Friday, August 23, 2019

Fishing for Knowledge

The last time I felt like a serious angler I was 5 years old, and my brother and I were pulling crappies out from under a bridge one after another. I’m not sure my dad ever got a line in the water, because he was so busy removing our fish and replacing our worms from the stern of the canoe. That was an epic evening, and it became one of our most lovingly worn family stories.

That was the peak of my fishing career. Fish are a murky mystery in my repertoire of natural history knowledge, but I’ve been trying to remedy that. A few weeks ago my learning came in the form of electroshocking trout with the DNR on the Namekagon River. More recently I joined a DNR crew to tag both sturgeon and smallmouth bass on the Couderay River. They’re monitoring the fish’s return after a dam removal downstream. Combining science with fishing on beautiful rivers is a treat, and I’ll tell you more about that later.

In between those two Museum programs, I rushed off to Yellowstone National Park for a quick trip with my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and their four kids. It was the reunion tour of a 1989 family vacation when I was 7 and my brother Andy was 11. Like the evening of crappies, that trip to Yellowstone was an epic vacation we measured all others against. We watched a grizzly bear eating a fish in Hayden Valley, marveled at Old Faithful, and ate countless meals of pie-iron pizzas around various campfires.

I wasn’t planning to make this vacation into another fish field trip, but my middle nephew, 15-year-old Derek, had his own plans. The rest of us were focused on seeing the geysers, mud pots, and hot springs; spotting the wildlife; and doing a little hiking. Derek only wanted to fish. The compromise: we made a point to find picnic areas near streams when we stopped for lunch and dinner. Derek fished while we ate.

The first evening we hit a jackpot. Our route from the Lamar Valley back down to West Yellowstone took us right past the Sheepeater Cliff picnic area just when our stomachs were starting to growl. Named after a small tribe of Native Americans who specialized in hunting bighorn sheep, the Sheepeater Cliffs are spectacular walls of columnar jointed basalt. That’s the same type of rock I’ve visited at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California, and that many of us have seen at Gooseberry Falls State Park on Minnesota’s North Shore.

Sheepeater Cliffs overlook the scenic Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park.

The picnic area sits just beyond the jumble of rocks at the base of one cliff. It’s close enough that we kids (the 10-year-old twins and I) could scramble around while brats heated on our portable grill, and we all could watch marmots scurry through the talus while we ate.

The Gardner River that exposed those cliffs just happens to be one of the few streams in Yellowstone where kids are allowed to fish with worms. Derek was in heaven. He caught his first fish within minutes. I was thrilled to recognize the little guy with light spots on a dark background as a brook trout—the favored son of the Namekagon River and its spring-fed tributaries that I’d helped catch while electrofishing. Derek soon squashed my excitement though, when he informed me that brook trout were introduced here, and that they are one of the culprits in the decline of the native cutthroat trout.

I’ve known for several years that lake trout in Yellowstone Lake are a serious threat to cutthroats, since my friend Kris Millgate wrote about the gillnetting operations to remove non-native lakers. But I hadn’t paid attention to the less extreme fish competition and management happening in Yellowstone’s streams, until now.

Later in the week, we found ourselves lighting charcoal at a different picnic area, and setting up an assembly line to make pie-iron pizzas. This would be the kids’ first experience with Andy’s and my favorite camping meal. Of course, Derek disappeared up the stream, and soon returned with a tiny little rainbow trout, less than 6 inches long.

In some areas of the park, designated as “Nonnative Trout Tolerance Areas” even the introduced fish are so important to wildlife that anglers must release all rainbows and brown trout, and keep only a limit of 5 brookies. This evening’s creek was in a “Native Trout Conservation Area,” though, and the regulations require anglers to catch and release all native fish, but put no possession limit on nonnative fish. Soon that little rainbow—minus its head and guts—was steaming merrily in a foil packet on top of the coals.

Later—with his pizza sitting nearby getting cold—Derek expertly removed the fish’s spine and ribs in one elegant piece. Chewing thoughtfully, he announced that he could taste the sulfur from the hot springs that flowed into this creek, and offered me a bite. I accepted the flaky white chunk of perfectly cooked meat, and decided that whatever sulfur I sensed was through my nose not my tongue: Yellowstone’s own terroir.

