Friday, July 28, 2017

Old Friends in a New Place

Hot wind swept across the prairie grass. Under the blazing sun, that stiff breeze was more than welcome. I’d never visited the Douglas County Wildlife Area, but decided I needed to see it before giving a talk at Barrens Fest organized by the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary. I felt instantly drawn to the park-like quality of the pine barrens. This 4,005-acre site includes the Solon Springs Sharptail Barrens State Wildlife Area and is managed by the WDNR in partnership with Douglas County. It is one of the best sharp-tailed grouse habitats in Wisconsin.

Sharp-tailed grouse need a variety of habitat types throughout the year. In spring, they use the short-grass prairie for their dancing leks. Nests are often hidden under dense shrubs and tall grasses from the previous year. The hens raise their chicks in areas where shrubs provide shade and conceal them from aerial predators, and short grasses and other plants provide plenty of insects to eat. Winter brings the need for dense cover and edge habitat to provide thermal insulation and relief from incessant winds.

By managing the landscape for the year-round needs of this iconic species, we end up providing unique habitat for a wonderful diversity of other plants, insects, and animals.

The delicate pink blossom of a wild rose was first to greet me as I began to explore around the historic clubhouse. As the state flower of Iowa, where I grew up, wild rose has always had a special place in my heart. From the coast of Maine to the Black Hills, the Boundary Waters and beyond, I can find this familiar flower almost anywhere I travel. There are several species of wild rose just in Wisconsin, each with their own habitat preferences. I don’t know which species this was, but it didn’t matter. Its presence immediately made this new place feel a little more familiar and welcoming.

This is common theme in my life. Wherever I travel, I’m able to find familiar plants (and birds as well) that foster my connection to a new place. Great blue herons in Moab, Utah, made the desert feel a little more like home. Chestnut-backed chickadees in California brought me joy, even if they did have a funny accent. Here in the barrens, the brilliant orange of butterfly milkweed conjured up memories of my parents’ restored prairie in Iowa. The tiny white flowers of three-toothed cinquefoil reminded me of the bedrock vista in the Boundary Waters where I first learned their name, as well as the cliff on Sleeping Giant in Canada where I wrote about them for this column.

I only just learned to identify the red-orange, vase-like blossoms of wood lily while I was in the Black Hills this summer, and here I found them sprinkled across the barrens. This dry prairie habitat is mostly due to the droughty nature of glacial outwash sand that drains our ample rainfall away, while the dry climate of the Black Hills develops in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. The lily finds what it needs in both places.

With the familiar plants as touchstones to keep me from feeling totally lost, my excitement at meeting new species could blossom without getting overwhelming. A purple pyramid of lupine flowers caught my eye. Although I could identify it in general (Lupine’s genus includes 200 species), I had to ask prairie-dwelling friends to help me determine the species. Sundial lupine, I discovered, is a host plant for the caterpillar of the endangered Karner blue butterfly.

Lupine has another claim to fame, too: it is a nitrogen fixer. The plant itself can’t take nitrogen out of the air and turn it into a useable format, but lupine grows nodules on its roots where bacteria can live. The plant feeds its sugar to the bacteria, and the bacteria converts nitrogen to a useable form. More productive strains of bacteria get larger homes, while inefficient bacteria are relegated to smaller nodules.

A tall stalk adorned with tubular, pale-pink flowers was also unfamiliar to me, but I could tell at least that it was a type of penstemon. Its presence brought to mind past adventures in the desert, where flashy red species of penstemon often caught my eye. Foxglove penstemon was the tentative identification from a friend.

On a forest edge, I found the crinkled yellow petals springing out the leaf axils typical of a native yellow loosestrife. I recognized its general characteristics from doing wetland monitoring in Maine, but this species was new to me. While identifying it as fringed loosestrife, I also discovered that it provides oil instead of nectar to a special group of bees. I love when a new friend leads me to a new fun fact.

All my wandering from plant to plant eventually brought me across the road from the clubhouse. While bending over to examine an unfamiliar species of goldenrod, I found yet another old friend. From then on, my botanizing was frequently interrupted by handfuls of plump, juicy blueberries.

