Friday, May 31, 2019

The Fantastic Fox

My eyes felt dry and tired after an early morning and a long, windy day spent at The Landing Resort on the Chippewa Flowage. When an orange blur streaked across in front of my car, though, suddenly my eyes were wide open. A fox!

I slowed down and pulled onto the wide, gravel shoulder to see if I could get a better look, but I was fully expecting the fox to melt into the shadows. Instead, it trotted along the opposite shoulder, and then paused on the top of a steep bank that plunged into a dark forest. I dug my camera out of my backpack and started clicking away. The fox’s nose was deep into something delicious lying just over the edge. When I finally looked away from the viewfinder, I discovered that a second fox had joined the first.

Both were youngsters. Fox kits are generally born in mid-March, so at about two months old, these curious hooligans are almost fully weaned and eating plenty of solid food brought to the rendezvous site by both parents. I guessed that the parents were off in search of said food.

This fox sighting fits well into the bigger picture of animal observations I’ve been making over the past winter. Fox tracks were common on my driveway. While I spotted a lone coyote last fall, I’ve been seeing only wolf sign—and lots of it—since mid-winter. It’s like one of those brain teasers about who is sitting next to whom. Coyotes don’t tolerate foxes. They’ll chase or kill them. Wolves don’t tolerate coyotes, but they generally don’t bother foxes. So when you have plenty of wolves around, they push out the coyotes, and the foxes can thrive.

After tugging and biting at some the snack, one kit lifted its head with a mouthful of fur. Gray squirrel? Cottontail? These are favorite foods for both foxes and coyotes (which is one reason they don’t play well together), but foxes also feed heavily on mice and chipmunks.

That fox sighting gave me a new spark of energy, so after arriving home, I hopped on my bike for an evening ride in the other direction. When another orange blur zoomed across in front of me and paused for a moment before diving into a culvert, I let out a shout of delight followed by an irrepressible string of baby talk inspired by the kit’s cuteness.

This was a perfect end to a fun day of teaching third grade “kits” from Hayward about the importance of keeping lakes clean and healthy. The Chequamegon Lions’ Water Habitat Day is an annual event, and the reason that I’d spent the day being blasted by wind at The Landing. Dedicated volunteers teach kids about the connections between healthy lakes, fishing, and their own behavior.

Water Habitat Day begins and ends with an all-group gathering, a beautiful Ojibwa song, and a reminder to check for ticks when you get home. That’s good advice for anyone who spends time outdoors. Not many people realize it, but that warning about ticks and my fox sightings are related. Foxes may be part of the solution.

The trouble with deer ticks is that they carry diseases—Lyme, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and more. Each disease has its own life cycle, and Lyme is currently the most common. Larval ticks—the first life stage that hatches from eggs—don’t carry Lyme disease. They do need a blood meal, though, and may acquire the Lyme bacteria while feeding on their first host. Ninety-percent of the time, ticks pick up the Lyme-causing Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria from mice and chipmunks. If they feed on humans as nymphs or adults, the Lyme may be transmitted to us.

Foxes can interrupt the Lyme bacteria’s cycle by reducing the numbers of mice and chipmunks available for the ticks to feed on. The ticks may find a different host—one who doesn’t carry Lyme—or they may just starve to death. The effect is so powerful that one area of western New York with unusually high numbers of foxes had no reports of Lyme.

A reduction in the number of foxes may actually be linked to the rise of Lyme in recent decades. One study of harvest records found that fox numbers in Minnesota declined by 95 percent from 1991 to 2008, while coyote numbers have increased 2,200 percent since 1982. Wisconsin showed similar trends. The rise of Lyme mirrors the rise of coyotes. Wolf numbers have increased, too, though, and I’m hoping that they’ll bring in an era of more foxes and fewer ticks.

An era where I have more chances to watch adorable fox kits and fewer chances to contract a tick-born disease? That’s a future I’m looking forward to. In the meantime, I made sure to throw both my outdoor clothes and myself in the wash to get rid of any ticks before going to bed.

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 and Pollinator Power annual exhibit are now open!

Friday, May 24, 2019

Bees and Breeches

I was surprised to find the brand new parking lot at the St. Peter’s Dome and Morgan Falls trailhead empty on a gorgeous spring morning. Who could pass up this sunshine? Sure, the woods were disappointingly silent because the migrating warblers hadn’t quite made it back, but the hum of mosquitoes was also gloriously absent.

