Blue lakes, purple flowers, and pink snow

Our scouting trip to find a pass over a ridge between two sets of lakes was unsuccessful, but we encountered some gorgeous scenery on the almost 8 mile hike around Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga pass road over the Sierras of California.

Saddlebag Lake

The water is quite chilly, but the fishing seems to be good on Saddlebag Lake

Saddlebag Lake

Wild flowers are still in their full, blazing glory. It was a late summer this year because of all the snow. I think the purple flowers might be Monk’s Hood, a showy plant containing highly toxic alkaloids.

Saddlebag Lake

You couldn’t ask for a better trail. Unfortunately, it ended quite a ways before climbing into the pass over the ridge just below the pointed peak, and the way up looked much too rocky a traverse to take young hikers (or old grandparents, for that matter).

Ridge between McCabe lakes and Saddlebag Lake

End of our good trail…these lakes are above 10,000 feet and only recently free of ice and snow.

Pink snow

What?! Pink snow?

Yes, it really is pink snow, colored not by leaching minerals but by the growth of the green alga (yes, it really is green under the microscope), Chlamydomonas nivalus. If there is one thing we have learned about life on earth, it’s that microbes can thrive just about anywhere, and here’s proof of life on the ice.

The algae are actually in a metabolically quiescent state, awaiting appropriate conditions, like lake water, to begin growing.  But to protect themselves (and their chlorophyll) from the damage of intense radiation at high altitude, they synthesize a protective sunscreen of carotenoid pigments (yes, the same ones that make Cardinals a bright cheery red).

Pink snow

And so, these green, but appearing red due to carotenoids, algae slide down  the snow banks toward fresh water to begin a new cycle of growth.

Midsommer in Sweden’s archipelago

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:

Sweden archipelago islands

View from the ferry to Üto island, pronounced nothing like it is spelled.

Sweden archipelago islands

The best way to get around the island from the ferry landing, on bikes.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Sailing and swimming are top priorities on a warmish weekend in midsummer.

Sweden archipelago islands

Sweden archipelago islands

We pass cute farm houses…

Poppies, Sweden archipelago islands

And flowers (red poppies)

Bell flower, Sweden archipelago islands

And bell flowers…

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

And lupines…

Sweden archipelago islands

And something I don’t recognize…

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

And finally come to the beach at the far end of the island.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Crashing waves and cold water, perfect for swimming, but not for me.

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

Good bye Sweden, I hope to return some day.

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”.