Thursday, July 25, 2013

Web of Intrigue

Fog hung thick over the lake and early morning light filtered through the trees. I bent low in front of my favorite lakeside window, touching my toes and enjoying the stretch. As I rose up and reached my arms overhead, dark shape in the corner of the window caught my eye. There, on the outside of the screen, was a very large spider. Including legs, it had to be at least two inches across.
Spiders are amazing creatures, but I have a bit of innate fear of the largest ones. Still, in the spirit of yoga, I silently appreciated this spider for eating some of the bugs trying to sneak into the house to eat me (mosquitoes!). Then, I glanced at the adjacent window and saw the silhouette of a spider twice the first one’s size!
Female dark fishing spiders are the largest spiders regularly found in the Northwoods. This particular female was about as big as they come, with a legspan of almost four inches!  The first, smaller spider must have been a male, since they are about half the size of females. As their name implies, most fishing spiders live near water. Dark fishing spiders stray farther from water than other species of fishing spiders, and are often found near docks, in wet woods, and in basements.
With dark and light chevron patterns on their large, oval abdomens, and dark and light stripes around their legs, these spiders are quite striking. My roommates had assumed these were wolf spiders, but wolf spiders don’t get as large overall, and they have much bigger eyes. The difference in the eye size of the two families relates to their hunting techniques.
Wolf spiders are visual hunters who pounce on prey by day and night. Fishing spiders use a range of vibration-detecting organs, including very sensitive hairs on their legs and feet, to sense prey. I think my spiders were sensing vibrations on the window screen. Other species of these hairy hunters sense their prey’s movement through vibrations on the water’s surface. Their eyes are only secondary, and they do not spin webs. 
Dark fishing spiders do, however, spin a web of intrigue with their odd mating habits. The reproductive techniques of most spiders seem a little odd from our human perspective. Male spiders produce semen in testes on their abdomen, then spin a “sperm web,” fill it with sperm, and suck the sperm up into their “pedipalps,” which are antenna-like sensory organs near the spider’s face. The sperm inflates the pedipalps.
The male does the appropriate love dance, climbs up on the female, inserts one of his pedipalps into her genital opening, and deposits the sperm.
Here is where the dark fishing spider gets unique. A recent study revealed that, for the male, mating is like committing suicide. “The act of sperm transfer is triggering this cascade of death,” said Steven Schwartz, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Nebraska. “Once that button is pushed, it’s lights out.” The male dark fishing spider’s legs curl up and he becomes immobile.
If the male dark fishing spider is lucky, the female will eat him, become satiated, and not mate with other males. This benefits the deceased male by ensuring that he will be the father of her spider babies. If he isn’t lucky, he dies within a couple of hours and the female goes on her merry way.
As the rising sun illuminates my window, I see the huge spider resting there, and the smaller male nearby, in a whole new light. I respect the complexity of a relationship I can’t fully understand.
As Buddha says, “Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering.”


As John Muir, a University of Wisconsin-educated naturalist said, “Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom… 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...”

Unfortunately, something else may also flow into you after walking quietly off into the woods. Tick season is upon us, and they seem to pose an ever-increasing threat of disease. If you are an avid outdoors person, you have probably already done your research about ticks and Lyme disease, but I would like to share a few important reminders. Since my job is to encourage people to get outside and enjoy nature, I want to make sure you do it safely!

Wood ticks (more accurately known as the American dog tick – Demacentor variablis) and the smaller blacklegged ticks – Ixodes scapularis (which are sometimes inaccurately called deer ticks) both tend to hang out in tall grass and low shrubs, especially where fields meet forests. This is not the only place they live, but it is where they are most abundant. Therefore, you may want to avoid walking through tall grass.

Ticks do not fall on you from trees, and they do not jump from vegetation. They simply hang on to the top of a blade of grass with a couple of their eight legs, and wave the rest in the air so they can grab whatever warm-blooded animal happens to pass by.

Deer, mice, other small mammals are the primary sources of the blood necessary for the tick to develop from each stage to the next in their complicated life cycle. Whom the young blacklegged ticks feed on determines whether they become a carrier for the spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, the organism that causes Lyme disease. Larvae who feed on an infected host will carry the bacterium as they molt into the nymph stage and begin looking for their next meal in early summer. This is the stage mostly responsible for infecting humans.

The ecology of blacklegged ticks, their mammal hosts, and B. burgdorferi, is extremely complex. Studies have shown that an increase in biodiversity can significantly reduce the likelihood of humans becoming infected with Lyme disease. As the diversity of small mammals increases in an area, it becomes more likely that the ticks will feed on something other than deer mice or chipmunks, the two best reservoirs for the bacteria. Some critters, like opossums, actually end up eating most of their tick load during grooming!

