Friday, August 14, 2015

Northwoods Lobsters

I don’t know if it’s been dry near you, but my house has been skipped by too many recent rainstorms. So when the gentle hiss of liquid on leaves permeated my kitchen window screens, I donned a bright yellow slicker and headed out into it. The joy of a slow, quiet walk in the damp woods reminded me of Mary Oliver’s poem, Lingering in Happiness. “After rain after many days without rain,” she writes, “it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees…”

Colors were muted in the gray dusk, but scents were made vibrant by the splash of drops sending dust molecules skyward, where the damp air stuck them to the insides of my nose. I breathed deeply, again and again, on my way down the driveway. Sweet, green raspberry leaves. The tang of the bog. Wet asphalt. Wet gravel. And then, the earthy bouquet of the woods.

“The dampness there, married now to gravity, falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground where it will disappear—but not of course, vanish, except to our eyes,” continues Mary Oliver. So focused was I on my nose, things did seem to almost vanish to my eyes. Until, that is, a flash of bright orange switched me between senses.

The oddly shaped blob of color right next to the trail didn’t look like much. But I knew instantly that it was treasure. In fact, it was a lobster, right here in the center of the continent. Not a crustacean, mind you, but a mushroom.

Lobster mushrooms, like many good things, are actually the result of a relationship between two living things. The orange-colored fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, parasitizes the mushroom of another fungus, and in doing so creates a tasty treat. Neither of the common host mushrooms is edible on its own. While not poisonous, Lactarius piperatus is reported to have an intensely peppery flavor. Russula brevipes, the other common host, is also harmless, but has a crumbly, Styrofoam texture that would be unpleasant to eat. Hypomyces not only renders a pleasantly firm, dense texture, it also neutralizes the peppery flavor and imparts an interesting seafood flavor.

Lobster mushrooms are a delight for beginning mycophiles, since they and their hosts are easy to identify. They are on the short list of mushrooms that I’ll eat without expert help. The outer surface is bright orange and looks slightly pimply – those dots are the reproductive structures for the parasite. Breaking open the gnarled mass of what used to be a mushroom cap, I found an appealing white center.

Continuing down the trail, I started to notice plain white mushrooms all over the woods. “Puhpowee was here,” I thought to myself. An Anishanabe word, it means “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” These must be the un-parasitized cousins of my lobster. But which host were they?

The first crumbling snap of the stem made me think of a Styrofoam Russula, but then I noticed milky sap oozing from a broken gill under the cap. This Lactarius was lactating. “So how peppery is the milk?” I wondered. After debating the risk of eating a raw wild mushroom (something that is not advised), curiosity won out and I touched the tip of my tongue to the milk. It was spicy, but not any worse than a peppercorn stuck in your teeth, or an extra dose of wasabi on your sushi. Eating a full bite would have been certainly been painful.

With tongue burning, nose humming, eyes flashing, cool raindrops tickling my bare knees, and the patter of rain filling my ears, I hurried back down the trail toward my kitchen. Although I’ve known about the edibility of lobster mushrooms for several years, I’ve had yet to taste one.

Soon my favorite cast iron skillet was sizzling with butter, and a pile of fresh garlic was mounded on the cutting board. Into the pan went the bowl of cut and cleaned lobsters. Into my nose rose a savory perfume. Into my mouth went the first hot morsel with its bright orange rind. Without garlic, it was bland, but pleasant. It was a nice experiment, but not dinner. In went the pile off the cutting board. The flavors of garlic and butter warmed my cool evening as the rain drummed harder on the leaves.

Lobsters in the Northwoods. After rain, after many days without rain, you never know what you might find in the woods.
Bright orange lobster fungi sometimes hold the shape of their host mushroom, but the orange rind on the outside is actually a parasitic fungi that renders inedible hosts tasty. Photo by Britt Bunyard.

In the background sits an un-parasitized Lactarius piperatus. In the foreground you can see the pimply orange rind of parasitic Hypomyces lactifluorum that renders the brittle white flesh of the Lactarius edible. Together, they become the lobster mushroom.  Photo by Emily Stone.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Phantom in the Forest

“What’s that!?” exclaimed Ellie. “Where?” “What?” “I see it!” “Weird!” came the jumble of replies.

