Thursday, November 25, 2021

Inspired from the Ocean to Idaho to Wisconsin

Sometimes, on a gray day during the shoulder season, a phone call from a friend can be just the thing. Yesterday, Kris Millgate’s familiar, throaty voice beaming through space brought a smile to my face, and a wave of memories, too.

Kris and I met in Montana, at my very first Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) conference. I’d only just joined the group as a way to network with other outdoor journalists in my brand-new role as a newspaper columnist for the Museum. I’d checked a box on my registration requesting a conference mentor, and Kris had volunteered. “I take my job as mentor seriously,” she told me up front. That was almost as intimidating as her resume.

After years in TV journalism, with the requisite pretty face to match, Kris became a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker. She hunts, fishes, hikes, rafts, flies a drone, and keeps up with two hockey-playing boys. Behind that pretty face is a whip-smart brain that’s always going 10,000 miles a minute, and below it are limbs filled with muscle and determination. I listened in awe as Kris told stories of her adventures (and mis-adventures) and dished out sage advice on how to be an award-winning journalist.

When I stopped by Kris’s home in Idaho Falls on my road trip to Alaska in 2018, she gave me a tour of some of Idaho’s wildness. It was different than Wisconsin, but the deep forests, clear rivers, and cold spring rain felt very familiar. I love making connections between ecosystems across the continent, so last summer, when Kris decided to make a documentary about the challenges that Chinook salmon face on their great migration from the Pacific Ocean to her neighborhood, I knew I wanted to bring that story to Wisconsin.

I took this selfie of Kris and myself next to one of those wild, rushing rivers in Idaho in 2018!

Chinook salmon aren’t doing well in Idaho. Despite what Kris calls “the best spawning habitat you could ever want” in her state, fish get stymied by dams in both directions. On their way out to the ocean as fingerlings, calm pools behind the dams slow the little guys down. Humans employ fish ladders, barges, and trucks to help the salmon get around the walls we’ve built in the water. After the salmon have fed in the rich ocean food chain and grown to be as long as your arm, they must once again navigate eight dams in their quest toward the spawning ground.

In response to salmon’s decline, humans have set up hatcheries to buoy the population enough for sport fishermen to catch and members of the Shoshone-Bannock, Yakima, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Pierce tribes to exercise their treaty rights. Not unlike GLIFWC protecting hunting and fishing rights in Wisconsin’s Ceded Territories, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission works to protect tribes’ right to catch fish by making sure that there are fish to catch in the first place.

Kris’s documentary about the challenges facing Chinook salmon began with what she called “a doozy of a road trip” during the pandemic last summer. She captured that journey in her documentary “Ocean to Idaho,” and also in her book “My Place Among Fish,” which details the backstory and the outtakes in her humorous, high-energy style. I’m thrilled that on December 7 the Museum is hosting her first film screening east of the Mississippi. Kris will Zoom in to The Rivers Eatery in Cable to share her story and the film, and answer questions afterwards. Redbery Books will have Kris’s book on hand. (More information is at Attend virtually by registering here.

My friend Kris Millgate snapped this photo of herself during a huge road trip she took to document the challenges that Chinook salmon face as they travel from Idaho to the ocean and back. Her new documentary film, Ocean to Idaho captures that journey. Photo by Kris Millgate.

It's possible that some long-lost cousins of the Idaho Chinook who Kris followed are currently living in Wisconsin waters. Chinook were first introduced to the Great Lakes in 1877, and successive plantings spread them throughout all of the Great Lakes. In Wisconsin, they are most abundant in Lake Michigan from Kenosha to Green Bay. The populations are completely supported by hatchery fish, though, since streams flowing into Lake Michigan don’t provide the right spawning habitat, and no successful reproduction occurs. That’s the opposite problem of Chinook in Idaho, where ideal spawning habitat exists—just out of reach.

While not as prominent as out west, dams in Wisconsin impact fish, too. I’ve written before about sturgeon in the Couderay River who are moving back upstream after a small dam was removed. Those incredible fish are still absent from the upper Namekagon, though, due to additional dams.

