Thursday, January 14, 2021

Rime Ice and Hoarfrost Make the Hidden Visible

Winter is a season of magic. Hidden beauty becomes visible. Much remains a mystery. 

It begins with our breath.

Chilly mornings are one of the first signs that winter is on her way. We step outside, fill our lungs with a deep drink of invisible air, and send forth a translucent, swirling cloud. Sunlight—because the coldest mornings follow cloudless nights—makes it glow.

Every day of our lives, air goes in and out of our lungs at least a dozen times per minute. Air also cycles in and out of plants, animals, fungi, soil, and more. I love to think about what this means for our connection to the biosphere. The air we sip into the cradles of our lungs was—just a moment ago—part of someone else’s life. The air we return to the world may enter a tree and become maple sugar, or enter a bird’s lungs and become song. 

During the pandemic this has become a terrifying problem. But in the past, in the future, and always when we’re in the woods, this reciprocity is a gift. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget the physical properties of our breath until cold air forces the gaseous water vapor we exhale to condense into visible droplets. They are now liquid, and while big enough to see, are still small enough to float. This is the same alchemy that fills summer skies with cottony puffs of while clouds.

As winter deepens, a lack of humidity makes our breath invisible again. Clouds, however, remain. 

Lately, an unusual combination of winter weather conditions have made visible the exhalations of the Earth herself. Fog that is dense and persistent enough to trigger weather advisories has brought its own unusual magic to the winter landscape. Snow on the ground releases moisture into relatively warm air. That humidity condenses as night falls. Calm winds fail to sweep the resulting fog aside.

Fog is simply a cloud that hugs the ground. It, too, is water in the air made visible as cold causes droplets to grow. Magically—tenuously—that water remains liquid even though its temperature drops below freezing. When these supercooled droplets collide with the solid world, they freeze instantly. The ice they form becomes another solid surface, and more droplets accumulate. As light winds push the fog along, elaborate, bizarre, thick-but-fragile rime ice builds up on the windward side of pine needles, twigs, and more. For the past few weeks, this freezing fog has accentuated the grace of our forests. 

Rime ice formed on the upwind side of these red pine needles when supercooled droplets of fog froze upon contact. Photo by Emily Stone.

Water in our breath, along with fog and rime, goes through the liquid state as it becomes visible. In contrast, hoarfrost and snowflakes materialize into solid form directly from invisible water vapor when the dew point is below freezing. When that water vapor crystallizes around dust particles in the air, we get snow. When crystals grow on twigs, pine needles, even on other bits of ice, we awaken to a lace-encrusted fairyland of hoarfrost.

Down by my lakeshore, a spring bubbles up and feeds a bit of open water under the low-hanging branches of hemlock trees. In this protected haven, on cold nights, invisible water vapor in the air feeds the growth of elaborate crystals patterned like feathers, ferns, needles, and trees. These physical structures—formed of crystal facets and six-fold symmetry—give us a peek into the inner workings of water molecules. It’s a world filled with electricity, with forces of attraction and repulsion, with crystal lattices; a world usually observable only to chemists and physicists. 

Hoarfrost crystals grow directly from water vapor in calm and humid conditions. Their structures reflect the inner workings of water molecules. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Yesterday, when I headed down to the lake, I found it ringed by trees painted white with rime ice and shining in the sunlight. Impossibly complex crystals of hoarfrost bordered the spring. And a maze of otter, fox, and coyote tracks recorded stories of my unseen neighbors in the snow. 

I filled my lungs with a deep drink of air—now with some of its secrets made visible by the magic of winter. 

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Rocks in our Socks

What did you have on your list when you climbed onto Santa’s lap in years past? If you were one of my brother’s kids, you asked for rocks. Kids after my own heart! We are the Stone Family after all. 

The rocks they wanted were “crack your own geodes”—a surprising treasure! These bland-colored, roundish rocks look positively dumpy on the outside. Whack them with a hammer, though, and they split open to reveal an airy chamber lined with sparkling crystals. What’s not to love about a tradition that includes hitting and breaking things, the joy of surprise, and sparkles all in one? 

