Thursday, May 21, 2020

Two Cases of Mistaken Identity

Everyone makes mistakes, right? 

I’ve had a little more time than usual this spring to walk slowly with my camera in the woods, and my focus has zoomed in on smaller and smaller things. Naturally, I’m not always great at identifying these overlooked underdogs correctly on the first try. Show me three giant white petals rising above three big green leaves, and I can recognize a trillium with a single glance, from 40 feet away. Show me the quarter-inch-tall, reproductive structure of a primitive plant, and that’s a different story. 

Trillium


Early in April, while snow still covered more than half the ground, I started going for lunchtime walks to stretch my eyes as much as my legs. I’d been consoling myself about the lack of travel opportunities by deciding that the lockdown was as good excuse to finally explore more thoroughly around my own woodsy neighborhood. A patch of sunlight highlighted a mossy log—wet and happy from moisture provided by the melting snow—tucked into a little hollow near a hemlock tree. 

I’m a sucker for happy moss, so I knelt down with my camera on its macro setting to capture the shimmers and sparkles…and found a tiny forest of translucent trunks topped by smooth, brown caps. An understory of tiny green leaves carpeted this magical fairy forest. 



Moss is a non-flowering plant that reproduces using spores. Those spores are born in capsules, perched atop stalks called setae, and that whole reproductive structure is called a sporophyte. These were the youngest sporophytes I’d ever seen, and they glowed so beautifully that I had to post them to social media. At first everyone commented about the beautiful moss, but then my friend Patrick Leacock, a brilliant mycologist, had a hunch, did some research, and changed his identification to leafy liverwort. 

Liverworts are another type of primitive plant. Like mosses, they reproduce using spores and absorb water directly into their leaves instead of transporting it through a vascular system. Mosses and liverworts both prefer moist habitats, and often can be found living side by side.

Liverworts are primitive plants who shoot up beautiful but ephemeral reproductive structures in the spring. The scaly look of the leaves can help distinguish them from mosses. Photo by Emily Stone. 

I went back the next day and looked closer. Indeed, the green parts around the base of the translucent stalks had a vaguely scaled appearance—a trademark of liverworts. Some larger types of liverworts look like lizard skin. In addition to the pattern of the leaves, I also discovered that a few of the dark capsules had ruptured along four seams and peeled open to release their spores. The cup-shaped capsules of mosses usually release spores through a lid, and then remain standing above the moss carpet.

Moss sporophytes, both old and new. 


Although that mossy log has since dried out, I think about the liverworts who live there each time I zoom past, and am glad I took the time to look closer. 

About a month later, I spent an entire afternoon looking closely at spring wildflowers on the trail to St. Peter’s Dome. I’d been worried I was going to miss my favorite flowers, and instead found that I was on the early side for many. Trillium buds were tightly closed, and many plants were just a tightly furled spike of green. 

One slope in particular sticks out in my memory for having an absolute carpet of spring beauties each spring. But as I hiked past, all I saw were the pairs of narrow green leaves with reddish stems poking up through the thick carpet of last year’s maple leaves. Not a single delicate white flower with pink stripes on its five petals bloomed up at me. 



Finding microclimates is one of the joys of searching out spring ephemerals. It’s such a thrill to find that south-facing slope with the very first blossom when all else is still drab and brown. And it’s almost as exciting, weeks later, to stumble upon one final flower still blooming in the cool shade of a north-facing hollow. So, as I mentioned in last week’s article, I wasn’t surprised that this patch was so far behind, while others were in full swing. I snapped a quick photo for reference, and then focused my camera on more colorful things.

Closer to home, I started noticing those same tiny pairs of leaves in new places. I’d never known that spring beauties grew there…or there…or there…and then I found those same paired leaves sprouting from the landscaping rocks near my front door. Spring beauties require rich, loamy soils. Not rocky fill. Something wasn’t right…

One of the little plants from my landscaping rocks...


Suddenly, my thoughts fell into place and I gave a little exclamation of surprise and delight for figuring out this puzzle. Last fall had been a mast year—a bumper crop of seeds and nuts—for many species. Including sugar maples. I dug around a bit and found maple seeds galore, sprouted and un-sprouted, some with their husk still clinging to a narrow pair of leaves. Of course. Spring beauties almost always grow among sugar maples on the richest sites, but sugar maples can survive in a broader spectrum of soil types, too. Now knowing that these were sugar maple babies, I was in awe of their abundance. Surely some will escape predation and become trees!

