Friday, February 24, 2017

Search for the Great Gray Ghost

“The Sax-Zim bog is a really unique habitat of a little pocket of northern forest. So it attracts a lot of those northern species,” explained Haley Appleman, the Museum’s Naturalist and our biggest birder. She recently led a field trip to this remote location one hour northwest of Duluth, MN. “The great gray owl is what everybody goes for,” she explained. “It’s the big, visible bird. But there are lots of other birds that you don’t see other places in the Midwest. Like gray jays and boreal chickadees.”
Gray jay in the bog, by Haley Appleman.
Sax-Zim bog is actually about 300 square miles of public and private land. Here, the clay soils of an old lake plain hold water within them, and the cold, wet climate has perpetuated a thick layer of peat on top. Bog species such as sedges, tamaracks, and black spruce give it a scraggly look, and open areas likely remind the owls of their tundra home. Aspen uplands, rivers, lakes, meadows, and farms join in the patchwork. According to the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog at, it’s a “’magic mix’ of habitats that boreal birds love.”
The group started off with smaller birds, finding white-winged crossbills, boreal chickadees, and a magpie.
Female white-winged crossbill by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren.

Boreal Chickadee, by David Mitchell.
Black-billed magpie, by Tom Koerner, USFWS.

As the shadows lengthened, the time came to start looking seriously for the elusive great gray owl.
Haley’s eyes got kind of far-off and dreamy as shared the story with me. “There are two roads that are really well-known for having great grays.” Dense tamarack and spruce stands provide the owls with good cover during the day, while the road and fields offer open areas for hunting at dawn and dusk. “We started going really slow down this dirt road. We were looking at the treetops. It’s always confusing because all of the spruces have little bunches on the top that look like an owl.”
Haley looks for birds. Photo by Emily Stone.

“We made one loop around,” she continued, “and I was really disappointed. We didn’t see anything. I asked ‘Should we do another loop?’ Carol said yes right away, because she was really determined to see a great gray owl. So we drove around again and went really slow. There was a car in front of us, which was kind of nice, because then we had another set of eyes along. They were a little ways ahead as we pulled by a house where the owl has been seen lately. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this big—I couldn’t see that it was a bird—this big blob come right out of the bushes and fly along the road. And just instantly I knew: ‘There it is! There it is!’ It was great.”
“It flew up onto a post in the yard of this house so we were able to walk down the road a little ways and get the scope on it.” Respectful birders are careful not to trespass or disturb the local residents too much.
I asked Haley what it looked like. “Gray. And great,” she chuckled. “It’s very well named.”
Great gray owl by Haley Appleman.

“They’re really big birds,” she continued. “They have a big wingspan. That owl shape is very round. The great gray is the tallest owl in North America, and they have these little tiny feet for being so big. They’re very specialized in eating voles and small rodents, so they just need those little feet.”
Haley continued to recite some of the great gray owl’s amazing adaptations. “They have a rotating foot, so they perch with two toes in front and two in the back when they’re just resting. And then when they’re going to attack—when they’re going to grab that mouse—they can rotate one of the toes forward to have three in front. That gives them a better grip on their food.”
How they find their food in the first place is even more incredible. “They have really amazing hearing,” explained Haley. “They have huge ears. The hole in their head is bigger than our hole, even though their skull is so much smaller. Their round, flat faces act like a satellite dish and focus all of that sound in. They can pinpoint exactly where the sound is coming from because they have offset ears. One is slightly higher and forward, and the other is slightly lower and pointed backwards. So no matter where the sound comes from it hits their ears at different times, and they can tell exactly where it is.” This process is called triangulation. Soft feathers give owls silent flight, so that they can still hear their prey while in the middle of an attack.
By using their ears to hunt, owls are able to “see” their prey even in low light. Darkness isn’t the only cover that mice hide under, though. “Especially for the northern owls that are hunting here in the winter,” said Haley, “their food is covered by snow.” Great gray owls hunt from low perches, and can hear prey underneath two feet of snow. With a great crash, they’ll plunge feet-first into the drift, and hopefully come up with lunch.
These boreal specialists have found a permanent home in the Sax-Zim bog, and local photographers have documented breeding pairs with chicks. Even more come to visit from the far north during irruption years. Still, not every birder gets lucky on a trip to the bog. Haley had prepared herself to go home disappointed, too. “We were trying to go in with the attitude of: ‘we’re probably not going to see one. Don’t get your hopes up.’ But then you see it, and you realize, this is what it’s all about.”
 Great gray owl by Arne List of Germany.

