Dust From a Distant Sun

Aurora Borealis by Heather HinamAutumn has flown by, marked by brilliant leaves and skies filled with birds winging their way to warmer climes. The bustle of the season swept me up with back to school (I haven’t taught a fall course in over 7 years) and my regular work as a naturalist/guide/illustrator, leaving this blog sitting on the shelf for a while.

However, now, as the nights turn truly cold and the days become darker, I finally have a chance to settle and get back to sharing those things that fascinate me the most. I thank you for sticking with me.

The colder temperatures remind me of the many reasons I love living in the more northerly reaches of the planet. Not the least of those is the chance we get, now and then, to witness one of the most amazing natural phenomena on earth: the auroras. Here, in the northern hemisphere, they are the aurora borealis or northern lights. They’re not actually more common in the colder months; but many tend to associate them with winter, probably because the longer nights give us more opportunity to see them.  The picture above was actually taken in August.

For people who have never seen them, aurora are kind of hard to describe. They appear with no warning, beginning usually with a barely noticeable glow just above the horizon. You stare, transfixed, wondering if you’re seeing things. Suddenly, the silent flames grow, licking out across the sky, a rippling curtain of light that is ceaseless in its movements. The shifting colours hold you in their thrall until, just as quickly as they had appeared, the lights dissolve into the ether, leaving you feeling a little bereft for their loss.

Just what are these silent, shimmering waves of light? Though they are best seen on the darkest of nights, aurora are a product of the sun. Being a giant ball of hot plasma (ionized gas particles), the sun is a tempestuous place to be. Protons and electrons are being flung about the atmosphere, creating ‘solar winds’, which are streams of plasma that escape the star’s gravity and sail across the universe at truly mind-boggling speeds of millions of kilometres per hour. On occasion, fountains of particles will spew out of the sun’s atmosphere in a coronal mass ejection, sending a wave of protons and electrons on a collision course for earth.

When they reach our magnetic field, most are deflected, riding the field lines to the poles, where they start to swirl around, like atomic tornadoes, in the ionosphere (the height at which the International Space Station orbits). Whirling faster and faster, the ions become unstable, colliding with nearby gas atoms, releasing so much energy that they glow. The colour of the light depends on the gas they interact with and how far above the earth they are. The green and yellow we are most familiar with is created by an interaction with oxygen, while blue and violet are caused by nitrogen.

So, what you’re seeing is millions of chemical reactions playing out several hundred kilometres above the earth. The unearthly flame is concentrated in a halo around each pole, an auroral ring that shifts ever so slowly with the movement of our magnetic poles.

For the layperson, the appearance of these ghostly fire dances are impossible to predict. However, scientists in Canada have spent over a hundred years studying the phenomenon and have teased out some trends. Some years are better than others. It turns out that solar activity (solar flares, mass ejections and other radiation) goes through a relatively predictable 11 year cycle that should be hitting its peak sometime over the next few months.  Besides being a treat for aurora watchers, this intensified light show will be invaluable for researchers looking for ways to protect our satellite and communications networks from this increased radiation. While they may be beautiful, the ions spiralling through space can, and have, wreaked havoc on our electrical grids.

This year’s maximum has turned out to be the weakest in over a century, but there are still lights to be seen.  So, look up, look waaay up and hopefully you will have the chance to experience a true natural wonder.

P.S. to find out when and where your best chances for aurora spotting are, visit: www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast

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Writing in the Snow

Qali Growing up, I would hear people quote this statistic: “Eskimos have more than a hundred words for snow.” Actually, I still hear people rattle off this little ‘fact’, especially in winter.  However, there are a lot of problems with this statement, not even including the fact that the indigenous people of North America’s tundra and Arctic regions are known as Inuit, not Eskimo. No, what really grates on me about this blanket statement is the implication that it’s somehow weird to have so many words to describe one thing.

When it’s something that makes up a very large part of your daily life during a significant portion of the year, why wouldn’t you take the time to describe it as accurately as possible? The English language has several words for rain: showers, downpour, drizzle, sheets, so why not snow, especially in light of the fact that it sticks around a lot longer than its warm weather counterpart.  Actually, as a Canadian, I’m surprised that we, as a population, haven’t developed more words beyond flurries, blizzard and slush to describe this white stuff that blankets much of the country for four to six months out of the year.