I'm not sure how this happened...


So, yes, I make mistakes in identification. But I often remember what I learn from those mistakes a lot more fondly than uneventful identifications. Maybe I should go out and make some more!

Spring beauty flowers often grow under maple trees, which is why I so easily assumed the narrow leaves (lower right) belonged to them…instead of the trees themselves. Another part of my mistake that another species of spring beauty has narrower leaves. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com 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 currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Spring is Not Cancelled

Over the past few sunny days, my anxiety levels have been rising. Oh, there’s the global pandemic to worry about for sure, but that’s not why sunshine has me worried. The issue is that I’ve been laser-focused on my computer lately, while I create virtual versions of our MuseumMobile lessons before schools dissipate for the summer. And while I’ve been working inside, I’ve been worried that outside, spring is happening without me. 

What if I miss the Dutchman’s breeches flowers? Will all the bloodroots have dropped their petals by the time I get there? I usually don’t count on seeing all the flowers before Mother’s Day, but is spring coming early this year? Time is passing differently during the lockdown.

So, on one particularly warm, sunny afternoon this week, I headed up to St. Peter’s Dome and Morgan Falls to see for myself. This Research Natural Area boasts one of the best “northern mesic forest” communities in this area. What does that mean? Rich soils with plenty of nutrients and water (but not too much water) support deciduous trees like sugar maples. And underneath those still-leafless trees, in the strengthening sunshine, thrives a community of spring ephemeral wildflowers. 

Ephemeral means fleeting, transitory, evanescent, flitting, and impermanent. Those synonyms give me a little thrill, I’ll admit, but also a tingle of terror. Ephemeral means that if you don’t get out into the woods at the right time, these absolutely exquisite flowers will return to dormancy beneath the surface and you’ll have to wait an entire year to see them again. Right now, a year feels like a lifetime. 

I examined my anxieties, knowing that my life would indeed go on even if I missed out on this one ritual of spring. A Mary Oliver poem came to mind, where she mourns the death of a river, and grieves for “lost joyfulness.” When someone in the poem asks: “Isn’t this somewhat overplayed?” She justifies her feelings by saying, “it can be a friend.  Companion. A hint of heaven.” Indeed. These wildflowers are old friends. Friends whom I can’t infect, and who can’t infect me. And if not heaven, they certainly transform the forest into a fairyland. 

As I wound my way through gravel backroads—hopefully toward a rendezvous with my friends—I peered into the woods for clues to their well-being. Vivid green patches of wild leeks (also known as ramps) popped up here and there. I’ll be harvesting those soon. I love making both quiche and pesto with the pungent leaves. They replace all the greens and spices in a recipe; no additional spinach, garlic, or onions needed. In a move that’s as lazy as it is sustainable, I pick just one leaf per cluster instead of digging up the muddy roots. Less washing. Less impact on the population. It’s a win-win. 

wild leeks


The green leaves of leeks are refreshing for both the eyes and the palate, but they aren’t one of the flowers I’m seeking. Wild leeks don’t bloom until July, which is weeks after their leaves have finished storing the sun’s energy in their bulbs as carbohydrates, and withered away under the thick shade of the forest canopy. Why this separation? Well, the leaves need sun, but the flowers need pollinators, and each is more abundant in their own season. 

To everything there is a season, and after I’d hiked just a short distance down the trail, I was comforted that I had not missed this one. A few pink-striped faces of spring beauties smiled up at me, but many patches were just filled with their skinny little pairs of leaves. 

Spring beauty flowers

Spring beauty leaves. Note to self: Come back to this patch next week!


Where’s that patch of wild ginger I always look for? The unfurled leaves were still small, and the single flower bud I spotted was tightly closed. In contrast, my chest opened a little, relaxing in the knowledge that my fears were unfounded and I had not missed spring.

Wild ginger -- flanked by spring beauty leaves


My favorite patch of bloodroot was blindingly white, seemingly in full flower. Zooming in with my camera, though, I noticed a couple of bare stems, where a pollinated blossom had already shed its petals. These are one of the earliest bloomers. 

bloodroot flowers


The showy pantaloons of Dutchman’s breeches flowers were also near peak bloom, with no flowers past their prime, and some buds still expanding. But the white of trilliums was still bundled up tight, and not a single plant had more than a swelling bud. 

