Macro shots on Mt.Vodno

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Our hike at the edge of Skopje took a while not just because of the distance, but also because we spent a lot of time taking close up shots of beautiful flowers and animals along the trail. This guy is probably an Erhard’s Wall Lizard.

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A lovely Crimson Scabious. They were everywhere at the start of the hike.

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This looks like it might be the same as the Crimson, but dry and ready to send out seeds.

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What would have been a delicious Chicken-of-the-Woods, but had been already eaten. We found and cooked one of these once, they really do taste and feel just like chicken. (Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you are absolutely confident you can properly identify them)

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This is a type of Cyclamen. They are beautiful and absolutely everywhere wherever there is shade. We found an entire tree tunnel lined with them near the end of the hike – a carpet of pink and purple.

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This is the leaf of the Cyclamen. Interestingly, they’re usually a good distance from the flower clusters.

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Unknown, possibly Armeria vulgaris?


After this start the insects!
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This reminds me very much of the weta. It’s actually a type of saddleback bush cricket.

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Possibly a type of locust? Nope. It’s a Predatory Bush Cricket. It’s also known as the spiked magician and it eats other crickets, among many other things.

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It was huge. This is a 6.5 inch phone for reference. This bug is a fairly uncommon sighting.

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A lovely brown grasshopper of some sort.

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And a very similar looking one in bright green. Maybe female and male of the same species?

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And the latest in our unending search for jumping spiders. This little guy has a meal in his mouth.

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The natural beauty of Macedonia!

Bulgaria’s Rila Lakes

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It’s midday when we stop for lunch at the edge of a glassy lake, resting our packs against a rocky outcrop speckled with green, black, and orange lichens and tufts of moss. We quickly don jackets to minimize loss of body heat, then dig sandwiches and water of out of packs and share a meal in silence, gazing across the lake. It’s water mirrors the mountains rising on the opposite shore, the slopes a patchwork of slate, mustard, and dark green brush. A soundless wind carries low-hanging clouds over us, obscuring the peaks as fading shadows that are soon lost in the gray haze. It’s been a wet, chilly hike, but nothing could dampen the grandeur of this scenery. And while otherworldly, it’s located here on earth in the unlikeliest of places: the Rila Lakes of Bulgaria.

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The Balkan country of Bulgaria is most commonly recognized for one of two things: its dairy (in the form of yogurt and feta cheese) or its poverty. The country is the poorest member of the European Union, where a combination of Soviet legacy and lagging economy have driven nearly two million of its citizens abroad and cut the country’s population from  9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today, and this tends to be the only Bulgaria the world outside knows.

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And if you speak to a Bulgarian expatriate about their country, they’re more likely to miss the food or to complain about government corruption. Few mention the country’s two sprawling mountain ranges, its karst caverns, golden plains, or alpine lakes. Ask about the country’s panoply of Thracean, Roman, and Ottoman ruins and you’ll often get an “Oh yes, we do have that.” Tourism is an afterthought in most of Bulgaria, and the country’s natural beauty remains a secret to outside world.

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Back at Rila Lakes, we continue our hike through alpine grassland, past a dozen more still and glassy lakes, heading for the trail summit. The people we encounter are mostly native Bulgarians, taking a last break at the end of the summer season before school and work starts again. A handful are backpackers from other countries that when asked, “why Bulgaria?” reply with “It was cheap.” And we pass one group of park employees, dressed in waders and working to move rocks and brush along one of the lakes. “We’re preventing blockage that happens when vegetation dies for the season,” they explain to us, “visitors have brought some extra nutrient contamination to the lakes, but we can remedy it by ensuring the water continues to flow.”

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As we climb the last mile to the summit, the temperature drops even further and wind chill forces us to add hats and gloves. Though the stream beside is flows freely, ice coats the rocks at its edge. Frost flowers, long shards of ice, grow from blades of goldenrod grass beside the trail. The summer growing season has long since ended here.