To do that, we have to turn to other cultures and languages. While the true count is well under one hundred, many Inuit dialects have several useful words to describe the incredible variety of snow that we can encounter throughout the course of the winter.  For those of us who live in forested areas, one handy word to know is qali. It refers to the snow that builds up on the branches of trees, glazing limbs in white and making it look like someone attacked the woods with a decorator’s bag full of royal icing.

I was lucky to have learned several Inuit terms for snow as part of some of my undergraduate university courses and like many people who study winter ecology, they’ve been part of my lexicon ever since. So, it took a bit of digging to figure out where the word qali comes from. According to William Wonders, who wrote the book Canada’s Changing North (2003), the word originates from the Kobuk Valley Inuit of northwestern Alaska, along the edge of the treeline.

Qali can range in thickness from a light dusting that could almost be mistaken for hoar frost to heavy globs of wet snow that drag beleaguered limbs to the ground under its unrelenting weight. All along that spectrum, it has a significant impact on the ecological community.

Many winter residents are affected by qali. Spruce grouse and squirrels that regularly feed on cones often find themselves driven down to the ground by a particularly heavy layer of qali. The snow-covered branches can be hard to navigate, forcing these species to search elsewhere for food. On the other hand, qali can make some food more accessible. With particularly heavy wet snows, the qali that builds up on young birches, willow and aspen pulls the flexible branches down, bringing the young, tender tips within reach of hungry cottontails and snowshoe hare. These contorted trees may also provide shelter for a whole host of wildlife.

You might not have ever realized it, but if you live in an area that experiences snow, qali has likely affected you at some point and I don’t mean that moment when you accidentally brush up against a laden branch and send an unwanted shock of snow pouring down the collar of your coat. I’m talking about more significant impacts. Qali can be very heavy and often trees buckle under the weight taking down whatever else is nearby, which is some cases are power lines. I know I’ve spent the odd cold, snowy night in the dark, waiting for hydro to be restored.  These qali-broken trees also open up the forest floor to new growth, creating pockets of mini forest succession and driving the forest cycle on a smaller scale.

Snow is an amazing thing and qali is only one small facet in a dizzying array of diversity, which thanks to northern cultures, we’re able to describe in accurate and imaginative ways. So, next time you take a winter walk surrounded by white, take a moment and discover that variety for yourself and maybe even create your own words to describe it.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

Insulation - chickadee warming its feetIt was minus 40 Celsius with the wind chill the other morning. The bite of the air stung any carelessly exposed skin and the snow squeaked like Styrofoam underfoot. Wrapped up in my shearling coat, I couldn’t help but watch in fascination as a nearby mountain ash came alive with foraging Pine Grosbeaks and the cheerful chirps of chickadees and nuthatches filled the frosty air, reminding me just how incredible these tiny winter residents really are.

Chickadees, for example, weigh not much more than 10 g, about the same as two nickles. Yet, they can survive quite comfortably in temperatures that would leave us frostbitten and shivering.

Winter birds accomplish this seemingly unfathomable feat in a number of different ways. Firstly, they’re wearing a down coat. Those of you who own one know just how warm they can be and for birds, that insulation is part of the standard package. Feathers are a remarkable insulator. Comprising only about 5 – 7 % of a bird’s body weight (that’s half a gram on a chickadee), the air trapped within them makes up 95% of that weight’s volume, creating a thick layer of dead air that traps heat generated by the body, preventing much of its loss even on the coldest of days. Many winter residents grow a thicker winter coat, much like mammals, augmenting their feather count by up to 50 %. Fluffing feathers increases their insulation factor even further (about 30%), making them a very efficient way to keep warm in the winter, so efficient, in fact, some birds, like Great Gray Owl can actually overheat in the summer.