As I looked out of my window at the gray November sky and listened to Kris recount 850 miles of personal and ecological challenges, I asked her how she still sounds so upbeat. “No matter where you live,” she told me from Idaho, “the fact that the wild is still trying to make its way with us in the way is remarkable. The wild is still trying to do what it was intended to do. Stick your feet in a creek and you’ll realize that the connection is still there for us.”

Yep, I thought with a smile on my face, a phone call from a friend can be just the thing.

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

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Not Mosquitoes

One evening a few weeks ago, I looked up from my computer to see a thick swarm of mosquitoes at my window. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of the tiny, leggy, little buggers bounced against the screen in the lamplight. More swarms greeted me in the morning, as they knocked against the windows and formed a gauntlet to my car. Several carpooled to work with me. Others joined me while brushing my teeth the next evening.

The bugs were everywhere. But none had landed on me, or tried to bite, or even buzzed in my ear. That’s not typical mosquito behavior! So, in the spirit of science, I caught one out of midair and gently squashed it. Even a hand lens couldn’t tell me much about this tiny tangle of legs, but after a photo shoot with my macro setting, I was able to ascertain this critter’s innocence: it was definitely not a mosquito.

The spines on its knees were my first clue. The lower joint of each leg had at least one and sometimes multiple little pointy prongs sticking out of it. The two tiny wings were clear and delicately veined. The abdomen was narrow and dark, with a lighter tip. And, most oddly, a projection on the underside of its thorax, what we’d think of as our chest, almost looked like a pale-colored mite clinging like a monkey on his mom.

Stumped, I sent my photo around—first to one entomologist friend, then another. When between the two of them I came up with the family Mycetophilidae and the common name “fungus gnat,” I sent the photo to “my mushroom guy” and he confirmed “Definitely Mycetophilidae. Huge family over a thousand spp. Google glow worms…”

Mycetophilids are in the order Diptera with mosquitoes, gnats, and other two-winged flies. As I parsed the Wikipedia article, everything began to make sense. They are described as having a “strongly humped thorax and well-developed coxae.” Did I know that an insect’s coxa is the base of its leg, roughly equivalent to our upper thigh? Definitely not. But the humped back and large, pale-colored coxae on my insect are what had looked like a monkey-baby mite to my unaided eye. Fungus gnats are also said to have spinose legs, which must be the scientific way to describe bayonets sticking out of your knees.

I was a little disappointed that none of my entomologist friends could identify my little guy to species. As it turns out, this would require close study of wing venation (ok, that’s not too hard) and chaetotaxy (which means the arrangement of the bristles on their body), and genitalia (which strikes me as a little too invasive for such a recent acquaintance.) Plus, with over 3,000 species in Mycetophilidae, it might take weeks to get through a dichotomous key.

“Most of their natural history secrets remain untold.” wrote Peter H. Kerr in his entry on fungus gnats for the Encyclopedia of Entomology. That may be so, but we know more than nothing. For instance, fungus gnats occur on all continents except Antarctica. Most (but not all) types of fungus gnats feast on the fruiting bodies, mycelia, and spores of fungi. They prefer damp habitats where their favorite fungi grow, and sometimes form thick swarms. In those forests, they play an important role in the food web.

A few species of fungus gnats become pests in the damp soil of gardens, farms, nurseries, and overwatered flower pots. Most of the time, though, a female fly will lay her eggs—up to 1,000 in her week-long life—in the cap of a freshly sprouted mushroom. The larvae develop quickly (three weeks from egg to adult) while burrowing into the cap, or make sticky webs on its underside. A few types of larvae are semi-predacious and may eat other insects who visit the mushroom.

Later, I took my mushroom guy’s advice about Googling “glow worms.” Radiant turquoise jewels dripping from cave ceilings appeared in Google Images. As it turns out, in a related family of fungus gnats, about a dozen species have developed bioluminescence. They mostly live in sheltered grottos in New Zealand and Australia. There, tiny larvae spin nests out of silk on the ceiling and dangle dozens of threads of silk beaded with droplets of mucus. Breathless, calm habitats are necessary so that their lines don’t get tangled. Breathless, I’m sure, are explorers who find a replica night sky illuminated on the ceiling of a cave.