It wasn’t long before I heard the buzz of another kind, though. Low in pitch and low to the ground, whatever it was sounded big. The trail was winding through a little valley on the way to one of several picturesque stream crossings, and wildflowers carpeted the gently rising hills. The sound paused. I paused, too, taking the moment to look more closely at the wildflowers.

Already I’d seen the sunny faces of marsh marigolds along the stream; the tightly furled buds of white trilliums still wrapped in their warm green cloaks; the rounded shrubs of leatherleaf with tiny yellow flowers glowing like Christmas lights; and fairy carpets of spring beauty with their pink-striped petals.

Marsh Marigold

Spring Beauty

This rich sugar maple-basswood forest is special, and one of the best places to enjoy wildflowers in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It’s designated by the Wisconsin DNR as a State Natural Area (SNA), and by the Forest Service as a Research Natural Area (RNA).

Here, maple trees pull nutrients out of the moist soil, and then recycle them right back down in an autumn shower of orange and yellow. Concave slopes concentrate the compost of rotting leaves, and the resulting loamy soil blankets all but the steepest rock outcrops and sandy floodplains. In just a few more weeks, those maples will have sent soil nutrients back to the sky, and their wide green leaves will once again capture every possible photon to fuel their sugar factories.

In the meantime, spring wildflowers grow furiously. With the resources available in the rich, moist soil, and the short window where ample sunshine and warm temperatures overlap, they sprout from energy stored in their roots, flower, attract pollinators, set seed, and replenish their stores before their visible parts dissolve into the shadows.

That will come soon enough. On this bright morning, hot sun burned the back of my neck and the maple buds were still just long-shingled shoots that had expanded but not yet burst. Moss-covered boulders hinted at the shady future, though, and between them this hillside was dotted with handfuls of lacey green leaves. Sprouting out of the center of most clusters was an arching pink stem and a scene fit for my dollhouse days. The small white flowers of Dutchman’s breeches look like puffy little short pants hung out to dry. The waistbands—actually the reflexed petal tips—are an eye-catching yellow. And each pant leg is a nectar spur, filled with energy-rich fluid.

As I admired the Dutchman’s breeches, the buzz came back. I caught a flicker of movement, too, and followed both on a zig-zag route that paused at string of flowers. When the huge bee landed on the arching stem it sank low under her weight.

QueeBombus perplexus bumble bee bends the flower stem under her weight.
Through the zoom on my camera, I watched as she grasped one blossom in her front feet, and then used all six legs and one or two additional flowers to gain stability. The flowers bounced and swung with her effort, but still she worked her head up into the yellow waistbands of several flowers before suddenly buzzing away clumsily like a heavily laden aircraft. She only made it as far as the next patch of floral pants. From her large size and the early date, I was confident that this was a newly emerged queen bumble bee out to gather resources for her nascent colony.

Newly emerged queen bumble bees have strong legs and a long tongue that allow them to access the nectar hidden deep in Dutchman’s breeches flowers. These early flowers rely on fuzzy bumble bees for pollination—few other insects are active during cool spring days. Photo by Emily Stone.
Big bees and breeches are made for each other. This queen burrowed first her tongue and then her head into the flower and angled it toward one of the nectar spurs. Throughout this process, the flower’s anthers brush pollen onto her head, thorax, and forelegs. At her next stop, some of that pollen will land on the flower’s pistil. Without this pollination service, the plant’s seeds would not be fertilized.

Smaller bees can’t quite pry open the petals to access the juice bar inside, and they sometimes cheat by chewing a hole in the nectar spurs. While I didn’t spot this in action, I did notice that all but the freshest pantaloons needed mending. Right where the nectar would be stored, little holes had been chewed by some devious nectar thief. Unlike the bumble bee, the chewers offer no pollen courier service in exchange for their lunch.

Dutchman’s breeches flowers hide their nectar away in the tips of their pantaloon-shaped flowers. Hungry bees who are too small to access the nectar properly will simply chew holes to access the nectar. Photo by Emily Stone.
From flower to flower, I followed that queen as long as I could keep her in view. When she finally buzzed off over the hills, I stood up, stretched my back, and grinned at the world.