While some species, like Ruffed Grouse and many owls, grow feathers, along their legs and feet, like fluffy winter boots,  most songbirds’ legs are bare, thin sticks of sinew, blood and bone exposed to the elements. Although birds can tuck these delicate structures up into the warm cover of down when temperatures really plummet, most of the time they’re out in the open. So, why don’t they freeze and why isn’t all of a bird’s body heat lost through these naked limbs? Bird legs are marvels of biological efficiency, having been streamlined by millennia of evolution into sleek structures with very little muscle and few nerves, using instead pulley systems of tendons and bone to accomplish movement. These tissues, along with their scaly coverings have very little moisture and are less likely to freeze than flesh and skin.

Birds also have cold feet. Using a common natural system called a countercurrent heat exchange, our feathered friends keep their feet upwards of ten to twenty degrees colder than their core body temperature. Countercurrent Heat Exchange System in a bird's leg. by Heather HinamWarm arterial blood on its way to the feet pass right next to colder blood coming back towards the body through the veins. Heat wants to reach a point of equilibrium, so warmth from the arteries passes into the veins which carries it back into the body. Because the flows are running opposite to each other, it’s impossible for the heat balance to ever reach equilibrium, so by the time the blood gets to the feet, it’s much cooler than when it entered the leg and all that precious body heat has been kept where it needs to be, in the core.

However, as most of us who have experienced a true northern winter know, a coat alone isn’t always enough. There has to be heat to trap in order for insulation to work over the long term. To generate that heat, many winter birds shiver constantly when they’re not moving. Ravens, whose feather count isn’t as high as some of its more fluffy distant cousins, actually shiver constantly, even when flying, the repeated contractions of their massive pectoral muscles acting like a furnace. Powering that furnace takes energy and cold-weather specialists meet those needs by upping their metabolic rate, in some species, to several times their normal levels. As a result, food is always a going concern in winter.

Many winter residents can only forage for food during the day, so keeping the internal fires burning at night can be a challenge.  Finding a warm place to settle in for the night reduces those metabolic needs.  Densely-packed spruce boughs or old tree cavities are perfect nighttime microclimates and many birds use them. Chickadees will often take it a step further, piling as many fluffy little birds as possible into an old woodpecker hole to share body heat, which may just be too much cuteness in one place. Ruffed Grouse take advantage of the insulative capacity of snow in a somewhat comical way. One cold nights, the birds dive head first into a drift and tunnel deeper into the snow, creating a cave known as a kieppi. Temperatures inside the kieppi can hover just around the freezing mark, even when it’s minus thirty outside.

So as we close in on the shortest day of the year and sink deeper into the cold clutches of winter, take a moment, now and then, to marvel at those tiny survivalists outside your window. Much of the technology that keeps us from succumbing to winter’s icy grip was adapted from them. Nature truly is our greatest teacher.

Sweetness and Light

Portrait of Fireweed by Heather HinamThe first blush of spring flowers has long since faded, leaving forests and fields to settle into the rich greens and sunny yellows of mid-summer. Still, the decidedly verdant palette is broken now and then by a showy splash of pink, startling against the endless green, like flame in the darkness.

These tall, fuschia spires are fireweed, nature’s phoenix, rising out of the ashes of destruction and bringing colour back to the land. They also happen to be one of my favourite flowers; but not for a reason that’s immediately obvious. They’re actually rather tasty.

Nearly 15 years ago, I was fortunate to spend some time visiting a friend in the Yukon. We had an amazing time exploring the western edge of the territory, camping out in the shadow of the Rockies in the still long days of early fall.

In the airport on the way home, I spotted it, jars of a clear pink, gleaming in the fluorescent light of the gift shop: fireweed jelly. I had to try it and after tasting its delicate, sweet flavour, I had to figure out how to make it.

Turns out, the second part of that equation was harder than I expected it to be. Over 10 years ago, the internet was not as vast and I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere. After much searching, I ended up finding what I needed in a dusty old text squirrelled away in the Winnipeg public library.  I actually found a lot of ways to cook wild edibles in that book; but most coveted was my recipe that will work for any petal-based jelly.