Dutchman's Breeches flowers -- not fully open

Large-flowered Trillium bud


Several hours flew by as I followed my camera up and down the trail, trying to find just the right light and just the right angle that could help me capture the joyfulness present in these ephemeral wildflowers. 



In our current chaos, it is comforting to know that spring is not cancelled. 


“It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.” 
– Mary Oliver, Invitation.



Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com 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 currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Trees of Sun and Shade

Who doesn’t feel inspired when they tilt their head back and gaze up at big white pine or hemlock? And how could you not admire the grace of a pure white birch tree? Here in the Northwoods, we love our trees. John Muir wrote, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” Happily, we’ve got lots of pines up here. I’m going to go walk between a bunch of them until I find a new world I like better. Who’s with me?

This is the final installment of topics from the Forest Lodge Nature Trail’s new interpretive booklet. I’ll do some final editing, and then send the text off to the Forest Service so they can do layout and printing. With any luck, the new booklets will be waiting for you at the trailhead when it’s safe to travel again. The Forest Lodge Nature Trail will officially re-open for hiking on May 8. Please follow CDC guidelines to protect the health of yourself and those around you. 

Old Growth White Pines
Eastern white pines are majestic trees. They can live for up to 450 years, grow to 150 feet in height, and reach a diameter of more than 5 feet. White pines also are a valuable source of the wood we need to build homes, craft furniture, and make paper. During the logging era of 1850-1920, almost all of the local forests were cut down. 

Look down. The rotting stumps of large white pines still dot this forest. Both their growth, and their death, are important reminders of the history of this area. 

Look up. The next era of majestic white pines are growing now. The oldest of them are probably about 100 years old. You can see their wispy branches poking up above the rest of the forest in a layer called the “super canopy.” In fact, white pines of all ages surround the trail. While they face many natural threats, this forest is now protected from logging. What do you think it will look like in another hundred years?



Eastern Hemlocks
The tall trees in this grove are eastern hemlocks. They are easy to identify by the way the top leader gently flops to one side. Hemlocks often have shallow roots, and they sometimes topple over in strong winds. When a tree falls, more sunlight can reach the forest floor. Hemlock seedlings, which tend to sprout in the shade on the damp wood of a rotting stump or log, race toward this new sunlight in a spurt of growth. It’s hard to imagine that these majestic trees were once tiny seeds hidden inside small cones. 

As hemlocks age, their bark becomes quite thick. That bark was once harvested for tannins, which are the chemicals used in tanning hides into leather. On average, it took the bark of one tree to tan one hide. Today, we use synthetic chemicals instead. 

Look closely at the bark. A yellow-bellied sapsucker has made rows of tiny holes in order to feed on the hemlock’s sweet sap. 

Sun Loving Birch
White or paper birch is a true beauty of the Northwoods. Its smooth, papery bark makes it easy to identify. The dark, horizontal lines on the bark are lenticels. These cells allow the tree to take in and give off carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water vapor. 

Unlike the hemlock trees, whose seedlings can survive in deep shade, birch trees grow best in the bright sunshine available after a fire, windstorm, or other major disturbance. They are known as a pioneer species. While they grow quickly, birches are not long-lived. Firs and spruces often grow up in their shade, and are ready to take over when the birch trees succumb to disease, insects, or drought. 

Birches do have some defenses, though. A chemical called betulin makes birch bark very resistant to rot. Native Americans use the birch’s strong, waterproof bark to make canoes, baskets, and homes. Betulin is also what makes birch bark flammable. The unique chemical is being researched as a treatment for cancer, diabetes, tuberculosis, and more. Chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees concentrate betulin naturally, and some people make it in to a medicinal tea. Please be respectful of future visitors and do not harvest chaga near trails. 

That’s it for this week’s hike. Next week I’ll see you back out on the trails with some new natural connections!