That tradition used to require a quick field trip out to the garage in our stocking feet, so that we didn’t spread rock shards all over Grandma’s floors. This year our entire Christmas happened in the garage. Grandma, Papa, and all the kids wore warm clothes and masks, while I zoomed in from afar. For the first time in many years, there were no geodes to crack. I miss them all, though: the Stone kids and the stone rocks. So here’s a trip down memory lane. 

From the outside, geodes often look sallow, plain, and small. I was worried the ones I’d bought for the kids would be duds. Derek wasn’t discouraged, however; in his experience, these boring-looking ones have produced the best crystals. The three younger kids and I put on shoes and safety glasses and headed into the garage. We rummaged on Papa’s work bench until we found a hammer and chisel, and let the cracking commence. 

Derek was lead rock hound, and he cracked the first one. It popped open easily, revealing a delicate lining of clear, glittering, crystals. “Ohhh” and “Ahhh,” we exclaimed appropriately. He also cracked Isaac’s geode, and the kids dutifully set it aside for their big brother after admiring the sparkles. 

Next, Zac, the rock cracker’s apprentice, took his turn. The geode rolled around a bit under his tentative hammer, and Derek bravely helped him out by holding it steady. His fingers survived! A crack formed, and one more gentle tap split it open to an admiring chorus. Somehow, the anticipation and revelation never gets old. After Derek helped Zac’s twin, Kylee, split hers, too, they all trouped back inside to show Grandma.

Derek’s prediction had been correct: these unassuming geodes all held beautiful crystals, and the kids declared this the best round of Christmas geodes yet! 

Zac ad Derek proudly show off their cracked geodes...and their super cool safety glasses.

Curious as to where these splendid geodes came from, I looked up the purchase order. “Moroccan geodes” was their exotic title. This little country at the northern edge of Africa hasn’t seen a glacier in ages, so the rocks there have had time to weather at the surface. The region boasts some cool geology. Morocco’s geodes were formed in basalt—just like our Lake Superior agates. But the photos of Moroccan basalt look nothing like the glacier-polished North Shore. The African rock is crumbly and brown from ages of oxidation and weathering. 

Geodes occur closer to home, too. They are the state rock of Iowa! The epicenter of Iowa geodes is in the far southeastern corner, in a 35-mile radius around the town of Keokuk, including parts of Missouri and Illinois. This world-renowned site sits on the Lower Warsaw Formation, which was deposited as mud in a shallow sea 340 million years ago, and lithified into shales and limestones. 

It doesn’t matter if geodes form in basalt or limestone; they still need a cavity to start with. The holes in basalt were created when gas bubbles formed in the cooling lava. The holes in the Iowa limestone have a more complicated origin. They began as concretions, which are the opposite of geodes. 

Concretions formed when minerals hardened around some nucleus in the mud, creating a nodule. After the chemical composition and acidity of the surrounding water changed, a cryptocrystalline type of quartz (made of crystals that are hard to see even with a microscope) replaced their outer shell. Next, the inner, more soluble minerals of the concretions dissolved and left a hollow space. 

Finally, over thousands to millions of years, mineral-rich groundwater percolated through the space and precipitated sharp-angled crystals of quartz from the walls of the cavity inward. 

Sometimes other minerals will join the mix and expand the color palette. As in agates, these colors occasionally form concentric bands. The difference between agates and geodes is that agates are created when cavities in the rocks are filled with patterns of colorful cryptocrystalline quartz, while geodes grow visible crystals (not always quartz) into a hollow center. 

In any case, getting rocks in your Christmas stocking can be a pretty fun tradition. With the Stone kids, I discovered that even a shiny black lump of coal can be a treat! 

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from 2016. 

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Nature's Wisdom for the New Year

When one year ends and another begins, we are often inspired to do a little reflecting on past lessons and future plans. Here are three pieces of wisdom gleaned from the natural world. Best wishes for the New Year! 

Rest When You Need To

The world isn’t exactly a safe place for moving freely right now. Certain resources are in short supply. Many animals take these as cues to enter hibernation. Woodchucks are snoring softly underground. Wood frogs and spring peepers have become frogcicles in the leaf litter. Bears are resting in their dens. 