Seeing old friends in new places allows me to feel connected wherever I go. The new acquaintances I’ve met here just expand my circle. Next time I see them they won’t be strangers. Instead, they’ll bring to mind the hot wind and bright sun of a certain, special place.

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Summer Night with Lois Nestel

On a recent camping trip, I was reminded of how lovely it is to be outdoors after dark. The sights, the smells, and the sounds are of an entirely different quality than what you find under the sun’s bright rays. Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding naturalist and director, thought so to. Here, from her “Wayside Wanderings” newspaper column, is a description of the delights of summer nights.

“The night watch has been in frequent session lately. I am not an insomniac, merely a light and fitful sleeper, and the wakeful periods are pleasantly spent in absorbing the night—its scents, its sounds, its movements all so different from those of daytime. Musky, earthy, fecund odors seem to rise and drift on the night air—basic life aromas no longer masked by day’s activities.

“Visual occupation is limited on most nights, but the actions of two creatures have recently been dominant. Against the night sky I have watched the erratic black flutterings of bats and heard the taffeta rustlings of their wings sweeping close to my window in the quest of insects. Nothing sinister here, just small, busy mammals helping hold the insect population in check.

“The other enchanting creature of the night is the firefly, and watching the winking greenish lights against the darkened trees and lawns my mind drifts back to childhood evenings when the things of nature were an unquestioned part of life. In retrospect I smell again the fragrance of the fields of clover and alfalfa and my mother’s roses. I feel again the dew-cooled grass beneath bare feet while racing up and down the lawn to capture fireflies and lock them in a jar. There was endless fascination in those cool winking lights. Sometimes they seemed to flash in unison, sometimes helter-skelter. But the insects that could light the pages of a book at night were disappointingly dull, grubby insects by morning’s light when they would be released. Come evening, though, the chase would be resumed.

“Whether the differing flash sequences I have noticed are those of different species or just individuals I cannot tell, but while the majority sail serenely along blinking their lights rhythmically every few seconds, there are a few which blink rapidly about five times, pause a few seconds and then repeat the series. There was a day when I would have chased them down to make comparisons—now I merely speculate.”

(In case you’re wondering, as I was, the timing and pattern of flashes is unique to each firefly species. Males flash to attract females, and females flash back to signal their interest. Within a species, some males flash longer and quicker than others, which makes them more attractive to both females and predators. Some females even mimic the flash patterns of other firefly species, and then eat the poor souls who come looking for love.)

With that frightful image in your head, let’s return to Lois as she describes the sounds of a summer night.

“I am often lulled to sleep in summer by stereophonic sound, though not the type that usually comes to mind at the use of that term.

“Bedroom windows on two sides filter in their individual sounds to combine into the music of the night.  Most frequently the underlying sound is the symphony of the wind in the trees. Pines to the left are the woodwinds, leafy trees to the right the brasses and percussion, the sounds rising and falling under the fingers of the wind. Passage of air in gusts and eddies produces endless variations on the theme. Leaves clash together to create a blend of sounds, and pine needles whisper and sign in melodies older than mankind.

“Soft breezes may provide a back-ground for a serenade of crickets or, on a moonlit night, the half-phrased notes of a drowsy bird. The hum of insects, the soft rustle of a bat’s wings, a whip-poor-will, a distant barking dog, the measured hooting of an owl blend to produce the heartbeat of the night.

“Even without the wind, the night is seldom silent and the sounds are music to my ears. A rabbit thumps his feet in alarm and a deer blows sharply at some unseen intruder. Raccoons chur in conversation or raise their voices in tremolo wails as they contest over a choice tidbit, and perhaps the most delightful tome is the vocalizing of the coyotes in a wild and haunting madrigal of freedom and solitude.

“Who listens, I wonder? Who hears, or senses the pulsing cadence of the elements? Our ears are tuned to different sounds and behind closed doors we listen to man-made, machine-made din: radio, television, records, and endless small talk. For some this will suffice. To each his own. As for me, nature’s song brings me a special pace and serenity. I ask for no more than that.”

