Friday, April 26, 2019

A Paintbrush for the Desert

My hiking boots gripped the buff-colored sandstone with a satisfying security as the cairn-marked trail stretched out in front of me. This relatively flat, solid stretch was a treat after long sections of loose sand interspersed with mountain goat-style climbing up and down the sandstone spires. No one has ever accused the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park of being monotonous. Its geologically sculpted spires of red and white sandstone, which are divided by washes, canyons, joints, and towering walls, provide a pretty varied view.

The desert is supposed to be hot, but my friend Jamie and I were grateful for a chill in the air on this clear-eyed morning. Climbing up and over notches and carrying packs heavy with a day’s worth of water provided us with plenty of internal warmth.

There was one disappointing thing about the cold, though. While California splashed photos of their Super Bloom all over the news, this high desert of Utah has experienced a cool spring, and the familiar flowers we remembered from our internship here back in 2005, were still either hidden deep, or just poking up as unrecognizable spikes of green. It was probably better that way, because Jamie and I now both own nice cameras with macro lenses, and a Super Bloom here would have prevented us from ever completing a loop trail before dark. We still found plenty of beauty to enjoy.

Jamie poses with both our good cameras while I take a panorama with my phone.

For example, as my stiff knees creaked up from a patch of cryptobiotic crust I’d been admiring, a shock of red caught the corner of my eye. Thrilled, I turned my camera on the scarlet tuft of common Indian paintbrush flowers sticking up out of a little rock garden. Ah, now these were an old favorite.

The eye-catching red of the plant doesn’t belong to its petals, though. To a botanist, the crimson “bristles” of the paintbrush are bracts. On most flowering plants the bracts look more like leaves, and guard the blossoms from farther down on the stem. On Indian paintbrush, the bracts are showy, and cluster protectively around the inconspicuous, green, tubular flowers which cradle the plant’s reproductive parts.

This is really a bit of semantics, though, if you’re not a botany student studying for a test. The real trickery of Indian paintbrush lies much deeper.

If I were to gently extricate this plant from the sandy soil without breaking any of its roots, I would soon be tugging at nearby plants as well. Indian paintbrush roots don’t bother to grow very long themselves, but they do send out illicit appendages, called haustoria, that tap into the plumbing of their neighbors to siphon off water and minerals without giving anything in return. The desert is a harsh, dry place with poor soils, and I can’t say I blame Indian paintbrush for a bit of bootlegging to make ends meet.

Anyway, it could be worse. Plenty of plants have given up on honorably acquiring their own resources altogether, and those parasites steal carbon as well as water. They don’t even bother to have green leaves, and have lost the ability to carry out photosynthesis. At least Indian paintbrush still has green leaves and makes most of its own sugar. It’s classified as a “hemiparasite,” which means it’s only half parasitic.

Sometimes the most valuable resource that an Indian paintbrush can steal from its neighbor isn’t food, it’s poison. Some plants produce or absorb chemical alkaloids that can be toxic to animals. For example, a group of plants called “locoweeds” produce alkaloids that can be dangerous to livestock. In one study, scientists found that the alkaloids which Indian paintbrush stole from its neighbor helped protect it against attacks by insect pests. This increased the number of intact flowers and the number of visits by pollinators.

It’s not a total freeloader, though. Indian paintbrush’s success can be transferred to the
Edith's checkerspot butterfly. When its caterpillar feeds on a robust Indian paintbrush that’s getting plenty nitrogen and alkaloids from its host, the caterpillar grows faster, and sequesters more of the protective glycosides—chemicals similar to the ones that monarch caterpillars get from milkweed.

Happily, Jamie and I continued to spot flashes of red nestled among rocks, grasses, and bushes along all the trails we hiked during our four days in Canyonlands. Because of Indian paintbrush’s lifestyle, it tends to grow here and there among other plants instead of in big patches by itself, and spotting its crimson bracts feels a little like a treasure hunt.

In fact, various species of Indian paintbrush grow across North America, south to the Andes, in northern Asia, and as far away as northwestern Russia. Personally I’ve spotted red or yellow versions of them in Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Alaska, and across the Great Plains. Wherever you go, I hope this crafty paintbrush splashes a bit of color along your hikes, too.

Alaskan Indian paintbrush in Thompson Pass above Valdez, AK.

Indian paintbrush in Wind Cave National Park, SW South Dakota.

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

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit will open May 4.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Spires of Sand

“Trust your boots!” My friend Jamie and I encouraged each other as we scrambled up yet another near-vertical slope of sandstone. “Trails” as they call them in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Southeast Utah, are often just cairn-marked exercises in disbelief. You want us to climb that? Should we really descend there? We have to jump what? (Don't worry, Mom, you already know I made it back unscathed!)