Grooming is important for humans, too. Wear light colored clothing and tuck your pants into your socks to help make sure that you find and remove ticks quickly, before they have attached to you. As you are walking behind your friend, scan their clothing for small moving dots. You can also apply insect repellent with 20-30% DEET to shoes, socks and pants. There is another chemical known as Permethrin, which reportedly kills ticks on contact with treated clothing. Do a bit of research, then read and follow directions to minimize the risks of chemicals. I personally prefer protective clothing to protective chemicals.

If you do find a tick that has attached to you, don’t panic! A blacklegged tick must be attached for 12-24 hours for the Lyme or related bacteria to be transmitted. Then, do NOT attempt removal using nail polish, Vaseline, matches or other methods that may traumatize the tick and cause it to regurgitate its gut contents. Yuck! Instead, get a pair of tweezers with good tips, and grasp the tick on its head, as close to your skin as possible. Pull it out slowly and firmly. If you get a little chunk of skin, it means you got the whole tick!

Finally, be aware of your health. If you know you have been bitten, watch the site for signs of infection, or the characteristic bull’s-eye rash. The rash may appear in only about half of Lyme infections, however. In any case, watch out for symptoms such as fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes. If you suspect you may have Lyme or a similar tick-borne disease, see your doctor as soon as possible! Early treatment usually results in 100% recovery, but late-stage infections can have lasting health effects.

Tick-borne diseases have affected many people in our Northern communities. Arming yourself with information is the best defense. To learn more, join us for a lecture on the “Biology and Ecology of Lyme Disease.” This free event takes place at the Cable Community Centre in Cable, WI, at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 24. Dr. Paul Goellner, a retired family practice physician from Spooner, was the first to recognize a cluster of cases of Lyme disease in the northern Midwest more than 35 years ago. He will share information about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, and their role both in your body and in nature. With a greater understanding you will be able to protect yourself and reduce your fear of encountering ticks.

As John Muir knew well, there are many health benefits to spending time in nature. In my view, the health risks to NOT going outside far outweigh the risk of disease from ticks. With a little care and vigilance, we can make sure that it is only nature’s peace that infects us, and nothing else!

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April, 2014.

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

Kale: Servant, or Master?

Hot sun beat down on my neck as I crouched in the dirt, pulling thin blades of quack grass from out between my kale plants. Weed by weed, I slowly reached the end of the row, stood up, and stretched my back. A quick survey showed that my work was not even close to being done. My plot at the brand-new Cable Community Farm had only recently been sheep pasture, and even after three rounds of tillage, quack grass roots still run deep.

The kale looked relaxed and happy, though, in its spacious row. For a second, I felt a twinge of resentment. Why does kale get to just sit there and grow, doing the only thing it really wants to do, while I have to toil away, tilling the soil, planting the seeds, watering the garden, and weeding away any competitors? By offering up its tasty, nutritious leaves, the kale has seduced me into catering to its every whim.

“…the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves,” Michael Pollan wrote in his excellent book, The Botany of Desire.

When I first picked up this book off a friend’s coffee table and read the introduction, it completely changed the way I think about domesticated plants. Although I love to eat kale and almost every other fruit and vegetable, I have always had more respect, more reverence for native plants. If you think about it, though, everything in our gardens started in the wild somewhere, once upon a time.

Pollan flips our perception of plants upside down, and asks us to think about domestication “as something plants have done to us—a clever strategy for advancing their own interests.” Their own interest, as with every living thing, is to make more copies of themselves, to reproduce.

So, just as plants use nectar to trick bees into transporting their pollen, plants bribed us with sweet fruits, crunchy leaves, nutritious seeds and beautiful flowers. In return, we choose the seeds of their genetic kin to be collected, sold, and replanted year after year. We bring them to a good habitat, protect them from pests, reduce their competition with other plants, and make sure their every need is met.

The tastiest, most prolific varieties (think Brandywine tomatoes, Provider bush beans, or my Winterbor kale…what’s your favorite?) are first developed through selective breeding, and then replanted over and over again. In the meantime, the quack grass and other weeds are tilled under, pulled out, and repeatedly beaten back. Says Pollan, “our desires are simply more grist for evolution’s mills, no different from a change in the weather: a peril for some species, and opportunity for others.”

When I write about nature, I usually choose to just write about wild things out in the woods. But, as Pollan observes, “Nature is not only to be found ‘out there’; it is also ‘in here,’ in the apple and the potato, in the garden and the kitchen…” My relationship with nature does not stop at the edge of my garden. In fact, by planting, nurturing, and eating these other living beings, I develop an even more intimate, reciprocal connection with nature, and weave myself more fully into the “reciprocal web of life that is Earth.”