These are some of the most charismatic hibernators in Wisconsin, but not the most abundant. Virtually every single insect species is in some type of dormancy right now. As eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults they lace their bodies with sweet potions of antifreeze, find a sheltered spot, and hunker down. 

Plants also enter a period of winter quiescence. Trees, with their bare twigs, are the most visible. But hiding underground—not unlike the woodchucks and bears--roots and tubers filled with all the things needed for new life (except warmth, sunshine, and liquid water) lay resting, too, just waiting for a time when the world will once again be ready for growth. 

Mosses are one of the most impressive examples of dormancy in the woods. Even when drought (or freezing temperatures) withdraws the water they need for active life, mosses are preparing for the future. Essential functions shut down—but not without a plan for reopening. With amazing “forethought,” the mosses synthesize and store away the enzymes of cell repair that will manage the damage of desiccation. Like the Red Cross, mosses like to have a stash of medical supplies ready to go. All of this groundwork pays off. In just 20 minutes, bone-dry moss can return to full vigor.

What can we learn from moss about going dormant in times of stress while still having a plan for reopening? Photo by Emily Stone. 

Between the lack of a daily commute and the lack of skiable snow, I’ve been enjoying a little bit of extra rest this winter—while also using this time to plan and prepare for reopening. How are you finding rest? Or maybe you aren’t very good at resting. That’s ok, too. Many animals stay happily active through the winter.

Thrive in Your Home Territory

The days of safe and appropriate long-distance travel still feel a long way off, but there are many benefits to staking out a territory and learning it well. Animals know this. Snowshoe hares may spend their entire year in an area of just a few acres. Winter finds them using the same trails over and over again. When danger approaches, hares escape along these well-known and firmly packed routes. I, too, enjoy hiking the same nearby trail over and over and noticing what’s new. 

The robins in your backyard also benefits from local knowledge. When a Cooper’s hawk approaches, they know just which bush provides the best cover. When the neighborhood cat stalks by, presenting a known risk, the robin knows exactly how far away it must retreat to avoid sharp claws. Home territories help us all to avoid danger and make the best use of resources. 

Since I’m actually home during the day now, I’ve been getting to know my own “yard” much better. I see which birds come to empty out my feeders, and I’ve watched my foxy neighbor trot down the driveway, instead of only finding his tracks in the headlights of my car. In many ways, I’ve been able to find safety in my home territory. 

The red fox on my driveway doesn’t mind sticking close to home. Staying within his territory means finding safety and abundance. Trail camera photo by Emily Stone. 

It would be easy to create a list of things we can’t (or at least shouldn’t) do right now, but that’s not typically productive. Often, in ecology, we talk about “limiting factors.” Those are things like nitrogen, water, or other components of a habitat that are in short supply and therefore limit the number of individuals who can live in a certain place, or how big they can grow. But one of the main goals of adaptation is to avoid scarcity and competition. Instead, plants and animals diversify, and specialize in using resources that are abundant. 

The Voyageurs Wolf Project is a great source for examples of wolves adapting their behavior to abundance. The researchers’ well-placed trail cameras have captured wolves licking blueberries off bountiful plants in July and catching fish while they spawned in a small creek. A single wolf made lunch out of 36 beavers in that pond-filled landscape just this year.

Do you have evening grosbeaks at your feeders? I don’t, but many people do. These colorful birds—plus crossbills, finches, redpolls, and pine siskins—are famous for following abundance. These birds spend the winter wherever their favorite trees have produced the most seeds. 

I’ve been trying to adapt toward abundance this year. I love being able to cook lunch at home. With less time spent on in-person programming, I finally said yes to teaching a college class—virtually. It’s also been fun to tune in to numerous virtual lectures by folks who live clear across the country—or just an hour away. In normal times, neither I nor they would have time to travel to a place where I could hear them speak. This year, I can make dinner while an abundance of new ideas emanate from my laptop. 

Sometimes a change in our routines can bring us unexpected joy. One thing that will never change is the solace I find in nature. 

