My to-read bookshelf has spilled out into an annex of three to-read crates. Free books rescued from work, possibly interesting reads from book exchange, a few things of Leta’s that I might pick up, a good-intentions attempt to review my college calculus text (what’s a Lagrange multiplier, again?) (water-damaged from a small basement flood some years ago), a couple of doorstops for a long train journey, some finds from the AAUW used book sale, time to read Pirsig again.
In Leta’s (and by inheritance, Ann’s) effects I found a promotional notepad from the Southern Railway System, with a handy list of freight facilities on the inside cover. (Leta’s grandfather worked for a railroad.) Southern would have used that branding up until about 1980. A historian of the system might be able to pin down a date, given the list of facilities. It’s possible that
200-79 on the inside cover encodes a printing date. Yankee that I am, I used up the notepad.
On the back of the backing is the real mystery: the inscription
GLV 823. A vehicle license plate number, perhaps? But what state? Who made the hasty note, and why did they use the backing rather than a leaf from the pad? Does it capture a red light runner? A hit-and-run accident? The imagination trembles.
Stephanie Mason led a small group through very changeable weather this morning. This is a regular loop for her, following the River Trail from the C&O Canal NHP visitor center and returning along the canal towpath. Because this stretch of floodplain has some majestic trees, among them 200-year-old sycamores, she has styled this trip Walk Among the Giants.
Stephanie pointed out some abundant drifts of the basal rosettes of Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea). I need learn that not all winter rosettes in the floodplain are Gill-over-the-Ground or Garlic Mustard.
At this point, my camera’s power gave out. But we did have some interesting discussions and opportunities for follow-up. I confessed a distaste for the messy suckerish habit of Box Elder (Acer negundo), yet Stephanie mentioned the tree’s food value for overwintering wildlife, and the rather attractive clusters of samaras persisting on the tree’s branches.
The question of where non-native invasive Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) came from came up (it’s native to Japan-Korea-China) and when it was introduced. Sources indicate that it was brought into North America in about 1890 as breeding stock for other blackberry cultivars.
It is used today by berry breeders to add specific genes to berry varieties or species. Wineberry is an example of one man’s flower being another man’s weed. Given containment, wineberry has desirable and useful qualities, but due to its invasive nature, it is considered a significant pest of agricultural and natural ecosystems.
We saw a good ten or twenty Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) feeding and loafing on the river.
Three interesting workshops at the conference, formally the Virginia Master Naturalist Program Statewide Conference and Volunteer Training, held this year in Harrisonburg.
Michael Pelton and David Kocka talked about the natural history of American Black Bear (Ursus americanus)—which comes in four color morphs, including the blue-gray “glacier bear” found in the Pacific Northwest—as well as problems in human-bear interactions. Fun fact: bears actually do eat Bear Corn (Conophilus americana).
Emily Thorne’s dissertation research consists of understanding the Virginia habitat preferences, distribution, and genetics of Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spirogale putorius). She’s recruiting VMN volunteers to set up and monitor game cameras pretty much statewide; it’s known from the Blue Ridge west, but could be found east of the mountains as well. This little critter does a handstand as a defensive warning behavior—very cute.
Chelsey Faller, Wildlife Disease Biologist with DGIF, is spreading the word about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Virginia. 69 cases have been reported in the state since its arrival in 2009. It’s particularly prevalent in Frederick County, and a Disease Management Area has been established for Frederick, Shenandoah and two adjacent counties. Inspections of deer harvested this season in Shenandoah County are mandatory.
For a hands-on exercise, we learned how to perform the dissection to obtain specimens for lab testing. Although CWD is a prion disease that affects the nervous system, in White-tailed Deer it can first be detected in the lymphatic system. So the dissection removes the retropharangeal lymph nodes (behind the voice box).
Chelsey is also looking for volunteers at check stations.
For the first time, a making-of shot. Fellow tour member Bao snapped a pic of me with her phone while I was documenting my footgear. Our leader “S,” unconcerned, is scanning the scene.
