Magic Waters

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Ice on the LaPlatte River in February.

“There is magic in running water, for after I have thought its life history all out there is still much unexplained.”  

These are the words of my great-grandfather, from a book he wrote ninety-three years ago called Man’s Spiritual Contact with the Landscape.  I never met him, as he died long before I was born, but from his words I can tell that we have much in common.  

Every morning I walk beside the LaPlatte River in Shelburne and contemplate the life history of its waters.  One morning this February a frozen flood made the magic in those waters visible.  Rain on snow during a warm snap caused the level of the river to rise quickly during the night.  By morning the river was several feet above its normal water level.  The water fell gradually, but the temperature plunged quickly, and during the next night a thin layer of ice formed on the surface of the waters, marking the height of the water at the coldest part of the night.  It was as though someone had pressed a pause button on the flood, and an eighth-inch-thick sheet of ice clung to trees and sticks, hovering six inches above the ground.

Frozen floodwaters of the LaPlatte River.

The frozen floodwaters of the LaPlatte River this past February.

My dog and I crashed through this frozen landscape the next morning and reveled in the sparkling beauty of a world draped in a silver cloak of ice.  Now, in April, the flood plain no longer sparkles, exactly – it wears the drab browns and greys of early spring.  Bits of green poke through here and there, but for the most part every surface is still coated with the fine layer of silt left behind by receding flood waters.  I revel in this landscape, too, because a functioning floodplain ecosystem is a beautiful thing.

That thin layer of silt represents a fresh collection of nutrient-rich sediment for the hungry plants and trees of the flood plain.  The plants of the flood plain are specially adapted to live in this water- and nutrient-rich environment, and they often depend on annual flooding not just for nutrients, but also to spread their seeds and carry away any less well-adapted competition.  Different plants adapt to different environments of the flood plain, some preferring the naturally formed berms just beyond the banks of the river, while others are more suited to the slow-to-drain boggy back-swamps.  These, too, depend on flooding for their formation.  

Marks created on a floated chunk of ice when it was carried beneath a tree overhanging the river.

Marks created on a floating chunk of ice when it was carried beneath a tree overhanging the river.

Roiling and fast moving flood waters contain a lot of energy, enough energy to carry much more than just silt.  Sand, stones, and larger sediment often get swept up and transported long distances in a rushing spring river.  When a river leaves its banks it immediately loses much of its energy.  The water slows and spreads out across the floodplain, dropping first the heavy sediment, such as sands and gravel, and then the finer silts and organic materials further out.  This sorting by size is what results in the gentle berms immediately past the banks of the river, and the silt that travels further is smaller, so it packs more tightly together when it reaches the ground, creating the slowly draining back-swamps beyond the berms.  

A wood frog found in April along the floodplain of the LaPlatte.

A wood frog found in April along the floodplain of the LaPlatte.

Right now, in the pools of flood and melt water filling the back-swamps, peepers and wood frogs sing their spring chorus of lust in hopes of attracting a mate.  These swamps and pools dry completely late in the year, and so sustain fewer aquatic predators that might eat the breeding amphibians or their eggs, so these pools are important for their survival.  And their survival should be important to us, because amphibians are the main predators of mosquito larvae, who also favor the standing waters of back-swamps.  Another frequent inhabitant of back-swamps, eastern newts, are capable of eating over 300 mosquito larvae in one day.  

Many mammals also rely on the floodplain forests for their survival.  Chipmunks and minks prey on the amphibians, and then in turn feed foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. Beavers are the architects of the channel, building dams and lodges that move the flow, eroding this bank or that, building sand bars with the changing flow path.  Birds ranging from tiny wrens and finches all the way up to red-tailed hawks, ravens, and turkey vultures also feed on the life that surrounds the river.  

My grandfather’s book included a chapter for each month of the year, but he began with the running waters of April.  As I walk beside the river each morning it is not so difficult to see why, for the river and its tributaries are like veins through the landscape: they carry life.  Life that wakes and grows and flies and sings in April.  So next time you find yourself beside a river in April, look beyond the dull grey patina of silt and enjoy the magic that is running water.  

Silver maple flowers developing into seeds beside the LaPlatte river. Silver maple is a common floodplain tree species.

Silver maple flowers developing into seeds beside the LaPlatte River. Silver maple is a common floodplain tree species.

Shelby Perry is a second year student in the Field Naturalist program.  Her great-grandfather, Stephen F. Hamblin, was the author of the book Man’s Spiritual Contact with the Landscape and co-author of Handbook of Wild Flower Cultivation.  He was a professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Design and founded the Lexington Botanic Garden.  

