Reindeer on Mt. Saana

Part of my research on Mount Saana is how the effects of increased nutrients on tundra plant communities depend on the presence or absence of herbivores. In the past I’ve worked in areas with cattle and elephants, but the dominant herbivore in this system is reindeer. Our first two weeks in Finland we saw a few reindeer wandering on the roads and in campgrounds. This week, a herd of hundreds moved into this area, including up and down the mountain where we work. It’s been incredible to see them in the forest, wandering on the steep cliffs, and even grazing in our study plots!

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Kilpisjärvi tundra

I have a really cool job where I get to spend my summers in beautiful places, hiking and looking at plants. I’ve done work in the Elwha river valley, Sierra Nevada mountains, burned California shrubland, Kenyan savannah, and more. I study how plants respond to disturbance—fire, drought, dam removal, build up of nutrients—and how those responses are shaped by other plants and by herbivores.

This summer, I’m working somewhere I’ve always wanted to go–Finnish Lapland–studying tundra plants. The project is testing how plant communities recover from years of added nutrients. It’s amazing to be so far north (the sun never sets! also, the sun never sets) in a patchwork landscape of mountains and lakes. And the tundra—the plant community itself—is incredible.

This is Mount Saana, where I’m working. From a distance, the area above the trees looks like a homogenous greenish-brownish blur. But get closer, and more and more variation reveals itself in the patchwork of ankle-heigh shrubs. Even closer, and stunning flowers pop out in all colors and shapes. Here’s a picture of one of our study plots—just a mere 25 cm x 25 cm—with 13 species growing in it!

Check out just a few of the beautiful species growing in the tundra (and the views aren’t bad either):

Aquarium Visit

Even on a brief and busy trip home, we squeezed in a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Highlights of the trip included comb jellyfish, moray eels, garden eels, sea otters, and three octopuses. The deep sea exhibit was also swimming, with two sunfish joining turtles, tuna, and a school of sardines in the giant tank.

Redwood Spring

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, California, mid-May. The trail climbs from dense secondary redwood forest, to wet mixed conifer forest (redwood, Douglas fir, and hemlock), to sun-dappled oak trees, and finally sunny chaparral. The understory flowers also shift, from shade-tolerant violets and irises, to sun-loving lupines. The loop trail then returns along the creek back to redwood forest.

Narayani River

Entering Chitwan, we crossed a large river which our taxi driver told us was part of the Ganga river. We later learned that this is the Narayani, or Gandaki River, which is one of the major tributaries of the Ganga river. I spent 7 months in Varanasi, Indiat living and teaching on the banks of the Ganga (way back when this blog was first conceived). It was pretty incredible to see the same waters much further upstream.

During our stay in Chitwan, we took a boat ride along the river. We saw all kinds of animals in the water and on the shores, including the endangered gharial, or fish-eating crocodile. We also saw a group of men using two canoes to bring a Jeep across the river! And we took a morning walk with the elephants and mahouts that work at the lodge to cut food for the elephants. The elephants passed a bundle at a time up to their mahouts (stealing bites along the way) and carried the stack back–the whole elephant-load is only about half of their food for the day.

Past Snapshots: Merced Wildlife Refuge

Another stop on my travels through my photo drive archives is Merced National Wildlife Refuge. We stopped there in January 2012, on the way to Yosemite. The refuge is host to an incredible variety of birds, including many migratory birds that overwinter there. We saw Ross’s geese, sandhill cranes, blackbirds, herons, and many other waterbirds. The refuge also uses cattle crazing to control invasive weeds and keep varied grass heights to support all the different species’ needs.

Oulu Winter

In February, I went to an ecology conference in Oulu, Finland. I’ve wanted to travel to Finland for years, and this was particularly neat because for complicated reasons Oulu is actually my employing university, even though my research is based in Germany. Our first few days the temperatures were well below freezing–we had ice crystals forming on our eyelashes–but the snow and ice made for stunning landscapes.

Leipzig Wildpark

One of our favorite weekend activities is walking to the Wildpark, a zoo/wildlife preserve for native animals in the southern part of Leipzig. The Wildpark is located within a stretch of forested park areas, and is always crowded with families. We especially like seeing the baby boar, raccoons* in trees, birds**, and albino reindeer. On one visit we arrived around feeding time, when the grey heron flew into the river otter enclosure to steal some fish, and the little mink ran around excitedly for twenty minutes before devouring his “prey.”

* raccoons are called Waschbär in German, which literally translates to “wash-bear.” I love this name for these mini-bears that wash their paws and food!

** including the European robin, which is much cuter than it’s North American counterpart

Bridge of Insanity

Last weekend we visited a region called Saxony-Switzerland, which is in Saxony (Germany, not Switzerland), and reminds me a lot of Pinnacles National Park. With castles, because Germany. We walked around the ruins of Neurathen castle, a rock fortress that perched on the towering cliff formations during the Middle Ages, and the Basteibrücke, a sandstone bridge constructed in the 1800s for tourists. (The original bridge to the fortress was wooden, so it could be broken if enemies tried to cross). It was amazing seeing the high rocks where people walked, worked, and lived–and the modern climbers scaling the sandstone peaks.