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.

 

Restless Heart

Zugunruhe - migratory restlessnessTo regular readers of this blog, my love of obscure words is not a new thing. Over the last few years, I’ve been creating these ‘definition images’ as my way of bringing life to some of the wonders of nature and the words used to describe them.

Looking back over them all, I realized, much to my surprise, that I’ve crafted more than 70 of them, covering just about every letter of the alphabet. That discovery has led me to challenge myself to visualize words starting with more uncommon letters, like  X, Qand Z. Kind of like an artistic variation on Scrabble.

Autumn has given me the perfect opportunity to address one of my favourite Z words.  It’s another one of those terms that comes up only in the discussion of natural history and animal behaviour and it never fails to raise a few eyebrows if you manage to slip it into regular conversation.

The word is Zugunruhe.

Zugunruhe is a combination of two German words = Zug, meaning to move or migrate and Unruhe, meaning restlessness and it together, the sum is really the combination of the parts: migratory restlessness. For a behavioural ecologist, it’s a word that tends to conjure up thoughts of autumn, or more specifically, late summer.

As the earth lumbers along its orbital path and those of us in the Northern Hemisphere find ourselves canting away from the sun’s warmth, many creatures get antsy. Birds especially are seized by a sudden disquiet and activity levels skyrocket. Sleep patterns change and if the individuals are kept in a cage, they start orienting their activity in the direction they should be migrating in. Most species go through a period of excessive feeding, needing to pack away as much energy as aerodynamics will allow for the journey that inevitably lay ahead. We see it all around us in the clouds of blackbirds roiling through the air or flocks of geese descending on a recently-harvested field. This period of restlessness is referred to as Zugunruhe by biologists who study animal behaviour and it’s a phenomenon observed both in the spring and in the fall, just prior to the mass migrations that move millions of birds along north-south flyways over the continent.

Here, in the boreal forest, it’s a phenomenon that usually starts in August. Our summers are relatively short and as soon as breeding is over, the preparation of the twice-yearly journey gets underway, especially in songbirds, who have to travel thousands of kilometres to Central and South America. With their time here so fleeting and the journey so long and fraught with danger, you can’t help but wonder, why go through all the trouble?

Why not stay in the tropics, where the weather is favourable and save all of the energy and risk associated with long-distance travel? The answer to that question likely varies to a certain degree between species; but evidence suggests that food, or rather the lack of it, was likely the driver behind the evolution of long-distance migration in many birds.

Most of today’s migratory species likely evolved near the equator, enjoying consistently tolerable weather and relatively abundant food. However, as populations started to grow and segment into different species, the pressure on food sources grew to a point where the survival of some depended on searching out new resources. The only place to go was away, into the temperate zones north and south of the tropics. Those that did, discovered abundant resources, millions of insects, and a glut of fruit and vegetation. The problem was it only lasts for a short period of time, forcing those explorers to retreat back to the warm haven to the south during the winter months.

Over millenia, these paths have been extended and entrenched by generations of birds winging their way along now well-established routes.  As those paths have become increasingly ensconced in the collective memories of each species, so has the irrepressible need to travel those routes that spurs everything from hummingbirds to harriers on their way twice a year.

With migration in full swing here in Manitoba, the period of zugunruhe is actually over; but once balance of night and day swings back into the favour of the light, the millions of birds enjoying the warmth of their winter homes will feel the inexorable pull once again, the restlessness building until one day, they’ll have no choice but to take to the air and find their way back to us.

The Edge of Darkness

Owl SilhouetteAs I’ve mentioned before, I have always had a love for obscure words, especially those that find everyday use in the lexicon of certain specialties.

Crespuscular is one of those words.

I use it all the time, but it’s definitely not common knowledge, something that’s become increasingly obvious over the many years that I’ve been a nature interpreter. I’ll throw it out there, along with other natural history terms, like ‘nocturnal’ or ‘carnivore’. While my charges usually nod sagely in understanding at these other adjectives, ‘crespuscular’ usually elicits furrowed brows and working tongues as they try to wrap their mouths around the syllables, eyes rolled up towards their brains, as though watching it try to divine the word’s meaning.

It’s too bad, because it’s a good word. It’s also a great way to be. A crepuscular animal is one that is most active at twilight, straddling the line between night and day in the muted light of either dawn or dusk. It certainly my favourite time to be out and about, probably because I’m in such good company.