This partnership between bee and breeches is not news to me. In fact, I wrote about it back in April of 2016, and that article became a chapter titled “Queens of Spring” in my second book. The reason I skipped giddily up the trail is that I had not yet seen the phenomena for myself. To read a fact is one thing, to have it buzz under your nose and pose for your camera is quite another.

According to the Forest Service, this RNA is a place where “natural processes predominate.” In other words, it’s a place where you can watch nature—and bees--do what they’re supposed to be doing. When do you want to go?  

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 is now open, and the Grand Opening is on May 25!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Little Packets of Fatty Goodness

After you notice one, you start seeing them everywhere. As I hiked toward the Juniper Rock Overlook on the North Country Trail, a chilly breeze gusted out of the sunny blue sky. This spring has been slower than some, and I couldn’t wait to see some flowers. Not far down the trail, a cluster of pale purple hepaticas bloomed atop hairy stems.

Hepaticas have hairy stems to keep them safe during surprise spring snowstorms! Photo by Emily Stone.

After photographing the hepaticas, I moved on to trying to capture the tiny crimson petals thrusting out of the bud on a beaked hazelnut twig. A single leatherleaf shrub in bloom with delicate yellow flowers brought similar excitement. When I noticed the triumvirate of trillium leaves flanking a tightly furled bud, I was thrilled.

Trillium bud, photo by Emily Stone

Bloodroot, photo by Emily Stone

As my eyes adjusted, my mental search images honed, and the green spikes and clusters of leaves appeared everywhere. Finally, I also spotted the lovely white blossoms of spring beauties with varying amounts of pink pinstripes.

Spring beauties, Photo by Emily Stone

These spring ephemeral wildflowers have figured out that they can make use of the rich soil in the shady depths of deciduous forests, so long as they get a head start on the trees. In part because they only show up for such a short time each spring, they have captured many a heart.

In addition, many of these flowers have a close, symbiotic relationship with ants. You don’t see it now, but in a month or so, when they are done blooming and have gone to seed, a soap opera emerges. All the wildflowers I listed above attach a packet of fatty goodness, like a donut for ants, to the outside of their seeds. Called an elaiosome, this little bit of energy-rich lipids, amino acids, and other nutrients, shows that the way into an ant’s hill is through its stomach.
Seed pod and elaiosomes of trillium. Photo by Emily Stone.

Elaiosomes on seeds of trillium. Photo by Emily Stone.
Ants carry the elaiosome, still attached to its seed, down into their hill. There the ants may feed it to their larvae or eat it themselves. The seed, which is smooth, hard, tough to hold on to, and impossible to eat, is thrown into the ants’ midden or garbage heap. Here, in a nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich environment, among moist, decaying plant matter and the bodies of dead ants, the seed has a wonderful place to grow. It is safe from birds, other insects, and even forest fires. This type of ant-assisted seed dispersal is called myrmecochory.

Myrmecochory (mur–me-co-cory) is exhibited by more than 3,000 plant species worldwide, and is present in every major biome on all continents except Antarctica. One study determined that it has evolved at least 100 separate times in 55 different plant families.

In nature, when there is success, there is often a cheater. Hepatica, a beautiful purple or white spring ephemeral flower that emerges before its leaves, is an unassuming swindler. Instead of providing a detachable treat for the ant, hepatica just covers its seed in a non-removable elaiosome with the same chemical cues as its neighbors’ true elaiosomes.

When ants take hepatica’s seeds back to the nest, the elaiosome can’t be eaten, and the chemical cues stay intact. Instead of being stripped of its packet of fatty goodness and thrown in the trash heap, the hepatica seed stimulates each ant that passes by to pick it up by the permanently perfumed handle and carry it somewhere else. Hepatica saves energy by not making a large elaiosome, and it benefits when its seeds are distributed more widely. In return for their dispersal services, the ants get nothing. Hepatica is a parasite!

If cheaters win, though, then pretty soon everyone starts cheating. For a mutualism (a symbiotic relationship where both parties benefit) to continue, it must provide appropriate rewards. Scientists have found that seeds with true, tasty, edible elaiosomes are transported by ants much more often than the cheater seeds of Hepatica and others like it. “In this situation, cheating … establishes a background against which better mutualists can display competitive superiority, thus leading…to the reinforcement of the mutualism (Pfeiffer et al, 2009).”