Happy New Year!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Every Morning

My Christmas came early this year. A couple of weeks ago, my dad texted to say that my gift had shipped, and that I should open it right away. So at dusk on December 9th, I walked partway down my driveway and strapped my brand-new trail camera to a tree. A thin layer of snow had already recorded this spot as a busy crossroads for critters.

The next morning, I couldn’t wait to go and truly open my present. While my oatmeal cooled to eating temperature, I threw on a jacket and hurried out to retrieve the memory card. I fidgeted impatiently as my computer recognized the new card and opened up the folder. There were photos! A second glance was less exciting, though. They were all deer. Well, the trail cam worked—but I don’t need a trail cam in order to see deer. I replaced the card and let my excitement begin to rise for a second time. 

In the meantime, I went for a walk on the lake. Just a sugar dusting of snow on top of glare ice made walking a little tentative, but I was rewarded by the humorous tracks of a coyote slipping and sliding all over, too. I followed her tracks up the bank and into a little mosquito (and frog) breeding hole temporarily lacking its usual buzzes and peeps. In the middle of the tangled alders—frozen in place—was a large, hairy scat deposit. 

Even with four legs the ice was slippery as these coyote tracks show. Photos by Emily Stone. 

Coyote and fox tracks can overlap in size. My neighbor, who also happens to be a professional carnivore tracker for the DNR, told me to look at the heel pad. Coyotes have a big one, and foxes have a much smaller one, relative to the size of the toes. Using that character, I thought I was seeing tracks of both wild canids on my driveway, but just couldn’t be sure. (Canid = canine = members Canidae or the Dog Family.) The size of this scat sealed the deal. There was a coyote in my bog. Now, would the trail cam confirm that?

The next brisk morning walk down my driveway was refreshing. It felt good to get outside before sitting down to a day at the computer. This time when I slid the card into my laptop, up popped the ghostly blur of a wild canid. My eyes (and my Facebook friends) told me fox, but that just didn’t jive with the scat and tracks I’d seen most recently. Could both foxes and coyotes really be using my driveway so closely in time and space? 

After this washed out photo of the fox I changed my flash settings from "long" to "fast action." That has improved subsequent photos immensely. 

You may wonder why that’s even surprising to me. Well, since 2008, when I volunteered with the Yellowstone Wolf Project, and maybe even before that when I was TA for a Wolf Ecology field course, I’ve understood that there is a cascading relationship among wild canids. In the absence of wolves, coyotes harass and kill foxes. When wolves return, they harass and kill coyotes. With fewer coyotes, foxes can increase. By this model, I shouldn’t be finding tracks of both smaller canids in such a small area. I’ve seen wolf tracks nearby—just a mile into the National Forest—but not on my driveway.

What more could my trail cam reveal?

Well, for a couple of days, it revealed a fisher loping down my driveway in broad daylight. And then, jackpot! At 7:36 p.m., a coyote bounded across the driveway. Her boxy body, pointed snout and relatively short legs were clear. Three hours later, at 10:35 p.m. a red fox trotted past—stopped to sniff the coyote’s tracks—and continued on toward the house. The bushy tail seemed almost as big as his body.

A series of photos from a trail camera shows a coyote bounding across the driveway (two right-hand panels) and a fox trotting along 3 hours later to sniff the coyote’s tracks (left panel). Photo by Emily Stone’s trail camera. 

Now, challenged by this photographic evidence, I just had to understand their relationship better. Happily, researchers in Minnesota published a paper on the carnivore cascade in 2012, and Google Scholar pulled up a full PDF version available for free.

As it turns out, it’s not as black-and-white as the canids completely excluding each other. I suppose I should have known that. Even in Yellowstone, I watched both foxes and coyotes scavenge on the carcasses of wolf-killed elk. Each was just wary of their bigger cousin.

In Minnesota farmland, where there aren’t wolves, foxes declined when coyotes increased. In the forests of Northeastern Minnesota, though, where wolves are most abundant, coyote and fox numbers show no relationship, and fox numbers are correlated with their inadvertent protectors, the wolves. When wolf numbers increase, foxes do too. But coyotes are still present.