Many animals are crepuscular in their habits; the most notable of which,  for me, are the owls. Species, like the Great Gray Owl, are at their best at this hazy time of day, making use of their enormous eyes and highly-tuned hearing to pick up the slightest rustle of prey along the forest floor. Owls, however, are not the only birds that enjoy this shoulder time. Common Nighthawks and Wilson Snipe also come alive in the dusk, the former swooping and diving through the gloom, scooping up millions of flying insects that have taken to the air after the heat of the day before the cool night temperatures slows their metabolisms and forces them back to earth. Most songbirds reserve their choruses for the crepuscular hours; Olive-sided Flycatchers announcing the dawn and Hermit Thrushes heralding the dusk, their refrains rounded out by the harmonies of breeding frogs.

Most boreal mammals are also crepuscular in their habits. The dull grey winter coat of the white-tailed deer is at its most invisible in the murky hours of twilight, especially to the mostly colour-blind vision of their carnivorous predators. Bats join the nighthawks in their aerial quest for a meal and rabbits emerge from the shadows, taking advantage of the low light to grab a quick nibble before complete darkness makes it difficult to spot approaching danger.

In reality, the busiest time of day, in whatever habitat you might live, is twilight. So, whether you are an early bird, who rises before the dawn, or a night owl, like me, who takes comfort in the release of the day as the sun slips below the horizon, get outside at these tenuous moments and discover the beauty and wonder of becoming crepuscular in your habits.

Sounds of Silence

White-tailed deerWalking through the winter woods I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of closeness with the world around me. Snow is nature’s greatest silencer, muting the world as it bathes it in white and it’s this silence that breeds a feeling of intimacy with my forest brethren. Shrouded by heavy bows and intermittent shadows, I feel my senses stretch through the quiet, reaching out for any sign that I’m not alone in my wanderings.

As I make my silent progress, I find myself wondering how the other inhabitants of the forest perceive this winter world. Whenever I get into one of these moods, my mind usually strays to the white-tailed deer, a species I’m fortunate to meet often on my woodland rambles.

We’re about the same size, a doe and I, and their soft, forward-facing eyes and expressive faces make them easy to relate to.

Though I know she could easily outrun me (especially since I’m a rather slow runner, even for a human), we have a bit more in common than we might first realize. White-tailed deer and humans perceive the world in much the same way. Deer, for the most part, are just a lot better at it.  They have to be. When you live you life under the constant threat of predation, it’s in your best interest to develop a sophisticated arsenal of early-warning systems and deer have plenty.

In deer, the nose knows everything that’s going on around them. With over 290 million olfactory receptors, deer can detect the faintest whiff of danger, even more accurately than their canine pursuers (who only have about 220 million). Both, however, seriously outstrip humans, with our rather paltry 5 million. Where do they put them all? The nasal region of both cervid and canine skulls is actually quite long and full of thin bones in a delicate scroll-work called nasal turbinates. In the living creature, these bones are covered with olfactory epithelium (skin with scent receptors) that picks up the tiniest of molecules. When actively sniffing, they fill their nasal cavities with as much air as possible, giving scent molecules a better chance of being picked up.

To further improve things, deer have a small, fluid-filled sack lying just on top of the palette called the vomeronasal organ (or Jacobson’s organ). This seems to function in a very specific type of scent detection – pheromones, something most mammals use in abundance and deer are no exception.  Whether we have such a functioning organ too is still being debated, but there is evidence that suggests it might play a subtle role in our lives.

Whenever I come face-to-face with a deer, I’m always drawn in by those liquid doe-eyes and this is one place where we have a bit of an edge over our four-legged friend, at least when it comes to how we see our world. Most people will tell you that mammals, especially ones that are active in the dark, don’t see colour. That’s not entirely true. The retina of deer eyes do have cones (colour receptors); they just can’t quite distinguish the same spectrum. A deer’s world is tinted in blues and greens, which makes sense, considering their main concern is picking out the right plants to eat. Still, don’t think you’re invisible to them as you walk through the woods in a blaze-orange vest. Recent work has found that they can pick out at least a hint of these longer wavelengths and with a visual range of 300 degrees while standing still and eyes that are highly sensitive to the slightest movement, a deer will notice you long before you even know you’re not alone.