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The peak is a disappointment for a standard hiker. The clouds that have drifted in starting around lunch have thickened, and where there should be a view of the entire valley there is only a thick gray fog. We climb back down and complete the trail loop, heading up along the western ridge of the valley. The clouds descend further and envelope us in obscurity. When we stop to rest in the dead grass beside the trail, we watch other hikers pass us, materializing from the mist with the scrape of shoes on dirt and sounds of breathing and fading into faint outlines and then, nothingness.

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Skakavitza Waterfall Hike

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With visiting the relatives complete, Stoytcho and I took  a couple of days’ retreat in the Rila Mountain Range for some outdoorsing. It has been a singular sorrow to be cooped up in the car, passing so many beautiful slopes and potential trails to the unknown here in Bulgaria. As a remedy, we booked a lovely room at the Hotel Borovets for the off-season nightly price of 58 lev (~$35 USD, including breakfast!), and for a stunning 10 lev (~$6 USD) they packed us daily lunch as well. Their lutenitsa was delicious.

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Totally NOT Skakavitsa Falls, but another waterfall along the trail.

Our first hike was at Skakavitsa Falls. Despite gorgeous weather the last two weeks, summer decided to flee on the days of our hike! We hiked in light mist and clouds, but the trails were still beautiful. Photos and map below of the rainy wonderland.

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A wild rose along the trail.

If you’re looking to hike Skakavitsa, be warned that in 2018 the signs were still all in Cyrillic. From the trailhead follow the red trail up to the hut/inn, then continue in the same direction. Do not go left, despite the open fields and better-marked trail — this goes to Rila Lakes and is a day-long affair. Stoytcho and I started on this trail before realizing we had passed the falls and had to double-back.

Map:

A photographic taste of the trail:

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Trail information at the trailhead.
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Follow the red trail markers.
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Other hikers along the trail.
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A wild allium flower.
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A waterfall along the trail.
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Dewspun spider web along the trail.
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The forest along the trail.
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An abandoned electrical building along the trail.
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The hut/house at the trail fork. When you get to the picnic trail after this, keep going in the same direction; don’t go left.
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Don’t take this trail; it doesn’t go to Skakavitsa Falls.
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An odd flower or bud.
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If you get here, you’re definitely on the wrong track. This trail leads to the Rila Lakes and it’s pretty far.
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The cost of taking a wrong turn. Everything is so wet!
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Special effects without editing: fog inside your camera lens.
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Back on the right trail, heading toward Skakavitsa.
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Skakavitsa Falls! Currently hardly a trickle and obscured by mist.
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Wild violet.

 

Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.
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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.
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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.

Nikolaevo

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A street near the town’s center, looking northward to the nearby hill. You can see the edge of town from here. 

Nikolaevo is a 2,800 person town to the north of Stara Zagora at the foot of the Sredna Gora Mountains. While not a standard tourist destination, it is home to Stoytcho’s aunt and grandfather. Stoytcho’s grandfather, also Stoytcho, was the school’s math teacher and principal during the communist regime and his aunt, Lela Stanka, teaches Bulgarian there today. Together, they also still farm the plot of land that belongs to the Stoytchev family.

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Lela Stanka, Stoytcho elder, and Stoytcho younger.
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We offer to help Stoytcho elder with chopping firewood.

We stay with Lela Stanka in two-bedroom apartment at the northern edge of town. The school is still on summer holiday, so we take long walks with her in the remaining days of the countryside summer. She points out landmarks and updates Stoytcho on life here. Nikolaevo was once a larger town, with most inhabitants employed by a factory that made ceramic parts for electrical wires. “A competing Turkish company bought the factory and shut it down,” she tells us, “and most people left.”

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Old equipment lies in an empty lot near the town’s edge.
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A snake slithers through leaf litter at the edge of town.