Thanks to Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteers Thom Gerst and Kay Meyer for their help in drafting this booklet! Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com 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 currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we are up to.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Birds and Bees

Powerful sunshine is making short work of snowdrifts and lake ice. Birds are returning. Green shoots are rising. Buds are expanding. Whatever else is going on, spring is not cancelled! As I continue to share with you pages from the Forest Lodge Nature Trail’s new interpretive booklet, this week’s selection takes us through the seasons, from winter birds, to summer birds, to late summer flowers and pollinators. 

Please remember that this trail and many others are closed to the public, in alignment with current federal, state, and local guidance for social distancing. Happily nature is everywhere, and you can still make observations as you hike close to home. 

Birds in the Winter
Pause for a moment and listen. Can you hear the “chickadee-dee-dee” call, of a black-capped chickadee? The nasal yank-yank-yank of a red-breasted nuthatch? The sharp pik note of a downy woodpecker? These are some of the intrepid birds who spend all winter in our woods. How can they survive the bitter cold while other birds fly south? It’s all about food and shelter. These hardy neighbors are able to find seeds and insect larvae all year round. Eating helps them stay warm, as does taking shelter in a tree cavity or dense evergreen trees at night.

As you continue down the trail, look for holes in trees and woodchips on the ground. These may be places where a woodpecker has been feeding.

This chickadee has also grown its own down jacket. How clever!

Summer Birds
Summer is an exciting time on the Forest Lodge Nature Trail. Not only are plants growing and insects buzzing, but hundreds of species of birds migrate north to these woods in order to raise their young. Why would they undertake such a difficult and dangerous journey? The long days of summer, paired with abundant food (e.g. caterpillars and mosquitoes), and good places to build nests, allow birds to produce more young. In order to attract mates and defend territories, many birds sing loudly, especially at dusk and dawn. Can you hear them?


Red-bellied Sapsucker: These black-and-white birds with red caps and red throats are one of the few woodpeckers who migrate. Their call sounds like a surprised squeaky toy, and their drumming is uneven, like someone tapping out Morse code. 


Red-eyed Vireo: These small, olive-green songbirds are hard to spot way up in the trees. That’s ok, because we can still hear them. Their short phases: “Here I am. In a tree. Look at me. Vir-e-o” are sung loudly, and sung all day, even when other birds have gone quiet. 


Blackburnian Warbler: The black back and orange throat of this small bird are worth trying to spot. They spend most of their time in the tops of pine and hemlock trees, but their very high-pitched song can help you figure out where to look. 

Prairie Flowers and Pollinators
Under the blazing sun of late summer, colorful blossoms fill this opening. The flowers and grasses were planted in 1968, to create a prairie habitat. Prairies require regular fires to prevent trees and shrubs from taking over. Without fire, this little patch is shrinking. Still, you can find the fuchsia flowers of rough blazing star, and the drooping petals of yellow coneflower. 

Rough blazing star and yellow coneflower.


Look closely at a flower. Can you see the dusty yellow specks? Pollination occurs when pollen from the anthers of one flower is deposited on its own stigma (female part) or the stigma of another flower of the same species. Next, seeds develop. Flowers can’t move to go find a mate, so they enlist the help of wind, water, birds, and insects to move their pollen around. Do you see any bees? Bees seek out pollen to feed their young, so they are naturally the most effective pollinators for many flowering plants. They use fuzzy hairs on their bodies and pollen baskets on their legs to carry the protein-rich resource, but some drops off at each flower. The colors, shapes, and scents of flowers are intended to attract bees and other pollinators. Happily, we can enjoy them, too.  

Orange-belted bumble bees often visit the flowers of rough blazing star flowers in late summer.



Thanks to Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteers Thom Gerst and Kay Meyer for their help in drafting this booklet! Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com 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 currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we are up to.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Forests Have Layers

With snow still clinging to north-facing slopes, and tree buds waiting for warmer days to open, the trees in a forest can look like they are doing their own form of social distancing. I like to focus on the positive, and call this “see-through season.” As I’m walking familiar roads and trails, I can see through the forest to notice rock outcrops, pools, big trees, and even houses that I’ve never noticed before. By June, many of our forests will be dense walls of green, especially along the edges. Right now is a great time to observe their structure, and the shape of the landscape beneath them. 

As I continue to share with you pages from Forest Lodge Nature Trail’s new interpretive booklet, I’d also like to remind you that the USDA Forest Service recently announced that this trail and many others are closed to the public, in alignment with current federal, state, and local guidance for social distancing. Happily nature is everywhere, and you can still make observations as you hike close to home. 