Here's Jamie navigating a pretty typical and non-scary rock formation on the trail.
And here's Jamie working her way down a ladder that was a little more tricky!
I just love this spot, but it takes two ladders to get to.
Nevertheless, our boots gripped securely onto the rippled sandstone slope and we found ourselves admiring another spectacular view. Clustered spires of red and white rock reached up into the brilliant blue sky. Where the spires had eroded away, a whimsically lumpy layer of white sand dunes-turned-bedrock clustered like mushrooms that only a nimble giant could hop along. Still lower, the pinkish soil of the canyon floor lay sprinkled with dusty green bushes and rich green Utah juniper trees.

The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Southwest Utah boasts an incredible geology on both big and small scales. Those spires are sometimes called "hoodoos." Photo by Emily Stone.

In the far distance, the deep red cliffs of Grand View Point in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park dominated the horizon. When Jamie and I worked as Student Conservation Association interns here back in 2005, we discovered a good-natured rivalry between these two districts of the park. Although adjacent, they are divided by the Colorado River and separated by a long drive. “We have the best view!” the ISKY rangers would taunt. And indeed, from the precipice of Grand View Point, you can see for miles over the complex beauty of Utah’s canyon country. “That’s fine,” the Needles rangers would retort, “We ARE the view.”

Over 200 million years ago, this area sat on a battleground between swirling white sand dunes and muddy red streams. First one and then the other advanced their troops to deposit alternating layers. Eventually, everything was buried by even more sediment, and mineral cements hardened the sand into rock. Uplift from deep in the Earth caused fractures to form in an intersecting grid. Water and ice worked their erosive magic along those planes of weakness, and this pinnacled landscape emerged under the sculpting powers of geology.  
After Jamie and I caught our breath at the top of the slope, we meandered from cairn to cairn (cairns are small stacks of rocks often used to mark trails) across a potholed and gently undulating surface of old dunes. The view was never not spectacular, so we spent a fair amount of time gazing out over the hoodoos. You know me, though, and I couldn’t help but look down, too. Nestled into some of the bigger potholes and concave slopes were needles on a much smaller scale.

Sand dunes turned to rock provide an undulating surface where potholes can catch sediment and allow for the development of cryptobiotic soil crust. Photo by Emily Stone.

I just had to squat down for a closer look. The rugged surface of this pothole planet—for it did look kind of alien—was carved into miniature fins, spires and mesas. Dusty red sand was clearly at the base of everything, but it only peeked through the rainbow of black, white, orange, green, and even bluish skin. “Cryptobiotic crust,” we’d learned to call this strange microcosm during our long-ago intern training.

A delicate white wedgeleaf flower found refuge among the pinnacles and valleys of cryptobiotic soil crust in Southeast Utah. Photo by Emily Stone.
Cryptobiotic crust is sandy soil that had been glued together by tiny living things. Cyanobacteria move in first. While often referred to as blue-green algae because of their ability to photosynthesize, they are actually ancient bacteria who played a part in creating the oxygen-rich atmosphere we enjoy today.

Although dormant when dry, the sheaths surrounding cyanobacteria cells swell and produce little filaments as they absorb rainwater. Damp filaments weave among the soil particles and grab on. As the cyanobacteria dry out, the filaments secrete complex sugars which harden into glue. Over many years and many cycles of wetting and drying, a fragile crust develops. It prevents the sand from blowing away in dust clouds or becoming shifting fields of dunes. “Crusts are the glue holding this place together,” claims my well-worn Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country.

The crust’s diversity of both color and texture had brought me to my knees for a better view. Over the winter, frost heaves up the surface unevenly. Pedicels rise up to a few inches high and then plunge into sandy ravines. Against the dark surface veneer of organisms with UV-protective pigmentation, I saw rimes of white, dots of pink, caps of yellow, and cushions of emerald. The sugary glues and pore spaces between sand grains soak up water like a sponge, which improves the neighborhood for those colorful lichens, fungi, green algae, and mosses, whose rootlets also help hold the soil.

Colorful crust!

The cyanobacteria can also fix nitrogen directly out of the air, and their leakage constitutes fertilizer. Tiny plants use those nutrients where their seeds have sprouted in the shelter of the crust. Miniature white clusters of wedgeleaf flowers peppered the pinnacles like a fairy forest. Even this tiny world was not without catastrophe, though. One careless boot print on the edge of this pothole had crushed the fragile sheaths and set the crust development back by 25 to 250 years. If the impacts continue, this pothole might dry up completely and blow away, carrying the promise of life with it.

