Friday, January 18, 2019

An All-Star Nose

Star-nosed moles blow bubbles in order to smell underwater. Ayla Baussan, age 8, was one of the many kids and adults who created illustrations for the chapters in my Natural Connections 2 book, which will be published in March. 

The chickadee took its time choosing a seed. Perched with its tiny toenails pricking the pad of my finger, it cocked its black-capped head this way and that. With its precisely pointed beak, the bird picked up a sunflower seed from my palm, weighed it for a split second, and then tossed it aside. That hull must have been empty.

It tried again. The second seed passed muster, and as the chickadee turned to fly away, its buff-colored belly feathers brushed my thumb. I held my breath—hoping to enjoy the touch of soft down—but my cold, calloused skin barely registered a wisp of sensation. Instead, I got one last poke with spiny toes as the chickadee launched back to the tree.

At times like this I wish I were a mole. Strange, I know, but I don’t mean just any mole. I wish I were a star-nosed mole, because they have the best sense of touch of any mammal. They may also be the weirdest looking mammal, and those two things are related. Star-nosed moles get their name from 22 fleshy, pink tentacles that protrude from the tip of their otherwise featureless face, which is on the end of a plain gray, oblong body, flanked by paddle-like digging feet with long, stout claws.

Each tentacle gets its bumpy texture from more than 25,000 touch receptors, called Eimer’s organs. Each Eimer's organ contains three types of tactile receptors, two of which also exist in human skin. The third type is unique to the star-nosed mole and allows the mole to identify objects by their microscopic texture. This funny nose may be the most sensitive organ in the entire animal kingdom. If I were a mole, I could have enjoyed even the microscopic softness of those chickadee feathers.

If I were a mole, a vast portion of my brainpower would be devoted to processing tactile information, and I could see only light and dark. I would also eat earthworms. So, maybe the benefits don’t outweigh the drawbacks. But star-nosed moles are incredibly well adapted for their own lifestyles, if not mine.

Those supersensing tentacles allow star-nosed moles to touch more than twelve objects per second, creating a tactile map of the environment under their nose. They can “see” without light as they tunnel through moist soil. Sometimes those objects are food, and it takes less than one-fifth of a second (14 times faster than any other mole) for the star-nosed mole to realize that something is edible and then eat it. That is much faster than my seed-weighing chickadee. This skill puts it in the running for the world’s fastest eater, right up there with a high school cross-country team at a pasta feed.

Star-nosed moles are even adept at swimming and foraging underwater. This came as a huge surprise to me the first time I encountered this amazing creature. I was snowshoeing on a lake in northern Minnesota on an extremely cold day when I saw something dark on top of the snow. I was confused. Moles live underground and survive the winter by following the worms even deeper underground, right?

Wrong—at least for star-nosed moles. These crazy creatures are active throughout the winter, burrowing through snow and even swimming under the ice of frozen ponds. I can relate. The same winter I found the icy mole, I also dug snow caves and jumped into frozen lakes.

Unlike me, moles use their excellent sense of smell to find prey under the water. Most mammal noses don’t work well underwater, because we must inhale air to bring scent molecules in contact with cilia in our nasal passages. To make the life aquatic work, star-nosed moles exhale several bubbles per second onto objects or scent trails they encounter underwater. When the moles draw the bubbles back into their noses, the scent molecules in the air contact olfactory receptors, and voilà! They can smell underwater.

So what good are these little creatures, aside from giving us something to be awed by in the dead of winter? Their tunnels loosen the soil and provide aeration for the roots of plants. Their voracious appetites can help control pest insects, and they provide protein snacks for a wide variety of predators. Owls, weasels, and even largemouth bass ignore the odd appearance of star-nosed moles long enough to gulp them up.

Star-nosed moles may not be as cute as my chickadees, but they can certainly make me appreciate the limits and abilities of my five senses.

(This article was originally published in January 2014, and will be published again as a chapter in my second book: Natural Connections 2, which should come out by mid-March!)

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Friday, January 11, 2019

A Web of Salmon

A puff of aromatic steam tickled my nose as I carefully opened the foil packet. Inside, lovely pink salmon fillets swam in their own little sea of butter. A year ago, that salmon swam in the Pacific Ocean. This past August, my arms ached as I pulled his 35-pound girth out of the Klutina River on the western edge of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. Now—after a frozen flight—he was feeding my family, my niece and nephews, and me. My teenage nephew—an avid fisherman—even complimented me on the catch.

Here's one of my salmon fillets, all packaged and ready to ship.

I’m not much of a fisherman, but the mystique surrounding salmon fishing in Alaska was too strong for me to pass up. They are a cultural icon, an economic powerhouse to the tune of more than $1 billion a year, and a staple of many Alaskans’ subsistence lifestyles.

My first encounter with the significance of salmon came while teaching at an outdoor school in the redwoods of California. The creek that ran through our camp still hosted a few endangered Coho salmon once every four years. Using a high-energy obstacle course, we taught kids about salmon’s anadromous lifestyle—and the challenges these fish face as they hatch and develop in small streams, then travel to the ocean to fatten up for a few years, and finally return to their natal stream to spawn and die. It was all news to this Midwesterner, but what really captured my imagination was salmon’s connection to the forest: salmon become trees.

Salmon belong to a vast web of connections that includes trees and fishing guides. Here, Brandon Thompson of Copper River Guides demonstrates how to cast for king salmon. Photo by Emily Stone.

Well, broccoli becomes me, too. The food web is ubiquitous when you think about it. But with salmon, the marine-derived nitrogen they pick up from their years feasting in the ocean can be distinguished from terrestrial nitrogen, and then traced throughout the ecosystem. A study from James M. Helfiel at the University of Washington found that “isotopic analyses indicate that trees and shrubs near spawning streams derive ~22-24 percent of their foliar nitrogen (N) from spawning salmon.” Another study found that the amount of salmon-derived nitrogen in trees could be as high as 70 percent.

As a result, trees near salmon streams grow nearly three times faster than trees in areas without a salmon run. Sitka spruce trees along salmon streams grow to 50 cm thick in just 86 years (vs. the more typical 300 years). The correlation is so tight that scientists can look at variations in the nitrogen content of individual tree rings and correlate it to the number of salmon who spawned in the stream that year.

And it’s not just the trees. More than 137 species of mammals, birds, and fish rely on salmon in one way or another. That includes the big brown bear I met on the trail, as well as the killer whale who cavorted next to my tour boat. It also includes the American dipper I photographed above a creek. These sleek little songbirds feed on aquatic insects—critters who are more abundant where salmon runs enrich a stream with nutrients. Lots of nutrients.
For example, a single chum salmon (weighing an average of 19 pounds)  swimming upstream to spawn brings with it 130 grams of marine-derived nitrogen, 20,000 kilojoules of energy in the form of protein and fat, and 20 grams of phosphorus.

American dippers are sleek little songbirds who feed on aquatic insects—critters who are more abundant where salmon runs enrich a stream with nutrients. I spotted this one in Moose Pass, Alaska. Photo by Emily Stone.

The 35-pound king salmon I caught in the Klutina River likely contained almost twice as many nutrients as their smaller cousins. The 13.3 pounds of meat my fishing guide sliced off its body sure fed my family well. Before hooking the male “buck” that I kept for Christmas dinner, I reeled in and released three or four female “hens.”  Hens that far upriver aren’t good eating. Their bodies were scraped, scarred, and pretty much falling apart since they had stopped eating and were focused purely on the task of developing and laying eggs.

Before hooking the male “buck” that I kept for Christmas dinner, I reeled in and released three or four female “hens.”  Hens that far upriver aren’t good eating. Photo by Brandon Thompson.

There’s no reason for the salmon to preserve their bodies past reproduction; dying is part of the plan. Adult salmon fertilize the ecosystem that feeds and protects their young. Nutrients from the carcasses feed aquatic invertebrates—which will feed juvenile salmon as they grow. One study traced 30 percent of the carbon and nitrogen in young salmon back to other salmon.

Bears and other predators eat the best parts of the salmon carcasses, carry the nutrients inland, and leave the rest for scavengers. Eventually, those salmon become trees. That’s perfect, because salmon need trees even more than the trees need salmon. Trees provide cooling shade, hold the streambanks steady with their roots, and feed invertebrates with their fallen leaves. Even toppled trees provide habitat and shelter for young fish.

It’s hard for me to imagine something in Alaska that isn’t somehow connected to salmon. (Even sediment from glaciers is purported to fertilize algae that form the base of the salmon’s marine food chain!)

Fittingly, from the moment I arrived in Alaska and turned on the local radio station, salmon were in the headlines. It wasn’t all good. Salmon runs this year were late, or small, or non-existent. Sport and commercial fishing seasons were canceled or delayed. One resource manager described it as “death by a thousand cuts.” Habitat loss and climate change seem to underlie most issues.

As my family in Iowa savored the wild flavor of Alaska this Christmas, it seemed impossible to overstate the vastness of salmon’s web of connections. For one summer, for one dinner, that amazing web held me, too.  

(Read about my fishing trip in the previous post, or here.)

Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

A Meal Fit for a Queen

Note: This story was originally written for and published in Northern Wilds Magazine out of Grand Marais, MN. They'd kindly agreed to let me re-post it for you here. You can also view the original e-edition here.

Tiny wisps of blue sky teased us through the clouds as we launched into the wild brown waves of the Klutina River near Copper Center, Alaska. Brandon Thompson of Copper River Guides manned the oars of his inflatable raft, assisted by Otter, his fluffy black and white boat-dog-in-training. We sped by thick forests of twisted black spruce.

I sat on the raft’s front bench, sandwiched between Philip and Luke. These guys have been friends since they met in a neighborhood park in Manhattan when they were two. They didn’t have much fishing experience either, which made me feel better about my rusty casting skills. I wasn’t sure if I really had the motivation for a full day of fishing, but the allure of catching and eating my own Alaskan salmon was too great not to give it a try.

Brandon set us up in a line along the gravel bank; all casting into the break between faster and slower currents. Within minutes, Phil had landed the first fish in a frenzy of excitement: a female king salmon. Brandon gave him a jubilant high-five.

I had been both thrilled and hesitant when Brandon told me over the phone that he was fishing for kings this week. Ever since I landed in Ketchikan back in early June, the local news has been all about the late, small, disappointing salmon runs. The kings in particular were so scarce that their season was closed completely in many watersheds, even to subsistence fishing. Local radio stations ran numerous stories about the possible causes and implications of this nine year pattern of decline. Theories abound, but fish biologists cite complex changes to the salmon’s marine habitat as the most likely culprit. 

While king salmon—also known as chinooks—are native to the Northern Pacific Ocean and the rivers that flow into it, they have been introduced to New Zealand, Patagonia, and the Great Lakes. Natural reproduction in Lake Superior’s North Shore streams is currently low, but Minnesota’s Chinook populations are bolstered by hatchery fish, and their run should be happening in October with the fall rains.

This year, in the watershed of Alaska’s mighty Copper River, the season was closed to commercial fishing, but not to sport and subsistence users. The run was late, but it came. And without the pressure from commercial fisherman, Brandon’s been seeing more kings in the Klutina than ever before. As if to illustrate his point, both Phil and Luke got fish on at the same time.

For bait we were using salmon eggs Brandon had harvested, cured, and tucked into little mesh sacks. We’d cast upstream and let them bounce downstream along the gravel bottom of the river. These salmon won’t bite out of hunger—they stop eating as they swim toward spawning and death—but they will instinctively defend their rocky nests against errant eggs washing in from upstream. When they grab the eggs to toss them away, that’s when we set the hook.

With my bait bouncing along the bottom and translating every rock into a jiggle, I started to create a tactile map of the riverbed. Then, my line halted; tugged. I whipped my rod tip toward shore to set the hook. Fish on! The pattern began: pull upstream, reel in line as you point your rod down again. Pull upstream against its fight. Reel in when the fish takes a breather. A huge red and silver torpedo leapt and splashed in the shallow water. My arms were aching and my shoulders tight by the time I gave one last pull to raise its nose, and Brandon got under it with a net.

Pink, silver, red, big. Her soft, thick body was as long as my arm. I knelt in the shallows and held her by head and tail for a photo, then pointed her into the current and watched her swim away. I’m sure I was still grinning as I washed fish slime off my shirt cuffs. It was a little disappointing not to keep my first big fish, but we let all the hens (as female salmon are called) go. Not only are they important for the continuation of the species, the energy they put into their eggs is hard on their bodies so they aren’t very good eating.

We fished a couple other places along the river, but that first hole proved to be the best. Luke landed the first buck, and I got the second. Those were our only two keepers. All told, we probably caught and released a dozen hens, each estimated at around 25 pounds. There were a few that got away and—of course—they were much bigger. The blue sky teaser turned to drizzle. Brandon filleted the fish at the river landing and threw the scraps to a flock of waiting gulls. After handshakes all around, I lugged my plastic bag full of raw fish over to a little log building called Copper Central.

Soon my 13.3 pounds of salmon meat were scheduled for a flight home in a freezer box. Intent on eating some of my own fresh salmon, I asked the guy behind the counter to hack off one serving for me to eat tonight. Foil was in my kitchen tub in the car; firewood is everywhere; but I needed a couple tablespoons of butter. The brightly colored sign and eclectic look of Klutina Kate’s B&B caught my eye. After conferring with the owner, the young staffer with an Eastern European accent let me take a lump of butter out of the dish and carry it away on a paper plate. No charge, just a smile and joke.

The salmon fillet I saved out to eat...

North of town I pulled into a rest area, and was thrilled to find picnic tables and low fire grates next to another rushing river. As my small fire burned to coals, I wrapped the salmon fillet and butter in tinfoil. Twenty minutes later I pulled the steaming packet from the coals and took it down to the riverbank for my feast. The meat was pink, tender, and flaky. I had no seasonings, but hunger is the best spice. After spending a drizzly day on the river, making new friends, and receiving Alaskan neighborliness, my meal of king salmon felt fit for a queen.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Finding Common Ground

We waited to board the bus that first morning with the effervescent attitude of vacation. This was probably the least responsibility any of us had ever held for a trip. Someone else was managing the logistics, translating instructions, and worrying over details. Our responsibility seemed mainly to be on time and have fun. We reacted like a case of soda bottles suddenly opened and relieved of their pressure: little bubbles of happiness danced up toward the surface, popping and splattering a fine mist of joy over everything.

We're so excited to wake up in Costa Rica!

Later, on our drive back from the first lodge at Tortugero, our guide Jimmy announced that we’d be returning for lunch to the same spot we’d eaten our first day’s breakfast. It was the place we’d observed the sloths. A hearty cheer rose spontaneously from the group. Jimmy thereafter referred to the restaurant “as that place you don’t like so much,” and we responded with laughter every single time.

So, yes, even the humor in Costa Rica translated well.

Our guide Jimmy has has great sense of humor!

We really didn’t struggle with any cultural shock—once folks got into the habit of putting toilet paper in the wastebasket and became comfortable drinking the water on their excellent treatment system. Secretly, I did struggle with natural shock: it’s not often I travel to a place where I can’t spout a constant (or even intermittent) stream of facts about the flora and fauna. Jimmy did a great job, but I still missed teaching.

Since returning, though, I’ve made time to read a resource I bought used online. “A Neotropical Companion,” by John C. Kricher, was written in 1989, but still provides a nice overview of rainforest ecology. The fun part is that many of his facts remind me of things right here at home.

For instance, Kricher described the “typical tropical tree” as having wide buttressed roots flaring out from the base of its trunk. They provide excellent support for the tree, especially since deep tap roots aren’t needed to access water. Our very own black ash trees also have shallow, spreading roots to provide stability in their swampy habitats. Seasonal forest ponds are often marked by ash trees with flared bases.

Buttressed roots are a good adaptation for any tree that needs to stay upright in wet soils. They work along a river in Costa Rica as well as it works in black ash swamp in the Northwoods. Photo by Emily Stone.
I'm not sure that these are even black ash trees, but their spreading root base is typical of Northwoods trees that grow on soggy ground. (The moss is just a bonus!) This photo was taken along the North Country Trail over near Copper Falls State Park. Photo by Emily Stone.

The shallow, spreading roots that are characteristic of tropical trees are an essential part of their nutrient cycle. With so much rain, most rainforest soils have had the minerals leeched out of them. Available minerals come mostly from efficient recycling within the forest. Shallow roots serve to catch and hold nutrients from quickly decomposing leaf litter. Despite the thick, abundant leaves in the rainforest, the ground in Costa Rica reminded me of an earthworm-infested forest back home. Nightcrawlers aren’t native to the Northwoods, and they decompose the duff too quickly for many native species’ liking.

Roots in the tropics are so shallow that some of them even grow UP onto the stems of neighboring trees, and they may be trying to intercept minerals washing down the tree trunk. Orchids and other epiphytes (epiphytes are “air plants” that grow up in the trees) grow baskets of wiry roots that can trap organic matter and allow fungi to decompose it into soil. The orchids use that soil as a source of nutrients and water, of course, but the tree may also sprout aerial roots to draw nutrients out of its own canopy.

Orchids growing epiphytically on trees often catch and hold a little bit of organic matter in their roots. Both the orchid and the tree can draw nutrients from the resulting soil. Photo by Emily Stone.

While epiphytes and air roots aren’t common in the Northwoods, those roots and the roots of almost every plant on Earth rely on mycorrhizal fungi in order to access enough water and nutrients. The term “wood wide web” had yet to be coined in 1989, but Kricher already knew about the importance of fungal mycelia for capturing nutrients and feeding a forest. In the rainforest system, algae also live in the root mat and act as an additional sponge to capture nutrients before they can escape.

Epiphytes include bromeliads (pineapple relatives) and also lichens and mosses. 

Up north here, lichens and mosses are our most common epiphytes. They even look pretty similar to these Costa Rican lichens!

Not all compounds are retained in the forest system, though. Plants on poor soils create longer-lasting leaves in order to conserve resources. (Up here, the plants in bogs come to mind). Durable leaves must be heavily armed against pathogens and predators. When those leaves finally fall, they can’t be decomposed until their defense chemicals have been washed away. It’s those tannins that turn rivers dark. “Blackwater” rivers in Costa Rica are tinted by the same chemicals as the Black River in Wisconsin.

My list of connections goes on. Forest succession, bird adaptations, even the eating habits of howler monkeys (like porcupines they select leaves only at their most nutritious growth state) remind me of things here at home in the Northwoods. Now it also works in reverse: when people from the trip run into each other, we reminisce about jokes we told and the things we saw in Costa Rica.

I love how connections rise to the surface and splatter a fine mist of joy over everything.

Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, December 28, 2018

A Slow Moving Symbiosis

On our first morning in Costa Rica, my group of 14 Museum members on the Natural Connections in Costa Rica trip rode through San Jose, over hills, and past volcanoes. Soon we left the Central Valley and headed for the Caribbean coast on our way toward breakfast. When—at last—the gates opened and we pulled into El Ceibo restaurant near Guapiles, Jimmy (our local guide) conferred with the gate operator briefly, then turned to us with the news: “There’s a sloth in the tree across the road!”

You can see that this sloth has three "fingers" as well as three toes. Photo by Emily Stone.

Naturally, we all piled off the bus with binoculars and cameras in hand. The two-toed sloth was just a fuzzy brown ball. Both two-toed and three-toed sloths live in Costa Rica. They all have three toes—but they have different numbers of fingers. Some scientists have started calling them by the more accurate name, “two-fingered sloth,” but to me that just sounds like a whiskey drink.

After everyone took a turn looking through Jimmy’s spotting scope, we headed inside for a breakfast buffet of beans, eggs, salsa, sausage, fried plantains, fresh fruit, and more coffee. It was a very different meal than what the sloth was eating. The sloth would also have to chew its purely leafy entrée twice: first on the way in, and again after the meal was fermented in a foregut.

Two- and three-toed sloths are both members of the elite club of arboreal (tree-dwelling) herbivores (solely eating plants), but they aren’t closely related. According to a 2014 article about sloths in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Jon Pauli, “only 10 species of mammals are considered specialized arboreal herbivores.” That’s just 0.2% of ALL mammal species!  There’s a reason that cows don’t climb trees. The large stomachs required to digest their grassy diet are better suited to firm ground. Squirrels, on the other hand, focus on energy-dense nuts and seeds, and therefore don’t need a big gut to fuel their frenetic metabolism.

All of the world’s arboreal herbivores (including sloths, koalas and some monkeys and lemurs), have converged on a few common traits. First, they all weigh between 2 and 31 pounds. This size range reflects the tension between being small enough to climb, while still having a big enough stomach to digest tough plants. Their adaptations include ruminant-like digestive organs, slow metabolisms, and unusual behaviors.

For instance, sloths have taken a page from the reptiles’ book, and they sunbathe to help regulate body temperature. They also sleep a lot. Wild sloths sleep around 10 hours per day. Sloths in captivity give the others a bad name by sleeping up to 20 hours per day. I felt lucky, then, when we wandered outside after breakfast and caught a glimpse of a different two-toed sloth climbing across a branch with her baby. Two-toed sloths eat a somewhat more varied diet, and move greater distances.

A two-toed sloth (who still has three toes on her hind feet) and her baby climbed across this limb while we watched. Photo by Carol Werner.

On the other side of the parking area, a single three-toed sloth blended perfectly with a lichen-covered tree trunk. It was moving just fast enough for us to get a feel for their characteristically graceful and deliberate movements. Also, its permanent “Mona Lisa smile” was adorable.

This three-toed sloth has a "Mona Lisa smile." 

While at first glance sloths may not appear to be the epitome of adaptation, they are actually an amazing, (slowly) moving hub of symbiotic partnerships, which Jon Pauli—from Wisconsin!—helped elucidate. It all begins when the sloth climbs down for its weekly bowel movement (sloths have the slowest known digestion rate of any mammal). During this trip to the soil, the sloth picks up fungal spores from a species that lives on its fur and helps ward off parasites. In addition, moths emerge from the sloth’s fur and lay eggs in the sloth’s droppings. The moth larvae feed off the dung, and then fly back up to the sloth after metamorphosis. This tight relationship seems to be part of the reason that three-toed sloths stick to living in just a few neighboring trees.

The adult moths seem to feed on secretions from the sloth’s skin, as well as algae on the sloth’s fur. Moth droppings act as a fertilizer, while grooves on the sloth’s fur create a little hydroponic irrigation system for the algae. Neither the algae nor the moth species occur anywhere but on a sloth (or on its dung).

While Pauli hasn’t yet calculated exactly how much energy sloths obtain from eating algae off their own fur as the groom, he has determined that the algae are a better source of fats than the tree leaves in the sloths’ diet. Keep in mind: a three-toed sloth only burns about 110 calories per day. The value of the moths and algae must be significant, because climbing down to defecate costs the sloth 8% of its daily energy budget, and puts it at high risk of predation.

We were happy to simply watch the sloths as they went about their slow business of living. Just looking at their thick fur coats made me uncomfortable as the temperature rose; but their languid movements were a good reminder of what it means to relax on a tropical vacation.

Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Neotropical Migrants

Pineapple juice dripped down my chin. Sweat ran between my shoulder blades. And this was just at breakfast. The dining room at Selva Verde Lodge in the Sarapiquí region of north-central Costa Rica was bright and airy, with ceiling fans and open windows. It was still 85 degrees and humid. This beautiful lodge is situated on 500 acres of tropical forest that was rescued from logging in 1982, by Giovanna Holbrook, a visionary conservationist whose story reminded us of the Cable Natural History Museum’s founder, Mary Griggs Burke. Ms. Holbrook also created Holbrook Travel, the company that expertly arranged our trip.

Selva Verde Lodge is the home-base of Holbrook Travel in Costa Rica.
Mrs. Holbrook protected it's 500 acres and began building facilities in 1982. 
Yes, that is a Christmas tree in the back right corner. It felt a little out of place to us...

By now, our Natural Connections in Costa Rica trip was about halfway into our nine-day adventure, and we knew the drill well. The breakfast buffet, which started with a pyramid of fresh pineapple, watermelon, and papaya, also contained generous portions of gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, odd-looking sausages, and fresh cheese. A different flavor of fresh fruit juice flowed like water each morning, and rich, dark, coffee filled our cups.

We were all comfortably dressed in shorts and sandals, with little need to worry about hauling around extra warm layers. Sun protection was our biggest concern, but thick leaves and shade structures abounded. Binoculars and cameras hung around our necks.

Birding in the jungle.

When I thought of home, I imagined the bare trees, freezing temperatures, absence of mosquitoes and ticks, and my larder full of blanched kale. Not bad, just different.

After joining the clean plate club, I went out on the deck of the dining room to have a peek at the bird feeders. A wooden platform held bananas the way we’d spread out corn up north. It was also covered with jewels. Vibrant green honeycreepers and shining honeycreepers fluttered almost like hummingbirds as they jockeyed for position. Passerini’s tanagers wore tuxedos of the blackest black with shimmering red sashes. The cloud of drably named blue-gray tanagers could have plucked their hues straight from the sky. Our chatter from behind our binocs included adjectives like “ridiculous!” “crazy!” “so bright!” and “it glows!”

Green Honeycreeper Female

Green Honeycreeper Male

Shining Honeycreeper Male

Shining Honeycreeper Female

Passerini's Tanager Male

When a striking black and orange bird swooped in for his turn, his colors fit right in, but I still did a double take. Instead of a strange new surprise, this was an old friend. Baltimore orioles are connoisseurs of ripe fruit, and can be lured into northern bird feeders with oranges and grape jelly. Since sunflower seeds and suet just won’t cut it for orioles, these neotropical migrants make an incredible journey to Central and South America for the winter.

Baltimore Oriole Male

We made that migration, too. Despite being ensconced in a jet plane, the flight from Minneapolis to Miami to San Jose was less than pleasant. Even if we hadn’t hit the worst turbulence of our lives in a Georgia thunderstorm, the plane was cramped and stuffy, and the security lines long. It’s amazing that such small birds can survive the journey. At least they get to stretch their legs and breathe fresh air!

The reality is, though, that many birds don’t survive migration. One study published by the British Ecological Society calculated that birds’ mortality rate is six times higher during migration than in their summer or winter habitat. Although these two perilous periods are relatively short, migration accounts for more than half of annual mortality.

So why risk it?

Well, staying in a northern winter isn’t much safer. Golden crowned kinglets are fantastically adapted winter residents of some of our coldest climates. Even so, part of their adaptation includes a higher than average reproduction rate in the summer to compensate for expected mortality in the winter.

Besides that, if you’re adapted to eating fruit or insects, or frogs you don’t have many options. Many of us can relate to the desire to follow “summer” year-round, with its associated warmth, sunshine, and fresh food.

The fruit was so enticing, in fact, that I went up for seconds. Now both the orioles and I had watermelon juice dripping down our chins. What a wonderful life it is for us neotropical migrants who survive the trip!

The full feeder at Selva Verde Lodge. photo by Emily Stone.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at  Listen to the podcast at!

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!