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, February 17, 2017

The Thousand Faces of Winter

The woods were filled with light and shadows. Blinding white and midnight blue painted the ground, while the breeze blew fairy crystals of snow through rough, brown trunks. Although Lois Nestel (the Museum’s first naturalist) may not have fancied my mode of travel (fat bike), she certainly would have appreciated this scene on the beautiful Seeley Hills trails.

Lois had her own favorite ways of getting out to enjoy each winter, and she wrote about the snowy landscapes she cherished in her newspaper column, “Wayside Wanderings.” During the Museum’s 50th birthday year, I’m sharing some of her stories again. It’s a relief—a deep cleansing breath—to escape from our current, fast-paced news cycle into her gentle and reverent words.

“Winter has a thousand faces;” observed Lois, “each of us is free to see the face we choose. For example, the colors of winter are subtle and transient. Nothing is as it seems. The snow is white, it is true, but it is also endless hues and shades depending on the light, the type and quality of snow, and even more on the eye of the beholder.”

“Under leaden skies the snow appears dead white or pearly toned with shadows that are slate and steel. Sunrise can turn open spaces to rose and palest gold shadowed with lavender and violet; mid-day brings the clearer blues, and the evening sky may add a depth of tone to morning hues.”

“Frost flakes caught in morning sun outshine the jewel treasures of the world as prismatic reflections bedazzle the eyes with brilliant sapphire, topaz, emerald, and ruby that change with every movement and finally fade with advancing day, as do the rainbow-tinted sundogs that accompany a chill morning sun.”

“Moonlight on the snow brings shadows traced in indigo against the cold white flame of diamonds. The blue-black velvet of the night sky, studded with cold, blazing stars will often show the aurora borealis as wavering, tattered banners or as moving spotlights against the northern sky,” wrote Lois.

Recently, I caught my own breath at the shining magic of the near-full moon as it played peek-a-boo among the trees. Lois’s words floated through my consciousness. Letting my skis find their own way in the tracks, I swiveled my head as far as it would go to enjoy the moon’s glittering path. Later that night, the luminous glow—amplified by snow—fostered insomnia.

Lois summed up snow this way: “However you see snow, as a burden to be borne or as a base for winter sports, see in it also the incredible beauty beyond the power of man to duplicate or even to describe.”

In the Northwoods, trees are as much a part of the winter landscape as snow. They complement each other, and accentuate the other’s beauty. Lois appreciated each one in her own whimsical way.

“Had I been one of the druids of old,” she began, “I believe my worship would have been, not for the mighty oak, but surely for one of the evergreens. While other trees have dropped their ruffled gowns and stand in shivering nakedness, the evergreen reaches out with well-clothed arms to offer shelter from the cold. We would be bereft without this royal family of the northern climes.”

“Here stand the spruces, maids in waiting, dark, slender, dancers of the skyline; and here the balsams, reserved aristocrats, rich in their own perfume and decked with icicle and frost jewels. Here are the tough, gnarled jack pines, outcasts and black sheep of the family, fighters for their share of the earth. What they lack in grace they make up in sheer tenacity.”

“Here are the hemlocks, full of queenly grace and serenity from seedling to massive and dignified old age, replenishing the earth beneath them and pouring forth their largess in multitudes of cones to benefit the wildlife. Here too the sinewy cedars, crown princes of the swamplands and benevolent overseers of the delicate orchids.”

“And here, head and shoulders above the rest, stand my beloved white pines. Like lanky, callow youths in their early years, they develop the symmetry of handsome adulthood and in the fullness of their years are craggy, unconventional and full of character. There is strength in the clean lines of great limbs and tenderness in the soft-whispering blue-green plumes of needles. As I see them now, mantled with snow, it is as the cloak of ermine tossed carelessly across the shoulders of the king. Towering in stately dignity, no other tree adds such distinctive beauty to the sylvan scene.”

