rare Prairie orchid, Bielowieza prairie

Lunch stop, farm museum, Budy

Lunch stop, farm museum, Budy

Kvass with bread and cheese

Kvass (beer made from fermented rye bread) with bread and cheese

Red deer stag, bison reserve, Bielowieza, Poland

Red deer stag, bison reserve, Bielowieza,

Wild European horse, like the extinct tarpan

Wild Eurasian horse, similar to the extinct tarpan, at the bison reserve. Tarpan went extinct in the early 1900s, but breeding experiments attempt to restore this ancient horse lineage.

Roe deer fawn

Tiny Roe deer fawn is dwarfed by the tall grass in its pen at the bison reserve near Bielowieza.

the primeval forest

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 in mature forest

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.

500 year old English oak, Bialowieza forest, Poland

500 year old English oak, Bialowieza forest

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.

Bialowieza forest, Poland

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.

Huge Scots Pine, Bialowieza forest, Poland

Huge Scots Pine, About 300 years old

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.

Forest pool, Bialowieza forest, Poland

Forest pool in the Bialowieza forest

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.

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.

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

the bud eater

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…

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, I see you eating those tree buds.

And then I watched as he nipped off another bud and devoured it as well.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she spots another delectable bud up above on the branch to the right (highlighted)

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, this one!

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Biting it right off — good thing the squirrel has those sharp teeth. Plant tissue can be tough.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yum…

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she is watching me watching him/her.

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.

Back to winter

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.

New snow, breezy point, MN

There is something especially attractive about freshly fallen snow clumped on tall pines, with beautiful blue sky and white clouds above.

New snow, breezy point, MN

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))

new-snow-breezy-point-mn

Without snow cover and with record warm days, the ice is melting on MN lakes sooner now.

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.

black-capped-chickadee-

Lots of singing going on in the backyard this week…seems a little early to me for the Chickadees, but maybe I’ve just been paying more attention to that lately.

More on this subject in an interesting article on Vox today:  “these maps show how early spring is arriving in your state”.

Why don’t trees freeze solid in the winter?

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?

oak-tree-in-snow-

And what happens on warm sunny days when half of the tree is subjected to bright sunlight while the other side remains in the dark?  Is there freeze and thaw going on?

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.

snowfall

The strikingly white bark of birch trees serves a useful purpose in the winter by reflecting a lot of the sun’s radiation on bright, sunny days, and thus preventing the unequal heating of the exposed and unexposed sides of the tree.

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).

basking-squirrel-

Rough textured bark also serves a useful purpose, beyond providing a foot-hold for the squirrels. It can’t serve as an insulative blanket like a warm coat of feathers or fur does, but corrugations of bark absorb the radiant heat of winter sun, expanding and contracting in heat and cold, without affecting the underlying layers that might crack with exposure to the sun.

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…

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