Green Mountains Walking

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Mountains#/media/File:GreenMtns_fromJayPeak.jpg

The Green Mountains of Vermont, as seen from Jay Peak. Photo by from the nek. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

Eight hundred years ago, the Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote, “The green mountains are always walking.” I was instantly taken with the truth of his words. Of course the green mountains (and the Green Mountains of Vermont) are always walking! How could they not?

Dogen didn’t know what I know about mountains. Plate tectonics wouldn’t exist for another seven centuries. Unlike Christianity, an ancient earth did not violate accepted Buddhist cosmology, but I doubt he was thinking of the fossil record. Perhaps Dogen was inspired by the inherent vulcanism of his native landscape, where fire spewed from the earth in a continual spasm of creation. Or perhaps he felt this was a useful illustration of deliberately looking outside of the normal, everyday mindset. Whatever the reason, as a naturalist and a reader, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Even though it defies our usual sense of the world, the mountains are walking.

What does it mean to fully know the Green Mountains’ walking? 480 million years ago, the movement of the North American continental plate began a collision course with a volcanic island arc in the midst of the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Over the course of the next thirty million years, the Green Mountains arose out of the jumble of continental crust, hardened lava and silty ocean mudstone, squeezed by the intense heat and pressure into schist. The geological record is peppered with such mountain-building events, taking place on a time scale almost too vast for our minds to contemplate. By human standards, mountains don’t walk, they crawl at a pace so slow a snail looks like a speed demon. And yet—the mountains are moving still.

In the case of the Green Mountains today, that movement is mostly downward, in the form of erosion, as wind and water dig out chunks of rock and sediment. As trivial as these forces might seem in the short term, over time, the mountain ranges can dissolve, sometimes even faster than they formed. For the Green Mountains of today, it’s less walking forwards or backwards in space, and more like running in place.

Of course, Dogen wasn’t talking about the Green Mountains of Vermont when he penned those lines. He may not have even meant “green” mountains—in Japanese, the character he uses, ao (青) can be used to mean blue, green or some subtle variation in between. I find it fitting that Dogen’s language neatly encapsulates the variation in the the Green Mountains I see on the horizon— shimmering blue through fog in the distance, deep rich green closer up, especially at the higher elevations where the darker evergreen conifers overtake deciduous trees.

Why should we even care about the mountains’ walking? For Dogen, it offers a true test of our understanding. Beyond words and phrases, beyond preconceived ideas, the true nature of the world beckons, just waiting for us to look closer and study it. As a naturalist, slowing down to see the mountains walking takes me out of the normal human scale of time and into the older, grander, cosmic story. In my mind, the mountains rise and fall as with a time-lapse camera, millennia pouring away like so many grains of sand, and the mountains flow, just as Dogen insists that they do. From the perspective of walking mountains, ordinary human difficulties no longer seem so challenging. The mountains, by their very nature, remind us that what we think we see is only a part of a larger, ongoing story.

Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

Shadows and Sex

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Red Squirrel / © Bryan Pfeiffer

YOU DON’T NEED PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL to know which way the wind blows. Groundhog Day ain’t about shadows. It’s about sex. Birds and rodents now begin a season of foreplay.

No, spring is not around the corner – at least not here in Vermont. Songbirds don’t rely on the vagaries of weather to calculate their breeding cycles. Instead, they schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude. As the days grow longer, birds do get ready to, well, um, make more birds. It’s why we’re starting to hear Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and other birds erupting into song on sunny mornings.

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Day length is a far more reliable calendar than weather. It is not entirely clear how birds measure day length, but we do know that photo-receptors in bird brains sense increasing light. It triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra. Their sexual organs revive from a state of dormancy. So when the food is there in May, songbirds will be ready … you know, physically.

February 2 is indeed significant. It falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a period celebrated in various ways in human traditions from Paganism to Christianity. And early February is when we start to get 10 hours of daylight – February 6 this year. It seems to be a turning point for wildlife.

But why the groundhog? Couldn’t we have picked a loftier critter to represent the coming of the light? As it turns out, this rodent is indeed a worthy messenger of spring. In February, woodchucks begin to emerge from hibernation on the prowl. They need to breed soon so that females produce litters during greater food abundance in April and May. Males emerge from their burrows to find and visit with females. But many of these early encounters are merely courtship visits, which pay dividends, research suggests, when it comes time to breed a bit later. It’s sort of like another February ritual – Valentine’s Day.

Squirrels aren’t so tactful. Female red squirrels are in estrus, receptive to males for breeding, for about eight hours on only a single day during this season. And male squirrels outnumber females in the wild by as much as five to one. The consequence of this skewed gender ratio and hard-to-get females is that life during the breeding season can be, to say the least, challenging for the male. He’ll spend lots of time following her in the days before she is in estrus. Should the male be too forthcoming, too eager before she is ready, she will rebuff his advances with a swat to the face or a painful bite. (I hate it when that happens.)