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Twinflower Far Away

The sun rose slowly on its long, midsummer track across the sky as we sped west on Interstate 90 in South Dakota. Lush forests, veiled by early morning humidity, fell away to cornfields with scattered, shady farmyards. At first the corn was thigh high; the ample rains and early spring allowing it to race past the folk wisdom of “knee high by the 4th of July.” Then, like going back in time, the corn shrank below the knee-high goal and ended up at ankle high before petering out into short-grass prairie with fewer and fewer scattered trees.

The humidity in the air also disappeared, and despite the vastness of our view over endless rolling hills, the horizon remained sharp. And on that horizon was a small mountain range with its tree cover so dark that from a distance the hills looked black. We’d arrived at the Black Hills.

Suddenly, we were back among trees again, although dry ponderosa pine woodlands had mostly replaced the lush deciduous forests. Thickets of willows huddled along creek ravines, with birch, cottonwood, and bur oak providing a haven for birds.  The Black Hills—rising like an oasis out of the prairie—are a biological mixing place, with species from regions to the east, west, north, and south.

Swooping upward on a series of switchbacks, we arrived at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. Trading sandals for hiking boots, and topping off our water supply, we struck out on Trail #9 to Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), the highest summit in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

The first section of trail was all a gradual climb. Afternoon sun glittered on shards of mica in the trail dust. Finally, we began contouring around a ravine, and the trail became flat and shady. The respite from blazing sun and summer heat was welcome. And we weren’t the only ones appreciating the Northwoods-like microclimate of this north facing cul-de-sac. A lush carpet of plants and flowers perched near eye level on the hillside.

I’d been stumped when trying to identify many of the dryland plants we’d seen elsewhere in the hills, but here I was among friends. Wild sarsaparilla spread it compound leaves over little starbursts of white flowers. Bunchberry was in full bloom, with its pure white bracts (the showy part of the flower is not even its petals; its big bracts surround a cluster of tiny flowers) glowing in the shade. And from thick carpets of dollhouse-sized trailing vines, the pink, paired blossoms of twinflower gave the forest floor a Lilliputian look.

These little bell-like flowers exist under the radar of most hikers. They don’t look like much from five feet up. But they did catch the attention of Carl Linnaeus, the “Father of Moderns Taxonomy,” who defined our scientific system of naming living things with a genus and species in 1753. Twinflower was Linnaeus’s special favorite. But although Linnaeus reportedly was arrogant, and named nearly 8,000 plants during his lifetime, he refrained from naming any after himself. Instead, he cheekily named beautiful plants after his supporters and named weeds after his critics.

Linnaeus first named this sweet little flower Rudbeckia, for two Lapland explorers who knew it well. Later on, he also applied Rudbeckia to black-eyed Susans, which left twinflower in need of a new genus. Linnaeus’s friend, Jan Frederik Gronovious, stepped in and named Linnaeus’s favorite flower after the botanist himself. It became Linnaea borealis.

Linnaeus’s influence circles the globe, so it’s appropriate this his namesake plant does as well. Twinflower grows across the northern hemisphere from Sibera to Sweden and across North America. In Europe, foresters consider twinflower to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. I often see it across the upper Great Lakes region, and I’ve also seen it in northern New England. The Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest have it, too. Despite being so cosmopolitan, there’s a definite gap in its range across the Great Plains. It can’t survive those stark South Dakota prairies.

So how did this tiny little belle come to be separated east from west? Bunchberry, thimbleberry, wild sarsaparilla, and more share this disjunct pattern of their populations.

Not long after the glaciers melted, these plants would have enjoyed the cool, damp climate they prefer across much of the continent. Then, about 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, the climate warmed. During this Holocene Climate Optimum, warmer, dryer conditions forced these northern species out of the arid Great Plains. They were left to survive in the refuges that mountains and boreal forests still provide. By vining perennially over its habitat, twinflower is able to exist in isolated microhabitats far from its strongholds. But climate change has become a significant concern for the conservation of this species, especially on the edges of its current range.