Rainbow trout are non-native species in Yellowstone National Park, and eating them benefits the survival of the native cutthroat trout. My nephew Derek was happy to do his part for conservation. Photo by Emily Stone (with my sister-in-law's iPhone--boy is Portrait Mode nice!)
I’ll probably never be a more serious angler than that evening when I was 5, but I’m happy to report that by hanging out with the experts, I’m slowly filling in some gaps in my natural history knowledge. Derek’s obsession with fishing gave us all a better understanding of the conservation happening in America’s first national park, and those experiences are now part of a new generation of family stories.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, August 16, 2019

Electric Fish

Wading carefully into the Namekagon River, I was grateful for the cool water that swirled around my wader-clad legs. On shore, and above water, the neoprene chest waders were stiflingly hot in the bright morning sun, but below the surface they hugged my legs soothingly. The day was warm enough that I would have preferred to just swim, except for small detail that we would soon be shooting currents of electricity through the water.

Eric Rasmussen brought his son-in-law Jerome Gardner, his grandson Ty Gardner, and a grandnephew Rowe Schumacher along on the field trip. The kids couldn't be near the electricity, but they still had a blast! Here they are testing their waders for leaks. Photo by Emily Stone. 
Max Wolter, a fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, held a small floating sled against the current as our field trip gathered around. The sled had been turned into a miniature boat, and held a generator, a plastic storage tub with a large hole in its lid, fish nets, and three long wands run through a transformer box powered by the generator. Another similar boat bobbed by the shore. “We do our orientation in the water so that we can also use this time to check for leaks,” Max explained with a grin, and I could see everyone silently taking stock of their waders.

DNR fisheries technician Nathan Klein, and fisheries biologist Max Wolter, explain the electroshocking equipment on their modified boat. Photo by Emily Stone.

The Wisconsin DNR uses electro-shocking to survey fish in many inland waters. Slightly stunned fish are netted, identified, measured, and released alive. It’s a relatively efficient way to get a good idea of the species, numbers, and sizes, and to keep track of how well an aquatic ecosystem is doing. Max and a couple of other fisheries technicians had agreed to show us the ropes.

After switching out one pair of leaky waders, we divided the group between the boats and doled out duties. Max and one of the techs each hooked a boat harness around their hips so that they could pull the equipment upstream. Three people per boat grabbed a wand in one hand and a net in the other, and spread out in a fan to the upstream side. I followed cautiously with my camera.

Max started the generator, and then turned the power on. The generator creates electricity as direct current (which is DC, as opposed to the AC alternating current in our home outlets) and sends it out through the long-handled wands, each with an emergency OFF switch by your thumb. The current travels through ions dissolved in the water and connects back to a metal plate on the bottom of the sled. Anything in the resulting electrical field gets a little zap. That’s why we wear the waders.

Each wand holder was instructed to wave the wand through the water, and keep their net at the ready. Zapped fish are momentarily, and incompletely stunned. It’s just enough for the researchers to see a flash of white belly and scoop them up with a net.

Samantha Smith, Craig Aase, Max Wolter, and Eric Rasmussen team up to survey fish using electroshocking equipment on the Namekagon River. Photo by Emily Stone.
The second crew gets ready on the other side of the river.

The River Left team gangs up on a huge brown trout hiding just where you'd expect him to be. 

The posse making our way upstream. 

Samantha  -- and all of the participants -- discovered that netting shocked fish is harder than you'd think!
Suddenly, a shout went up from Max. One of the participant’s wands had brought up a very large brown trout, and Max had quickly netted it. We all cheered at this fortuitous start to the day. Most of the fish we found were smaller, though, and we moved steadily upstream. Max and the techs made netting the slippery buggers look easy, but the rest of us newbies found ourselves watching as fish slipped out of reach downstream.

When we paused at the top of a sandbar to collect data, the tub on the boat was satisfyingly full. Max pulled out the big one first. Setting it in the metal trough with a ruler in the bottom, he measured 23 inches of beautiful brown trout. The scales on its belly shimmered like gold. Dark spots surrounded by white halos speckled its brown back.