A leatherwood shrub blooms among the (mostly) socially distanced trees in early spring.

Forests Have Layers
Forests are composed of trees, of course, but that’s not all. There are five main layers to a forest. The canopy is where the crowns of tall trees meet and intercept most of the sunlight. Shorter trees form the understory as they grow toward the sun. 

In some places, enough light filters through that the shrub layer is well-developed. This layer extends from about knee-high to a few feet above your head. These bushes, shrubs, and young trees provide food and shelter for wildlife. Deer browse on twigs that are easy to reach. Many songbirds hide their nests in the dense foliage. Insects take advantage of shelter from the wind and sun, and become food for birds and other animals. Pollinators buzz around flowers, and many critters eat the resulting fruits. 

Nearby you’ll see the rounded shape and warm tan bark of a leatherwood shrub. Its twigs are extremely flexible, and its small, yellow flowers brighten up the forest in early spring. Maple-leaf viburnum grows here, too. Its twigs, leaves, and buds are oppositely arranged, which means they are paired along the stem. White flowers become dark purple berries that birds love. Beaked hazelnut also thrives in the shrub layer. Tiny, sausage-shaped catkins (a type of flower cluster) dangle off the twigs all winter long. Its nuts provide food to insects, squirrels, bears, and more. 

Leatherwood is a distinctive member of the shrub layer in eastern North America. Its yellow flowers brighten up the early spring woods. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Maple-leaf viburnum dark berries can be found in the shrub layer. 

Beaked hazelnut catkins can be seen on its twigs all winter long, but the tiny scarlet flowers only emerge in early spring.

Under the shrub layer, we find a carpet—or maybe just a few sprigs—of herbaceous plants in the herb layer. Sometimes, barely anything can survive under the deep shade of the trees. With soft stems, these ferns, grasses, and wildflowers stay close to the ground and provide habitat for ground-nesting birds, mice, and more. They must survive with very little light in the shade of the other layers. Some woody plants are here, too. The seedlings of maple trees can survive for decades while growing only a few inches tall as they wait for a gap in the canopy. The shiny, dark-green leaves of wintergreen are common in northern forests. It has bell-shaped white flowers that develop into fragrant red berries. They are food for ruffed grouse, deer, bears, chipmunks, and mice. 

Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens


Below the herb layer is the forest floor. This is where dead stuff gets recycled back into soil by a team of decomposers like fungi, invertebrates, and bacteria. If you see a forest where the herb layer looks like a grassy lawn, then it probably has an earthworm invasion. Worms are not native to the north, because glaciers froze the soil. Plants here have adapted to growing through thick layers of dead leaves. Now when the worms decompose those leaves quickly, it changes the habitat and a lawn of Pennsylvania sedge takes over. (Be sure to put your extra fishing worms in the garbage!)

Pennsylvania sedge is pretty and native, but it also takes over the forest floor with the help of invasive earthworms.

Bat Habitat
If you look off to the side of the trail, you’ll see a small depression. Depending on the season, it might be filled with snow, or water, or just mud and leaves. The wet ground prevents many trees from growing, so herbs and shrubs become more common. Small pools like this provide important habitat for insects. The airspace above them also becomes important habitat for bats. Bats use the open space to dart about and catch insects. They may also get a drink by skimming over the open water. 

Some bats are in trouble, though. A fungal disease called white-nose syndrome is killing bats in North America. This cold-loving fungus infects bats while they are hibernating in caves. You can help by putting up a bat box in your yard, and by protecting important bat habitats like this forest opening.


Leatherwood is pretty in early spring! 

Thanks to Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteers Thom Gerst and Kay Meyer for their help in drafting this booklet! Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com 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 currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we are up to.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Importance of Decomposition along the Forest Lodge Nature Trail


Well, April is an interesting month in the Northwoods, and spring seems to be coming in fits and starts. Many trails are muddy right now, and hikers should be careful about the impact their boots make in the wet soil. For now, I’ll content myself with walking on roads and writing about the Forest Lodge Nature Trail. 


This week, the sections I’m sharing from the trail’s new interpretive booklet include one of my favorite topics. I love bogs, I love bog plants. The pages in this booklet are short, and I left out many of my favorite facts. If you’d like to learn more, you can explore my blog more through the search box.  As always, please contact me with corrections or ideas—the booklet is still in draft form!