The gnat larvae’s glow results from luciferin, a chemical compound similar to that used by fireflies. A hungry larva glows brighter than one who has just eaten, and that glow lures midges, mayflies, mosquitoes, and moths to their doom.

A trip to New Zealand may be in order someday, but for now, I’m just happy to know that it wasn’t a pack of mosquitoes still trying to invade my house in November!

Author’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016, but the fungus gnats are back in full force, so I wanted to share it with you again!

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

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Driveway through the November Doldrums

Frosty cold slid down my lungs as I trotted out of the driveway for some morning exercise. Not sure I’d quite call it running, but I do find that if I get outside in the gray light of dawn and get my heart pumping, I sleep a lot better at night. If I don’t get outside, the November doldrums seize hold.

Some people get bored with repetition, but by taking the same route each time, I’m able to keep track of little changes in the woods. Hoof prints appear and disappear at the bottom of the swale where moisture collects. Fallen leaves have faded from sunny yellow maple leaves, to brown maple and oak leaves accented by lemony aspen leaves, to a surprisingly lovely tapestry of browns and grays.

I still remember a childhood reading of a pioneer book where some woman (was it Ma Ingalls?) delighted in the beauty of a brown-patterned dress. At the time, clothed completely in little girl pinks and purples, I was skeptical. Now I could get lost in the subtle beauty of those shades and patterns.

The leaves didn’t just change color, though. They also curled at the tips and were blown into drifts by the turbulent breeze that follows my car down the drive. And then, within those drifts appeared bare spots where the leaves had been pushed aside and the soil surface scratched until it turned black. Even where there weren’t bare spots, the leaves had been tossed like a salad. How would that happen? It took me just a few seconds to guess at the culprits. Have you come up with an answer yet?

I confirmed my guess by taking a night walk out to the trail cam I have posted mid-way up the driveway and switching the memory cards. The first previews during the download process confirmed my suspicion: turkeys! First, a single bird emerged into the lower left corner of the image, and then—over a series of 60 images—a flock of 15 wandered into view. With heads down, backs hunched, and overlapping feathers tipped with tan highlights, their oval bodies looked like giant isopods (pill bugs) on stilts.

An isopod. Source

While I love observing subtle clues to the animals in my neighborhood, the trail camera has given me a much clearer window into the night. Last year at this time, there were regular dustings of snow to record tracks. Dry or frozen gravel doesn’t work nearly as well.

So, I’d seen a few heart-shaped tracks of deer, but was thrilled when the night vision capabilities of the camera captured the head of a big buck as he entered from the left, walking toward my house, with his neck lowered as if exhausted by the weight of his 8-point rack. A few hours after the big buck, and a few minutes after I biked out of the driveway on my morning commute, a little 4-point buck looked nervously toward the road, sniffed a cluster of leaves, and then escaped up the embankment. Was he avoiding the big guy?

Does also showed up a few times, but never in close proximity to a buck. Will that change as the rut revs up?

One of the most unexpected sightings almost escaped my notice. Ruffed grouse perfectly match the leaf litter by design, and her little body is just a blur as she crosses the gravel in a single frame. By toggling back and forth, though, I finally spotted her actual first capture by the camera—hidden under the same cluster of leaves that the young buck had sniffed. A jaunty blue jay hopping down the road rounded out the camera’s bird sightings.

Can you spot the grouse?

My favorite captures are always the fluffy-tailed coyotes and foxes. It’s been reported that they don’t get along, and that coyotes will harass and even kill the smaller foxes. Somehow, they each seem to have found their own niche in the neighborhood by alternating nights on my driveway.

The fox must remain vigilant, though. On the night before Halloween, he walked past the camera, noticed it, and stared straight into the lens. His eyeshine was so bright that the two orbs appear to merge into a super-hero-esque white mask. Then, with swirling tail, he turned and ran.