We’ve been blessed with an abundance of fireweed this summer in Grindstone; but I’ve been so busy with other work that I haven’t had time to go out and harvest. It’s fairly time-consuming labour. Picking the flowers is easy enough. You just need a pair of scissors, long pants and something to store the feathery spikes in. Once you get them home, the fun part starts: separating the blossoms from the stem. I usually end up spending a good hour plucking the flowers, one by one, dropping them into a bowl and setting the green bits (which are also edible) aside. By the end, your fingers will be died purple and the rest of you will be crawling with crab spiders and leaf hoppers; but it will be worth it in the end, trust me.

Once you have your blossoms, stuff as many as you can into a pint sealer jar and cover the lot with boiling water.  Let the developing tea steep for 24 hours in a dark space (to keep the sunlight from washing out the delicate colour). Strain out the now leeched-white blossoms and pour the liquid into a deep pot, adding 1 1/2 cups of sugar for every cup of tea (3 cups to a pint). Add a teaspoon of lemon juice and bring to a rolling boil, letting it go for a good minute. Add 6 oz of liquid pectic to the mix and boil hard for another minute or so. Take it off the heat and skim any foam before carefully filling sealer jars and proceed to can it according to direction.

This recipe doesn’t make much, but it’s flavour is worth it. If you’re concerned about the colour once you’ve strained out the blossoms (sometimes it can look a little brownish), you can add a tablespoon or so of strawberry juice. It won’t affect the taste, but will keep it nice and pink.

Fireweed is one of those flowers that just seems designed to bring joy wherever it grows. As suggested by its name, its rhizomic habit makes them one of the first colonizers to bring colour back to a fire-blackened forest, springing up through the ash from runners in the underlying soil.

This year, the bright blossoms brought beauty back to the devastation wrought by Manitoba Hydro after they cleared the area around their power lines of shrubs and trees in my area. As my friend, Cindy mentions in her recent post on the same subject, thanks to their tenacious rhizomes that can knit their way through the soil up to almost half a metre deep, fireweed managed to find its way into the centre of London after the city was ruined in places by World War II bombs. To me this hardy denizen of northern forests and fields is a reminder to all of us that even in the face of humanity at its ugliest and most destructive, nature always manages to find a way to bring light back to the earth.

It’s a Hard-Knock Life

Juvenile Northern Saw-whet OwlsThere isn’t much else in the world that’s cuter than a baby Northern Saw-whet Owl. I should know; I handled dozens of them over the course of my doctorate research. Between their huge, blue, soulful eyes and the round, fluffy, ewok-like body, they’re guaranteed to evoke an ‘aww’ out of even the hardest-boiled egg of a person.

Still, most people will never have the opportunity to see one, at least not in their juvenile plumage. They’re notoriously hard to find.  Northern Saw-whet Owls nest in old tree cavities, moving into empty woodpecker holes and other crevasses in rotted out trunks. To study them more closely, researchers put up nest boxes in the hopes of coaxing them into more accessible real estate. It’s a lot easier to climb a ten-foot ladder up to a nest box than to have to figure out a way to get 25 feet up into a poplar or worse, a hydro pole.

Even once they’re out of the nest, they’re difficult to spot. Being not much bigger than a coffee mug full-grown, these little owls rely on camouflage to stay safe in the forests and woodlots where they make their home.  Their first line of defence when threatened is to go stock still against a tree trunk or in a mess of branches. It’s a very effective manoeuvre.  Adult saw-whets have stripes of brown and white on their breast feathers and spots on their heads that break-up their profile, helping them melt into the shadows. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tracked a radio-tagged bird to their daytime roost and still couldn’t spot the little guy among the leaves. The brilliant white V on the forehead of juvenile birds is to help parents find their mouths in the dark of a nest cavity. Still, in daylight, this natural beacon manages to blend into the dappled sunlight on the foliage.

Adult Male Northern Saw-whet Owl

Adult male Northern Saw-whet Owl blending into the background.

So, any time I get to spend with these little guys is a treat, one that I never take for granted. It’s always such a pleasure to get to observe their individual personalities up close.