The Forest Lodge Nature Trail has a lovely bog boardwalk to give you easier access to this fragile ecosystem. Some trails in Wisconsin have been closed recently, so it’s important to check before you go, stay close to home, use proper hygiene (including dealing with waste properly) and be extra cautious so you don’t stress our emergency response system. 

Forest Lodge Nature Trail bog boardwalk
Whether you visit the trail in person or in your imagination, happy hiking!

Bogs and Fens Continued…
With cold, acidic, low-oxygen water, decomposition proceeds slowly in bogs and fens. Without decomposition to return nutrients to the system, they are challenging places to live. You can see this in the stunted, yellow needles of the white pines. The plants that thrive have unique adaptations.

Sphagnum moss plays a big role in bog and fen formation. Sphagnum’s primitive leaves are like tiny sponges, and can absorb as much as 26 times their own weight in water. Because of this trait, it has been used for diapers and bandages. To deal with the lack of available minerals, sphagnum shoots hydrogen ions into its environment—dislodging scarce nutrients for its own use. This acidifies the bog or fen, which further limits which plants can grow there.

There is more living carbon in Sphagnum moss that in any other single genus on the planet. 

Leatherleaf
is a hardy shrub with leathery, oval leaves that hang on through the winter. Its rigid stem and wiry branches are the scaffolding that support sphagnum moss as the vegetation mat grows inward from the edges of the basin. In the middle of the bog, leatherleaf forms the base of mounds called hummocks. Leatherleaf obtains nutrients through a partnership with fungi on its roots.

Leatherleaf is a bog plant with tough, evergreen leaves and pretty white flowers. 


Leatherleaf forms a living scaffolding around the edges of bogs, and sphagnum moss uses it to extend the bog mat. Photo by Emily Stone.

Pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant with leaves that hold water. Their dark red flowers bloom in June, and their seed heads poke above the bog like periscopes for most of the year. In order to get enough nitrogen and phosphorus, pitcher plants lure insects to the trap of their water-filled leaves. Then fly larvae, mosquito larvae, and midge larvae who are living in the pitcher help the plant digest and absorb the nutrients it needs. These mosquitos eat so well that they don’t need to drink blood!

Pitcher plant flowers have beautiful and ephemeral petals, but their main structure can be seen in the bog throughout most of the year. Photo by Emily Stone. 

The uniquely shaped leaves of pitcher plants act as insect traps. These carnivorous plants rely on insects to acquire enough nutrients to survive in the challenging habitat of bogs and fens. Photo by Emily Stone.

Logs into Soil
How many rotting logs can you see from where you stand? Those trees once grew using carbon from the air and nutrients from the soil. Now they are decomposing and the forest is recycling their resources. Much like the snag and the nurse stump, these logs are filled with life. Moss and lichens keep them moist. Fungi soften the wood. Beetles, ants, and other invertebrates chew tunnels. Spiders, crickets, firefly larvae, salamanders, and mice find cozy homes. As the logs decay, they replenish the soil’s nutrients and help the soil retain moisture so that new trees can grow. They are an important part of the cycle of life. 

Fungi like these puffball mushrooms play a big part in breaking down fallen logs. 

Local Logging History

The lumber industry in Wisconsin faced many obstacles as it began in the 1830s. Bogs, wetlands, and dense forests prevented easy travel. The railroad reached Cable in 1880, and the lumberjacks came with it. 

Teams of draft horses hauled huge loads of pine and hemlock along this logging road. Once the lumbermen reached camp on nearby Lake Namakagon, the logs were rolled into the lake and floated to sawmills on the Namakagon River. There they were cut into lumber and transported by train. The railroad reached Cable in 1880.

https://www.wpr.org/farming-logging-shaped-wisconsins-identity 

Look for large, rotting stumps leftover from the logging era. As new life takes them over, they represent both the past and the future of this forest.  



Thanks to Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteers Thom Gerst and Kay Meyer for their help in drafting this booklet! 