I will follow tomorrow morning, as I trace the same old route in the same gray light of dawn. Will the leaves have changed some more? Will someone leave me tracks to find? Or will I have to wait for the camera to unlock the mysteries for me? And whatever I find, will it be enough to keep those November doldrums at bay?

[Whenever I write about my trail cam, I get lots of requests for the make/model and recommendations. The one I have is very similar to many in its price range. I’d recommend reading the reviews and buying one within your budget.]

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

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Trick or Treat with a Jagged Ambush Bug

Did any little bees buzz up to your porch last weekend, looking for a sugary snack? How did you treat them? Did you smile and coo at their costumes? Wiggle your gnarled hands at them menacingly? Or did you pounce from the shadows, grab them with your strong front legs, and use your sharp beak to inject poison and then suck up their liquefied body tissues?

Not that last one? Well, you must not be a Jagged Ambush Bug.

If it sounds terrifying, don’t worry—I spotted my Jagged Ambush Bug way back in early September, and this member of the Assassin Bug family has probably hunkered down for the winter.

The day was warm but overcast when I went snooping around the Museum’s pollinator gardens. We’re working on some interpretive signage that will be installed next summer, and I wanted to see what flower species were still in bloom. A plume of goldenrod caught my eye because it was just thick with bumble bees. Most of them were crawling and darting chaotically, but I spotted an orange-belted bumble bee that looked more cooperative. When I leaned in to snap a photo, I discovered that an oddly shaped yellow and brown bug was attached to the head of a very dead bee. That’s why it was so cooperative!

This unfortunate orange-belted bumble bee made its final visit to a goldenrod flower where an Jagged Ambush Bug waited. The bug attacked with its strong front legs, injected poison with its sharp beak, and will now slurp up liquified bee guts. Photo by Emily Stone.

This is the modus operandi of ambush bugs. They grow up to look like a beautiful flower so that they can blend in perfectly on said flower. Then they’ll sit and wait until an unsuspecting pollinator comes looking for a sugary treat. Wham! With front legs so strong and scary that scientists call them “raptorial,” the ambush bug ambushes the hungry visitor; jabs them with that vicious beak; injects paralyzing, digesting poison; and drinks their fill. Using this technique, they can catch and eat prey more than twice their size.

(You, my friend, are far more than twice their size. Although, if you try to squash an ambush bug, they will bite you. While painful, their poison is not dangerous to humans.)

This hardly fits my image of “cute as a bug.” Usually, the way we use the word bug is imprecise. We call lots of insects and cuties “bugs.” But there is one group of insects that even entomologists who study insects call True Bugs. These are pretty easy for kids—and even adults—to identify, because they have a big X on their back. The top half of the X is formed by a triangular piece of their exoskeleton that sits behind their head. Behind this triangle are their crossed wings, which are leathery at the bases and clear and veiny at the tips. The border between thick wing and thin wing makes the bottom triangle of the X.

So, X marks the True Bug. The ambush bug’s piercing-sucking mouth is also a key family trait. Luckily, not all are quite so scary. Stink bugs, a familiar True Bug with that distinctive X, are more likely to imbibe on piƱa colada than join Dracula for a cocktail—they use their proboscis to pierce plants or fruits. While ambush bugs can use their beak as defense, stink bugs rely on their namesake stench to deter predators.

Stink bugs have the tricks, flowers have the treats, and ambush bugs are those twisted people who love to jump out of the shadows and yell “Boo!”

Who were you?

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

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Celebrating All Hallowtide: A Naturalist’s View of Death

“Every year we have been witness to it: how the world descends into a rich mash, in order that it may resume.”

By Mary Oliver, from “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness”

Our glorious fall colors are drifting to the ground, lying thick in the woods and the edges of our yards that we’ve set aside for wild things. Their thin bodies will protect queen bees, wood frogs, and firefly larvae, and become a rich mash that feeds new growth in the spring.

