Journal archives for January 2017

January 22, 2017

Water Bears in the Trees

Some years ago, while reading Wasp Farm by Howard Ensign Evans, I remember being stung a little bit by his self-satisfaction at having seen a Tardigrade—I too wanted to see a Tardigrade. So this morning when @lfelliott posted a photo of a Tardigrade I decided to go looking for one.

How does one find a Tardigrade? Well, it's easier than you might think. @lfelliott's observation included a useful bit of information: his Tardigrade had been found on lichen. It was a simple task to retrieve a piece of lichen-encrusted bark from under our back yard White Ash. This was placed in a petri dish with some water. After letting it soak for a couple hours, the lichen was scraped off the bark into the water and the water examined under the microscope. The first moving things I spotted were nematodes or some other kind of tiny, clear worms. Then, after a little more searching, a Tardigrade.

Water Bear is a good name. However, after watching this one move in water for a while, I'm inclined to describe it more as a clumsy, eight-legged water hamster. They've also been called Moss Pigs. No matter what the name, Tardigrades are legendary for the extreme conditions they are known to survive. For starters, they can withstand temperatures as low as -200 °C (-328 °F) and as high as 150 °C (300 °F). Apparently they can also survive the vacuum of outer space. And they are radiation proof. And they survive near absolute desiccation. Pretty much indestructible.

After today's successful search, I now know that there are Water Bears in the trees (and pretty much everywhere else). And if someone asks me if I've ever seen a Tardigrade, I can now answer, Yes!

"Tardigrades: there is a frontier for you. Have you ever seen one? I may not know where to find the distributor in my car; I may stumble over the laws of thermodynamics; but I have seen a tardigrade!"
– Howard Ensign Evans, from Wasp Farm
Posted on January 22, 2017 04:27 by scottking scottking | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 05, 2017


Edwin Way Teale, increasingly forgotten and unread nowadays, wrote many wonderful books. In 1966, Wandering Through Winter, the fourth in a series of seasonal travelogues, won the Pulitzer Prize. Both naturalist and photographer, he was in many ways a brilliant predecessor to those of us involved with iNaturalist. For instance, his Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist's Year (1953) collects his written nature observations for each day of one entire year.

Interestingly, his entry for this day, January 4th, refers to the common image of the new year being a blank book yet to be written. He continues, "Nature's year is also a book to be written." From the perspective of midwinter, the year's entire story is yet to come. Extending that metaphor, the previous year has been printed and bound, and these sparse winter days stand equivalent to the blank pages between the end of the text and the back cover, a little quiet space for contemplation, a pause.

I like the idea that the end is past and that the beginning yet to come. Standing near the center of a frozen pond at the still point of the turning year, the temperature at mid day exactly zero degrees, I pause momentarily. Like a hand clutching many different sized rings together, this particular point in time arrives at a unique convergence of many natural cycles—diurnal cycles, seasonal cycles, climactic cycles caused by solar orbit wobbles, and so forth. I might even be standing at the cross that marks the very center of some great unregistered infinity sign. I move on. My attention drawn back from the music of the spheres to the surface of the pond, I follow a line of fox prints toward the shore. Whether it was a Red Fox or a Grey Fox can no longer be determined; its presence both recorded and erased.

A number of years later, Teale would improve upon the idea of the year being a circle, a simple lap to be run, when he published A Walk through the Year (1978). The metaphor becomes a little less abstract, richer in detail and surprise whether we envision a simple daily walk or an extended journey. Of course there are other metaphors we might consider. The year might be considered to be a labyrinth, where we enter get lost and, with any luck, find a way back to the start. Or the combination of circles and time that creates spiral- or helix-shaped years. Or the motion of waves—crest to trough to crest we might drift through the years. Take your pick.

Posted on January 05, 2017 04:46 by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 2 comments | Leave a comment

January 06, 2017

Embracing the Cold

According to E. C. Pielou, in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America, the timing is such that we are nearing the end of the current interglacial period, that the earth should be due to enter into its next period of glaciation, that the continental ice sheets are scheduled to return. However, the change that humankind is effecting and will effect upon the climate may break those predictions, dramatically, even tragically. No longer must we consider time periods tens of thousands of years long, rapid climate change is occurring on a scale of centuries and decades. Based upon ice core data, "The baseline CO2 value for interglacials is approximately 290 parts per million. On 9th May 2013 the concentration of atmospheric CO2 exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time since the balmy conditions of the Pliocene when the sea level was more than 20 m higher than today." (quote from The Ice Age: A Very Short Introduction by Jamie Woodward)

Strangely serendipitous reading this morning led me to the following passage in The First Wash of Spring by Scottish writer George Mackay Brown, a comment upon on a series of mild winters in the Orkney Islands in January of 1993. "Let's hope it's only laziness or indifference, up there with the snow giants in North Greenland or Spitzbergen, and not something more sinister, like global warming or the greenhouse effect, that's pared their teeth or their claws, or curbed their ferocious gleefulness. For, however we dislike snow and blizzards, to be walking mouth deep in a tepid ever-rising sea is too hideous to think about."