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com 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 currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we are up to.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Kettles and Bogs of the Forest Lodge Nature Trail

Recent rains and warm days have caused a rapid retreat of our snowpack. The resulting landscape of brown duff and soggy mud isn’t very attractive, but little green shoots are popping up, and soon our landscape will again be festooned with flowers. This annual transformation is a little reminder of how the extended winter of glaciation shaped our region—including the Forest Lodge Nature Trail. Here are two sections from the trail’s new interpretive booklet to summarize that history. 

Geology
The hill you just climbed pales in comparison to the mountains that towered over northern Wisconsin more than a billion years ago. All those years of erosion wore the Alps-like Penokee Range, located just to the northeast, into big rolling hills. 

Right here, the landscape was shaped by glaciers. Glaciers are made of many layers of snow from thousands of winters that were compacted into ice under their own weight. The Wisconsin Glaciation began about 100,000 years ago when ice advanced south out of Canada, and the last glacier melted out of Wisconsin by about 13,000 years ago.

This map from The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey shows the extent of Wisconsin’s last glacier. Find out more, and watch an animation of glacial advances, on their website


As glaciers flowed slowly across the land, they broke apart bedrock, carried the pieces away within the ice mass, and then laid down thick sedimentary deposits in new places. Like giant conveyor belts, glaciers transported tons of boulders, gravel, sand, and clay. When the climate began to warm again, the ice melted faster here at its toe than new snow in Canada could replenish it. 

Huge chunks of ice broke off from the main ice mass and were left behind at the edges of the melting glacier. Rivers of meltwater from the glaciers carried sediment that buried those ice chunks. Now well-insulated, the ice lay hidden under a flat surface of sand, gravel and cobbles for many years. When the ice chunks finally melted, basins of all shapes and sizes were left behind where the ice had been. Sometimes these basins, called kettles, filled with water and became lakes (like Lake Namakagon); others are perched above the water table and stay dry. The hills between the kettles are called kames. Glaciers shaped the land you stand on. 

Kettle lakes form in the depression left behind when buried ice melts. 
Try this! Bury a balloon in sand, and then pop the balloon. A “kettle” will form. 

As you continue hiking, notice the shapes of hills and basins. Can you image the size of the ice chunks that were once buried here?

Bogs and Fens
Wetlands are important habitats in the Northwoods. They filter water, reduce flooding, and provide food and shelter for many living things. Wetlands have saturated soil during the growing season. There are four main types of wetlands. 

  • Marshes are dominated by soft-stemmed, herbaceous plants.
  • Swamps are dominated by trees and shrubs.
  • Fens have mostly herbaceous plants and peat soil containing poorly decomposed plants. They are influenced by groundwater and by runoff from the surrounding slopes. Some fens receive nutrients like calcium from their water source. Other fens are nutrient-poor and acidic.
  • Bogs have sphagnum moss; small shrubs, and peat soil made of poorly decomposed plants. They only receive water from precipitation, not from groundwater or runoff. Bogs are nutrient-poor and acidic. 
The main wetland on the Forest Lodge Nature Trail sits in a glacial kettle. It formed when an ice chunk left behind by the melting glacier was buried by sediment and then melted slowly over time. 

The bog boardwalk is a favorite destination on the Forest Lodge Nature Trail. This wetland—technically a fen—formed in a glacial kettle. Photo by Emily Stone. 


Water filled the basin. Plants began to grow around its edges, and sphagnum moss grew on those plants like scaffolding. Dead plants sank to the bottom, but did not decompose in the cold, acidic water. Eventually, the mat of vegetation crept in from the edges, and organic matter accumulated on the bottom. Over time, the lake filled in with peat, which is made of poorly decomposed dead plants. Although this process has been going on for thousands of years, as recently as 1986 there was open water in the middle of the wetland. 

Is this wetland a bog or a fen? Although many of the plants in this wetland are commonly found in bogs, and it has sphagnum moss, you can see that this basin is connected to water flowing across the landscape (and under the bridge you crossed earlier). That makes it a fen. But the groundwater here is not nutrient rich, so it is a “poor fen,” that has many characteristics in common with bogs. 

Mud season is a great time to observe how water travels—and puddles--across our glacially carved landscape. Remember that if you go for a hike on the Forest Lodge Nature Trail, and be sure to wear appropriate shoes! It is better for the trail if you walk through the center of a puddle instead of walking around and accidentally widening the impact. 

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books. Or order it from our friends at redberybooks.com 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 currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we are up to.