Sunday, July 3, 2016

Midsummer week in a NW German forest

At low magnification, the old slide photos still look nice enough. Kurler Busch 1983
After growing up with camera in hand since I was 4 years old, I discovered insect photography while I was still in high school in Dortmund, Germany. I bought what was then professional quality equipment: A nice Canon A1 SLR and the 100 mm dedicated Canon macro lens. Then I spent most of my money from allowance and working at a book store on slide film. I sold some images to nature magazines and gave slide talks at the zoo and our birding group. So I thought a lot of my slides.

Another set from back then
But I brought only a fraction of my slides with me to America and began digitizing them some years ago. To my great disappointment, the quality was far inferior to my newer digital photos. I put the blame on my inexperience at the time  and the lack of direct feedback while shooting slide film. While I still get rather impatient with friends who slow down our excursions by critically reviewing each shot on their digital cameras in the field, I am grateful that I, too, can see and fix some problems right away.  Being free of the limitations of expensive slide film, I also definitely take more shots, so I can bracket the settings to hopefully end up with a good shot among several choices.

This  year (2016), I had the opportunity to spend the second week of June  in my family home close to forest and meadows where in the early eighties I worked on the arthropod part of a very inclusive inventory of fauna and flora of the Kurler Busch. I am proud to say that much of the area has now the designation Naturschtzgebiet Kurler Busch, so it has become a nature preserve.
Our house in 1978 and in 2016. It is now completely overgrown by trees and invisible from the road. Between nightmare and enchantment
 But his time I was in Kurl to sell our house and liquidate my mother's estate. That was a sad duty and I escaped into the forest whenever I could. With me was only my trusted little workhorse of a digital camera, my old Olympus SP-800UZ, the DSLR and its lenses being too bulky to take.

Very soon, I found out that the lack of quality of my old German images had only little to do with the factors mentioned above. It's all in the light! Now, like then, I did not have the use of balanced double flashes with diffusors. But I am also quite fond of natural light photography and see it as a worthwhile challenge.

 North Rhine Westphalia is part of the Dutch/NW German bay and has a rather oceanic climate, with  lots of clouds and fog. The light has a very different quality from the harsh glare in Arizona. Under the forest canopy, the diffuse light is filtered into all shades of green and blue that at first seemed to overwhelm everything else.

 Pyrochroa coccinea, a Feuerkaefer
But as I adjusted, I soon appreciated again the intensity of local color and the lack of hard cast shadows. Also, at 51.5570° N so close to midsummer, daylight lasted endlessly, even if the entrance angle of the light stayed rather low most of the time.

This photo was taken around 10 am.
Anyway, I decided rather than to invest too much time effort and luggage pounds into old slides  to try and reshoot as many insect species as possible within a week. It turned out that I still knew where to find most insects because over nearly 4 decades, very little had changed in the mature forest, or at least not for the worse. Germany has been protective of its remaining forests for decades. Development of those areas is avoided, and wood harvesting is done selectively and without clear-cuts. reforestation usually progresses very quickly. A lasting threat: Building new roads still seems to take priority and may condemn big stretches of natural land and isolate others.

The Koernebach in Kurl/Husen 2008 and 2016. Too bad I cannot find a photo of the unappealing industrial canal that was there before
Positive changes were obvious in the management of creeks and rivers. In the seventies, I still experienced the last years of mandatory 'canalisation' of all untamed creeks, and activity that transformed them into nothing but industrial wastewater ways. Since then the political attitude has completely changed. Even old industrial wastewater canals, which in my childhood emitted foul odors an ran inaccessibly between steep concrete banks, are now meandering clear brooks again. The Emscher Project is the most famous renaturation. The smaller tributary Koernebach, that runs through Kurl, has shared the fate of the Emscher.  So, about one decade ago I found the revived  Koernebach meandering happily through lush meadows, but now in 2016 it was already shielded by a mature riparian forest of huge willows and alders.

Landstroper See, another bergsenkungsgebiet turned nature preserve
For centuries, coal from the Ruhr Valley had been driving the German economy. But for the last 50 years or so, the dense network of old coal mining tunnels has been collapsing under the area.  This created many problems but also interesting opportunities. Where the ground sinks, water back-flows against the direction of the natural water sheds and accumulates in swamps and even ponds. Ice-skating on the Lanstroper See was a great treat for us during winters that were cold enough, and for birds and birders such 'Senkungsgebiete' were always paradise (See also the Hallerey in west Dortmund).  But this process would drown half the Ruhr Valley if left alone. So industry-sized pumps are running constantly to control the expansion of these wetlands, and tempers often flare when proponents of forest trees and agriculture clash with those who want more swampy birding areas.

The Kurler Busch has its own version of a Senkungsgebiet: The Ramsloher Bach. It was originally the core of the nature preserve I helped to create. By now it is so overgrown that I could only peak in by climbing on a hunter's high seat. I was disappointed, but the herons and egrets living there were not.

Cool overcast mornings are not great for insect observations. On the first days, due to jet lag and early sunrise I got up before 4 am and walked into the forest. I got the impression that I would not find anything but snails and slugs that seemed to have proliferated enormously since my last visit.