The big one!
Everyone crowded around to work up the fish and take data.

Measuring fish for science. 
We also caught red horse suckers. Neat fish that are indicators of water quality, even if they aren't good eating.

Brown trout are one of the species that the DNR is monitoring closely in the Namekagon River. Both a desirable sport fish and an environmental indicator, they aren’t actually native here. European brown trout were stocked in the Namekagon River starting around 1883. They do better than our native brook trout in warmer water, though, and brookies are now mostly relegated to colder, spring-fed tributaries.

Both introduced brown trout (top) and native brook trout can be found in the upper Namekagon River and its tributaries. Photo by Emily Stone.

By some accounts, brown trout eat the young brookies, and push them out. And the logging era stole shade from these riverbanks so that sun now warms their waters. That, combined with the uncertain future of climate change, suggests that brown trout may have an important role to play in this ecosystem. The Interagency Fisheries Management Plan for the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers describes the introduced brown trout as “an ecological surrogate for brook trout” and states that “brown trout are now a keystone species, maintaining the basic biological integrity of this fish community.”

After lunch—of sandwiches, not trout—we took our operation to one of those spring-fed tributaries for comparison. Just as predicted, brook trout were more numerous in the narrow, alder-lined stream, and we admired their orange bellies, gray sides, and red spots rimmed in blue. Each trout was measured, admired, and released. The other species were identified, showed around, and let go.

Identifying the little guys. 

The crew works up a small spring-fed tributary of the Namekagon. Out of respect to local fishermen, it will remain nameless ;-) 

Through our waders, we could feel that the water in this creek was noticeably colder than the river, even though the day had continued to warm. No doubt the fish could feel it too.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, August 9, 2019

Flying High

Bam! Click. Whirrrrr. Giggle. All spring and summer, Museum staff and visitors have been enjoying the sound of our mechanical flying squirrel being launched on her zip line across the new Curiosity Center kids’ area. Created by the talented engineers at KidZibits in St. Paul, MN, the flying squirrel glides across the room and then automatically slides back, ready to be launched again at the press of a big red button.

Flying squirrel from below...

Flying squirrel from above...

Much to my delight, just as our flying squirrel was being readied for its inaugural launch last spring, another flying squirrel exploded onto the scene. You may have seen the headline: “Flying Squirrels That Glow Pink in the Dark,” read The New York Times. Versions of the story appeared in National Geographic, Newsweek, Smithsonian, and of course, Northland College Magazine.

I’m both a Northland College graduate and a science nerd, so my Facebook feed exploded with the news that a team of professors and students from Northland College had discovered that all three species of flying squirrels in North America—northern, southern, and Humboldt’s—fluoresce hot pink if you shine a UV light at their bellies.

Photo by J Martin, Northland College.

In a version of our mechanical flying squirrel, “click” went the gears of discovery when Professor Jon Martin shone his black light flashlight at his backyard bird feeder. “Whirr” went the gears of science as he, his colleagues, and a student confirmed the findings. “Bam!” went impact of the research as it reached the scientific community through immediate publication in the Journal of Mammalogy. And “giggle” went the public as we all discovered this surprising and goofy aspect of nature.

Punk-rock flying squirrels are a fantastic punchline, but the entire story tickles me pink. For starters, Jon Martin discovered the first glowing pink squirrel just by being curious in his own backyard. The world's first fluorescent frog was discovered in Argentina in 2017, so Jon was checking to see if any of our local gray tree frogs fluoresce. They didn’t, but the flying squirrel that glided into his birdfeeder for some sunflower seeds did.

Video by J Martin, Northland College

So of course Jon shared this exciting, and weird, discovery with his colleagues at Northland College. Being a small school, professors frequently discuss their work across disciplines. Prof. Erik Olson is so enthused about this potential for collaboration that his wildlife research lab deliberately shares space with Jon’s forestry lab. “Sharing space forces people to interact, have conversations, and start thinking about new ideas,” Erik told me over the phone. “That cross pollination can lead to great discoveries and advancement. Plus, the lab has organically become a space where a lot of faculty come to make tea and congregate to have conversations.” In my personal experience, tea and enlightening conversations are hallmarks of the Northland College vibe.