Yes, kale and other vegetables have persuaded me to pamper them, and to pay others to make sure they reproduce every year, but I also receive benefits, just like the bee on the rose bush. Instead of a hive full of honey, I will survive winter with a freezer full of kale!

On the Lookout for Loons

Freshly rain-washed sunshine sparkled on the lake as a slight breeze ruffled the surface. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. But we sought more than just a lovely pontoon ride on Lake Namakagon. We were on the lookout for loons. By my estimation, loon chicks should have hatched on the lake!  Last year the lake hosted three successful nests, and we enjoyed watching the chicks’ antics throughout the summer.
This year, spring weather posed a bit of a challenge for loons. First, late winter blizzards and cold temperatures kept the lakes frozen much later than normal. Loons migrating north from the Gulf of Mexico had no way of knowing this, and they backed up on ice-free lakes to the south, just waiting for their chance to get back to their old territory or claim a new one. With hormones raging in expectation of mating season, territorial aggression may have caused energy-depleting skirmishes even as loons wait to head north.
As the lakes slowly opened, loons made a break for it, many of them migrating on the night of May 2nd. Unfortunately, an ice storm turned deadly.  Marge Gibson runs the Raptor Education Group (REGI) wildlife rescue center in Antigo. “The loons were iced,” she explained. “They were flying at altitude and the birds became wet, and basically were encased in ice, and then fell to the ground like missiles from a high altitude. Many of them were actually injured.” REGI took in 57 stranded or injured loons in just three days. Most of those were rehabbed and released. Loons not rescued were probably not so lucky. No one really knows the extent of the damage to the loon population.
Finally, the ice on Lake Namakagon went out on Monday, May 13. That Friday I spotted a few territorial pairs who had migrated back to their usual places on the lake. Courtship, pair bonding, nest building and mating can take a few weeks. Then, once the male has chosen the nest site, the female has built the nest, and they’ve copulated on the nest, it takes another couple weeks before the female lays her two eggs.
With only one working ovary, the loon female can only lay one egg at a time, about 1-3 days apart, so the chicks hatch at different times, too. The loon parents share the incubating duties equally for at least 26 days before the first egg hatches. Then it takes about a day for the chicks’ feathers to dry out enough so they can float.
So, by my calculation, today was about the soonest we would expect to see chicks on this lake.
Our first stop on this Loon Pontoon Tour was Sugar Bay. This beautiful, shallow inlet hides behind Anderson Island, and is only accessible by going under a bridge. For the past two years this pair has nested successfully. So it was with great anticipation that we puttered around the nesting bay, and then back into the calm, weedy area the loons use as a nursery.
A dark silhouette of a loon appeared out in the nursery, and we cautiously motored over. Then, another loon appeared near it. As we drew close, it became evident that they were alone. I sighed in disappointment. At this time of year, either the chick should be with the parents, or one parent should still be on the nest. They may still try a second nesting attempt, but laying eggs this late in the season does not give the chick much time to gain strength before it must migrate in November.
With a little disappointment, and a little hope, we turned and headed up to another remote corner of the lake that often hosts a successful nest. Jackson Lake is connected to the main lake by a beautiful, narrow channel filled with water lilies, beavers, great blue herons, and tamaracks. As the view into the wider part of the lake opened before us, we spotted the pair almost immediately. And one loon seemed to have an oddly shaped back…
A crisp view through binoculars revealed a single fluffy chick bumming a ride. Success! The entire crew on the pontoon was elated. Chicks can swim and dive as soon as their feathers are dry, but they tire and chill easily, so catch rides for about their first three weeks of life. This also helps protect them from swimming predators (musky, northern pike, and snapping turtles), and flying predators (eagles and gulls.)
As we watched, the chick slipped into the water, and the parents began to hunt. The adult loon dipped its face into the water; an action called “peering” that allows it to see underneath the surface glare. Then, with submarine-like stealth, it dove. Within a few seconds (the average loon’s dive is only about 45 seconds) the parent popped back up with a minnow cross-wise in its beak. With surprising speed, the tiny chick paddled over to meet the parent, stretched its little neck out long, and gobbled its catered lunch!
At this stage, chicks eat minnows and aquatic insects. Adults (who weigh about 10 pounds)  can eat about 2 pounds per day of smaller fish like perch. Over the summer, a loon family of four will eat about a ton of fish. For reference, a 150 pound human on a winter camping trip eats about 2 pounds of food per day.
We watched for several minutes as the family calmly continued the feeding operation. If any of the loons had given the tremolo alarm call or acted distressed, we would have left immediately. Luckily, loons are learning to be tolerant of humans in boats, and on this lake at least, we rarely cause them to show alarm.
Finally, we had seen enough, and bird-watched our way back to the landing. Spirits soared all around, as we cheered for the loons’ successful hatching, and our successful viewing. Come join me for another Loon Pontoon, held Thursday mornings throughout the summer!
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April, 2014.