These frosty leaves may be dead, but they are both food and protection for many still-living things in the ecosystem. Photo by Emily Stone.

For now, the year is transitioning toward dark days and gray thoughts. We are at the half-way point between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Also known as a “cross-quarter day,” many cultures believe that October 31 and November 1 are days when the boundary between this world and the next is more easily crossed. As plants senesce, insects freeze, and hunting seasons begin, death surrounds us.

My identity as a naturalist informs the way I think about the world more than any other influence. Naturalists seek to observe the interconnected relationships between living and non-living beings so we can understand the past, present, and future of our local and cosmological environments. It is within this framework that I think about death, reincarnation, and everlasting life.

When my dear Aunt Nan died, a poem called “Wings” by Mary Oliver became a comfort to me. It is about a great blue heron. The last lines are: “my bones knew something wonderful about the darkness--and they thrashed in their cords, they fought, they wanted to lie down in that silky mash of the swamp, the sooner to fly.”

Poems are often metaphors, filled with symbolism, but as a naturalist I recognize the truth in these words. Swamps are cradles of both decomposition and of new life. If Nan, I, or anyone were to lie down in “that silky mash of the swamp,” efficient teams of bacteria would dismantle our bodies bit by bit back into their component parts, and they would get passed, bit by bit, up the food chain. Soon, they might become part of a heron. And when those powerful wings rise into the sky, atoms who were once part of our bodies rise, too.

Of course, if you ask Nan, the wings that carry her skyward belong to a dragonfly. Nan told us that she would come back as a dragonfly, or rather, as ALL dragonflies. By giving us this touchstone, Nan ensured that she’d continue to be present in our hearts and minds.

This concept is well stated by the Greek philosopher Pericles, whose quote is in the sympathy cards I always keep on-hand. He said: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” This strikes a deep chord with me. Naturalists are often teachers, protectors of landscapes, and planters of flowers and trees. All of those actions have impacts far into the future. We live on as long as our actions ripple out into the world.

Life and death, creation and destruction, are intertwined in the web of the Universe, as seen in these backlit leaf veins. Photo by Emily Stone.

I was never an astronaut-aspiring space kid, but I did become enthralled with stars once I learned that they, like us, are born and die. Stars arise from clouds of dust, where gravity brings the particles together. Mass builds and gravity increases until hydrogen atoms smashing into each other combine to form helium. Nuclear fusion begins, light shines, and a star is born.

As the star ages and becomes a red giant, helium fuses into carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, magnesium, and eventually iron. But where does the rest of the periodic table come in? Those elements can’t be created during a star’s life. They are conceived during its death.

The heat and energy involved in a large star’s death—in a supernova—are enough to synthesize many more elements, which are all hurled into space to form a supernova remnant, also called a nebula. Nebulas are the birthplaces of stars, and also of planets like Earth. The atoms who coalesced to form the Earth now cycle endlessly through her rocks, her air, her water, and her life. We literally are made of stardust.

This story is reenacted over and over in nature. There can be no creation without destruction.

So, from a Naturalist’s point of view…from a worldview filled with connections and joyful reciprocity: Our veins course with stardust. Our muscles are built from venison. Our lungs converse with maples trees. Our bones swirl through the mud with herons. With every breath, with every bite, we are intimately connected with all the atoms on Earth. When we think like naturalists; when we allow ourselves to be woven into the web; then, as Mary Oliver writes: “life is real, and pain is real, but death is an imposter.”

May you find connection on this All Hallowtide.

Note: This article is a revision of one published last year at this time. 

You can also view a video version of these ideas!

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

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

A Spooky Walk with Extra Legs

Shuffling restlessly around the house, I needed to do something else before bed. Scrub the sink? Nah. Read? I’d just fall asleep. I looked out the windows: dark. Thick clouds obscured both stars and moon. But darkness in the woods hasn’t scared me for years, not since I had to swallow my own hesitations and put on a brave face to lead night hikes for kids at camp. We hooted for owls, played tricks with our night vision, tested our hearing, and experimented with smells. (I love night hikes so much that we offer them by request through the Museum!)