Even around 10 am on those cool cloudy mornings, the white umbels along the forest paths attracted much fewer bugs than I had hoped. But actually, by comparison, the German bugs proved tougher than AZ insects at the same temperatures.  Flower-longhorns and one of my favorite scarabs soon gorged themselves on pollen, together with bumblebees and flies. Surprisingly, Honey bees were missing.

Along the borders of paths and agricultural fields, ideally herbicide and pesticide free zones give sanctuary to wild flora and fauna
As soon as the sun broke through a little bit, the weed and wildflower rich borders of agricultural fields and meadows became quite interesting. For years now, narrow stripes of land are spared any intensive use and kept free of herbicides. Where the fields are much smaller than in the US, these areas form a viable network. Here wild herbs are preserved, reproduce and provide seeds for birds, nurture  pollinators, and in general make living space and food for all sorts of small native wildlife.

 From flower visiting beetles of various families, to flies, bees and colorful spittle bugs - the wild flower diversity results in great insect diversity. 

Leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae) are mostly small but colorful, making me think that they are giving warnings of toxicity or noxious taste to predators. The shiny beauty of the Europeans keeps up well with that of their Arizona relatives. The ones above were all photographed within a few hundred feet of a path between a meadow and a barley field. The Alder Leaf Beetle must have flown over from the nearby riparian forest. 

Along paths deeper in the forest, where the light is dim and high groundwater levels are always ready to fill the trenches, burning nettles (Urtica sp.) abound. This usually is a sign of disturbance and high nitrate levels. But bugs like the burning nettles. My usual photo technique to support with my left hand the leaf with the subject as well as my camera-wielding right hand became a little tricky as I'm not too fond of nettle burns. But a firm, determined reach usually breaks all those little injection cannulae before they can penetrate the skin.  This year the nettles seemed richer in weevils than ever, but maybe my friendship with one of the world's best weevil specialists Charlie O'Brien, has sharpened my eyes. 

  Germany's favorite and most well-known beetle was always the Maikaefer, or Cock Chafer, Melolontha melolontha. Lucky charm to us kids, not so well liked by foresters, this scarab has a somewhat unpredictable rhythm of appearance (every seventh year was supposed to be a boom-year) and some people say it's now getting rare. I found one in my own overgrown backyard which every day seemed to become more and more of an enchanted garden.
Hoplia philanthus
In a Barley field I found a scarab that was completely new to me. I could only guess the genus from what I'd seen on Swiss mountain meadows.  But my internet connections to entomologists from all over the world payed of: I quickly got it identified with the help of two great scarab workers, Bill Warner and Carsten Zorn

Cepaea hortensis and Cornu aspersum
German friends and relatives visited and all had observations to share: of a booming invasion of the Gefleckte Weinbergschnecke, Cornu aspersum that might eventually displace my old friend the Banded Garden Snail Cepaea hortensis.

..of A hornet queens (Vespa Crabro) that tried to nest in a little bird house at my cousin's place main entrance door and was carefully relocated at night, with the birdhouse. In fact, I had never before seen so many hornet queens seeking nesting sites as this June. Endlessly probing for cavities they did not sit still for photos. So the image is from a visit at another season and shows a male.

... of unusual numbers of fat round blue-black beetles that turned out to be the dung beetle Geotrupes stercorarius.

Harmonia axyridis (Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle)
... of smelly ladybugs that in winter congregated in big masses around windows and doors ..... these  imported Asian Ladybugs that had not been part of the equation when I left in the eighties but now were everywhere.

Bee keeper close to our forest in 1984
 There were very few Honey Bees around. My biologist friends were unconcerned - they said that there was just no locale bee keeper around because the blooming season was just beginning. That may be true. The hives of the guy in the above photo had always been close to the forest, but his lot was now unused and overgrown with weeds. In Arizona, feral honey bees are so common that they are probably a serious threat to the native bee population. But in Germany feral bees are rare and probably do not survive the winter.  

Bombus terrestris and Bombus lapidarius enjoying garden flowers
 What I found instead were Bumblebees. There may have been smaller endemic bees like andrenids around as well, but I did not see any. The cool temperatures of those June days probably gave the bumblebees the advantage: they are efficient, if facultative thermo-regulators. They can let their body temps float with environmental temperatures to save energy, but they can also actively increase their temperature, if it's worth it. So where good nectar sources await them, they are out a 7 am, busily collecting.
During my short visit I found at least 5 species of Bumble Bees, many in gardens with decorative flowers. Thank you, Bernhard Jacobi for help with the identifications!
Male Bombus pratorum  nectaring on cherry leaf nectaries
One evening I found a male Bombus pratorum  buzzing around greenery where no flowers were obvious.It turned out that he was systematically visiting the extrafloral nectaries on the leaves of a bush of wild cherries.Of course, being male, he was just drinking by himself, not collecting.

This time, I had dreaded my visit to Germany very much. But by the time I drove to the airport to fly back to Arizona, I was thinking that this shouldn't be my last visit to the forest of my childhood. I'm pretty sure that I will be back one day.


  1. Wonderful account and photos, Margarethe!

  2. Really interesting blog post with beautiful beetle and other insects. I didn't think your "back then" photos were so bad. Thanks for sharing your experience, photos and the history of your hometown in Germany.

  3. I was in Germany in May, hadn't been back in 10 years. Lots of positive changes. I enjoyed this post very much! Thanks for this great account of your trip.