Six strong girls were relaxing on the riverbank, philosophizing about how they came to care about nature. This group of high school girls from the Northland College summer program had just paddled a short but beautiful stretch of the Namekagon River, taking time to catch aquatic insects, learn about river geology, and check out some amazing flowers in bloom.

Now, something crazy was interrupting our conversation. A wisp of a creature floated in and out of view. For not appearing to be a strong flyer, it certainly sped along faster than the eye could focus on its form. It was just the size of the hole in your fingers when you make the “ok” sign, and barely more substantial than that empty space, too.

The mystery came and went all afternoon, interrupting our discussions as we all tried to get a better look at it. Black and white bands on the thread-like legs broke up its outline, and allowed it to disappear against the backdrop of vegetation. We tried to catch it, but all depth perception failed. Finally, I too, had to fade into the river and return home.

Back in my kitchen, movement at the window caught the corner of my eye. There it was again! This time, with the internet close by, I was able to solve the mystery. Aptly named, these creatures are phantom crane flies.

Last summer I wrote about the much more substantial giant eastern crane fly. Phantom crane flies are in a related family all their own, and are known for their ghostly ability to disappear. Their preference for the dense and shady vegetation along wetlands aids in their habit of vanishing into the background.

When you finally do see a phantom crane fly, they are no less astonishing. All legs are held perpendicular to the ground when they fly—spread out in a big circle—making them look a little like a floating snowflake.  They barely use their wings when flying. Instead, their legs are light and hollow, and have inflated sections at their tips that catch the breeze like little sails.

This low-energy movement is useful for an insect that isn’t known to eat as an adult. Mating is likely their main goal, and it occurs either in mid-air, or with the female clinging daintily to a leaf. In either case, the smaller male is suspended from the female’s abdomen, and doesn’t seem to fly or perch at all during the process.

The female then dips the tip of her abdomen in water or mud and deposits over 300 eggs at a time. Small worm-like larvae hatch, burrow into the muck, and then breathe air from the surface through a long siphon tube. They eat debris and organic matter before metamorphosing through the pupa stage and becoming the only slight less cryptic adult.

In the process of sharing the answer to our phantom encounter with the girls, I reflected back on our insect-interrupted conversation about why we care. Time in nature and encounters with wild things were two common themes. And, whether the girls realize it or not, I believe that it is also their willingness to be curious, and to be excited by the mysteries of the world that will keep their love of nature alive.

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.” --Rachel Carson

Phantom crane flies are fairy-like creatures with tiny wings and tiny sails on the tips of their black-and-white legs. Look for them in dense wetland vegetation.
Photo by Brandon Woo.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Brookies of Cap Creek

“Stick a toe in the water,” dared WDNR Fisheries Biologist Max Wolter with a sly grin. The teenage boys (and one mom) that had joined me on this adventure hesitated for only a second before taking the dare. “Wow, that’s cold,” was the general response. We’d just dipped our feet into Cap Creek, a spring-fed tributary of the upper Namekagon River, and that cold water was part of what drew us here. The cold water is also what draws native brook trout here, and this little stream hosts one of the best brook trout habitats on the Namekagon.

Every year the WDNR collects data on the number and size of trout in this stream. They accomplish this not through the elegant casting of a fly rod like we learned about a few weeks ago, but with wands that send currents of electricity through zipping the water, and nets to scoop the temporarily stunned fish up from the bottom (they don’t float when stunned as many people think). Fish shocking is a common research technique—and one that holds quite a bit of intrigue for kids of all ages.

When we’d arrived at the Cap Creek Landing on the Namekagon River, the three DNR biologists were sitting at the landing with their little research boat, counting and measuring fish. Max looked up apologetically, saying “This might take a while; we just caught an unusually high number of trout in our first sweep.” So we stood there watching and listening as two biologists pulled fingerling trout out of their nets, dropped them one at a time into measuring troughs, and called out lengths to Max, who recorded the numbers on his data sheet. While a bit tedious, this was the reality of science in action.

Things got more exciting when Max brought out a small aquarium on a tall pole. He sunk the pole in the sand, and then grabbed good-sized brook trout out of a net. Now at eye level, we could admire the beauty of this incredible fish – the only truly native trout on the Namekagon. A pattern of yellow and olive-green markings was overlain by scattered red spots, each with a halo of pale blue. The pectoral fins were a lovely shade of orange. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful fish.