Eventually I got so comfortable that I could walk across camp with no yard lights, no flashlight, and no moon. I’d feel the gravel road under my feet, sense the opening in the forest at my turn, find the firm path through the woods, and let the soft duff warn me if I strayed off the edge.

To preserve my comfort in the dark, I shield myself entirely from horror movies and sinister mysteries. Nothing could entice me to watch the Blair Witch Project. I cover my eyes during the previews.

Now the main threats to my night explorations are simply adulting and going to bed early. Last night that restlessness got me out the door.

Instead of going entirely without light, I decided to bring my UV flashlight and camera along. Night is all about using different senses. The UV flashlight interacts with our dominant sense of vision, but it also allows us to see the word in a different way.

Near a stump, the striated flesh of decaying mushrooms glowed blue. As I rested my hand to stabilize the camera, slimy, cold fungal goo oozed between my knuckles. Ew. Nearby, the chlorophyll in moss fluoresced with a deep blood-red. The knobby twig of a hemlock tree arched across spiky moss tufts like a tiny backbone. Who needs a haunted house when you’ve got the woods?

A spine-like hemlock twig rests on moss that is fluorescing blood red. Taken using a 365nm UV flashlight. Photo by Emily Stone.

Near another stump, a decaying lump of white fungus—once a choice edible called abortive entoloma—glowed pink and blue from spots of mold. The entoloma by itself is a boring gray mushroom. But when it attacks a nearby species of honey fungus, their bodies merge to form a tasty white nugget nicknamed “shrimp of the woods.” Fungi eating fungi eating fungi. How does that compare to a zombie apocalypse?

Sometimes called “shrimp of the forest,” abortive entolomas are choice edible mushrooms…except when they are covered in mold that fluoresces pink and blue. Taken using a 365nm UV flashlight. Photo by Emily Stone.

Most of these finds are cryptic and the colors faint. I have to hold both the UV flashlight and my face close to the ground in order to experience all of the shades and textures. Occasionally, though, a shimmering specter reflects my beam. Such was the case with a small white mushroom—not parasitized or molding—but displayed regally in a little alcove like a ghost bride in her gown. I snapped a dozen glamour shots of this beauty, playing with the angle of light to maximize the glow.

This tiny mushroom glowed like a ghost bride. Taken using a 365nm UV flashlight. Photo by Emily Stone.

With my nose still near the mossy bank, I spotted something blue under a soil overhang. Copper in their blood makes slugs fluoresce a beautiful bluish green. But near the legless slug I spotted something else also glowing faintly blue. Hundreds of creepy legs tickled the moss as the millipede burrowed away from my light. It must have hit a roadblock, though, and two segmented antennae poked out again from behind a lichen flap, followed by the rounded head. As I watched it crawl away, the graceful, sequential motion of the legs reminded me of a witch’s fingers as she casts a spell.

Millipedes go back farther than witches, though. 400 million years ago, when oxygen levels were higher, their ancestors grew to be six feet long! That’s as close to a horror movie as I need to get.

They may look scary, but millipedes don’t bite. They mostly shred up rotting leaves and assist with decomposition in the soil. They won’t slime you like a slug. They don’t have 1,000 legs, but they do have two pairs of legs per abdominal segment, as compared to centipede’s single pair. And, if I’d been a little more intrusive with my light, their genitalia fluoresce in unique colors that give scientists an easier way to tell apart the purported 70,000 species worldwide.

I often say that I’m not interested in writing fiction because Nature has already come up with plenty of good stories I can tell. The same goes for fictional horror films, I guess. Who needs fake monsters when the ones along my driveway give me that same thrill? Creepy, slimy, gross, and also fascinating, beautiful, and part of a healthy ecosystem.

Feeling restless with the early dark? Take a night hike and let Nature be your Halloween!