Besides, if the eyes fail them, the ears wont. No matter how carefully I tread, I know that somewhere, the crunch of my footsteps is being collected by the large, rotating pinna of a deer’s ear. Their range of hearing is considerably better than ours, picking out much higher frequencies than we could ever hope to detect. The wide placement of the ears on the head and their ability to rotate them independently also make it possible for a deer to triangulate the source of a sound, much like an owl.

I know that I will never experience the world on the same level as any of my fellow forest inhabitants, but on a silent, snowy afternoon, I can’t help but want to try.

 

Suspended Animation

My world is getting quieter. As winter descends on the boreal forest, it’s like a veil of silence wraps around us, stilling all motion, save for the whisper of the wind across the newly-formed desert of snow.  One by one, the waterways stop, frozen in time, held captive by the solid grip of truly frigid temperatures.

Around here, the last body of water to succumb to this relentless creep of ice is the great Lake Winnipeg. Staring out over its endless expanse during the summer, it’s hard to believe that this inland ocean, the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world, finally gives in and stills beneath over a metre of ice.

It’s not a quick process and it actually starts a lot earlier than most of us realize. As the days get shorter and the air gets cooler, heat from the lake is slowly released into the atmosphere, often creating lake-effect precipitation, but that’s a story for another day.

As the water cools down, it becomes denser because the molecules’ natural vibrations slow and they cluster together. This denser water sinks deeper into the lake, letting warmer water rise to the surface and release its energy to the skies. This cycle continues until all the water in the lake reaches the same temperature. For freshwater, the magic number is 4 degrees Celsius, not zero, like you may have guessed. The water still freezes at zero degrees, but from 4 degrees on, the water molecules start to form the lattice work that ultimately becomes ice and at this point, this water is less dense than the rest of the layers below it, keeping it at the surface, where it starts to freeze.

At over 23,000 square kilometres, Lake Winnipeg doesn’t go quietly. November is a restless month, with flinty skies and often driving winds. Wild weather churns up this giant, but relatively shallow cauldron, breaking apart the fragile skin that forms on the surface, forcing it to start over.  Still, the cold eventually wins. The ice thickens and sheets knit together, sealing off the water below as it creaks and moans like a giant humpback whale trapped below the surface.

By the end of December, the ice will usually be thick enough to hold the weight of snowmobiles and tank-like Bombardiers used by the commercial fishermen to get to their harvesting grounds. By January, it’s strong enough to hold the weight of fully-loaded semi-trailers charging across the barren ice roads to deliver goods and supplies to towns that in summer can only be reached by air or by boat.

All the while, the lake is still very much alive beneath its frozen shell, reminding us of its presence with rattles and muted groans rising up from the depths. It’s a sound I never tire of hearing because it reminds me that the lake I love is still there, restless and waiting to be released with the warmth of spring.

We’re here for a good time, not a long time…

If you’d told me 20 years ago that I would be writing a piece extolling the virtues of the fishfly, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. As a child, I tried to get out of going to the cottage during the first few weeks of July, simply to avoid having to deal with these large, awkward insects that appeared in the thousands and stuck to everything. I would go to great lengths to avoid coming in contact with them and I couldn’t stand the smell that hung over the beach during those weeks that their bodies washed ashore, creating a putrid line in the sand.

However, here I am, much older and hopefully wiser, and an unapologetic fishfly fan. It was when I returned a few years ago to live alongside our great lake, that I discovered just how remarkable these insects truly are.

Whether you call them fishflies, mayflies or shadflies, these large-winged, long-tailed insects belong to the order Ephemeroptera, which literally means: ‘things with wings that don’t live very long’. It’s a fairly apt description if you only consider the adult form. With vestigial mouth parts and a digestive tract full of air, they’re lucky to last for more than a day. However, if you take into account the insect’s entire life cycle, they are actually relatively long-lived.

Here on Lake Winnipeg, our fishflies (mostly Hexagenia limbata) spend about two years as nyads (larvae), living in the sandy bottom of this immense, but shallow body of water. They’re detritivores, feeding on algae, diatoms and other bits and pieces that find their way to the bottom. They, in turn, form a large part of the food base for the numerous fish species that fill the lake.