The data show that an abundance of wolves allows foxes to approach their carrying capacity—which is the number of animals that their habitat can support. Fox populations are controlled by how much food they have, not by how much they are bullied. That said, these relationships don’t show that any of the canids completely exclude each other from the landscape. They can still exist together, just with added stress.

I can’t wait for my trail cam to show me more about their relationship!

So today—my ninth Christmas morning in a row—I took another brisk walk in the gray light of dawn. After a couple of slow nights, my expectations were tempered. I sipped coffee while reading emails and waiting for the photo previews to pop up. A glance at the thumbnails made me grin. The camera had captured my handsome fox trotting proudly down the drive with a fat gray squirrel in his mouth. 

Here’s another cascade: I feed the chickadees. The fallen seed feeds the squirrels. The squirrels feed the fox. And—with my dad’s help—the fox feeds my curiosity. What a gift!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Riddles and Webs

“Blueberries!” shouted a chorus of young voices, with each kid occupying one section of a grid on my computer screen. The ubiquitous Zoom calls everyone is talking about have infiltrated my teaching. Many of our local schools have switched to all-virtual classes this winter, and that means presenting our annual MuseumMobile “classroom” visits with everyone on a video call. 

So why were we talking about blueberries? 

Well, this year is all about adapting to the new order. Usually when I visit third graders in their classrooms, I bring a stack of plant and animal photos and clothespins. I clip an image to the back of each student’s shirt collar, and then they all play “20 Questions” with each other to try and figure out who is on their back. Campers and educators might know this game by the title “Who Am I?” I think it’s great fun, and the kids do, too. The activity consistently comes up when I ask older students what they remember from previous MuseumMobile visits. 

So, how could I re-create that fun on Zoom? To begin, I thought about the reasons we play it in the first place. 

One purpose of the game is to distribute a suite of plants and animals in preparation for the next part of the activity. The other purpose of the game is to get students thinking about the characteristics of native Wisconsin plants and animals in a fun way. 

Could animal riddles do that, too? I Googled around for inspiration, and found a couple examples with good rhythm. Then I got to work. This one’s my favorite: 

Like candy grown on bushes 
Blue, but darker than the sky 
Bears munch them to mushes 
Each year in July 
Who am I? 

When the students guess the answer during our Virtual MuseumMobile lesson, I write “blueberries” on a piece of paper in a designated circle-spot. At the top of the circle is Sun. We continue. 

Standing by the roadside 
My eyes glow green at night 
Heart-shaped hooves run and hide 
While my tail flashes white 
Who am I? 

This, of course, is a deer. A deer who just might eat some of those blueberries… 

With sharp teeth, sharp eyes, and good nose 
I hunt the woods where no one goes. 
My family helps and howls together. 
Then we sink our teeth into deer-hide leather. 
Who am I? 

“Wolf!” they shout. That deer had better watch out! 

My head is white, my tail is too. 
I soar above and inspire you. 
I dive for fish to fill my belly 
But even road kill’s not too smelly. 
Who am I? 

Soaring, catching fish, and eating roadkill. I thought this was a pretty complete description of a bald eagle’s behavior! And since eagles sometimes scavenge, they might even snack on the already-dead carcass of a wolf, or even just steal a bite of his venison. Do you see where this is going? 

After the students solve 12 riddles, we end up with a clock face full of plants and animals, plus Sun, soil, and water, which are important non-living components of ecosystems. In the classroom, we would sit in a circle and I’d get out a ball of string. For now, we just draw lines. The Sun provides energy to plants. Herbivores eat the plants. Carnivores eat the herbivores. Scavengers eat the dead stuff, and worms turn it all back into soil. 

We don’t stop at a single, simple food chain, though. As we brainstorm relationships, lines crisscross the circle. Wolves eat blueberries; did you know that? Finally, it looks like…and as I advance the slide in my presentation, the mess of lines is replaced by a drawing. “Spider web!” the students exclaim as they understand the metaphor. Many interacting food chains form a food web. 

It’s a pretty fun lesson—even when were stuck on the interweb. 

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping! 