According to Max, they usually only find a dozen or so trout in this section of the Namekagon River, just below the mouth of Cap Creek. Today, they found close to a hundred. Of course we asked why. “The mild winter, he replied immediately. “All the little ones survive the winter better when it’s short and there’s not as much ice buildup.” He continued, “It’s neat to have long term data because you can look at how the weather impacts trout,” said Max. “In all the really long winters we had bad trout numbers. In all the short winters we had good numbers. You can start to see patterns.”

Of course, it’s not just the length of our winters that affects trout populations on the Namekagon and its tributaries. “Trout are fragile,” remarked Max. “They need cold, pure water, good habitat, and few contaminants.” In the old days, the Namekagon River provided all of that. Way back in 1831, the explorer Henry Schoolcraft noted the abundance of brook trout in the Namekagon River, even in the warm summer months. Later, in 1883, as tourism became a local industry, one fly-fisherman claimed that “All trout streams in the state must yield the banner to the noble and lordly Namakagon.”

The logging boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s changed that. With the large trees felled off its banks, sunlight warmed the river. Extra sediment washed into the channel and covered up some of the cold water springs that used to moderate the river’s temperature. Woody debris that previously provided cover was removed from the channel. Logging dams pooled water and allowed it to heat up before flowing downstream. None of those changes are good for a fish that can’t survive in water above sixty-eight degrees.

Cap Creek had its own set of challenges. In the 1950s, a trout farm diverted the water of this spring-fed stream into several excavated ponds. Although trout thrived in the hatchery, no native fish frequented the creek. In 1988, the National Park Service acquired the trout hatchery and began major restoration work. Cap Creek was restored to its original channel. Extra sediment was removed, revealing groundwater springs which today we watched bubbling up from the sand. They help keep the stream at a steady fifty degrees all year round. Logs were placed in the channel to provide cover and shade for the fish. “They work, too,” said Max, pointing to one of the logs along the bank, “we got seven or eight adult trout out of that spot when we came through with the nets.” He continued, “This is a great example of what you can to do restore something.”

Native prairie plants higher on the bank swayed in the breeze. They were part of the restoration, too. But all along the water’s edge were carpets of forget-me-nots, a European species that has escaped and spread along many stream banks. I commented on it being an invasive. “Well,” spoke up one of the biologists, “invasive or not, it’s good cover. That’s where all little fish are hiding when we came through.” “Plus it sure is pretty,’ noted one of the boys.

There’s another introduced species here, too, that may not be so bad. European brown trout were stocked here starting around 1883. They do better in warmer water, and frequent the main river channel more than the chilly waters of Cap Creek. The researchers only caught a few brown trout on their sweep up the creek.

By some accounts, brown trout eat the young brookies, and push them out. But with the changes in water temperature brought about by logging, and the uncertain future of climate change (which predicts our temperatures in northwestern Wisconsin to be more like eastern Kansas by the year 2095), brown trout may have a role to play in the ecosystem, especially outside areas like Cap Creek where the brookies thrive in water too cold for the browns. 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.”

Sticking our toes in the chilly stream today, we touched just a bit of a common current that runs through the history of North America. From abundance to exploitation; habitat loss to restoration; and now the preparation for an uncertain future…It is sure to be an upstream battle to conserve and create a world we – and the trout – will like living in.

Brook trout are members of the char subgroup of the salmon family. Char typically have a dark base color with light spots in contrast to true trout (like brown trout), who have light base colors and dark spots. 
Photo by Emily Stone.

DNR fisheries biologists led by Max Wolter (left), pull their boat with the electrical equipment in it upstream. Waders protect the men from the electricity that emanates from their wands. Temporarily stunned fish are scooped up with the nets and dumped into a bucket on the boat until their data can be collected. Photo by Emily Stone.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Monarch Chrysalids

A week went by when I didn’t have a chance to check on the monarch caterpillars near the Cable Natural History Museum’s front door. So after I’d waved goodbye to the last fly-tying, canoe-paddling, snack-eating boy, I deserted the pile of dirty camping dishes in the sink, and rushed out to check on my caterpillar crew.

The milkweed looked like it had seen better days. Many leaves were completely missing, while others were chewed down to a yellowing stub. While the evidence of their voracious eating was all around, a quick glance revealed no caterpillars. So I searched harder and harder; checking under each leaf, peering under the pendulous flowers, until I satisfied myself that the caterpillars were nowhere to be found.

A little research confirmed what I suspected. Once a monarch caterpillar has reached its final instar and stops eating, it enters a wandering stage and travels some distance from its host plant to find a safer, less visible place to pupate. Somewhere in the sweetfern thicket on our hill, hang four delicate, pale green chrysalids. (Side note: If you’re wondering about my spelling, both chrysalis and chrysalid are correct terms for the pupa, and chrysalid is easier to make plural.)

Since I had hoped to have a front row seat during the caterpillars’ transformation into adults, I was more than a little disappointed. The blinking orange light of my voice mail inbox soon changed that.

Bob Olson, one of my readers, just had to tell me about his granddaughter, Eve Depew. This bright-eyed seven-year-old is raising over 50 monarch butterflies on her back deck in Hayward, WI. She (with the help of her supportive parents) plans to save the monarchs from extinction.

As I chatted with Eve and her mother, Brianne, near the wood and netting butterfly nursery that Eve’s dad built, we kept one eye on the action. A neat line of chrysalids dangled from the sunny side of the frame, interspersed with crumpled, empty shells and their orange-winged owners. (It was too cold to release the seven new butterflies today.)

Hanging in one corner, a brightly striped caterpillar stuck out like a sore thumb. He’s in the J” spouted Eve, “I hope he changes soon!” Looking closer, she noted how the white stripes were looking greenish, and amended her exclamation, “I think he’s almost ready!”

While this caterpillar still looked more like a larva than a butterfly, some important changes had already taken place. During the wandering stage (when Eve must rescue wayward caterpillars off the deck furniture), veins develop that will supply his wings with fluid. As the caterpillar pupates, each wing is shaped and ready for adulthood.

During a pause in the conversation, we looked over to see that the caterpillar’s J was relaxing. “He’s ready!” announced Eve, swinging her blonde braids over her shoulder.

Sure enough, the skin near the back of his head had begun to split, and a small triangle of green showed through. Almost imperceptibly, this triangle grew as his exoskeleton sloughed off and crumpled into a wad near the silk button that attached it to the wood. It is easy to think of a caterpillar spinning a chrysalid around itself, but the delicate green shell is actually the body the caterpillar reveals during its last molt.

I stuck my nose up to the screen for a front row seat, while mother and daughter giggled together, narrating the action and imitating the energetic wiggling and twisting that the caterpillar must do in order to kick off the last of its old clothes without falling. This is no easy feat, as the monarch must pull a small, stick-like cremaster out of its exoskeleton and poke it into the silk button to secure its attachment for the long hall. This is a risky time for the monarch, and Eve told me sadly of one pupa that failed this step, its life ending in a pile of mush on the ground.

The newly-formed pupa looked lopsided to me, and upside down. Eve assured me that this was normal. In a few hours, the chrysalid’s exoskeleton would shape up and harden off.

Throughout my stay, both mother and daughter impressed me with their detailed knowledge of the life cycle. Only when I asked about the mysterious changes that happen inside the chrysalid did Eve furrow her brow and say “I just don’t know.” Scientists are only just beginning to figure out the details themselves.

While the pupa is certainly soft and vulnerable as it forms, it isn’t quite the soup of cells that some people imagine. At no time do all the body parts break down, although the chewing, crawling muscles of the caterpillars are reduced to liquid and reformed into the flight muscles of a butterfly. During the final caterpillar instar, clusters of cells called imaginal disks started to grow rapidly. Besides the wings, they have already formed a beating heart, a respiratory system, antennae, legs, and a proboscis. Those parts and others just need more time to develop fully, and old caterpillar parts need to be digested and reabsorbed.

As I sat transfixed by the show, Eve told me how she gathers fresh milkweed (complete hitchhiking eggs and caterpillars) from a neighbor’s field every day, and cleans the copious caterpillar poop out of the enclosure. “She spends hours out here,” her mother said with a proud smile. “I think she’s going to grow up to be a scientist.” In my opinion, this little caterpillar is already well on her way.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Lake Alive!” opened May 1, 2015, and will remain open until March 2016.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

As the developing monarch butterfly gets close to completion, the exoskeleton of the chrysalid becomes transparent and brightly colored wings show through. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Six-year-old Eve Depew is raising more than 50 monarch butterflies in an effort to protect them from weather, predators, and all the dangers of the wild. She hopes her efforts will help their populations recover. Photo by Emily Stone.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Boys on the River: Imitators and Attractors

The first ten miles of our trip went quickly. Once their paddles hit the water, the six teenage boys on our Paddle the Namekagon canoe trip didn’t want to stop. Looping around wide, lazy corners. Bouncing through short sections of mild rapids. Getting the hang of steering…and learning how to duck, or how to extricate the boat from tree branches when the steering didn’t work. My co-leader (a National Park Service Intern) and I gave them paddling tips, encouragement, and a lunch break, but mostly we just hung back and let them be boys on a river.

Arrival at the campsite meant learning how to set up new tents, laying out sleeping bags, and then an eagerly anticipated swim.

With the boys cooled off and tired out (for a few minutes anyway), our guest instructor came in. John Kudlas is a long-time outdoorsman and Museum volunteer. As a retired high school biology teacher, he is a wealth of knowledge and skills. Soon the boys were off on a scavenger hunt, looking for aquatic plants, identifying forest trees, and even collecting macroinvertebrates – the insects that spend at least part of their lives in the river.

With practiced efficiency, and his usual humor, John made sure the boys knew how important those invertebrates are. Both the aquatic nymph stages and the flighted adults of things like stoneflies and mayflies are water quality indicators, as well as good fish food. At the mention of fish, I saw the boys perk up their ears. As a surprise treat, John whipped out fish hooks, homemade hook vises, spools of thread, feathers, and fur, and soon the aspiring anglers were creating artificial flies for fly fishing.

This was delicate work, and the boys’ concentration was palpable. I noticed the tip of at least one tongue bitten in concentration. The long, brown nymphs each pair soon created were “imitators,” or artificial flies that seek to deceive fish by being a lifelike imitation of their insect prey. The boys were in good company. Humans have been creating imitators since at least 200 AD, and the term “artificial fly” was made popular by Izaak Walton’s 1653 book, “The Compleat Angler.”

By the mid to late 1800s, fly fishermen had expanded from tying flies that just imitate prey, to tying “attractors” – more colorful, abstract flies that don’t look like prey, but somehow incite aggression and attract strikes from fish.

Our boys followed the same progression in their fly tying.

After an easy morning paddle, we met Ranger Jeff at a large landing site. Since the Namekagon River is National Wild and Scenic Riverway—a unit of the National Park Service—we get incredible support from a host of park rangers along our journey, as well as some funding from the St. Croix River Association.

As it turns out, Ranger Jeff provided the real “bling.” A picnic table at the grassy landing was all set up and waiting for us. Here were professional hook vises for each student, as well as brightly colored foam sheets, vivid pink and naturally colored feathers, sparkly tinsel, and scope for the imagination. Ranger Jeff has a passion for teaching the next generation about fishing, and it showed in his enthusiasm, preparation, and carefully thought-out teaching progression.

As Ranger Jeff walked the kids through the fly tying steps, I could see both their eagerness to do things right for Jeff, and their confusion over how this odd hodge-podge of materials would become an artificial fly. Cutting foam, wrapping thread, folding, wrapping again, adding feathers, and wrapping some more—both the method and a form gradually took shape. Soon we had a swarm of brightly colored, flashy artificial flies with polka dots, eyes, tails, tufts, and even a comical unibrow.

Ranger Jeff gave the boys some free time then, to stretch their legs and get out their wiggles. He also put out a book of fly-tying patterns, opened up a case of professionally tied flies, and gave the boys the option of tying a second fly. After about ten minutes of Frisbee, they were all back at the table, heads bent to the task.

With the basic techniques mastered, the boys had soon created a second swarm of brightly colored flies, this time with multi-colored mantles, artfully layered feathers, and gracefully flowing tails. Thought definitely not imitators of life, these works of art looked like they could attract a crowd, and hopefully a fish, too.

Then for the real test. Ranger Jeff rigged each of the boys up with a fly rod and an artificial fly—hook and all. We waded into the shallow water at the river’s edge, and began to cast. Back and forth, the lines arched gracefully (mostly) over their heads and out into the current. Flies landed briefly on the surface, dancing in the ripples. Once again, the boys’ concentration was palpable. Cool water rushed around their knees. Flowing sand nestled around their feet. The jokes paused. Time slowed.

Imitators. Ranger Jeff stood in the middle of the row of young anglers casting again and again. I noticed the boys glance sideways at him from time to time, then turn back to their own rods with a focus on emulating his graceful motions.

Attractors. The river is its own lure: its peace, its beauty, its constant motion; the promise of challenge, adventure, and fun. And perhaps, if you tie the perfect fly, and cast the right way, the strike of a fish on your line.

In the preface of “The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton wrote, “No man is born an Artist nor an Angler.” That may be true, but I think that on this trip we inspired a few of each.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Lake Alive!” opened May 1, 2015, and will remain open until March 2016.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Friday, July 10, 2015


Lunch bag in hand, I hurried up the Cable Natural History Museum’s front walk, ready for another day at the office. On a whim, I detoured over to one of our native plant gardens. The round, pink cluster of flowers on a common milkweed drew me in, and I leaned over to inhale a big dose of their heady aroma.

As I finished drinking in their sweetness, my eyes opened, and then popped open wider. Caterpillar! There was no mistaking this wrinkly, black, yellow, and white-striped critter. Monarch butterfly caterpillars are as distinctive and easy to identify as their orange and black adults. Only an inch or so long, this little one was lying quietly on the upper surface of the leaf.

For a second, I worried about the folly of its bold, sunny perch. Shouldn’t it be hiding away in the shadows, safe from the hungry eyes of birds? It only took me a second to remember that monarch caterpillars don’t need to worry about that. As they munch on milkweed leaves, monarch caterpillars accumulate toxins from the plant’s milky sap in their bodies.

Not only do these chemicals make the caterpillars taste awful, they also cause any bird who eats the caterpillar to puke it back up. The bird remembers the experience, associates it with the caterpillar’s bright warning colors, and tends not to repeat the experiment. One caterpillar may sacrifice its life for the survival of its siblings.

So, with this protection in place, monarch caterpillars can focus on their most important task: eating. Monarch eggs are tiny – the size of a pencil tip – and develop for only four days before they hatch. The resulting caterpillar has a lot of growing to do. Over the course of just two weeks it will eat almost constantly. All that chewing takes a strong jaw – the average caterpillar's head contains 248 individual muscles. The goal: increase its body mass to more than 200 times what it was at birth. To accomplish this, a caterpillar eats its own bodyweight in food – milkweed leaves – each day. Some caterpillar species gain 20% of their bodyweight in a single hour. If I were to do that, the lunch bag still clutched in my hand would need to weigh over 28 pounds!

As they balloon in size, monarch caterpillars shed their skin five times throughout their larval life, each time revealing a larger skin waiting just beneath. Each stage is called an “instar.” The final time a caterpillar sheds its skin, it exposes the beautiful, jade-green chrysalis, and the monarch pupates.

Intrigued now, I squatted among the plants to look for more caterpillars, or eggs, or chrysalises. In my experience, two- and three-year old humans are the best height for executing caterpillar treasure hunts. Although no toddlers were available to help at the time, just taking their perspective won me two more tiger-striped larvae hanging out under leaves.

The basking caterpillar on the leaf’s upper surface still bothered me, though. Why not be better safe than sorry? With a little research, I soon turned up a scientific study in the Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society from 1981 that addressed that question. Rawlins and Lederhouse also noticed the basking behavior of monarch caterpillars. They, too, asked “why?”

What the researchers found, is that more often than not, the caterpillars rested in the sunshine in the middle of the day. Not only did they stay on the upper surface of the leaf, they also oriented their body broadside to the sun, for absorbing maximum solar radiation. The resulting increase in body temperature (up to 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the ambient air temperature) actually helped them to eat, digest, and grow faster.

In addition, the researchers hypothesized that increasing their visibility to birds actually helped caterpillars teach more potential predators about their toxic taste.

Female butterflies facilitate their caterpillars’ basking behavior by preferentially laying eggs on milkweed plants in the full sun, instead of in shady, wooded areas.

At night, caterpillars reverse their technique. On all but the warmest nights, caterpillars hide out underneath the leaves, shielding their body heat from the cold pull of the stars.

As the sun began to set outside my office window, I decided to go check on my little buddy to see if his behavior had changed. The dusk was cool and sweet. There he was, perched just where I left him. Only now, a crumpled gray wad of old skin lay next to him on the leaf. Was I imagining it, or did he seem a little bigger? While he rested, a neighboring caterpillar gnawed furiously at the jagged edge of another leaf. Grow, caterpillar, grow!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Home Again: Clay-colored Sparrow

A light rain was just starting to taper off as we crashed through the brush. The spicy fragrance of crushed sweet fern tickled our noses pleasantly. Birds sang all around us. Pushing through the clumps of head-high, stump-spouting scrub oak and red maple, we stepped carefully over the sooty remains of trees. Coming up on a long, narrow open area, a tall metal pole appeared out of nowhere – like finding the lamp-post in Narnia.

With a little squinting, we soon noticed some filmy, black netting strung from the pole, 30 feet through the open area, and hitched to a matching pole. A few raindrops sparkled on the web. Here, our small group of Wisconsin Master Naturalist students gathered around Jim Bryce, a retired biologist with the USDA Forest Service and National Park Service, and long-time bird bander.

Briefly, Jim explained how the mist net works. The fine black threads are nearly invisible, and they are strung to form long, floppy pockets. When an unsuspecting bird flies into the net, it drops into a pocket, and gets tangled in the net. Then a bander can carefully extricate the bird for processing.

As he talked, we noticed a flutter at the far end of the net. “Looks like we got one,” observed Jim, as he pushed toward it through the brush. And then, with considerably more excitement in his voice, “It already has a band! This must be the same clay-colored sparrow we caught last year!”

Returns – re-catching a previously banded bird at least three months later – are rare in the banding world, but they provide a wealth of information. From these recaptured birds, scientists have learned about the incredible 24,000 mile round-trip migration that Arctic terns complete each year; the wintering habitat of Bicknell’s thrushes; and the maximum known age for a wild bald eagle (32 years, 10 months). However, only about 1% of small birds are ever caught again.

“This is the perfect habitat for clay-colored sparrows,” Jim explained as he gently untangled the banded sparrow’s feet, feathers, and beak from the net. The Forest Service has been managing this area as open brushland, using fire to keep out the trees and provide the dense, shrubby, cover that many species need. That’s why we were stepping over burned logs and pushing through thickets of fire-dependent plants on the way here.

Clay-colored sparrows need this brushy habitat. Females build their nests in the lower branches of impenetrable thickets, preferring a spot with as little light penetration as possible for protection from predators. A low nest is good for the fledging chicks, too, since they hop to the ground before they can fly, and hide in dense thickets nearby while their parents feed them for a few more days. Unlike most other species, adult clay-colored sparrows forage outside of their nesting territory throughout the whole process. This leaves more food available near the nest for the flightless chicks.

Mostly due to a loss of their preferred brushy habitat, clay-colored sparrows have been in a slow decline over the past 40 years. That is one reason why the Forest Service’s management plan here in the Moquah Barrens on the Bayfield Peninsula is so important. Our returning sparrow is proof that they are doing a good job. Jim’s annual bird banding here will help to quantify their success.

When we finally got the sparrow extricated from the net and back to the processing table, we confirmed that he was in fact the same bird -- band # 53262 -- we caught last year in that same place. Male clay-colored sparrows return to the same territory year after year, but pairs do not mate for life. Instead, each year during migration the females find a new mate and follow him home.

The government will be following him now, too. At the end of each year, Jim reports all of his banding data to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory. They’ll make note of this return. The Forest Service will be interested in that information, too, since it helps to validate their management plan. If we or someone else catches our little friend for a third time, they can report it to the laboratory, too, and we’ll gain even more information.

Jim spent a few minutes with our bird, measuring his wing length, tail length, and weight. Once the data was collected, a student placed our little brown-and-white streaked friend gently on the ground. We held our collective breath for a second as he got his bearings, and then with a flutter he was gone.

As we turned back to the table to process more birds, we heard the characteristic bzz-bzz-bzz song of a clay-colored sparrow, claiming this beautiful brushland as home.

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