Such drama, on what may seem like a small scale, impacts entire ecosystems on six continents. In this northern hardwood forest, maple leaves cushioned my knees as I crouched down to get look closer at the just-opened flowers of Dutchman’s breeches. A bit of movement caught the corner of my eye, and I shifted my focus to a patch of soft moss. A tiny black ant was scrambling its way across a jungle of leaves. As my gaze widened, I noticed another ant, and then another and another, all busy with their own lives. After you notice one, you start seeing them everywhere.

Dutchman's Breeches, Photo by Emily Stone.

Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from a 2013 Natural Connections article, which is now a chapter in Emily’s first book.

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 is now open, and the Grand Opening is on May 25!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Natural Connections and your local bookstore

If you enjoy my columns and you'd like to help spread the word, consider asking your local bookstore to carry both of my Natural Connections books! They can visit our website, send me an email, or check out this flyer to find out more! 



Flickers of Sunshine

Glimpses of sunshine were hard to find over the past few days. So low and heavy were the damp, gray clouds that I worried they might crush my soul. We’ve had a few nice days, though, and a week ago I was biking 30-40 miles per day on dryer, warmer roads. On those days, despite gray clouds, flickers of sunshine abounded.

Or rather, flickers themselves abounded. Northern flickers are one of our few migratory woodpeckers (sapsuckers are another), and as flocks of them swirl north on the leading edge of spring, they bring flashes of color to the landscape. You have to wait for it, though. Their backs are muted tan with black checks that blend in perfectly with the dried grass now carpeting road ditches. I almost never see one on the ground. It’s a delightful surprise, then, when they suddenly flush ahead of your car or bike and swoop into the woods with flashing bursts of gold. The yellow feathers on the undersides of their wings are secret bits of sunshine.
While the drab tan and black backs of northern flickers help them blend in, the undersides of their wings and tail flash a sunny yellow color when they fly. This taxidermy specimen from the collections of the Cable Natural History Museum was kind (and dead) enough to hold still for the photo. Photo by Emily Stone.

Why are these woodpeckers on the ground, anyway? That’s not where we spot downies, hairies, pileateds, and our other woodpeckers. In a little twist of habit, flickers use their long, pointed bills and their even longer barbed tongues to probe the ground and lap up ants. They also munch on beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, snails, and fruit.

As I zoom past on my bike, the flickers often give a squeaky “skew” as they startle, and then shout their kikikiki alarm calls from back in the trees. These sounds are also used as part of their mating ritual and to defend the area surrounding their nest. That’s enough of a responsibility to make their calls a significant part of the symphony of spring, but they’ve also learned to choose their battles.

Unlike many other animals, flickers don’t defend an extensive feeding territory from their neighbors. In 2003, a couple of scientists from Saskatchewan worked out the “calculations” behind this behavior. It all comes back to the ants.

Some ants live in huge anthills full of thousands of individuals. You’d think that would be a valuable bonanza for a pair of flickers to claim for their own. Unfortunately, the types of ants who live in huge colonies are also the most aggressive species, and according to the researchers, they are “unpalatable prey.” If you’ve ever disturbed one of those big anthills and been bitten, you might agree. Now imagine putting your face down in there!

The more docile ants who make up 45% of flickers’ diets live in smaller, ephemeral anthills. These anthills are easily washed away by rainstorms. After a short rainstorm, the ants are back to rebuilding within just a couple of hours. During several days of rain, though, they avoid coming to the surface. Even when it’s not raining, the ants are sensitive to high temperatures because their tiny bodies dry out quickly. So, in both rain and heat, they remain out of view underground.

Northern flickers are woodpeckers who spend much of their time foraging for ants on the ground. Photo by Larry Stone.

The upshot of all this ant behavior is that flickers need to be able to forage throughout a wide home range—up to 1 mile in diameter—to make up for the unpredictable nature of their favorite food. Defending a feeding territory might result in them not having access to enough resources when the weather turns foul. In addition, small anthills are easily overharvested. So, several pairs of flickers may end up feeding in the same area based on the weather and consequent availability of ants.