Allie Kohler, then entering her senior year at Northland, (and now working on a master’s degree at Texas A&M,) was privy to some of those conversations. Like many students at this experiential school, she’d already had ample opportunity for hands-on research in the form of small mammal trapping with both Erik and Prof. Paula Anich, and occasionally caught flying squirrels as part of that work. Jon gave Allie his black light so that she could test the next flying squirrel she caught. When it, too, glowed pink, Jon and the other professors asked Allie to take the lead on formally researching the exciting discovery. What an amazing experience for an undergraduate!

When I asked Paula what it was like to work with Allie on this project, her answer gave me warm fuzzies. “Allie did really amazing work,” said Paula. She had a lot of insight, and big ambitions. She worked extraordinarily hard. Creative research with undergraduates is what Northland does best.”
For example, Allie took the initiative right away, by applying for money from Northland’s Parsonage Fund. Bob Parsonage was the president for my first two years at Northland, and he wished to prepare students to become the citizen-leaders of the future. Many of my classmates used the funds to support professional development opportunities they couldn’t otherwise afford. Allie used the money to visit The Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) in St. Paul.

“Have you ever seen the inside of a museum, like in the basement with just everything… dinosaur fossils, bones…EVERYTHING?” she gushed to me. Yes, I feel that same excitement when peering into my own museum’s collections room.

The curator at the SMM gave Allie access to all of the squirrel specimens, and she found that just the flying squirrels—but not the diurnal squirrels—glowed pink. The naturalists who preserved those specimens had no idea that one day they would be used to study fluorescence in mammals, but one purpose of preserving specimens is to help us answer questions we’ve not yet thought to ask. Erik, Paula, and Jon later visited The Field Museum in Chicago to test more flying squirrel specimens from across the map.

I asked Allie if it was difficult for her to write the scientific paper about their research. “It’s easy if you like what you’re writing about,” she told me. “Discoveries are only going to be valuable if you can communicate it to other people.”

That’s one reason it was so gratifying to have their research go viral. “The number of people we got to stop and think about flying squirrels even for a matter of a minute is a pretty powerful thing,” said Erik. “I think one of the biggest impacts of our research is that it caused a lot of us to pause and wonder at the natural world that exists right in our backyards.”

I’m not going to pretend they’re of equal importance, but that wonder is the goal of the Museum’s flying squirrel, too.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, August 2, 2019

A Naturalist on Ice -- EIC Award Winner!

Special Note: This article from Emily’s 2018 summer in Alaska recently won an Excellence in Craft Award from the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

Helmet, crampons, harness, warm layers, trekking poles, camera. My pack was heavier than usual—and my excitement stronger—as we caught glimpses of white ice and blue crevasses beyond the canyon’s edge.

Two days after my first hike up the Harding Ice Field trail in Kenai Fjords National Park, I was at it again. The damp, gray, foggy weather was the same, but my mission was different. This time I was going to walk on the glacier. After watching adventure movies and adding a healthy dose of common sense, it’s not an adventure I’d felt comfortable doing solo. Nick, a guide from Adventure 60 North in Seward, led the way, and a retired doctor and his architect wife from Colombia (she runs the family’s banana plantation on the side) completed our little crew.
From the Marmot Meadows Overlook we watched other guided groups walk on the ice. They looked like tiny ants on such a giant landform. Photo by Emily Stone.

At the Marmot Meadows overlook we began to descend out of the lush field of wildflowers and straight down toward the white, blue, and brown wrinkles of the glacier along a rocky trail. The National Park Service doesn’t maintain this route, but several local guide services use the path.

The side of the glacially carved valley was steep here. At the height of the last ice age, 23,000 years ago, Exit Glacier filled the entire gorge. When our footing transitioned from ice-scoured bedrock to piles of loose gravel deposited by melting ice, Nick paused to point out that in past years he could walk straight out from this bench onto the ice. The dirty edge of the glacier now lay at least 20 feet below.