And when those precious eight hours finally arrive, a male is hardly alone in this drama. He often must compete with or fight other males for her affections – actually for a copulation that might last only about 20 seconds. Out there in the trees, it’s a free-for-all. “To the casual observer, what ensues is probably best described as pure and unadulterated chaos,” write biologists Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski in their fantastic book, North American Tree Squirrels.

So let’s recognize the real significance of Groundhog Day. This isn’t a holiday about six more weeks of winter. It’s a celebration of romance, even if it turns out to be unadulterated, chaotic rodent romance.

Bryan Pfeiffer teaches writing in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs.

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness. Continue reading

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic. Continue reading

The Nuclear Option for Dragonflies

By Bryan Pfeiffer

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A Common Green Darner (Anax junius) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

On a crisp, sunny day in September, after what was probably a typical summer for a dragonfly (which involves flying around, killing things and having sex beside a pond), a Common Green Darner took off and began to migrate south. As it cruised past the summit of Vermonts Mt. Philo, with Lake Champlain below and the Adirondacks off in the distance, the dragonfly crossed paths with a Merlin.

The Merlin, a falcon that kills in flight, swerved, plucked the dragonfly from the sky with its talons and began to eat on the wing. As the falcon and its prey continued southbound, all that remained in their wake was a single detached dragonfly wing, falling like an autumn leaf toward fields at the base of Mt. Philo.

Eagles, hawks, falcons and Monarch butterflies aren’t the only migrants moving south past mountains this fall. Joining them are dragonflies. Although biologists know plenty about the fall raptor and Monarch migrations, we are only beginning to discover, with some creative chemistry, where these dragonflies go and how migration figures in their conservation.

Fly or Die

Most dragonfly species do not migrate. In fact, most are now dead, having already mated during the summer season, leaving behind eggs or larvae to survive the winter. The killing frost will finish off much of what’s still on the wing. But some survivors will leave.

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Among the 460 or so dragonfly and damselfly species native to North America, at least five are classic migrants: Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), Spot-winged Glider (Pantala hymenaea) and Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum). Each species is on the move this fall.

Dragonflies migrate for the same reasons other animals migrate: to avoid inhospitable conditions, in this case habitats that freeze or become too cold for the dragonflies themselves or their insect prey. Monarchs go to Mexico. Broad-winged Hawks leave for wintering grounds stretching from southern Mexico into South America. Dragonflies head south to who knows where.

Having studied birds for two centuries, biologists know well their breeding and wintering distributions , even to the point of learning the destination of a particular warbler or sparrow after it leaves us in the fall. Ornithologists catch lots of songbirds in nets and place around one leg a tiny silver bracelet embossed with a unique number – an avian social security number – and then release the birds to the winds. A small percentage of them, still sporting their bracelets, are later recaptured while in migration or on wintering grounds thousands of miles away. Better yet, we’re putting small electronic transmitters on large birds, such as Bar-tailed Godwits and American Woodcocks, and tracking their movements real-time with satellites.

On of my tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

A tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

We can even track the movement of a single butterfly. I myself have placed little stickers, each bearing a unique alpha-numerical code, on the hind wings of more than 1,000 Monarchs here in Vermont and elsewhere in North America, and then set each one free to fly toward Mexico, where many are later encountered by conservationists searching for the buttterflies once they arrive in Mexico. With each recovery, we learn more about Monarchs and how they migrate.

The “Heavy” Hydrogen

Dragonflies aren’t so obliging. For one thing, we’re clueless about where they go. Monarchs concentrate each winter in stands of Oyamel Fir in mountains west of Mexico City. So we know where to find them and how to protect them. Tagging or somehow marking a dragonfly would be like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea. Actually, I suspect we’d find the bottle before the dragonfly.

Yet it turns out that we need not tag or otherwise mark these migratory dragonflies because they themselves carry clues about where they have been. If the Merlin doesn’t get it first, we can catch any migrating dragonfly, analyze trace elements in its tissue and determine roughly how far it has flown.

Our marker is water, more to the point the two hydrogen atoms in water. Recall from high school chemistry that hydrogen nucleus normally contains a single proton and no neutron. But a tiny fraction of hydrogen atoms around the world carry one proton and one neutron. We call it “heavy hydrogen,” or deuterium. And unlike other such atomic variations among elements (which can be radioactive), deuterium is stable in the environment – a “stable isotope”– and stable in the wing of a dragonfly.

isoscape

Credit: Migratory Dragonfly Partnership

The amount of deuterium in water varies somewhat predictably in North America. You can map it. The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in water falling as rain or snow changes on a gradient corresponding roughly with latitude. Water in Alberta, for example, carries a different deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio than water in Alabama.