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

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Flights of Fall in the Boundary Waters

Thick, gray clouds still hung low over the glassy lake, but in the west, a sliver of clear sky had begun to show above the dark trees. All day, the air had been so damp that rain gear was needed, even though drops never coalesced enough to fall. It had felt like a typical day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we paddled and portaged into a pink granite campsite on the Kawishiwi River.

(This was during the 10 minutes of sun you'll read about in a minute!)

With the pots washed and firewood gathered, we picked up books and journals to relax. I was immediately distracted by a flock of active locals twittering between a tall white pine and a thicket of baby birch. Chickadees scolded and gurgled at each other in the hierarchy of a relatively new winter flock. Even-smaller birds with drab feathers and faint white wingbars kept up a constant chatter of tsee-tsee-tsee. It’s a wonder that these golden-crowned kinglets can survive Northwoods winters. They do it by feeding frantically on cryptic caterpillars all day, then diving into cover with their friends at dark and sharing body heat all night.

Then, out over the lake and behind a pine, a different flock—maybe juncos?—darted from left to right in fish-school formation. One bird was slightly bigger than the rest, with sharp wings and a dark body. “Merlin!” I gasped, as the flock escaped, and the falcon swooped up to perch at the top of a birch tree nearby. I grabbed for my camera, but when I looked up, he was gone.

Merlins are small falcons who specialize in hunting smaller birds, like this blue jay, on the wing. Photo by John Harrison, Wikimedia Commons.

I was surprised to see this little raptor still migrating through. I would have guessed that they head south in early fall like their smaller cousins, American Kestrels. But when I checked the raptor count data from Hawk Ridge in Duluth, I found that merlins migrate later, with the highest ever number of individuals recorded on October 9, 1997. In contrast, kestrels’ record high was September 9.

Otherwise, the behavior we witnessed was exactly what I’d expect. Those pointed wings are built for the speed and maneuverability that merlins need for hunting songbirds on the wing. A species of prairies as well as boreal lakes and forests, merlins have done the opposite of cardinals and have used city habitats to begin breeding farther south. This range expansion has likely helped to fuel their recovery from declines caused by DDT contamination in the 1960s.

Before I could settle back into my book, the sun emerged below the edge of the weather front. For ten minutes, the campsite glowed, the trees lit up, and the water sparkled in the only sunshine of the day. Then the trees swallowed it up, and the world turned orange. The colors from those last moments of sunset seemed to pour themselves into our fire grate, and we roasted s’mores while the stars came out.

Thick morning fog gave the world an eerie look, but it burned off around lunchtime. As we prepared to pull away from shore after a portage, the darting flights of dragonflies caught my eye. Dragonflies? In October?

One couple paused for a break on my pantleg...

Each of the male autumn meadowhawk dragonflies was using an appendage at the tip of his abdomen to grasp a brown female meadowhawk by the back of her head. This tandem position indicates that they’ve already mated, and now he’s guarding her to make sure that no other male horns in. As I watched, the pairs dipped low enough to touch her abdomen to the water. Then, to my horror, they rose up and seemed to whack her abdomen against rocks emerging from the water.

Over and over the pairs dipped, whacked, and repeated this behavior, with half a dozen couples visible in my camera’s viewfinder. I’ve read that dragonfly females are often injured during the mating process, but this seemed extreme. When I posted my video and question in the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society’s Facebook group, member Jim Johnson explained that the female dragonfly picks up a drop of water, extrudes eggs into it, and then shakes the eggs loose by slamming into a rock.

Other resources mentioned alternating between water and mud, and also that eggs are often laid in shallow water, deep water, and on land. All of these options have tradeoffs, but the main goal is to reduce the number of eggs that fish eat, and to make sure some of the eggs survive the winter, no matter which habitat faces the most challenges in that particular year.

Over and over, I read that autumn meadowhawks are aptly named for having the latest flight period of any Northwoods dragonfly. If we continue without hard frosts, they could be seen into November.

The forecast continues to be unseasonably warm, and perfect for canoeing. While this triggers a bit of worry about our changing climate, I’m grateful to have squeezed in this late-season trip, and have witnessed some of the last flights of fall.

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

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Bonus photos!