It was an abrupt transition from lush meadows down to fresh gravel
and then onto the ice. Exit Glacier is shrinking, so the hike keeps getting longer.
Photo by Emily Stone. 

According to the Park Service, the terminus of Exit Glacier retreated 1,635 feet up its valley and thinned by almost 300 feet between the years of 1950 and 1990. The rate of thinning has only increased since then. In the past ten years it has retreated 1,000 more feet. Former President Barack Obama visited Exit Glacier in 2015, to highlight the effects of climate change. The toe of the glacier has become so unstable that visitors are no longer allowed anywhere near it. We’d hiked 1.5 miles up steep switchbacks and flights of stone stairs in order to gain access.

At a level spot in the dirt we paused again, this time to layer on winter clothes, tighten rescue harnesses around our waists, fasten climbing helmets under our chins, and strap saber-toothed crampons to our boots. Nick traded his trekking pole for an ice axe. His big backpack was full of rescue gear. “Keep your steps high and wide,” he repeated as we made our first tentative moves in the mean-looking crampons. “High, wide, high wide,” I reminded myself. And, finally, I was walking on a glacier.

The landscape was a gracefully sculpted expanse of luminous snow and ice, sprinkled liberally with brown dirt. Scalloped divots at a variety of scales were rimmed in a dark lace of dust that had been picked up, ground down, and then freed from melting ice. Rivulets of water cut narrow ravines through the dirty surface and created small, white-walled canyons with intensely blue bottoms. Those small ravines probably flowed along the tracks of healed crevasses.

As the ice moves over uneven ground, crevasses open and close. Deep within the glacier, high pressure allows ice to move through plastic deformation—similar to molten lava. Crystals bend, deform, and slide past each other. Near the glacier’s surface, though, it is more brittle. As the mass maneuvers around corners and over obstructions, the surface must stretch wider. When the ice stretches past its stress limit, crevasses crack open. Later, they may squeeze shut, leaving only a linear scar.

Crevasses are cracks in the glacier that open and close as the ice moves over uneven terrain. Photo by Emily Stone.
Stepping high and wide, and being sure to kick our crampons into the slippery surface with each step, Nick led us to a narrow crevasse. His long legs straddled it easily, and one by one we came forward to have a look. Although it was narrow enough that none of us could have fallen in, it was still comforting to have Nick’s steady hand on my harness as I gazed into the deep blue depths.

Nick, our guide from Adventure 60 North, knew the glacier well and was able to show us unique features while staying away from the more risky areas. Photo by Emily Stone. 
Crevasses can be a hundred feet wide, thousands of feet long, and hundreds of feet deep. Water-filled crevasses may reach all the way to the glacier’s bed. Perhaps this crevasse had stayed small because of the absence of water.

Nick also led us to the edge of a moulin. As before, he held onto our harness and we peered into it one-by-one. Water may have excavated this roughly circular, well-like shaft out of an old crevasse or found some other weakness in the ice. Either way, we watched a tiny stream glide over the surface and then cascade into the smooth, spiraling hole.

Moulins are roughly circular, well-like shafts in glacial ice. Water and sediment flow down into them. Photo by Emily Stone
Sometimes the water will make its way down a moulin for a short distance and then find a horizontal route through the ice. Sometimes the water makes it all the way to the ground surface and flows under the glacier. Moulins play an important role in carrying water and sediment from the surface of the glacier into its depths. Mount Telemark, a 380-foot-tall old ski hill in Northern Wisconsin, was probably built by water-born sediment that poured into a large moulin 14,000 years ago at the end of the continental glaciation. I was thrilled to see a much smaller version of this glacial feature in action.

We all took a few more photos before making our way off this foreign land. While on the ice it felt like a fairytale winter. Luminous clouds hovered above, and luminous ice sat deceptively solid below. High and wide we stepped closer to the edge, the ratio of dirt to ice under our feet increasing steadily until we were back on the piles of sediment at the glacier’s lateral margin.