Straightening up again, my focus shifted back to the large-pinnacled landscape. Just as in the crust, dusty red sand is at the heart of it all, but the mineral cements of the rocks are much more durable than the cyanobacterial glue. Thousands of humans have walked from cairn to cairn—trusting their boots—with barely a whisper of impact. We joined them again, meandering among spectacular views both big and small.

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

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit will open May 4.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Flyover Country

A cacophony of rattling cries filled the car as soon as my window slid down. While the engine noise faded, the chaos of sound crescendoed. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that sandhill cranes have such loud voices. At four feet tall, their extensive windpipes coil into their sternums. This amplifies the low, rich tones that can travel a mile or more across tundra, marsh, or field. Aldo Leopold wrote that they are “bugling the defeat of the retreating winter…”

Sound was only part of the experience, though. The soft gray bodies of cranes stretched as far across the stubbly cornfield as I could see. Farm equipment, irrigation sprinklers, and homesteads provided backdrops that faded in and out of the mist.

Every spring, over 500,000 sandhill cranes descend on the Platte River of central Nebraska. The agricultural landscape of the Great Plains may be derided by coastal humans as “flyover country,” but to the cranes, it is just the opposite. The shallow river and its gravel bars provide safety for nighttime roosting. Nearby farm fields hold feasts of waste grain, and surrounding wetlands provide additional food and habitat.

On their long migration from wintering grounds in northern Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico to their summer breeding habitat in the northern U.S., Canada, and even Siberia, sandhill cranes spend a very important month near the Platte River. Here they can put on an additional 10-20% of their bodyweight: fuel for the final leg of their journey.

As my friend Jamie and I poked our cameras out of the car windows, we were a little frustrated at how focused the birds were on eating. Heads down in the corn stubble, their fluffy gray rumps were cute, but not terribly photogenic. We could empathize, though. This crane-watching stop was just the halfway refueling point on our own, longer journey. The sunbathed slickrock of southeast Utah beckoned, but with evening descending, we also needed to find some dinner and a safe place to roost.



The cranes find safety in numbers. In any group, at least a couple sentinels stood with their red-capped heads upright and alert for danger. I was surprised to notice that cranes near the roadsides turned and stalked inward as my little station wagon rolled by calmly. Cars often make pretty good blinds for birdwatching, and surely these birds were used to traffic on the country roads that dissect so much of their habitat. But while cranes are protected in Nebraska and Wisconsin, they are hunted in Minnesota, Kansas, South Dakota, and several other states. It’s good that they are skittish around humans.

Three sentinels

Dancing and Watching

At first I was frustrated that simply driving by would interrupt their feeding and cause them to move farther out of the range of my zoom. Once the cranes became agitated and stopped feeding, though, a few of them started dancing. Sometimes called “ambivalent behavior,” it’s a way to release nervous energy when the danger isn’t serious enough to cause flight.

Lifting great black-fingered wings, they flapped, bowed low to grab some scrap, and leaped straight up while tossing leaves, stalks, or corncobs into the air. Their pointed toes and slim legs emulated the grace of a ballet.

I’m sure a true courtship dance would be even more spectacular. The trumpeting unison calls of mated pairs would add to the intensity. The tango of two is essential to pair bonding, readying their hormones for mating, and even dissipating aggression between rivals. Parents dance with their colts to help them learn, and young cranes practice dancing for three years before they mate.

The sporadic dancing halted as a farmer on a four-wheeler sped off down a field. In great waves, wings opened and carried the birds aloft. They trumpeted and circled. The breadth of their reach, the urgency of their calls connected us to ancient rituals.

Cranes are often confused with great blue herons. But while herons fly with their neck in an S, cranes leave both legs and necks outstretched. Photo by Emily Stone.

Aldo Leopold wrote eloquently of the cranes in the “Marshland Elegy” chapter of A Sand County Almanac. “Our appreciation for the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history…When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia…”

That isn’t mere hyperbole. Cranes are some of the oldest living birds. In Nebraska, a 15-million-year-old crane skeleton records their ancient stake on the territory. Over that time scale, the habitat has changed more than the bird. Several glaciers advanced and retreated; with the last one just creeping into the eastern edge of Nebraska. Perhaps, even back then, the dancing cranes meant spring, and their great flocks were “bugling the defeat of the retreating winter…”

As the four-wheeler disappeared around a corner, though, a silent group of the circling cranes began to descend.  Like a flock of Mary Poppins, they arched up their wings and calmly parachuted down with leggy landing gear outstretched. Sometimes, flyover country is the perfect place to land.

Coming in for a landing.

P.S. The cranes are back in Wisconsin, too! Have you also been hearing them fly over? 
This weekend is the Annual Midwest Crane Count. Find out more at:

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

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new Curiosity Center kids’ exhibit will open May 4.