With the cool, rainy weather and soggy ground, flickers probably can’t feed on ants right now anyway. Luckily they can be flexible. Rainy day foods include insect larvae, caterpillars, ant colonies under rocks, and the many things that crawl around in cow pies.

So, the flickers are probably just as eager to have some dry weather as I am. While we wait, they are generous enough to share their beautiful colors and raise my spirits with their flickering bits of sunshine.

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 is now open, and the Grand Opening is on May 25!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Emily talks about being a naturalist on the Bayfield County Wild Podcast

For the most recent episode of #BayfieldCountyWild, Mary Motiff interviewed Museum Naturalist Emily Stone about her observations of the drama that unfolds in our natural world; sometimes without us even realizing it!
Listen wherever you get your podcasts (now on Spotify, too!) or at

The Symphony of Spring

A big truck rumbled by as I squeezed the brake levers and guided my bike onto the shoulder. The wonderfully warm, sunny afternoon had lured me out on an adventure, and my first stop was this small, roadside wetland. With a southwest exposure, this marsh thaws a day or two sooner than the one by my house, and I head here each spring to listen for the first frogs.

As the truck’s noise faded, silence fell over the forest. Peaceful, yes, but not what I’d hoped for. Could the wood frogs still be waking up? It does take them a little while to recover from being frozen all winter. With the arrival of warm temperatures, wood frogs thaw from the inside out.

Recovery is relatively rapid—especially considering what they’ve been through—but not instant. The frog’s heart starts beating before they are fully thawed. Breathing resumes soon after, and circulation begins as soon as their blood melts. That doesn’t mean the frog is ready to hop off into the sunset, however. It takes more than five hours for their leg muscles to regain some function and up to 24 hours for the frogs to exhibit normal body postures and coordinated muscle functions.

A couple days later, their mating drive kicks in. That’s what I stood there hoping for, in the silent woods. Then, from the back corner of the wetland came a soft quack. And another. Then a second frog called softly from another shore, and a third chimed in tentatively from near the road. From there, the chorus crescendoed until a cacophony of quacks, chuckles, and clucks echoed through the woods.

For the next few weeks, this wood frog choir will continue their performance whenever the temperature rises near 50 degrees and above. It is mostly males who call, and the impassioned sound serves to attract females to their pond. The more females their calling can attract, the better chance each male has of finding a mate.

Wood frog swimming. Photo by Emily Stone.

 As frogs arrive at the pond and mill around, eager males will search for a mate. They can’t see or smell a difference between females and other males, though. Instead, a male frog hugs another frog from behind and around its waist. Fellow males, identified by their slim waist, give a loud croak and are released. A slender female, who has already released her eggs, also gets a pass. But when a male frog grips a plump female—chock full of eggs—he hooks his thumbs around in front of her and doesn’t let go. This is called “amplexus.”

From there, the female deposits her eggs in a floating mass and he fertilizes them as they emerge from her body. Many wood frogs in a pool may lay their eggs together. The earliest breeders benefit from their eggs being in the center of the mass where they absorb heat, develop faster, and gain protection from predators. Each individual’s 10 cm diameter egg mass contains from 1000 to 3000 eggs.

This mass of wood frog eggs will soon become a swarm of tadpoles—who will eat mosquito larvae with gusto! Photo by Emily Stone. 

Eggs laid now, in the cold infancy of spring, will mature slowly, over the course of a month. Later in the spring, when the water has warmed, the eggs may hatch in only 10 to 14 days. The amphibious parents have completed their responsibilities, though. They don’t stick around to provide care, cheer at baseball games, pay for dance lessons…

…Or teach their little tadpoles to ride a bike. Thankfully, I’m human!

As the frog chorus reverberated, I swung back onto my bike and continued around the lake. Wood frogs were only the beginning.

With my ears now tuned in, the jingle bell chorus of spring peepers became apparent everywhere. A few chorus frogs, with their “fingernail-on-the-teeth-of-a-comb” call chimed in. Two black-and-white ospreys perched on top of their nest platform and swooped into flight as I approached. A bright orange fox with sleek new fur bounded through the ditch. As I slowed to look for more loons from a short bridge, the clear whistle of a song sparrow reached my ears.

All along the road, frogs croaked and peeped, robins whinnied, juncos trilled, and geese honked. Silence has gone out of style. Let the symphony of spring commence!

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. Grand Opening on May 25!