This morning the temperature was -7 degrees F, nine degrees below average for this date. Granted the temperature on any given day doesn't mean much in the greater scheme of things, but it does cross my mind, during truly cold weather, that these cold days may become rarer, that I should embrace the cold and enjoy it while it lasts. An odd sentiment, to view these below zero days as a special occasion or gift, but I give it a go and bundle up—long underwear, snow pants, wool hat, layers, and heavy winter boots—for a midwinter hike at the local Arboretum. It's colder than yesterday's hike. Mallards huddle in what little open water remains. Wisps of frozen white vapor drift around them and above them. I follow a faint set of mink tracks to the entrance of a hole among the roots of a stream-side tree. I study the same large bird tracks I studied yesterday, either Bald Eagle or a Heron that didn't make it south. The sun drops below the horizon and snow turns blue before I leave. More than anything, I'm happy I didn't stay inside.

Posted on January 06, 2017 05:28 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 18, 2017

January Rains

When it rains in January in Minnesota there can be problems. As yesterday when it arrived in the late afternoon as freezing drizzle that quickly glazed roads and sidewalks and encased stems and branches. When I went outside to assess the situation, I slid down the incline of our driveway like a curling stone. It was dangerous to walk. And even more dangerous to drive.

That freezing rain turned to wet snow overnight and we woke to immaculate winter scenery and cancelled schools (due to the ice underneath the snow). After shoveling snow/slush/ice, I decided to take a late afternoon hike in the rain.

Happily today's rain was nothing more than a fine mist. With the temperature above freezing it caused no trouble whatsoever. The woods, nearly soundproof already due to several inches of soft, melting snow, were muffled even further by the mist dampening and saturating the calm air.

White-tailed Deer moved quietly about the woods, unconcerned at my presence. The moss on rocks and tree trunks seemed especially vibrant, flush with new moisture and warmer temps; beneath diffuse and darkening skies the mosses almost glowed.

Posted on January 18, 2017 04:51 by scottking scottking | 4 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 07, 2017

A Few Recalcitrant Robins

The cold weather continues. And for the third day in a row I visit the Cowling Arboretum for a short afternoon hike. It's sunny and a few degrees above freezing at 3 pm. This morning, however, the temperature dipped to -10 degrees F and as a result there's even less open water than yesterday. The number of Mallards congregating in the flowing water of the creek has increased or it's the same number more concentrated. Jagged ice flows, jammed and jumbled at the confluence of two swift channels in the Cannon River, give the scene a truly arctic cast. And at one point amid slabs of frozen water tilted vertically forming white and blue fins a black branch juts up as though some explorer had planted it there. I take a second look half expecting to see a flag attached at the top.

Across the main channel, arrayed along the lip of ice edging the moving water, a flock of American Robins perches and drinks. I'm always a little surprised to see these birds midwinter. But then again I do see them most winters here in Northfied. According to The Birds of Minnesota (1932) by T. S. Roberts, Robins do winter in Minnesota "in limited numbers, chiefly in sheltered places, in the southern part of the state." So while the vast majority have moved on to warmer climes, a recalcitrant few tough it out here in the north.

Here are a few apt lines by Welsh poet Gillian Clarke from her winterish collection, Ice (2012), and the poem 'Winter':

The river froze, and broke, and froze,
its heart slowed in its cage,
the moon a stone
in its throat.
Posted on January 07, 2017 03:56 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 11, 2017

Snowed In

Today it snowed, from the morning to early afternoon. And the time I'd allowed for a walk was needed for shoveling. So no outdoors photo for today. To make up for it, I decided to open up a goldenrod gall gathered from the prairie during a walk a few days ago. Inside I found a flaccid, unfreezable little blob. Not much to look at, and yet this nondescript larva is part of a remarkable life cycle. It weathers winter inside its vegetable capsule, not unlike us humans inside our wooden houses, except the gall fly larva doesn't have central heating. It survives by removing water from its body and by producing the antifreeze glycerol.

At some point, late winter or early spring, the larva will pupate and the adult fly will emerge a few weeks after, just as the goldenrod begins to grow in late spring.