I hadn’t planned on spending any time botanizing… and yet, these interesting plants kept appearing and reappearing. Our guide Elis had a folding brochure with some of the very most common and conspicuous plants of Iceland, but midway through the trip I felt the need to pick up Hörður Kristinsson’s Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland (2017, 3/e), with entries for 465 species (including 17 for genus Saxifraga—go figure). With the brochure, I quickly learned to recognize Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (Vallhumall), the non-native invasive Nootka Lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) (Lúpína), and Garden Angelica (Angelica archangelica) (Ætihvönn), a truly preposterous-looking plant.
But, provisioned with Hörður, I went looking for more. Some of the following IDs are rather provisional.
This bushy prostrate plant, with flowers gone by, was very common, and the first to catch my eye: possibly Alpine Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla alpina).
The next day, on the grounds of our hotel in Hövn, Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), a mystery plant with purple tepals, Mother of Thyme (Thymus praecox), and unmistakeable Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) (Bláklukka).
Equipped with a search image from Elis’s brochure, I spotted something interesting and hopped off the bus in Djúpivogur to get a quick snap of the lovely daisy-like Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum).
So, Heather (Calluna vulgraris) is actually a thing.
In the north, at the Ásbyrgi nature reserve, peely-barked Downy Birch (Betula pubescens).
Nevertheless, there are lava fields that are in the very slow process of being overrun by lichens, mosses, grasses, creeping flowers, and taller things. I took a morning walk around our hotel at Mývatn. All sorts of green things happening. Shrubs sheltering in the potholes.
Pro tip: As you are preparing your luggage for a flight to Keflavík (KEF), do not pack your windbreaker in your checked baggage. You’re going to need it for the short scrambles to and from the shuttle bus that will take you to the terminal. Sited on a peninsula jutting out into the North Atlantic, the air field is well positioned for the defense of sea lanes (as it so served in WW II). But the nasty cross winds make it an adventure to traverse on foot, at any time of the day.
This is the quite pleasant view from my shared balcony at the elegant Hotel Holt. Several of my guides emphasized that Iceland is somewhat allergic to city planning—hence the lack of other commercial amenities around this hotel. (On the other hand, my second hotel, the Hotel Reykjavík Centrum, was surrounded by eateries and night life.) The University of Iceland campus is visible in the distance.
Þingvellir National Park is one of the places where the rift between the North Atlantic and Eurasian Plates is visible on land. I’m standing in the rift, with the North American Plate looming above and on the left. Þingvellir was the meeting place of Iceland’s first parliament, which first met there in 930. As dramatic as the scenery might be, this place was more or less centrally located for the delegates traveling to it across the country, and the rift valley afforded relatively flat terrain.
In the East Fjords, this “golly” prospect is on highway #1 between Höfn and Djúpivogur. At left, looking north, and at right, looking south. We didn’t stop for the lighthouse at Hvalnes. Iceland needs to up its lighthouse game.
It’s Labor Day, so it’s time for a walk in the park. I shared Dark Hollow Falls with many weekenders; the horse trail back from Fisher’s Gap was much quieter. I made the acquaintance of White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), which popped up all over the place. Why have I not noticed this flower before? I also found a little patch of Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum). Both IDs resisted efforts to key them out; thanks, iNaturalist! About 4 miles in the loop, 215 meters of elevation change, a leisurely 3:10 for the circuit.
Iceland has a few waterfalls.
And we stopped for many more gorgeous cascades than I could photograph. I was chasing cliff-nesting seabirds at Seljalandsfoss, for instance. But I did get my camera out for a few of them.
Gullfoss (the gull means “golden,” like the local beer, but I never got an explanation of why the name applies to these falls) is the mystery waterfall, as the water appears to disappear into a crack in the earth. Once you look back, you can see where it’s gone to.
Fossá (“waterfall-river”) in the East Fjords region might be my favorite. It’s small, not spectacular, but it does what a waterfall needs to do. According to an interpretive sign at the site, the average flow is 8 m3/sec, but in spate the flow can exceed 150 m3/sec, and a peak in 1980 was measured at 395 m3/sec. A 30 kW power plant takes off some of the river’s energy.