Our world is changing quickly. The thought that these glaciers are melting is a little terrifying. And yet, I’m intensely curious to witness the landscapes they will reveal. Several thousand years ago, the Chippewa and Superior Lobes of the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted away from the place I now call home. I ski on piles of sediment they left behind. I swim in lakes formed by melting ice blocks. Many times I’ve craned my neck back and gazed upward, trying to imagine the mile of ice that once loomed above my head. After exploring these living glaciers of Alaska, I feel like I better understand my own home.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Natural Connections Book Tour

Natural Connections Book Tour
August 21-29, 2019

I still have some time to fill. If you'd like to host a book signing, talk, or workshop, please let me know! 

Wednesday, August 21
Program at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve?
Looking for hosts!

Thursday, August 22—Retzer Nature Center
6:30-7:30-public program “Nature Better than Fiction”

Friday, August 23 ???

Saturday, August 24—Retzer Nature Center
9:30-2:30,  Book signing at the Green Alliance Sustainability Fair @ RNC

Sunday, August 25—open?

Monday, August 25--morning open?

Monday, August 26—Schlitz Audubon Center

Hike with Emily Stone and Don Quintenz
Monday, August 26 | 4:00pm - 5:00pm

Join Emily Stone, a Naturalist and Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum, and Don Quintenz, for a guided hike exploring the natural wonders of the season.

Emily Stone, author of Natural Connections 2
Monday, August 26 | 6:00pm - 7:30pm

Emily Stone, a Naturalist and Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum, will read from and talk about her new book, Natural Connections 2: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer. She uses science to tell complex stories in readable, enjoyable ways that are full of wonder for nature, weaving a world of magic for readers. Emily writes a weekly column called “Natural Connections” for 20 local and regional newspapers. She has earned several Excellence in Craft awards from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Her first book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses was published in 2016. Books will be available for purchase; the author will be happy to sign them.

Tuesday, August 27—Lake Geneva area

Finding the Stories in Nature for Kids
Kishwauketoe Preserve.   10:00-11:30 a.m.
Stories are powerful tools for engagement, learning, and relating for all ages. But we don’t need to invent anything—nature has already done it for us. During this program for young learners, Emily Stone, author, naturalist, and Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum will lead nature discovery activities infused with her own playful sense of wonder. By using science to tell stories, Emily wields a magic that makes the whole world feel more alive. 1.5 hours

Finding the Stories in Nature            
This is a 1.5-2 hour talk/workshop at the library in Lake Geneva
Stories are powerful tools for engagement, learning, and relating. But we don’t need to invent anything—nature has already done it for us. Scientists are busy translating. These stories can make natural phenomenon come alive for any audience! During this workshop, Emily will share some of her favorite stories and photos, including readings from her Natural Connections books. Then, through a series of props, writing, and speaking exercises, participants will have a chance to practice finding and telling the stories in nature. Presenter: Emily Stone, Naturalist/Education Director, Cable Natural History Museum.

Wednesday, August 28—Lake Geneva area

All day:
Hike around the Shore Path.

Thursday, August 29—Lake Geneva area


3 hour hike, for naturalists and volunteers. “train the teachers.”

Finding the Stories in Nature Walking Workshop
Join Emily Stone, a Naturalist and Education Director at the Cable Natural History Museum, on a guided hike to explore natural connections through science and our senses. She’ll give tips and tricks for finding the stories in nature, and we’ll all practice creating mini-narratives about the characters we meet along the way. As naturalists, infusing our teaching and communications with stories can be an effective way to engage both hearts and minds. 

Afternoon: Drive north!

Friday, July 26, 2019

Buzzing with Life

Hot sun beat down on the back of my neck, and a mosquito pricked at my elbow. Still, I held my breath and clicked the camera’s shutter-release button twice more before straightening up out of my crouch and swatting the mosquito. The tiny wasp I’d been trying to catch in the act of nectaring zoomed off. This time of year the pollinator gardens at the Cable Natural History Museum are simply buzzing with life.

Several times each day I’ve found excuses to wander outside and check on our bee cabinet and the drama unfolding with flower-eating caterpillars and caterpillar-eating wasps. We’ve had a steady stream of families going to and from our new Curiosity Center, so I can usually justify my visit to the pollinator garden by showing moms, dads, and 8-year-olds the gruesome tale of wasp larvae eating comatose caterpillars.