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Darkness and Light

The world feels pretty dark these days, don’t you think? Our daily routines—governed by clocks—are the backdrop against which we can measure the growing night. My alarm goes off at the same minute every morning, but last June its timing meant that’d I’d just missed sunrise. Today it took my entire yoga practice and half of my run before the sky was more than gray. In the evenings, I have to be quick to squeeze in a walk without my headlamp. 

Today, I didn’t make the deadline. 

So I bundled up with jacket and earmuffs, mittens and headlamp, and crunched on thin, dry snow down toward the lake. Halfway there, I doused my light to check on the sky. Although the forecast had been for clouds, stars glittered solemnly behind the twiggy lace of the forest. 

Have you ever noticed that when things are the darkest, we tend to focus on the points of light? 

Last week it was the full moon that captured our attention. Soon the Geminid meteor shower will blaze through the sky. Just after sunset on December 20 and 21, Jupiter and Saturn will seem to align and almost merge into one bright beacon. If the Sun always shone, we would not notice the beauty of these lights. 

There is truth to the cliché that looking at stars makes us feel small; makes our tiny lives seem insignificant. The billions of years. The trillions of galaxies. The unimaginable miles. And one lonely blue planet. Sometimes it’s good to feel small, and to feel our problems shrink proportionately. 

But—on a good night—when I look at the stars I also feel immense. I am made of stardust after all. And so are you. I’ve mentioned this before. The warm iron coursing through our veins originated in the core of a dying star. Inhaling deeply, crisp, cold stardust made of carbon and oxygen fills my lungs. I may be small, but I am part of something big. 

It’s starlight that fills my belly. The energy of photons, blasted through space and captured by plants, imbues every molecule of sugar with a bit of solar power. Animals take that energy to build muscles and to use them. In my imagination, the Sun’s power shoots from my chest in theatrical rays. In reality, a chocolate chip cookie smolders in the fireplace of my metabolism. 

A 150 minute time-lapse of movement in the night sky. By Emily Stone

It feels good to think these Universe-sized thoughts after a day of living almost entirely through my computer screen. I’m grateful that we have a season when the mosquitoes don’t bite and the stars come out before my bedtime.Without these long nights of winter, I’d almost never see the stars. I’d miss out on the beauty and the mystery. 

As I turn back toward the house, the glittering becomes rainbow-colored. It’s my Charlie Brown Christmas tree—a spindly fir that was crowding my portage to the lake—and the lights I plugged in just before heading outside. Even on a cloudy night, constellations of Christmas lights shine through the gloom. 

Yes, in times of darkness, we tend to focus on the points of light. And perhaps the Christmas lights are a good reminder that, in times of darkness, we don’t have to wait for the stars to come out or the moon to rise. We can string up the lights and plug them in, and our neighborhood will be a little more cheerful because of our efforts. 

Just before I plugged in my tree, for example, I received an email from a friend about the long lines at special food drop, and the people who were turned away when the food ran out. Talk about darkness. It only took a minute to find the donation button on the website for my local food shelf, so there’s a pinpoint of light. 

Last night, inspired by a woman on the corner with a cardboard sign, my niece and nephews put together “blessing bags” of warm socks and granola bars that they’ll keep handy in the car as they drive around their city. There’s some starlight in those. 

Helpful items ready to be compiled into Blessing Bags. Photo by S. Stone.

We still have a few more weeks while the Earth tilts away; a few more weeks until winter solstice when the days will slowly begin to brighten. For now, I’m going to make a point to enjoy those stars, and the moon, and meteors that the darkness has revealed. And maybe I’ll take my stardust blood and my starlight energy and see if I can add a few more to those pinpoints of light. 

Donations to the Ashland, Cable, Cornucopia, and Mellen food shelves can be made at:, or find a statewide database of food banks here:

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping! 

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Mergansers on Migration

In gray afternoon light, with clouds hanging low and damp, and snow clinging to the lace of barren trees, little specks of slush began to splat on my windshield. I turned on the wipers at the same time I glanced at the car’s thermometer: 33 degrees. The road still looked wet, and I was glad that I’d timed my trip to arrive home before sunset. 

