The North American contribution to Europe — Canada Geese, the dominant species in parks world wide, and here in Kiel, Germany.
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.
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.
The Bielowieza forest is surrounded on the Polish side by farmland, much of which is hayed for dairy cattle. Polish farmers seem to prefer haying their meadows of grasses and forbs, rather than planting monocultures of alfalfa. As a result, forest visitors (the human variety) are treated to a colorful scene of perennial blooms, very similar to that we see in Minnesota prairies, only with a lot more color.
We were amazed to find a number of the same species present in Polish prairies as we might find along roadsides in the U.S. Of course we call these weeds, and perhaps they are in Poland, too. Or perhaps they really are part of the natural prairie mixture.
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
Back when we had sunny days a couple of weeks ago, I found a lone Pelican resting at the edge of the Grass Lake marsh. What was it doing here, all by itself? Why was it so sedentary, just sitting for hours on the dead cattails? I guess I’ll never know, but the bird has since disappeared. Other visitors speculated that it was sitting on a nest — nope, I verified that when it stood up. Some thought it might be injured and couldn’t fly away. That’s possible, since it was so sedentary, and it did look like one wing was sort of droopy.
White Pelicans, once rare here, now choose the shallow prairie pothole lakes in western and southwestern Minnesota to breed. They have rebounded dramatically from a complete absence of nesting birds over the period from 1878 to 1968 to over 20,000 nesting pairs in Minnesota currently, largely due to the conservation and management efforts of the non-game wildlife staff in the MN Department of Natural Resources.
White Pelicans typically migrate from their winter headquarters in the gulf to Minnesota lakes in early spring (March). It’s a welcome sight to see them in formation overhead, white bodies and wings outlined with black wing tips soaring overhead.
Pelicans are highly social and nest in large aggregations. They live and hunt communally, using teamwork to scare up and harvest fish from the surface of the water. A single Pelican foraging for itself, like the one I found at Grass Lake, might be far less effective in gathering food. I hope it recovered and flew off to join its friends somewhere on a distant lake.
“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.
Two words that are usually said together: bird song, or better yet songbirds, those usually small birds in your garden that produce the wonderful, lilting, sometimes piercing, often warbling, unique collection of notes that identifies each species.
But not all songbirds sing, or sing exclusively — some of them have adopted a buzz as part or all of their song. In fact, their soft buzzes or wheezes are remarkably similar and difficult to pinpoint when looking for that buzzing bird that you’re not really sure isn’t some sort of insect. Why would male birds want to buzz instead of sing?
Take the Blue-winged Warbler for example; wouldn’t you assume from its name that its song would be a melodious warble, rather than a two-note “bee-buzz“?
Just 20 feet away, a Clay-colored Sparrow is buzzing away, with a very similar, low frequency, raspy buzz call.
Buzzing seems to be a common characteristic of “song” in grassland birds, like Grasshopper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. So, one wonders if these birds are trying to avoid detection in prairie habitat by mimicking insects when they “sing”, or whether female birds just find buzzing particularly enticing?
It turns out that buzzing sound made with the bird equivalent of a larynx (called a syrinx), is actually quite physically challenging, and therefore could be an indicator to females of the quality of a potential mate. German researchers* found that larger, more robust male Nightingales incorporated more buzzes in their song, and enjoyed greater attention from females than their less robust or younger competitors.
Another possible explanation for buzzing birds found in grassland habitats is that low frequency buzzing notes apparently carry long distances, and can be heard throughout and beyond the male’s territory. Banded Wrens incorporated more buzzing notes in their early morning song that was directed toward other males in the nearby vicinity, at times before females were present.**
*Citation: Weiss M, Kiefer S, Kipper S (2012) Buzzwords in Females’ Ears? The Use of Buzz Songs in the Communication of Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos). PLoS ONE 7(9): e45057. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0045057
**Citation: P.L. Trillo and S.L. Vehrenkamp. Anim Behav. Song types and their structural features are associated with specific contexts in the Banded Wren. 2005 Oct; 70(4): 921–935. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.02.004
Tromping around Weaver Dunes, south of Wabasha MN, for 8 hours trying to identify every bird we could find was exhausting but rewarding, and what an absolutely beautiful day to participate in The Nature Conservancy’s bird blitz on May 12.
The spring migration was running a little behind schedule, but we managed to find (and identify) 58 species (which admittedly doesn’t sound like a lot for 8 hours of work). We explored a variety of habitats, but the best places to look were edges between shrub and forest, or prairie and forest.
Our efforts were added to those of the birders walking other TNC properties throughout the tri-state region of MN, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Together all observers on May 12 found over 200 different bird species, or approximately 50% of those known to reside or pass through MN on migration in May. Not bad…it’s a nationwide competition, so we’ll see how MN bird numbers stack up with those elsewhere in the U.S.
Considering that our American birds have to navigate and survive stormy weather and drastic climate changes, glass windows and glass-covered buildings, marked habitat alterations, and depleted food supplies from all the pesticide and herbicide applications, it’s a wonder that we see the diversity that we do.