“If I were a druid, to this tree would I bow down. But as I am not, I can only gaze in awe and admiration and think, ‘What wonders God has wrought!’”

We are lucky to live where snow and trees surround us. Perhaps we should all take a cue from Lois and spend a few moments each day gazing with gratitude at our extraordinary world.

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, February 10, 2017

Hunt for the Wondrous Water Bear

 “They exist in some of the most extreme habitats on earth, from the deep sea trenches to mountaintops and Antarctica. So I thought, maybe I could find one in Wisconsin, too!”

Kaylee Faltys, the Museum’s new Curator, sat down with me recently to talk about her hunt for the wondrous water bear.

“To know about something for eight years and then finally see it was thrilling!” said Kaylee. She’d first learned about water bears in an aquatic invertebrate ecology class as an undergraduate. Water bears, also known as tardigrades and moss piglets, are aquatic, microscopic, eight-legged animals, and are thought to be the most resilient animals on earth.

“They are the ultimate honey badger!” joked Kaylee, referring to a viral video from 2011 about an African mammal who was named “The World's Most Fearless Creature” by the Guinness Book of World Records. The catchy tag line from the video was “honey badger don’t care.” While honey badgers don’t care about venomous snakes and stinging bees, water bears don’t care about extreme temperatures, x-ray radiation 1000x the lethal human dose, desiccation, the vacuum of space, and pressures higher than you’d experience in the deepest part of the ocean. Among scientists and naturalists, water bears have developed quite a reputation for being tough.

“They’ve survived in outer space! They seemed too good to be true,” said Kaylee, “so I didn’t think I’d ever see one in real life.” But when Kaylee started researching lichens for the Cable Natural History Museum’s new exhibit, an idea started developing. Lichens are leaf-shaped organisms composed of both fungi and algae that grow prolifically on tree trunks and other surfaces. They provide habitat for a multitude of microscopic life. “Lichens are one of water bears’ classic habitats,” she said, “and I started thinking about how cool it would be to actually try to see one.”

So, armed with her trusty pocket knife and bundled up against subzero temperatures, Kaylee ventured into the untamed wilderness—of the Museum’s backyard. After slicing a small patch of lichen off the tree, she brought it back inside and soaked it in room temperature water overnight. Kaylee hoped that the frozen water bears would come back to life.

Despite their crazy survival skills, water bears aren’t considered “extremophiles.” Those critters actually seek out and thrive in extreme environments like deep sea vents. In contrast, water bears have learned to simply endure. Their strategy involves going into a state of “cryptobiosis” or extreme hibernation. All measureable metabolic processes stop. Their water content can drop to one percent of normal. The organism seems dead, but the condition is reversible.

Getting rid of water is a key to their survival. Water expands and contracts drastically as it freezes and thaws, which can damage cells. If any water molecules are left as a water bear dehydrates, a sturdy sugar called trehalose physically prevents them from rapidly expanding as a result of temperature changes. That’s not all. Flexible, shapeless proteins rearrange themselves into solid biological glass as they dry out. This bioglass wraps other important proteins and molecules in a stiff, protective envelope that holds them together. The bioglass melts as the water bear rehydrates, and everything starts moving again. These adaptations are so effective that water bears have survived more than 30 years in their state of suspended animation called a “tun.”

Back in her office, Kaylee put a little bit of the damp lichen on a microscope slide, covered it with a slip, and started searching around the edges for signs of life. Almost immediately she spotted a little wiggler. Although it was almost completely translucent, its chubby, segmented body, four pairs of stubby legs, and two eye spots were readily visible. “The little guy moved fast,” she exclaimed. “If I looked away he was gone!”

“This is a milestone in my scientific life,” philosophized Kaylee, who just began her dream job as a museum curator after receiving a master’s degree in biological sciences from South Dakota State University. “It made my day.” And now Kaylee is hoping to share her excitement about these amazing, oddly cute little creatures. “I’m planning to hold a Tardigrade Treasure Hunt program this summer, to help people discover the amazing varieties of life that exist out of sight in our own backyards.”