Don’t let their size and adorable expressions fool you. These are tough little birds. They have to be. Life for a Northern Saw-whet Owl is hard from day one. Females lay their eggs two days apart, but start incubating before they’ve completed the clutch. As a result, you end up with a nest full of young where the oldest may have a ten day head start on life over the youngest. In years where the small mammal population is high, the provisioning males can make their nightly quota of about seven or more prey items a night, making it possible for all the young to make it out of the nest. However, in years where food is scarce, that age difference suddenly comes into sharp relief and it’s not uncommon to find only one or two of the oldest nestlings surviving out of a clutch of 4-6.

Even if they make it out of the nest, life doesn’t get much easier. After a month crammed into the nest hole with mom and all their siblings, you’d think these newly-fledged saw-whets would want to move on and take advantage of their new-found freedom as quickly as possible.  However, despite having fully-feathered wings by the time they leave the nest (unusual for owls), juveniles tend to hang around the homestead for another month or so. They spend their days tucked away in the shadows in nearby trees and their nights calling insistently for food deliveries from their already beleaguered father, their mother having taken off around the time the oldest hit 21 days for a much-needed break.  During this post-fleding period, young saw-whets practice flying and refine their hunting skills.

Eventually, it’s time for them to strike out on their own into the great unknown. It’s actually a great unknown for us researchers as well. Despite a number of long-term banding programs for the species all over North America, we still don’t have a very good handle on saw-whet owl movements outside of the breeding season.

So every year, my colleagues across the country and I will keep adding new nest boxes and checking the ones we have, spending as much time as we can peering into the lives of these adorable and enigmatic owls in the hopes that one day we might unravel a few more of their mysteries.

* If you would like to entice owls to your backyard, let me know, and I’ll send you the plans for building a nestbox.

A Breath of Life

Poplar bud in springSpring is in full-swing here now. In the southern reaches of Manitoba, some trees have leafed out almost fully and many of the ornamental fruit trees are in full bloom. At home around the lake, however, things are moving just a little slower. The first blush of green is only now enveloping the forest and I find it fascinating how only a few hundred kilometers can make such a difference in to the rate of renewal after winter’s chill.

As with many natural processes, day-length does play a role, but the story here is much longer and more complicated than that. In fact, the stage for each spring’s grand entrance is set the previous fall.

The shortening autumn day signals to the tree that it’s time to enter into a period of dormancy, sort of a forced vacation, where all systems shut down to preserve the tree’s tissues and protect it from freezing temperatures and water loss. Before it enters into this stasis, the tree uses the last of its growing resources to form the buds for the following year, encasing these primordial leaves in waxy scales that hold them in place until they get the go ahead to continue development.

After everything shuts down for the winter, the process shifts into a sort of time-release mechanism. Each species has it’s own mandatory vacation period, a set number of cold days it must endure before any warming will trigger the growth of new leaves. That period, however, is usually shorter than the average Canadian winter. So if we get a sudden early warming, like we did this year in March, it can trigger the start of new leaves, which can then be a death sentence if the forest is then hit with another cold snap. Alternatively, really warm autumns or warm winters can delay the onset of budding by pushing back the point at which the ‘mandatory cold period’ started. This reliance on temperature to maintain their cycle may make it very difficult for trees to adapt to the rapid changes in climate patterns we’re starting to witness.

Here in Manitoba’s boreal, however the wave of green is sweeping across the landscape as it always has this time of year. It happens so fast, that if you’re not paying attention, you can miss the in between stages and those are the best parts.

My absolute favourite time is when the Balsam Poplar’s (Populus balsamifera) buds (pictured above) begin to swell to bursting. They’re full of sticky, volatile oils that fill the air with a warm heady scent, that’s a pleasant mix of vanilla, cut fir boughs and Vicks Vaporub. I’ll never forget my first experience with a Balsam Poplar stand in full bud. It’s an amazing smell that washes through you, leaving you both calm and invigorated all at the same time.

Balsam poplar buds in oil

Soaking up the sun – Steeping balsam poplar buds in oil, the beginnings of Balm of Gilead

The healing effect may not just be limited to your sense of well-being. For centuries, Aboriginals and European immigrants alike have used poplar buds for medicinal purposes, typically warming them in some sort of fat to draw out the oils and then using the resulting salve on everything from wounds, eczema, and rashes to lining the inside of the nose to clear up airways. I learned how to tease the benefits from the bud from a woman living in the farmlands north of Swan River, Manitoba.