Now, the people living in Nikolaevo are predominately Roma, but each year brings something new. British expats started coming a few years back, not just pensioners but also families with children, lured by the cheap cost of living. Bulgarian families have also moved in, lured by cheap fertile land on in the surrounding area that is ripe for planting vineyards. Winemaking is a growing industry in Nikolaevo, evident from the rows of grapevines stretching from the north edge of town and up the nearby hill, where Stanka says ancient Roman ruins lay buried in underbrush.

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Wine grapes in a vineyard to the town’s north.
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Two Roma men greet us as they pass. 

Nikolaevo is a small town like so many others in Bulgaria; things move slowly, things change slowly, and for now at least, things continue.

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A herd of sheep and goats wander beneath Nikolaevo’s highway overpass.

Bulgaria: Day trip to Chudnite Mostove

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Staring up at the Chudnite Mostove (Marvelous Bridges), massive holes worn into the karst.

Day trip! We’re driving south of Plovdiv to see the Chudnite Mostove (Wondrous Bridges/Marvelous Bridges), Bachkovo Monastery, and Assen’s Fortress, all nestled in the mountains south of Asenovgrad. Here in Bulgaria summer still lingers and sunlight spills over the landscape, sneaking through the trees and dappling the trails. The hot midday air smells like pine sap and cut grass. And the afternoon stretches the shadows long between the steep mountain peaks, bathing us in shade and cool winds. Though it’s the cheapest (and poorest) member in the E.U., Bulgaria has natural beauty to rival any other country.

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The Chudnite Mostove from above.
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Climbing into the valley below the Chudnite Mostove is steep and difficult, but worth it.
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This Martenitsa has somehow survived 5+ months tied to a tree branch.
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Exploring the karst hollows of the valley.
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The cave below one of the Chudnite Mostove (to the East); this climb had some steep drop offs that I wouldn’t recommend you tackle unless you have water shoes and there hasn’t been recent rain.
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A blue fuzzy mushroom.
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An unusual way of dispersing seeds.
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The valley as seen from inside the Chudnite Mostove to the West. Though it hasn’t rained in the last couple of days, a stream still flows through it.
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The entrance to Bachkovo Monastery, of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
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Murals painted here date back to 1604 (or earlier). The monastery has been in continuous operation since that date, though it was founded in 1083.
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An ornate chandelier reflects light on the golden foil used in the monastery’s ancient murals.
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This trail leads to a small shrine built several kilometers away in the mountains. It also says something about a waterfall on the sign, but hah, we found none. 
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The trail into the mountains.
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A square-spotted blue butterfly drinks nectar from a dandelion.
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A small shack in the woods.
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I think we’ve found the shrine-in-the-rock.
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The iconography of the shrine, clean and bright thanks to the shelter in the rock.
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A catapult on display at Assen’s Fortress.
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The church at Assen’s Fortress, overlooking the valley below.
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At the very top of Assen’s fortress.

Hungary Hike

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Cornfields in Pilisborosjenő.

In our brief time in Budapest, I’ve somehow found a nearby hike and gotten us on a bus to an area nearby where we can supposedly pick up the trail. We’re dropped off by the side of the road, where the whirlwind from passing cars buffets us every few seconds as we hike up to the trailhead. Then it’s through the woods, into the village of Pilisborosjenő, and up the hill to the summit Nagy-Kevély. It’s a gorgeous, hot day at the end of summer and we’re not letting it go to waste.

Want to do the hike yourself? Budapest Hikers have some details on their website about the Pilisborosjenő hike, including some instructions on how to get there by bus that are slightly different from ours. Our hike is delineated on the map below and started at Bus Stop Solymár, téglagyári bekötőút:

What did we find on our hike during this beautiful summer day? Well…

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Cars and trucks pass us at high speeds near the trail entrance.
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Snails wait out the heat of the day.
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A beetle struggles to stay upright. There were dozens of these beetles along the trail, all struggling to walk or on their backs with their feet in the air. I’m not sure if it’s just because it’s the season’s end or some kind of chemical/disease exposure.
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Strange squat sentinels sit along the trail. What are they for?
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An interesting seed hanging from a vine.
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Ants excitedly scuttle around a sticky puddle on the surface of a mushroom.
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Probably a wild Pink (Dianthus)
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Wild Chicory flowers; the plant can be used as coffee substitute, and is also where your endives and radicchio come from.
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Wild Barberis (barberries) growing from a bush.
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The Camel Rocks, a climb-able limestone/sandstone formation.
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An odd tuft growing on a wild rosebush. I’m guessing it’s some kind of parasite. Oh, I’m right; it’s a wasp larva home.
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A European Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis), now reddish-brown at the end of mating season.
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A shallow cave in the cliff.
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A view from near the top of the hill.
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A stamp near the top of the hike! BYO stamp pad, though.
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Stoytcho at the summit.
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Another wildflower, possibly a variety of Spotted Knapweed (Centauria maculosa).
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Hmm, I don’t think so.
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A European Green Lizard, still green for mating season.

Bialowieza Forest

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A plaque at the entrance to Bialowieza National Forest.

Bialowieza, the last old-growth forest in Europe, is the real reason we’re in Poland. About a month ago, when we were deciding between visiting Chernobyl in Ukraine and Bialowieza, we heard that the Polish government had green-lighted some logging in the forest. We figured, ‘Well, time to see it before it’s gone.” It’s not like Chernobyl is going anywhere soon.

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A tree on one of the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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Moss and lichens growing on a low roof in town.

We caught a train from Warsaw to Hajnowka, and a bus from there to Bialowieza, the eponymous town on the park’s east side. From here, we ended up doing two hikes: one along the Nordic tracks on the East side of the town, and the Bialowieza National Park Nature Tour for Scientists. The former winds confusingly through state forest (where the logging is taking place), while the latter takes you into the actual national park and requires a hefty 550 zloty fee (~$161 USD) for the guide. Overall, both hikes were nice, with two caveats: an absolute boatload of mosquitos, and a fairly ‘touristy’ feel to the National Park hike—you’re walking a well-worn path, occasionally past another tour group. It’s not like hiking open and free in the wilderness.

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Resident wildlife.
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Logging in the state forest, along the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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A logged clearing in the state forest.
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Untouched fallen trees in the National Park.

That said, the park does have an impressive array of mosses and fungi. Because they don’t remove dead and fallen trees, there’s plenty of material to support the growth of saprophytes, in turn hosting tiny insects and insect predators like spiders. You might catch glimpses of animals from afar, so bring the camera with the nice zoom lens. And you may even see wild boar if the population has recovered by the time you arrive—we saw none, because most were wiped out by swine flu a couple of years ago. Our guide reported that summer, you could smell the rotting boar carcasses every time you got near the forest. But that’s the course of nature for you.

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The trail of an animal through the morning dew in a field near the forest.
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Late afternoon in the fields.

A few tips for when you go:

  • You could easily stay in Hajnowka and hike from there if you’re not so interested in the national park. The town was adorable and untouristy, and we found their tourism information center to be super helpful – they’re open 9-5 Monday-Saturday, and 9-1 Sunday.
  • We stayed at Dwor Na Otulinie in Bialowieza and loved it because it’s on the outskirts of town, nearer to the forest. The hosts are lovely folks and they’ve got a mini-kitchen downstairs to prepare meals for yourself.
  • We tried a handful of restaurants in the town and found Bar Biesiada Jolanta Żłobin to be hands-down the best for cheap food, even compared to the ‘supposed best’ Bar Leśna Dziupla. It’s partly because they have amazing pierogi (though I suppose you could order something else), partly because they have these delicious sodas under the brand Vilnele, and partly because the cook/barman/waiter at Biesiada looks a bit like an overweight Harrison Ford. He speaks almost no English, so arm yourself with Google Translate.
  • There are mosquitos. Not just mosquitos, singular at a time, but whole swarms of them that will relentlessly follow you as you hike. Try early on to make peace with the fact that you’re going to lose some blood.