Then, somewhere around the first week of July, an instinctual switch is flipped, sending the two-year-old nyads to the surface. Floating in the meniscus of the lake, their backs split open like a seam, letting the newly-formed winged morph  emerge. This stage is call the subimago and unlike any other order of insects, they’ll moult one more time into fully-fledged adults, all in the space of about a day.

It’s not so much the process that makes them remarkable, but the numbers. Lake Winnipeg, like many other shallow, fertile lakes and river systems, is home to millions of fishflies and they tend to show up all at once, carpeting everything: walls, roads, mailboxes, trees, lampposts, anything that’s standing still long enough for them to stick to. This mass emergence is their way of shuffling the genetic deck. It’s a nocturnal orgy of mating and egg-laying before everyone literally drops dead, their tiny bodies piling up under lights and along the beaches to be cleaned up by hoards of hungry gulls if the towns along the lake don’t get to them first with the front-end loaders.

Most people anticipate this yearly irruption with fear and distaste. I, on the other hand, look forward to it, because as long as there’s fishflies, Lake Winnipeg has hope.

Our lake is in trouble. Like way too many watersheds around the world, it is suffering from too much of a good thing: nutrients. An overabundance of phosphate and nitrogen are finding their way into the water, fuelling giant blooms of algae that, among other things, reduce the oxygen content of the lake both by using it themselves and by keeping it from reaching the bottom, where the fishflies live.

I fear for a fishfly-free summer. Thankfully, we’re not there yet and I’m optimistic that we can still turn the tide. Algae levels have been increasing for years, but public awareness has also risen and steps are being made to improve waste water treatment and watershed management. We have a very long road ahead, but as long as I keep finding fishflies stuck to my windows every summer, I’ll believe we can make it.

Snakes on a Plain

Our month of change is coming to a close. May is an amazing month out here. In the space of only a few days, we witness a stunning transformation. In the blink of an eye, we manage to go from a barren landscape, just recovering from the ravages of a northern winter to a lush and verdant pastoral scene. Everything wakes up in May. Buds that have been straining against their confines finally burst free, the air fills with the scent of fresh pollen and the busy sounds of returning birds. Insects emerge from their hiding places, crawling out into the newly warm sunshine, but they aren’t the only creatures to find their way out of the darkness.

Up in my neck of the woods, we get to witness something truly remarkable. Every May in central Manitoba is marked by the emergence of the largest concentration of snakes in the world.

In a nondescript piece of prairie and aspen parkland, over 50,000 red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) emerge after a six month sleep from large caves in the limestone bedrock, bringing the underbrush to life with their constant slithering.

So what makes this nearly 12,000 hectare bit of scrubland snake mecca? As they say in real estate: location, location, location. It’s not the habitat above the ground that counts, but what’s below it. Much of central Manitoba is underlain by layers of limestone and dolomite, dating back 300 to 500 million years ago.  Limestone can be dissolved by water and over time, it has eroded away large hollows in the area, creating a formation known as karst topography.  You can find crevasses and caverns of different shapes and sizes all over the Interlake region. I have quite a few further north in the forests I call home, but none are quite as large as the network of five caverns that crisscross under the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area.

They’re also pretty deep, stretching down below the frost line, which is what makes them so attractive to snakes, because unlike many other cold-blooded critters, snakes don’t keep well in a freezer. So, after waiting out the worst of the cold, their internal clock tells them it’s time to wake up, sending the snakes up to the surface.

When that happens at the Narcisse dens, it’s a sight to behold: thousands of snakes, milling about in the dens and and

Red-sided garter snakes at the dens in Narcisse, Manitoba

surrounding areas. They stick around for almost a month after they first glimpse the sunshine because this is one of the few opportunities for this otherwise solitary creature to mix up the genetic pool. As soon as they emerge from the dens, females are literally pounced upon by dozens of males, forming something biologists delicately describe as a ‘mating ball’. Males jockey for position, trying to be the one to get his sperm to the eggs. Because females can store the sperm before fertilization, it’s likely her young end up being the product of more than one father.

By the end of May, however, the furor dies down. Knocked up and ready to go, both males and females disperse to spend the summer feeding and, in the case of the females, giving birth. The dens and other hibernacula sit empty for the summer, but as the song says, we’ll see them in September.