Tardigrade, by Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al

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 phenology exhibit: "Nature's Calendar: Signs of the Seasons" is open through March 11.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Foggy Fen

Mystical fog hung thick over the fen, and droplets of water glistened from the tip of each evergreen needle. Dark, craggy sculptures of black spruce trees faded into the mist with eerie calm; their silhouettes stark against a melting snowpack. The Namekagon Fen State Natural Area is a beautiful place in every season, even when March comes in January.

It seems like only yesterday that the dripping droplets came from sweat glistening at the tip of my nose, and we all squinted into the sweltering, late-July heat. On that visit, I brought along a TV crew and four teenage cast members to shoot an episode of “Aqua Kids” for public television. The show aired in November, and is now posted to their YouTube site ( Watching the video, my toes remembered how warm the surface water on the bog felt, and how cold the bog pole remained when we pulled it up from 20 feet below the surface. We never found the bottom, but we did discover where the deep cold of winter hides.

The vibrant greens of July were nowhere to be seen on this most recent visit. Under the dim light and fog, the scene was etched in grayscale. With the Aqua Kids, I’d dissected a red-veined pitcher plant leaf and poured a mass of squirming larvae out of its miniature ecosystem. Those leaves are buried now, but the tall, dried stalks of their flowers poke up above the snow like periscopes searching for spring.

Life was humming then. The fen is silent now, and still. Until you look closer.

Shifting my focus from the faded distance, I noticed a smattering of black specks on the snow at my feet. Snow fleas! As I stared—trying to bring them into focus—they vanished one by one.

Snow fleas (also known as springtails) aren’t even insects. They do have six legs, but a lack of wings, simple instead of compound eyes, differences in molting, and a special mouthpart for drinking, set springtails apart from true insects. When startled, a snow flea releases a clasp, and a forked appendage snaps open against the ground. Launching up to 100 times their body length in an uncontrolled flight, they appear to vanish into thin air.

Springtails are unbelievably abundant in moist habitats, and happily live in the soil and leaf litter year-round. Just one or two species come out on the snow, though, and they have a unique protein that works as antifreeze down to about 21 degrees F.

While crouched low and peering at snow level to watch the snow fleas, we finally spotted a dash of color. On a snow-free hummock under the thick boughs of a black spruce tree, lay a ruby-red cranberry on a bed of emerald moss. The fog seemed to lift for a moment as the tangy juice burst onto my tongue.

Snowshoeing on the semi-frozen, snow-covered surface of the bog was slightly easier than wading through the drifts of soggy, summer sphagnum moss. Occasionally, though, we broke through into a snow cave propped up by a scaffolding of leatherleaf twigs. At the bottom of each hole, and often at the bottom of our footprints, was a little pool of slush.

I saw one collapsed tunnel of a meadow vole, but not more. In a normal winter, with cold temperatures and plenty of fluff, small mammals seek refuge in the subnivean zone at the boundary between earth and snow. This melt turned that magical world into a slushy mess capped by ice. I’m not sure how the former residents will manage.

At least one of the subnivean citizens came to the surface. The small black dot resolved into an eight-legged spider on the snow as I bent closer. It was hard to see details in the low light, but I tried for an extreme close-up with my camera. Later, on the computer, I zoomed in to discover hairy legs and a dew-covered abdomen.

Wolf spiders are common predators on the forest floor all year round. They overwinter as adults and sub-adults, and continue their lives in the subnivean zone. The cold doesn’t seem to slow them down as much as it slows down their insect prey, which gives them a hunting advantage. In the perpetual twilight under the snowpack, wolf spiders have another advantage. Two large eyes (in addition to two medium and four small eyes) give them excellent vision. A layer of special tissue in their eyes improves their sight in low light, and also results in eyeshine from probing flashlights.

The dark bodies of spiders on the surface of the snow occasionally absorb so much heat from the sun that they begin to melt themselves into a divot. There was no sun today, but fog had condensed into sparkling water droplets on everything in the fen—including each of the spider’s bristly hairs. With the long view obscured these days, beauty must be found close at hand.

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 phenology exhibit: "Nature's Calendar: Signs of the Seasons" is open through March 11.