After steeping the buds in a good-quality oil in the sun for several days, strain off the liquid and thicken it with beeswax. The result is known as Balm of Gilead and makes a nice skin cream that smells wonderful.  Beyond it’s fragrance, the oils also contain salicin, a compound similar to aspirin that has been used as an analgesic by many cultures.

Whether it’s grounded in chemistry or not,  I still believe there is nothing better for your health and well-being than getting out an experiencing the first breath of life that is spring in the forest and surrounding yourself in its fragrant, verdant beginnings.

Bright-eyed and Bushy Tailed

Red squirrelAfter charging out of the gate early and then several false starts later, spring is finally settling in here in the boreal forest.  It’s been a strange year so far and I can’t help but wonder worriedly at the changes I’ve been seeing in the climate these last several years.  Between summer-like temperatures, then snow and frost, it’s been hard to get true sense of the seasons.

The animals, however, tell a different story. Seasonal behaviour in most species is hard-wired to a certain degree, often tied in less to temperature and more to changes in the length of daylight.  While, unseasonably warm or cold days can either speed up or slow down nature’s clock, the overall pattern remains relatively constant.

For me, one of the first harbingers of spring comes in the form of a frantic ball of red fur streaking through the forest.  Red squirrels (Tamiascurius hudsonicus) are active all year, racing from tree to tree, industriously gathering up anything remotely edible and either devouring it on the spot or stuffing it away in a midden, the heart of their territory, for leaner times.

This flurry of activity takes a definite upturn as the darkness of winter gives way into the softer, longer light of spring.  Here in the boreal, that can be as early as the beginning of March, when patches of snow-free ground begin to appear on the forest floor. Females are only reproductively receptive for a day, but she’s not shy in giving her potential suitors a head’s up, bounding through their territories, days before her estrous, reminding them of their impending opportunity.

Squirrels aren’t known for their social grace or a warm and welcoming demeanor. These feisty little rodents are fiercely territorial, expressing their displeasure at anyone and anything that crosses into their domain with an insistent rattle that ricochets off the surrounding trees like a miniature jackhammer. Mating season is the only time of year that edginess eases somewhat and males welcome the presence of female intruders into their little patch of forest, hoping for a chance to pass on their genes. However, if another male crosses over the boundary, all bets are off and the territory holder immediately lays into the interloper, the two of them bounding through the forest in a flurry of fur and furious chattering.

Females are equally antisocial and once the deed is done and she’s been inseminated, the donor is no longer welcome on her doorstep. Like many mammals, red squirrel females raise their young on their own, tucking themselves away into an old woodpecker hole to set-up a home for their young.

Gestation is only a little over a month, so it won’t be long before the squirrels in my neighbourhood find themselves with new mouths to feed. The young are born blind and pink, completely dependent on their mother’s milk and warmth, tucked up in the whorls of grass with which she’s lined their nest. Nests are established opportunistically, and squirrels will just as easily set up house in a nest box intended for birds as in a natural cavity. In my years working with saw-whet owls, I’ve stuck my hand into my fair share of squirrel’s nests and come out with a palm full of very warm, very naked little babies.

They grow quickly, however, putting  on almost 2g/day until they’re ready to venture out on their own just over four months later. By that time, the little guys are fully furred, smaller replicas of their parents, with an innate ability to scamper through the trees without a second thought. That’s not to say there isn’t a bit of a learning curve. One can only marvel at their resilience when watching a juvenile plunge 40 ft out of the tree to the ground, dust himself off and climb right back up like it was nothing more and a stubbed toe.

Resilience is key if you’re a red squirrel. Once they leave the nest, times are tough. By the end of the summer, they are no longer welcome on their mother’s territory and must take up residence someplace else. Competition is fierce and predators, like marten, goshawks and owls are just waiting to make a meal of them. Still, squirrels are scrappers and if they can get a foothold in that first year of life, they’ll likely be just fine. So, spring settles in with fits and starts after an unnervingly warm winter, I can’t help but take comfort in the ringing rattle outside my window, reminding me that even with all that is changing around me, the seasons still cycle and life finds a way to move ever forward.