Once the families move on, though, I go right back to scanning the gardens for anything interesting. Dragonflies often hover above the grass, and a particularly brave one once perched calmly on the tip of a caterpillar-eaten figwort plant while I played paparazzi. It’s yellow and orange body was contrasted by beautiful burgundy wing spots, and bright white pterostigmata. These little rectangular patches of thicker, heavier, cells at the leading edge of each dragonfly wing help to prevent the wings from vibrating at high speeds. I love seeing a pterostigma just so that I can say the word to myself. The silent P is my favorite part. Ptero- relates to wings, and a stigma is a mark or spot. But saying “wing spot” just isn’t the same.

Do you see the little white mark on the front of each wing?

A monarch butterfly caught my attention, too, and as I followed it around to the patch of yellow coreopsis flowers, a new butterfly caught my eye. With wings of yellow shading to orange, overlaid with a striking pattern of black lines and spots, I couldn’t help but snap a few photos of it, too.

The Aphrodite fritillary butterfly in habits open fields and woodland edges throughout Wisconsin. Photo by Emily Stone.

While leaning over some false sunflowers to see the butterfly, a break in the pattern caught my eye. How odd! Three inches of a flower stem, just under the blossom, were lined with tiny critters. Their oval bodies were red-orange, and their wiry black legs stuck out at odd angles. As I looked more closely, I guessed that they were aphids, since each one had a straight, black mouthpart inserted into the plant stem. I snapped a few photos of those, too, using my macro setting to capture the detail.

Once back at my desk, I alternated between responding to emails and uploading the photos. Feeling too rushed to flip through the selection of field guides on my shelves, I opted for a different route. I logged into my iNaturalist account, and uploaded the best photo of each critter.

The description on their website summarizes that, “iNaturalist is an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature.” They have an app as well as the website, and both can be used to upload photos of living things. The photos get geotagged, identified, and become observations. Then an extensive network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists can check your identification, add their own ideas, and use everyone’s data to do research.

With more than 23,486,900 observations around the world, iNaturalist has seen a lot of living things. That allowed the developers to create an automated species identification tool. It combs that database for things that are both visually similar to your photo and have been seen nearby by other observers. What that means for amateurs like me, is that when I clicked in the “species name” box under my photo, a list of suggested identifications came up. “We’re pretty sure it’s in this genus: Small Pennants, Celithemis,” was the helpful comment, and below that, “Here are our top species suggestions:” Within seconds, I was pretty sure that I’d photographed a calico pennant dragonfly.

After identifying my purple-lined sallow moth caterpillars, dark paper wasp, Aphrodite fritillary butterfly, aphids in the genus Uroleucon, and several more, a Facebook message pinged. My childhood friend in Omaha sent photos of fuzzy caterpillars on milkweed for identification. I uploaded that photo, too, and iNaturalist gave me the tentative ID of “tussock moth caterpillars.” After she posted 10 more photos of insects in her pollinator garden, I clued her into the iNaturalist trick, too.

Then an automated email from iNaturalist notified me that my calico pennant observation had been added to a project called “Odonata - parasitism.” Looking closer at my photo, I saw several clusters of dark bumps under the dragonfly’s body. A quick Google search informed me that larval water mites often attach to a dragonfly for a meal and ride – not unlike ticks on humans. I’d never have noticed those mites without the extra eyes of iNaturalist participants.

Can you spot the little round, brown, mites under the thorax and the abdomen?

This summer I’ve had a number of people comment about how much I know, or should know about nature. Naturalists are generalists, though. I can tell you a little bit about just about everything, but there are a whole lot of details that I can’t even begin to remember. One of the most valuable skills of a naturalist is knowing how to use the resources available to answer questions. Sometimes that means paging through a guidebook or asking an expert, and sometime that means submitting a photo to a computer algorithm. The fun part is that iNaturalist is available to anyone at any time. And just following your curiosity by uploading photos to get ID help will result in data that may someday be used for important science. Want to join in the fun? Now’s the perfect time – summer is just buzzing with life!

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email