Although I see it often at home, I felt a special kinship with twinflower on this hot, arid hike as we both found refuge in the cool shade of a north facing slope.

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Day on Big Moose Lake

Birdsong erupted from the forest and danced its way across a clear blue sky as we unloaded the canoes and prepared to launch on the Moose River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness west of Ely, MN.

The winding, sedge-lined, black-watered channel of the Moose River is a classic scene of canoe country. Even paddling upstream, we didn’t have to work very hard to overcome the gentle flow of Big Moose Lake’s outlet. On one sweeping corner, a beaver lodge poked its prickly roof above the wetland vegetation. Numerous small dams provided excitement. We relished the few moments of charging full steam ahead that it took to get over their mostly submerged sticks. Two larger beaver dams provided the bulk of water-holding capacity. One we portaged around, the other we hauled over.

Steering a canoe around sharp corners against a current takes skill. The sternman in my canoe did a fine job. Reid Carron is a retired lawyer and avid fisherman who just happened to marry Becky Rom—the daughter of an Ely, MN, outfitter. To avoid the strongest current, Reid paddled us right along the channel’s edge, which allowed me to peek at flowers up close.

The sunny yellow blossoms of common bladderwort stood out. Similar to a snapdragon, the large, globular, lower petal angles upward, and a smaller petal fans above it. Red veins on the lower petal probably guide pollinators into the depths. These free-floating plants have no roots. Their thin leaves branch off a zig-zag stem and divide into smaller segments that look to me like a stylized drawing of a river and its tributaries.

Danger lurks among the submerged leaves. These bladderworts don’t look threatening from the surface, but theirs is the largest genus of carnivorous plants in the world. It would be foolish for a plant to eat its own pollinators, so the beautiful flowers rise above the water’s surface a few inches, and its deadly snares hide below.

Each trap, nestled among the thread-like leaves, is a bladder with a door that opens inward. The plant can pump water out of the bladder, flattening it and creating a vacuum inside. Bristles near the trapdoor look like a good feeding habitat and act to funnel prey toward their demise. When a minuscule invertebrate nudges trigger hairs near the door, the flap swings inward and sucks in both water and lunch. The door snaps shut as the bladder fills. 

Digestive enzymes and resident bacteria digest the prey, which takes anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, depending on their size. To reset the trap, the plant uses special cells to pull nutrient-laden water into the stem. Not only does this feed the plant, it restores the vacuum that is essential for the capture of future prey.

With such a unique lifestyle, clean water with an abundance of microscopic life is essential for bladderwort.

And maintaining the clean water that is such an integral part of the Boundary Waters was an objective of this trip.

The canoe behind Reid and me was paddled by Steve Piragis, the owner of an outfitting company in Ely. He and Reid had been tapped to guide Idaho journalist Kris Millgate into the wilderness. I tagged along as a portage mule. After listening to a panel discussion on the proposed Twin Metals copper mine that would impact the Boundary Waters’ watershed, Millgate wanted to find out more.

She also wanted to capture the beauty of the Boundary Waters and to introduce her western audience to its charms. It was fun to watch her work. Steve and Reid fished (tough job!) while I paddled Kris out to an island. She hung precariously over the side of the bow, expensive camera almost skimming the waves. Then she stood behind her tripod atop a rocky knoll, squinting into the sun and wind like a warrior going into battle. We all fished for a while, having somewhat less luck with flies and lures than the bladderwort has with its bristles. Finally, we napped under noonday sun that was too bright for good photography.

As both sun and wind diminished, we prepared for the paddle out. The evening light was magical. In the stern, now, I was able to draw close enough to photograph bladderwort flowers, glowing golden against deep black water.

We’re all trying to capture something here, right? A microbe, a stunning shot, the essence of an issue, the imagination of voters, a bit of peace, or an experience to remember...The mining issue is large, and others have covered it in detail. I was just happy to spend a day on the water with people who care about it. The chorus of birdsong, the work of a beaver, an encounter with a lovely flower that needs healthy water: these things make forming my own opinion about the value of protecting their home an easy one.

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

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