Because dragonflies grow up as nymphs in water, they incorporate the local deuterium ratio into their tissue. It’s like a dialect or an accent that a dragonfly bears for life – whether as a nymph in water or a free-flying adult in migration. A Common Green Darner on the wing over Mt. Philo or Miami unwittingly carries a particular deuterium ratio, a birth certificate that tells us generally where it grew up. You are what you eat – or drink.

This science isn’t perfect. We can’t pinpoint a dragonfly’s natal waters in the way we know where a banded bird hatched or a tagged Monarch emerged. But stable isotopes are helping us track the range of migrating dragonflies. It’s “better living through chemistry.” After all, we can’t really know a bird or butterfly or a dragonfly – and what it might need in the way of conservation – until we know all the places it lives or wanders.

By the way, you need not be a chemist to help track dragonfly migration. We’re counting dragonflies in the same way we count migrating raptors during hawkwatches each fall. Learn how to do it and report what you find with help from the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership.

And while we’re out there counting, if a Merlin happens to catch a dragonfly first, we can still make a difference … by catching one of those dragonfly wings floating toward Earth.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a writer and field naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He teaches writing in the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning Programs.

Before It’s Gone, A Primer on Snow

By Maddy Morgan

Any skier or snowboarder knows that snow does not come in just one form.  Snowpacks are as variable as the snowflakes that form them.  We have all heard the claim that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow (actually, I discovered, just more flexibility in how root words are modified), but what about our terms for snow?  Skiers talk about corduroy and corn snow, but the variation in snow types extends beyond the ski slopes. 

601124_677097335993_631112764_nHere is your late-in-the-season glossary of snow.  Maybe your optimism tells you that the snow won’t be with us much longer, but it might be in your best interest to brush up, just in case.

Snow forms when the atmospheric temperature is at or below freezing.  In certain conditions, it is even possible for snow to reach the ground when the ground temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  Freezing atmospheric temperatures, combined with moisture in the air, forms snow crystals.  Snow crystals exist in four forms: snowflakes, hoarfrost, graupel, and polycrystals.

  • Snowflakes, which we are all familiar with, are clusters of ice crystals that fall from clouds.  Their shape is dependent on the conditions in which they are formed and through which they fall.
  • Hoarfrost is our name for ice crystals that form on small surfaces that are open to the air.  When a surface’s temperature is lower than the frost point of the surrounding air, moisture transforms directly from vapor to solid, forming delicate laces of surficial ice.
  • Graupel is the round, pellet-like snow that resembles a softer hail.  When ice crystals fall through super-cooled cloud droplets (which remain liquid although they are below freezing temperatures), the droplets freeze to the crystals, forming a clump.
  • Polycrystals are flakes made up of many individual crystals.

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A “Solst-Ice” Report: The Season’s First “Big Chill”

DSCN7727By Matt Pierle

In the aftermath of a backwoods Solstice party in Lamoille County we awoke to a small mountain of dishes and no electricity. The longest night of the year had wrapped us in an icy bear hug.

Cold rain followed by dropping temps had frozen everything stiff.  Tree trunks, branches, rocks – anything not moving fast enough to dance off the cold crystalline bonds – was treated to an icy exoskeleton.

As more precipitation came, the ice coats thickened. The substrate for later drops to adhere to grew as the ice put on layer after layer. Classic positive feedback.

Next year’s already-formed buds and catkins, shelf fungi, conifer needles, marcescent oak and beech leaves were all locked inside one-quarter to a full inch of ice. The forest and hill farm landscape performed back-to-back versions of John Cage’s 4’33”.

NPR news from a crank-operated radio reported, “hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power in Michigan, New York, and the Northeast”– no doubt a result of trees and frozen limbs coming down on overhead transmission lines. Continue reading

Orion Rising

orionWe all have our routines, those mental checklists we complete to make sure that our day will run smoothly. Some are entirely rational, others seem almost ridiculous, but all are part of what makes our own worlds go around. One of my self-affirming habits each winter evening is to look for Orion, to make sure that his giant frame is poised for battle in the night sky as he has been since the ancient Greeks raised his mortal body into the heavens almost 3,000 years ago.

Orion’s nighttime traverses actually began long before the Homer immortalized his character in The Iliad. The configuration of the constellation has been visible from Earth for about 1.5 million years and should stay recognizable for about 1 to 2 million more years. Ultimately, the stars will rotate within our galaxy and change their relative positions to each other, as well as to Earth. In the current wintertime sky, Orion routinely rises in the south to southeast at sunset, big and broad, early enough to entertain those of us who aren’t night owls. Betelgeuse, the supergiant that is his right shoulder, is by far the reddest object on the dark horizon and holds the allure that it may explode at any moment, collapsing under its own weight and rebounding into fiery supernova glow. The odds that this impressive event will occur tonight are “astronomically small,” but it is always worth another look.

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