Posted on January 11, 2017 04:44 by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 19, 2017

January Thaw

After the irresolute weather of the last two days—rain with temperatures below freezing, snow with temperatures above freezing—a true January thaw has settled in, sunshine and temperatures well above freezing. As the day warmed up the half-inch sheath of ice began to lose its grip on the cement of our driveway and I set about loosening it further. While plying the heavy steel ice spud a loud bird call overhead caught my attention. Looking up, I saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker on a branch high in our Red Elm. I set aside the ice spud and fetched my camera from inside, returning just in time for a single photograph before the bird flew.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is not an uncommon visitor to our city lot. However, prior to identifying one for the first time several years ago, I was not aware of the existence of this bird. Having grown up near the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota, this species would have been far less common than here in southeastern Minnesota. I was familiar with Flickers which are about the same size and shape. Because of this, I believe my unsophisticated mind skimmed over them and mistook them for Flickers....for an embarrassingly long time. I didn’t possess name or knowledge and therefore the bird simply was subtracted from my perception of the world. A blindspot.

“It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit.”
Robert Macfarlane, from Landmarks (2015)

According to The Birds of Minnesota by Thomas S. Roberts (1932), the Red-bellied Woodpecker extended its range northward into Minnesota a little over a century ago, the first documented sighting came in 1893. According to the iNaturalist map, the range of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers now extends throughout the state, even into Manitoba.

Posted on January 19, 2017 04:12 by scottking scottking | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 15, 2017

Snow Midges

A truly wonderful winter day. While most everyone else was out cross-country skiing, I went for winter walk. After a week of below average temperatures, a day with little wind and temperatures in the low twenties felt almost summery in the afternoon sun. Apparently the Snow Midges thought so as well! I've known that there are insects that emerge in winter—wingless gall wasps, winter stoneflies, winter crane flies and midges—but I'd never encountered them before today.

I saw a total of four midges. One of them flew a few inches when disturbed. Otherwise they just crawled along on top of the snow. The small creek, from where they emerged, flowed and chimed through a short stretch of riffles directly below. It really is mind bending to see insects out in January. Of course winter trout fishermen know all about these winter hatches, with a number of midge flies that imitate both pupae and adults.

Posted on January 15, 2017 05:04 by scottking scottking | 4 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 08, 2017

The Prairie Loop

Lisa joined me on today's outing. After nearly nine hours of volleyball spectatoring and family, we took the dog and headed for a short hike around the big pond at the St Olaf Natural Lands. We've hiked this loop many times, out along the wooded south side of the pond then back through the wide open restored prairie. Today may well have been one of the colder visits, but the prairie colors in winter were rich and vibrant and worth the wind-bitten nose and cheeks.

As we walked out onto the prairie our dog ran some distance ahead then stopped. It appeared, at first, the two other big dogs were joining him. Only they weren't dogs. A pair of White-tailed Deer walked directly toward the dog and us, stopping at a distance of about thirty yards. The deer stretched their necks, raising their heads and focusing their ears until they suddenly realized what company they'd fallen in with. One bounded away and then the other, white-tailing it through the tallgrass prairie.

Driving home we crossed campus. And just as we were commenting that we'd seen not a single bird on this hike, Lisa spotted a Red-tailed Hawk. The hawk was perched low in a tree directly over a sidewalk. I took a few hurried photos out the car window, with the view cluttered by branches. Despite the obstructed, I was pleased and considered it a triumph since it was the first hawk I'd ever managed to photograph.

Posted on January 08, 2017 05:04 by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 12, 2017

The Gliding Snail of Perceptiveness

Virginia Woolf in her essay 'Street Haunting: A London Adventure,' describes the transformative moment of leaving the house as the shucking of an oyster. First she sets the stage for this dramatic image by describing the common and familiar surroundings of our home where "we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.” Then, at the beginning of the next paragraph when her walk gets underway, she hits us with this: “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.”

Being an inveterate walker (I almost wrote invertebrate!), I understand what she's trying to convey. We are changed when we leave our houses and enter the larger world, whether the destination be a neighborhood, a city, or a wilderness. I would have preferred the use of a less violent image (though I trust she had her reasons). Perhaps a different class of Molluscs, Gastropoda instead of Bivalvia, would have worked just as well. Wouldn't the image of a snail do the trick? That moment it extends out of the safety of its shell, stretching out its tentacles, eyes at their very tips. The gliding snail of perceptiveness.

Reading this morning from Slugs and Snails by Robert Cameron, a recent title in the New Naturalist Series, I felt my curiosity about real snails intensify. So, while out walking today I thought to look for snail shells along the creek bank in Cowling Arboretum. Even with the temperature dropping back toward zero, with three days worth of new powdery snow, I succeeded in finding two snail shells without much effort. One shell that of a tiny Ramshorn Snail (3mm). The other a dextrally spiraled Pleurocerid Snail (27mm). Both freshwater snails.

[I'd like to note here, that I really know next to nothing about snails. Fortunately for me and others posting observations of snails there are several vigilant malacologists on iNaturalist that never seem to tire of lending their aid. Thanks in particular to @susanhewitt, your help has been much appreciated.]

Posted on January 12, 2017 04:42 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment