Friday, April 21, 2017

A Swarm of Wiggling Swimmers

Even through closed windows I could hear the rough quacks of wood frogs and the clear chimes of spring peepers rising from the wetland. A loon’s haunting wail echoed across the lake. Stars twinkled. No mosquitoes buzzed. And the temperature still hovered above 50 degrees. Perfect nights like this only come twice a year: in spring and in fall.

Even though I had planned to head upstairs for bed, I paused at the front door, slid on my muck boots, grabbed a flashlight, and slipped out into the night.

The air felt cool and fresh as I tromped down to the shore. No breeze stirred the trees. After I stepped out onto the wet sand at the water’s edge I stilled my body and opened my senses. Frog calls came in stereo from multiple wetlands around the lake. Actual ducks joined in the wood frogs’ quacking, and somewhere out on the liquid ebony, geese honked sporadically like kids settling in at a sleepover.

As my eyes adjusted, the number of visible stars made the sky look foggy, although two pesky yard lights from across the bay really infringed on my night vision. After a few deep breaths, I switched on the flashlight and turned to go. The light caught on layers of brown leaves, just slightly suspended above the sand, gently rocking back and forth in the ripples caused by my rubber boots. And something zipped across the flashlight’s halo.

Crouching down, I discovered a swarm of tiny swimmers, each less than half an inch long. Some wiggled through the water column, some zipped across the sand and leaves, and some froze in the spotlight. Enchanted, I watched carefully and tried to identify these little benthic macroinvertebrates. (Benthic = bottom dwelling, macro = visible without a microscope, invertebrates = no spine.) The swimming ones were just bundles of wiggling appendages. Then I finally focused in on one of the critters resting on the sand. Three thin tails spread out from the tip of its abdomen, and I could imagine them drawing a stylized letter M. M is for mayfly.

This flock of little water wigglers will one day shed their exoskeletons and spend from a few frenzied hours to a few glorious days as winged adults. Mayflies belong to the order Ephemeroptera, which is named from the Greek words meaning “short-lived” and “wing.” And while it’s true that mayflies are short-lived once they have wings, their immature, flightless, aquatic nymphs can actually live for several years.

That nymph stage is what swam through my light beam. Two antennae projected off one end. Three thread-like tails arched gracefully off the other. In between were three pairs of legs on the thorax, and two fringes of undulating gills, which were arranged in seven pairs along the abdomen.

After hatching, mayfly nymphs may molt through 30 instars as they grow. Chewing mouthparts help them feed on algae and dead stuff. A few species predate on other, smaller, invertebrates as well. Some species of mayfly nymphs burrow into the lake bottom and billow their gills to stir up sediment. Not only does this allow them to filter feed on “periphyton,” (which is basically that scum of both living and dead things that coats objects in a lake), it also stirs up nutrients that phytoplankton and other critters can use.

Their feeding habits make mayfly nymphs fairly sensitive to pollution. Acidification, sewage, pesticides, and industrial effluent are particularly harmful, and their impact on mayflies can throw the whole food chain out of whack. Algae might take over like weeds, and their fish predators may starve or just concentrate the pollution in their own bodies. On the flip side, the presence of mayfly nymphs can tell us that our water is clean without a lot of expensive tests.

While mayflies may live for years in their nymph stage, their adult stage is what brings them fame. In several species, the emergence of adults is synchronized, in order to overwhelm all of their predators. The clouds—and drifts—of mayflies are sometimes visible on weather radar and can cause slippery roads. Anglers imitate them carefully.

Mayflies are the only insects that have a winged, terrestrial, but not sexually mature stage. When a nymph reaches its final instar, it sheds it exoskeleton one more time. What emerges is a dull-colored winged creature who (usually) cannot yet mate. These subimago are both poor flyers and excellent fish food. After a few minutes to a few days, the subimago sheds its exoskeleton and becomes a brightly colored, fully functional imago (adult).

As adults, mayflies resemble some of the very first flying insects. The long, thread-like tails that I used to identify the nymphs stick around in the adult form. Their clear, vein-riddled wings do not fold flat over their abdomen and are held upright while at rest. Mating is quick, egg-laying prolific, and death follows closely.

I wonder how much longer this swarm of tiny swimmers in my lake needs to grow? Later this summer I’ll probably paddle through a scum of their shed exoskeletons and ephemeral, winged bodies. For now, I’ll just enjoy watching the wigglers on an otherwise bug-free night.

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" will open on May 2!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Admiring Red Admirals

Sunshine warmed our backs and a cool breeze filtered through bike helmets as we turned onto the pavement for a ride around the lake. Before we could get up a head of steam, Drew called back, “Did you see that butterfly?” In a flash my bike was on the shoulder, my phone was out with the camera turned on, and I was running back to where he pointed.

I crept forward, struggling to discern the mottled brown underwings of a butterfly from the leaf litter. I must have gotten too close, because suddenly, in a flash of orange, white, and black, the butterfly rose and flitted erratically around a tree. My eyes darted along its wild flight path, and focused hard on the spot where it landed. Even knowing where I should look didn’t help. The butterfly’s wings melted into the gravel and leaves pushed aside by the snowplow.

Photo By Ernie (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I crept forward again, the butterfly startled and flapped its colorful wings deeper into the forest. I walked back to my bike. The elation of seeing my first butterfly of the year, combined with sunshine and a tailwind, inspired fast pedaling and a joyful ride. But a mystery gnawed at me, too. As far back as I can remember, Mourning Cloak butterflies have been the first to dance along on my early spring outings. Their deep-purple wings with yellow edging have brightened my day many times.

By Milantina (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mourning Cloaks overwinter in the Northwoods as adults, I’d learned, and I was astounded that such a delicate thing could survive our harshest season. Just like wood frogs and spring peepers, they have the advantage of waking up right near their breeding habitat, ready to go.

Paging through my Kaufman Guide to Butterflies of North America, though, I’d decided I must have seen a Red Admiral butterfly. What does it do in the winter? I realized that besides the Mourning Cloak and the charismatic, migratory, Monarch butterfly, I had no specific knowledge about how butterflies spend the winter.

Happily, my Google search quickly turned up a wonderful document from UW-Extension listing the winter survival strategies of common Wisconsin butterflies. As with most things in nature, there’s no single answer. Butterflies can overwinter as eggs, newly-hatched caterpillars, mid-stage caterpillars (this seems most common), mature caterpillars, pupae, hibernating adults, or migrating adults.

I also found a page on where butterfly enthusiasts post their most recent sightings. So far this spring, people have spotted Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas, Gray Commas, Compton Tortoiseshells, and Red Admirals.

The first four species on that list all overwinter here as adults. As the autumn days shorten, antifreeze chemicals start building up in their body fluids. This happens for all the species who overwinter in the north, regardless of whether they chill as an egg, larva, pupa, or adult. Glycerol prevents ice crystals from growing and rupturing cells, even at temperatures well below freezing. So the adults tuck in behind loose bark, into crevices, or beneath logs, to sit out my favorite season.

In spring, these adults obviously have a jump on everyone else. They don’t need to hatch, or grow, or metamorphose. They are ready to go. By basking in the sun and shivering their flight muscles, butterflies can raise their body temperature up to the 80 degrees F needed for flight, even while I’m still wearing my warmest cycling gloves.

Red Admirals, like the one I saw, may have a different tactic…or maybe not. At least in the southern parts of their range (which extends from Guatemala to Canada), adults and pupae hibernate. How far north they can survive the winter seems to be up for debate, and the line could be shifting. The parts of their range where Red Admirals don’t survive the winter must be recolonized each spring by migrants from the south. The UW-Extension document asserts that our Red Admirals fly back and forth from south Texas.

Over the summer, Red Admirals have two generations. The summer brood is large and showy, with brighter colors, and a coming-of-age in July. Those butterflies produce a smaller, drabber, winter form, which we can see from late August through the first frosts. Just like with Monarchs, the winter form, although flighted, is not reproductively mature. They have a metabolism that allows them to pack away fat stores for migration and/or hibernation.

They’d better have some fat left in reserve when they arrive up north in April! I’ve seen flowers blooming, but only if you expand your image of a flower to include catkins, the miniscule petals on hazelnut bushes, and a few other tiny tree flowers. Early butterflies do not arrive to a beautiful buffet. As anyone with a sugarbush knows, though, sweet liquid is plentiful if you know where to look. Conveniently, Mourning Cloaks may actually prefer tree sap to nectar.

With the early snowmelt, I’ve been road biking a lot. It’s been easy to go fast while the forests are still quiet and gray. If this butterfly (and the loons, cranes, ducks, and frogs) are any indication, though, my rides are about to encounter many more distractions!

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" will open on May 2!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Beavers and Swans

Driving eastward at dawn can be a breathtaking experience. On a recent frosty morning, I feasted my eyes on the world. Every bare stick, brittle weed, and blade of grass was either encrusted in diamonds or set on fire. Of course, in the moments where I transitioned from brilliant light into deep shade, I held my breath against the possibility that a deer would jump through the juncture. The combination of beauty and danger was exhilarating and exhausting.

So when I came upon a beaver lodge with every stick frosted and glowing, I decided that it was time to take a photo break. A clump of half-submerged sticks out in front of the lodge indicated that it had been occupied last fall, as the beavers were preparing their food store for winter. Beavers stay somewhat active all year and can access this food cache from under the ice.

To maintain that liquid highway is one of the main reasons that beavers build dams. The pond behind the dam not only lets them swim closer to the trees, it also provides them with aquatic vegetation to eat all summer and creates an underwater world inaccessible to predators in winter.

As I scanned the beavers’ pond for more photo ops, a ghost emerged from the shadows. Soon I could focus on the swan’s elegant neck, pure white breast feathers, and its rippling reflection. Charitably, the bird gave a low, nasally call, identifying itself as a trumpeter swan. They are hard to distinguish from tundra swans without the help of sound.
Listen here.

Trumpeter swans are frequent residents of Wisconsin beaver ponds when they migrate back for the summer. The habitat is perfect. Like beavers, they eat a wide variety of aquatic plants, such as pondweed, wild rice, and algae; and they prefer shallow wetlands less than six feet deep. The tops of old beaver lodges also provide excellent nest sites for swans, who seek existing mounds surrounded by water and less than 600 feet from shore.

Even though frumpy, brown beavers and elegant, white swans could hardly look more different, they are similar in more ways than just their habitat needs. Beavers and swans also share a common history on hats.

Beavers were plentiful across the Great Lakes region until the European demand for beaver felt hats led to extensive fur trapping. As it turns out, the structure of a beaver’s soft underfur allows it to make extremely strong and malleable felt when processed with heat and pressure. Felt hats were fashionable in Europe from 1550 to 1850, but the European, Scandinavian, and Russian beaver populations were trapped out by 1600. Explorers turned to the new continent for a steady supply of pelts.

When logging and slash fires also entered the scene, beaver populations collapsed. Their numbers likely reached an all-time low in 1900. Beaver trapping seasons in Wisconsin were closed, and they began to come back in northern Wisconsin with the help of restocking efforts initiated in 1932. By the late 1970s, beavers had recovered enough to allow extensive trapping again. In fact, beavers have rebounded so well that they are now considered a nuisance by many, and long trapping seasons have begun to reduce their populations.

The hat industry was tough on animals. Swan feathers adorned fashionable hats, and were also used for ladies’ powder puffs, and writing quills. Fashion trends spurred extensive swan hunting from the 1600s until the late 1800s. By that time, the swans were almost gone in Wisconsin and across the country. The demise of beavers—and their habitat construction services—may have contributed to the swans’ downward trend. A small population survived in remote mountain valleys out west.

Once they were protected, trumpeter swans slowly increased, and by the late 1960s, forty birds were reintroduced to Minnesota. In 1989, Wisconsin received its own batch of swans. Trumpeter swans recovered so spectacularly that Wisconsin removed them from the state endangered species list in 2009. And the population continues to grow. The 2015 population survey counted 4,695 individuals, up from 672 in 2010.

That population increase is visible even to the unaided eye. I’m seeing swans everywhere this spring. They are flying over icy lakes; drifting down the newly-open water of the river; feeding in the sloughs; and emerging from the shadows near a beaver lodge. Emerging, it seems, from the shadows of near extinction into a sparkling morning of recovery.

Swans on the Namekagon River this spring.

The beaver’s recovery, while similar in many ways and just as dramatic, is less attractive to certain land managers. Still, beavers are incredible land managers themselves, and an uncountable number of other species depend on them for habitat. If we admire swans, then perhaps we should remember to appreciate the beavers as well.

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" will open on May 2!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Stories of Scale

I’m not sure why the small, brown bump on the twig caught my eye. I think I was reaching down to pick up my backpack after having extricated myself from the bushes where I was attempting to get a photo of a cute mossy stump. This hike on the North Country Trail had started to feel a little like whiplash. I was motivated to hike fast in the cold, damp weather, but neat things kept catching my eye.

First it was the most elegant scat I’ve ever seen. Pure-white fur cascaded down a mossy stump, its arrangement clearly indicating its origin. Any mucky parts had washed away in the thaw. I wished well to the spirit of the snowshoe hare, and to the belly of whichever weasel that ate it.

Next I spotted a tiny mound of dirt and dried leaves, pushed up in the middle of the path. The earthworms must have been active during a thaw! I shook my head at this invasive species, and gazed forlornly at the forest. A carpet of dingy green Pennsylvania sedge with few indications of tree saplings, and little hope for spring flowers, stretched out under the deciduous canopy. Here was a classic example of a worm-eaten forest.

Mushrooms, woodpecker holes, evergreen wood ferns, leaf molds, and cracked ice also called to my camera before the lens settled on that last moss-covered stump. And then, those small, brown bumps on the twig. How did I ever spot those?

The size, coppery color, and slight sheen of the bumps closely resembled the ironwood tree’s own buds, but the bumps were scattered along the twig. One brushed off in my gloved hand, and I discovered white fuzz inside the little hollow dome. Its former place on the twig was marked by a faint spot of white residue. After snapping a few photos, I moved on. But the mystery bumps kept ‘bugging” me. Who made them?

A friend suggested scale insects, and that had been in my mind, too, although I realized I couldn’t even tell you exactly what a scale insect is. As it turns out, their life story is pretty fascinating, and—typical of insects—a little weird.

The little brown domes I found affixed to the twigs may have belonged to sub-adult females, but from the looks of them, females that didn’t survive. On one shell I noticed a pencil-point hole: the telltale sign of a parasitic wasp escaping after doing its (very important) dirty work. Another possibility is that these scales had simply matured and reached the end of their natural lives.

What are their natural lives? When successful, female nymphs overwinter on twigs. In the spring, if all goes well, they will finish maturing and then lay eggs (sometimes more than 1000 of them!) with or without the help of a flying male. The eggs are laid underneath the protection of their mother’s stationary shell, and the female herself then dies and dries. The eggs hatch about ten days later, and small, yellowish “crawler” larvae migrate to leaves. At this stage, the crawlers might be blown by the wind or even transported on the feet of birds to new locations.

Like their relatives the aphids, the scale larvae insert sucking mouthparts (called stylets) into the plant and start drinking. In order to get enough nitrogen, they must drink an excessive amount of the sugar-rich sap, which they excrete as “honeydew.” Ants take advantage of this just like they do with aphids, and can often be seen drinking honeydew off the scale insects.

As the nitrogen and sugar fuel their growth, the scale larvae molt. With each molt, their bodies become larger and their legs become smaller. Finally, in late summer before their legs completely disappear, the nymphs walk back down the leaf stalk and onto their winter home on the twig. They build their waxy, protective shells, and do not move again. Spring brings maturity, reproduction, and death.

Males do occur, but their larvae and nymphs are flat and nearly transparent. Adult males are tiny, winged, and have no eating mouthparts.

I can’t even begin to tell you what species of scale insect these might have been. After starting my research, I wished that I’d looked under more scales and brought some home, too. Apparently, the variation in appearance within a species of scale is sometimes greater than the variation between different species. Some species only feed on one or two host plants, but many other species are generalists. There are both “armored” scales and “soft” scales with slightly different life histories. Occasionally, outbreaks of scale insects can damage trees, but they are not always a problem.

Whether it’s hairy scat on a mossy stump, worm castings in a lawn-like forest, or tiny brown bumps on a twig, every bit of the world tells its very own story if we’re able to listen.

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" will open on May 3!

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Thirst for Nature

As my car came to a rest in the driveway and the engine noise faded, I took a deep breath of relief and opened the door. The blast of frigid air was refreshing after the suffocating warmth of the heater. Leaving my week’s-worth of travel debris in place, and not bothering to dig for my mittens, I quickly zipped my jacket and balled my hands into the pockets.

A desire had been rising up in my chest like a great thirst, but I’d been drinking tea to stay awake for the past seven hours. The thirst wasn’t for liquid, it was for nature. My driveway did not disappoint. I drank greedily from the fresh air, hemlock boughs, rough bark, and mossy stumps.

In the wee morning hours, a fresh dusting of snow had cleaned up the forest. Now I greeted a dainty string of fox tracks as if the owner were still attached. I’ve watched those little paw prints tripping along the driveway so often that sometimes I disregard the fact that they were made by a live animal. I assign a personality--a life—to the embossments themselves. Not only that, but I count the string of charming hollows among my friends. On other days, though, I try to follow the tracks into the mind of the fox and listen to the music playing there.

All night under the pines the fox moves through the darkness with a mouth full of teeth and a reputation for death which it deserves.” Writes Mary Oliver in her poem, “Fox.”

Walking slowly next to the tracks, I breathed deeply and gazed into the tree canopy, admiring the graceful arc of branches and the lacy friendship of twigs. I think this is what the Japanese mean by shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” I certainly felt my mind cleansed and my body refreshed. With every breath, stale air and tension released and peace flowed in.

You may wonder what made me so thirsty for the woods. It was vacation of all things! A trip south (to central Iowa) to see oodles of wonderful, lovely, long-lost family. For the first day, I brought two tubs of MuseumMobile props. In the suburban second grade classrooms, eager fingers (include those of my niece and nephew) explored wolf canines, beaver incisors, and deer antlers. As we compared herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores, the kids giggled at rubber replicas of animal scat before using their key to identify which species dropped which load. When I brought out the soft furs of coyote, skunk, and cottontail, the little hands could not refrain from grabbing. I got the sense that they, too, were thirsty for nature.

After school let out, we took a brisk walk down to the shores of a bedraggled reservoir. The exposed mud-flats looked dingy from afar, but up close we discovered a treasure trove of snail shells, which apparently never get old when you’re seven. (Later, at home, we discovered that each shell was graced with its own fawn-colored patterns, and the array drew our admiration.) 

Still at the lake, pockets full, we turned and walked backward up the hill, hoods turned against the bitter wind. This small adversity just magnified the adventure. Near the top, a great bur oak tree stretched out a hand invitingly. That silent appeal was all it took to get both kids climbing into its rough and sloping lap.

So nature was not entirely absent during my time in the city, but the tidbits I devoured just served to sharpen my hunger. Curtains were drawn all day, and anyway, the windows just looked out on lawns and houses. The cardinal singing above the rush of cars. The fresh flowers wilting in the cavernous wedding reception hall. The cottontails in the backyard racing like maniacs with their friends at dawn, each in their own chain-link box. The great blue heron—dignity intact among the exploding development of suburbia—gliding in to land in the manicured pond on the community college grounds.

And hawks. Mostly red-tails, but probably others, too; hunting from utility poles, from fence posts, and from above rushing traffic. I caught my breath as one dove like a streak of wildness into the dried road ditch grass.

Nature is everywhere, if you allow yourself to see it. I take comfort in that. I know that many have learned to live on these tidbits, with an occasional banquet at a national park. I haven’t, though. I’m always hungry for more, needing daily feasts and occasional full immersion experiences to quench my thirst.

Here at the end of my driveway, I drank my daily fill, and planned for more. As I turned to go, the eastern sky was deepening into a rich blue, but a golden sun played peekaboo to the southwest. Just a few trunks were lucky enough to feel the caress of its last rays. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones, too. Not everyone gets to live in the Northwoods. But not everyone wants to. Maybe others thirst for the excitement of cities, or the comforts of suburbs. Me, I thirst for the comfort of hemlock boughs and the music of a fox.

Ok, I know this is a white pine, but you get the idea.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  --John Muir

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy 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" will open on May 3!

Friday, March 17, 2017

“To appreciate what is seen”

Freeze. Thaw. Thunderstorm. Snow. Plummeting cold. Gradual easing. This weird weather on the edge of spring has me feeling gloomy. My favorite winter activities demand snow. My favorite summer activities demand warmth, or at least a bare, frozen trail. Even the woods feel emptier, since good tracking snow is hard to find and migrating birds have mostly paused farther south.

Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director, also experienced this, and it is through her wisdom that I am reminded to appreciate the pieces of nature that are still out there, if we take the time to see.

“There are times when the winter woods are so still, so empty, that walking in them, one feels like the last living creature,” wrote Lois. “Not a track mars the snow; not a sound stirs the air. Where has everything gone? It is strange because a few days earlier there may have been an abundance of life in many forms.”

“On one of those days I set out with a definite purpose in mind. I was stalking a pileated woodpecker whose calls and rapid fire hammerings seemed to come consistently from one area of trees not far from the house. These big, wary birds are not easy to pursue, so reasonable caution was necessary.”

“Silence ahead seemed to indicate that the big bird had flown, but the apprehension was dispelled as, from a pine stub ahead, there came a staccato burst and bits of flying wood. A stealthy approach, timed with the pecking, ended abruptly when a large black beak topped by bright eyes and a flame red cockade was suddenly thrust around the side of the stub. With much scuffling of feet the crow-sized black body came into view. Unaware of being watched, the big bird seemed to talk to himself with soft knocking notes as if trying to decide where to drill the next hole.”

“Some unwary movement or sound on my part suddenly alerted him. There was a brief eye-to-eye confrontation; then the broad wings spread and with a few swooping beats bore the great woodpecker into the safety and seclusion of the forest.”

“The pine stub bore evidence of much work. Large openings had been chopped through the shell and into the honeycombed interior. Breaking open a piece of this riddled wood revealed the dormant bodies of large black ants. This was what had attracted the woodpecker and would undoubtedly bring him back again. I might not be around to see, but the sound of drumming would bring to mind a clear picture of a great black bird with a flaming topknot—a memory to treasure.”

Pileated woodpeckers are a thrill to see in any season, and while they have become more common, you still can’t expect to see one on every hike. In contrast, there are beautiful, sedentary wonders which can increase enjoyment on any outing.

Lois continued, “Most people are aware of the beauty of summer flowers and often bemoan their passing as winter approaches. This need not be a cause for regret because, while much color may be lost, there continue—as seeds, pods, and capsules—many forms that rival the flowers in beauty and grace. Many of these seed containers last throughout the winter, serving as food for wildlife and pleasure for humans.”

“There is a sculptured beauty in the pods of various milkweeds and wild iris, evening primrose, cockle and Indian pipes. Delicate grace is exemplified in airy sprays of sweet cicely, papery clusters of wild hops and feathery virgin’s bower (wild clematis) twining over bushes, and in the dried grasses and sedges, each with individual form and style.”

“Many fall-blooming flowers (weeds if one must call them that) retain their form if not their color through the winter months. Goldenrod, tansy and yarrow are sepia-toned replicas of summer’s gay colors. Flowers such as asters lift clusters of tan, star-like sepals above the snow.”

“Touches of color do remain in scattered places; the dark velvety red of sumac heads, the red-orange of rose hips and the brighter red of highbush cranberries and hawthorn frozen on their shrubs.”

“To enjoy these and many other beauties of winter there are few requirements; namely these: get outside, have open eyes to see and an open mind, receptive enough to appreciate what is seen.”

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy 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 phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is open through March 11.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Awake and Wondering

Fox tracks crisscross my yard. Down the trail to the lake, along the shore, across the hill, and back. The strings of tracks remind me that I’m not the only one who lives here. These woods are alive, even under the blanket of snow and the low-slung stars. I try to read the fox’s nocturnal adventures in the tracks—to guess at his life in the forest—but so much of nature, even when the daylight shines again, retains its mysteries.

Have you ever wondered what happens out there, under the heavens, while you sleep? I went to bed last night with a crystal-clear sky; stars sparkling like diamonds in the plummeting cold. This morning I woke to a blanket of clouds and a dusting of snow on my windshield. When did the clouds roll in? What did the snow look like as it fell? Who was out there to see it? Was the fox trotting along thinking, as poet Mary Oliver infers, “It is music to wander the black back roads outside of town—no one awake or wondering if anything miraculous is ever going to happen, totally dumb to the fact of every moment's miracle…”

The sparkle of hoar frost (from the Norse hārr, “gray with age”) on the trees this morning certainly makes it seem like something extraordinary transpired last night while no one was awake and wondering. Extraordinary, but still explained by chemistry and physics. As the temperature dropped below the dew point, water was squeezed out of the air. In this case, the dew point just happened to be below freezing (therefore it is technically called the frost point), so water precipitated as ice on cold objects instead of condensing as dew. The frost crystals often form intricate patterns that scatter light, making them appear like a white frosting on all the trees, as if the world was made of glitter.

Down the trail to the lake, along the lakeshore, I make my own tracks. Two parallel ribbons stream out behind me as I kick and glide on the frozen lake. Howling winds have sculpted the surface into a miniature, sand-less Sahara. Shallow, snow-dust storms skitter across the surface (the sculptures are works in progress), making me feel like a giant peering down onto the wilds of Antarctica. The abrasion of crystal clouds sounds like radio static. A loud crack and eerie boom echo through the ice. I can feel it reverberate under my skis. This raises my heart rate far more than the swinging of arms and legs.

As the temperature drops again after weeks of unseasonal thaws, the ice expands and fractures. I can see fresh cracks where they sketch rough fault lines through wind-packed snow.

During freeze-up, thin ice acts as a huge membrane across which the crackling and popping sounds spread. One website, devoted to recording these ice songs, (search “Dispersion of Sound Waves in Ice Sheets” to find it) explains that: “The high frequencies of the popping and cracking noises are transmitted faster by the ice than the deeper frequencies, which reach the listener with a time lag as glissandi (a glide from one pitch to another)” Science explains even the marvel of ice singing.

This late-winter ice is merely expanding back toward the shores it had shrunken away from when they reflected too much of the sun’s warmth. It may also be adding depth to an already substantial thickness. The deep pops and rumbles sound like winter thunder.

Almost home, a black shape lopes out of the white pines on the point. I pause to squint, then ski faster, hoping that it will come into focus. The apparition catches sight of me and reverses course, turning back into the trees. I spend the next few minutes in suspense. Who will the tracks reveal? Otter? Fisher? Fox. Its small, four-toed tracks and two-by-two side trot pattern are unmistakable. This red fox was looking at me as it ran, causing its front feet both to land on the left side of its trail, and its hind feet to land on the right. I look from the tracks into the woods, my questions only half-formed in the half-light.

Diagram of a fox side-trot from James Halfpenny's A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America.

As day fades back to twilight, I sense again the music of wandering the back ways outside of town. A fingernail moon glitters, ice thunders, a fox hunts in the snow, our planet spins toward spring.

Tonight I, and maybe you, and maybe even the fox, are awake and wondering.

What is this moment’s miracle?

Note: Portions of this article were published in 2013.

Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy 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 phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is open through March 11.