Then a partially frozen lake loomed out of the gray, and I did a double take as dark shapes emerged from the gloom. A raft of waterfowl floated in the mist. The stark contrast of black-and-white on their feathers made my heart leap with the barely formed thought of “loon!” 

It’s been less than a month since I spotted my final loon on Lake Namakagon–a brown-and-white juvenile gaining a little more strength before flying to the west coast of Florida–so how could I miss those Northwoods icons so much already? My hope was fleeting, though. The only recently spotted loons in this area have been a solo Pacific loon, a single red-throated loon, and a few common loons, all up on Lake Superior. 

Curiosity brewing, I found a driveway where I could safely turn around, got my camera out of the back seat, turned the radio down, and started the hazard lights blinking. Through the sleet, and through my zoom, I could see black heads and white bodies with black backs. Definitely not loons. 

Adult male common mergansers wear striking black-and-white feathers, while adult females and immature birds of both sexes have gray bodies with rusty brown heads. They are some of the last waterfowl to migrate through here from their breeding grounds in Canada. Photo by Emily Stone.

On my computer screen, the waterfowl gave up their mystery easily. Among the highly visible birds with striking contrast, gray individuals with brownish heads materialized in the fog. All of their beaks swooped out in a concave curve that tapered to straight, pointed tips and showed just a hint of reddish orange in the low light. Have you figured it out yet? They were common mergansers. 

Common, yes, but also fascinating. Like so many birds, the breeding habitat of common mergansers extends across the lush summer of Canada and Alaska, and only just barely dips into Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Even though we’re on their southern edge, they are easily spotted and fun to watch. 

Most paddling trips in our region—whether on lakes or rivers—seem to turn up at least one family of mergansers. And by family I mean either a male-female pair before she’s laid eggs, or a mom and her dozen or more chicks after the father is long gone. Male mergansers typically abandon the crew during incubation. Maybe they can’t take the stress of what happens when the chicks fledge: only a day or so after hatching high up in a tree cavity, the still-flightless chicks just flail their stubby, down-covered wings and jump for it. 

Mother merganser ushers them all to the nearest lake, and the chicks immediately dive in and start fishing for breakfast. In contrast, a dedicated pair of loon parents provides every single morsel of food to their chicks for the first few weeks, and patiently teaches their babes to hunt after that. Because of these time-consuming investments, loons rarely have more than two chicks. 

Merganser chicks are much more self-reliant. The female provides protection and guidance, but because she doesn’t also have to provide calories, her brood can contain as many as 17 chicks. One photographer on Lake Bemidji in 2018 captured a photo of 76 merganser chicks with a single adult female. This wasn’t just one family, though, it was a group called a “crèche (if you say it, make it rhyme with the word mesh), basically a daycare for ducks from many broods who are dropped off into the care of an experienced matriarch. 

This flock of immature common mergansers is still hunting cooperatively in late August, even though they’ve been able to catch their own food since they fledged the previous spring. Photo by Emily Stone. 

In such a group, mergansers often dive in sync, and send the water roiling with their hunting. I’ve spent many a Boundary Waters afternoon giggling as they pop back to the surface like adorable bobbers. Aquatic insects are enough of a mouthful for the first two weeks of life, and then the chicks switch to catching fish, too. Besides strong swimming muscles and webbed feet, mergansers rely on a serrated beak to help them catch slippery fish. This adaptation has earned them the nickname “sawbill.”

As you might guess from the timing of my sighting, mergansers are one of the last waterfowl to migrate in the fall. Other ducks who are still here—in hot ponds, flowages, or other unique, continuously ice-free waterways—will probably stick it out for most of the winter. Ryan Brady, a bird biologist for the Wisconsin DNR, told me that “Usually the big rafts of them, especially when including a bunch of males, indicate the end of migration is near.”

Even though the mergansers and I share a love of Northwoods lakes and rivers, I can’t help thinking of two important differences between us. First, I’m jealous that they get to travel together in a large group. Second, they’re headed to warmer climes, and I’m fervently wishing that the lakes will soon be solid playgrounds, and the slush I keep seeing on my windshield will turn into many inches of fluffy, skiable snow. 

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.