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


My morning bike commute started out pretty quietly. As the sun rose higher, a few vociferous birds broke the stillness, singing their exuberant morning songs: “I’m alive! I made it through the night! This is still my territory! I love you dear! I’m alive!”

Slowly, another sound penetrated my pedaling meditation – the squeak of a dry chain. I pulled over on to the grassy shoulder of my rural town road to get out the chain lube. As my tire hit the grass, a cloud of mosquitoes rose with a hum. This sound was worse by far than the squeaking of the chain.

A leisurely maintenance stop quickly morphed into a NASCAR-style pit stop as I raced to finish. The annoying insects flew behind my sunglasses and landed on every warm surface. Almost more annoying than their bites or their humming was the soft breeze as their wings brushed against my skin. I slapped a few, their bodies crushing easily. Mary Oliver, my favorite poet, writes – The mosquito is so small; it takes almost nothing to ruin it.

Within a few seconds, I leapt back on my bike and took off like a shot, as if chased by the devil himself. I sighed in relief as my soundscape returned to the morning birdsongs, the stiff breeze in my face, and the hum of my tires on the road.

“Oh the mosquitoes, aren’t they just awful this year?” On the street and in the office, mosquitoes are the hot topic. They have almost replaced the weather as our default conversation, except that the weather often determines when the bugs are at their worst, so it cannot be ignored completely. We all have horror stories, and love to share. What’s yours?

Inevitably, someone asks, “What good are mosquitoes anyway?”

The negative aspects of mosquitoes are easy to list: they leave itchy welts, create sleep-depriving noise, and are disease vectors for malaria, yellow fever, and dengue fever, to name just a few. In Alaska, mosquitoes form swarms thick enough to asphyxiate caribou. But we in the Northwoods are luckier. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, few mosquitoes actually carry West Nile virus, and less than one percent of people infected with WNV become seriously ill.

However, of the 3,500 named species of mosquito, only a couple of hundred bite or bother humans. "Mosquitoes have been on Earth for more than 100 million years," says mosquito researcher, Jittawadee Murphy, "and they have co-evolved with so many species along the way." How many, how many, how many make up a world! writes Mary Oliver.

Mosquito adults are food for an astounding variety of birds, insects, spiders, salamanders, lizards, and frogs. From northern Canada to Russia, there is a brief annual period in which mosquitoes are extraordinarily abundant. Bruce Harrison, an entomologist at the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources estimates that the number of migratory birds that nest in the tundra could drop by more than 50% if all mosquitoes miraculously disappeared.

While we don’t have quite the mosquito or the bird population that the Arctic does, the warblers, vireos, flycatchers, swallows, and other summer birds that serenaded me to work eat a fair number of the pesky insects.

Dragonflies also do their best to reduce the number of mosquitoes for us. They are natural enemies of mosquitoes in all their stages of growth. The aquatic nymphs of dragonflies eat the aquatic larvae of mosquitoes, as do plenty of fish. Dragonfly adults swoop acrobatically, catching mosquitoes in their basket-like legs, and eating their own weight in mosquito burgers every 30 minutes. Mosquito biomass magically becomes a swarm of shimmering dragonflies. And then I think of that old idea: the singular and the eternal… (muses Mary Oliver).

If you have a hard time “becoming one” with the mosquitoes, there are a few things you can do to make yourself a less appealing blood meal. Mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, heat, lactic acid, smells in your sweat, sweet fruity or floral scents, and dark colors. So relax quietly in light-colored clothing, don’t breathe heavily, and use unscented bath products. Unfortunately, our genetics make up about 85% of our susceptibility to mosquito bites, so you might just be doomed to itching, while your friend is unaffected.

To further deter mosquitos, keep a fan blowing on you (mosquitoes are weak fliers), cover up your scent with a natural bug repellent like citronella or lemon eucalyptus, and avoid their active periods at dawn and dusk. DEET is the longest lasting effective mosquito repellent, but it is caustic to plastic and other synthetic materials, so use it wisely.

Mosquitoes have their own chemical defenses. A female mosquito’s saliva (since only they and not males eat blood) contains compounds that deter vascular constriction, blood clotting, and platelet aggregation, and are being researched as treatments for cardiovascular disease. Perhaps that may someday absolve them in our hearts.

And, if a hungry female mosquito still manages to break through your defenses, catch up to your frantic pedaling, and suck some blood, take comfort in knowing that it connects you to the wonderful web of nature…How tiny and redeemable everything is, even you…(Mary Oliver, One)