Some more photos of Bialowieza:

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Bar Biesiada’s counter, where they also sell fried jelly donuts.
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A brown puffball grows in the grass.
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This is a woodpecker, but you probably couldn’t tell because we didn’t bring a DSLR with us.
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King of the hill: insects climb on a mushroom in the National Park.
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Mushrooms on a log.
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A monument to those killed in the forest during the World War.
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Yellow coral fungi on the forest floor.
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Little snails, probably the most common animals you’ll see in the forest.
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This is what a hazelnut looks like.
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An orb weaver (Agriope); our guide was excited about this because she had never seen them in this part of the park before.
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Another snail, snailing along.
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And sunset.

Lahemaa National Park

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The view when we got off at the Loksa Tee bus stop.

We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.

If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:

Now, motivation for you to go:

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Wood planks form a narrow trail through the wetter, boggier parts of the hike.
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A European Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) perches on purple heather (Calluna) – we last saw this in New Zealand, where it was invasive.
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The little mushroom that could #1.
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The little mushroom that could #2.
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A dense bed of lichens (light yellow) grow on the forest floor here in Lahemaa.
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What I suspect are cowberries, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t eat any of them.
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An interesting leather-like foliose lichens grows among moss on the forest floor.
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Be yourself, tree. Be yourself.
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Putative chanterelles. We encountered a few women in the park collecting ‘gribui’, or mushrooms, mostly of the chanterelle variety.
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A resting point along the path. You can supposedly take this trail all the way to the sea, but that’s several days of hiking.
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A patch of mushrooms among the moss and decaying pine needles.
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An Alder Moth caterpllar (Acronicta alni) munches on summer’s bounty.
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Fresh wild blueberries hide among the foliage. They’re delicious.
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A salticid in a patch of grass.
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Pine trees grow at the edge of a bog pool. The water here takes on a dark brown hue due to tannins seeping out of the dead plant material beneath. The same thing happens in your tea.
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A lone tree grows on an island in the bog.
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Fruticose lichens growing on the forest floor.
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A polypore fruiting body grows from a fallen tree.
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The color of moss.
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The caterpillar of an Emperor Moth (Saturnia) hangs out between planks along the trail.
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Lengthening shadows in the forest.

And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge:

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Made possible by Google Photos.

Bugs of Russian Summer

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A long-horned beetle (maybe Agpanthia villosoviridescens) crawls around on flower buds near the shore of Lake Baikal.

It’s winter here in present-day Boston, and working my way through these Russian summer photos is a unique form of torture for someone who’s never fully adjusted to winter being a season. It looks so warm and sunny and bright in the photos, and it’s so gray and cold outside. Augh. While I was busy longing for the eternal summers in our photos, I thought I’d put together a post of all the various Russian bugs we saw. I did one for Stolby Nature Preserve already, so this will be everything else. Now you can long for summer right along with me, or if you don’t like bugs, be grateful that summer is still a ways away.

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A salticid waves hello from its perch on my finger, Ulan-Ude.
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A large black ant rests while foraging, Ulan-Ude.
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A grasshopper hides under the embellishments of an ornately-carved door at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
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A salticid perches atop a wooden beam at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude.
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A ladybug (perhaps Cocinella magnifica) on the shores of Lake Baikal.
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Two scarce large blues (Phengaris teleius) mate on a legume flower near Lake Baikal.
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Two long-horned beetles mate on a bed of flowers near Lake Baikal.
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A bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus) climbing on flower buds along the shores of Baikal.
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A brilliantly-colored crustacean shell, cast away by its owner on the shores of Lake Baikal.
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Half of a beetle shell, maybe from Cetonia magnifica, from along the shores of Baikal.
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A salticid found a park in Ulan-Ude.
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A Scallop Shell Moth (Rheumaptera undulata) rests on a window in St. Petersburg.
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A checkered blue butterfly (Scolitantides orion) rests on a granite step in Ulan-Ude.
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A horsefly perches on a wooden post at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
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A water snail slides over the reeds of a local pond in the countryside just beyond of Moscow.