At right is Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the outflow from Dettifoss. The river continuum model of stream ecology doesn’t really fit Icelandic rivers. There is very little vegetation along the banks to fall into the water, and thereby to feed shredders and other organisms. These cold-clean-rocky, often braided, streams are strange and quite beautiful.
On our first day of the bus tour, we stopped at Sólhestur farm for a short ride on the local breed of Icelandic horse. My ride, whose name I didn’t quite catch, patiently endured my clumsy mount and dismount. (I haven’t been on any kind of horse since summer camp as a kid, and I am sure that all equines compare notes on what I klutz I am in the saddle.) Only 3 of our busload of 14 opted for the ride, while almost all of us did the glacier. Hunh.
Our guide turned up a small handful of Megaptera novaeangliae (Humpback Whale) in the fjord. It turns out that humpbacks can be individually identified by patterns on their backs and flukes. So, for instance, this whale has the nickname “speckled” (maybe “deckled”? audio quality on the boat was sub-optimal).
Sólheimajökull is a rather grungy glacier, as it scrapes off bits of the surrounding mountains on its way to the sea. Our guides impressed upon us how much this outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull had receded in the past century, in the past decade, in the past year, as a result of global heating. That thought followed us up and down the glacier, as the sounds of rushing meltwater on this sunny summer day were all around us.
Equipped with crampons and ice picks, we set off to climb a bit of it.
At left, looking farther up the glacier. At right, looking back down the valley. Time was, the ridge in the left part of the photo was an island in glacial ice, with another tongue of the glacier flowing around behind it. No more.
Gravelly snow and disappearing ice aside, this hike was the high point of my trip!
Later in the day, our bus stopped for a photo op with some more picturesque ice draped over Hvannadalshnúkur.
Birds Report: A Correction
A sharp-eyed iNaturalist community member correctly identified the birds on the wing in my photos as Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). A closer reading of Sibley’s guide tells me that fulmars occur in light and dark forms, which accounts for the rather dark birds I saw at Reynisfjara. I’m still fairly certain that I also saw kittiwakes on this trip, but I don’t have the photos to go with.
I saw shoe polishers in a couple of places, but nothing so vintage as this example in the Hotel Holt.
Crampons let you climb the the glacier. They strap on to your hiking boots with this intricate five-step process that our guide “S” explained.
Signs in Reyðarfjörður honor French fisherfolk who once worked these waters.
Back in Reykjavík, I found a couple of old-school building-mounted street name signs.
Lighthouses in Reykjavík are rather pedestrian, alas.
I’m back from a week traveling in Iceland, most of my time spent on a 19-seater minibus making a three-quarter turn around the island from Reykjavík to Akureyri.
I’m pleased with the results from my birding, considering that our guide Elis made only a couple brief stops specifically to look at birds. Fourteen lifers and 28 species altogether. Just a few photographic records: Greylag Goose (Anser anser) and Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) in Tjörnin hard by Reykjavík’s city hall, and
Black-legged Kittiwake Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialus), photographed at Skogafoss.
The photo opportunities for the kittiwakes were better later in the day at Reynisfjara, but I was looking at other things at the time, like my first Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) nesting on the cliffs.
White Wagtails (Motacilla alba) seemed to be ubiquitous; I heard them in some quite inhospitable places.
Easiest life bird was a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) outside my hotel room window in downtown Reykjavík. I worked hardest keying out Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritimus) on the beach along Eiðsgrandi.
Scouting Rachel Carson Conservation Park for a nature walk. I think we’ll spend a good amount of time in the meadow, so long as something is still happening in September (persimmons ripening, maybe?). And then maybe a quick jaunt through the woods to Hawlings River.
I spent too much time trying to figure out and photographing the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis ssp. astynanax) that I submitted to iNaturalist. At the pond, most of the Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans) hopped in the water but one guy seemed to think he was invisible.