Friday, November 29, 2019

The Snow Reveals

This morning I traveled through a world transformed. The well-worn forest road that feels my footfalls almost every day, with its familiar scenery and recent logging, had disappeared under a mantle of white lace. Every glance into the forest was like a trip to an art museum; its exhibit hall filled with intricate line drawings. 

Fresh snow transforms the same old forest into a winter wonderland. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Icy wheel tracks often forced my gaze downward, though, as I watched my hot pink running shoes navigate slick spots. I’m looking forward to the day our ski trails open, but for now this method of forcing air into my lungs and endorphins into my brain will do. 

Although I’d previously enjoyed the solid footing of bare, frozen gravel, our recent snowy dustings make my morning excursions more interesting. Lois Nestel, our founding director, wrote, “Each day as daylight comes, I find it one of my more pleasant self-imposed duties to check on the outdoor activities of the preceding night.” 

“Exactly,” I thought, as I noted the heart-shaped tracks of deer with little troughs connecting them. Long ago, at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods down in Sandstone, MN, I learned that those toe drags often indicate a buck who’s tired from chasing does and carrying a heavy rack. I was teaching the tree identification part of a college-level Wolf Ecology course that winter, and ended up learning to love tracking as well. Reading books and being outdoors constantly vie for my attention. Tracking turns the whole, snowy world into a storybook. 

These tracks were probably made by the buck I’ve been slamming on the brakes for lately. Photo by Emily Stone. 

My forest holds quite the cast of characters.

Squirrel tracks dominate my driveway. Both the tiny red squirrels and the fat gray squirrels bound willy-nilly down the steep bank and up the maple trees. In each cluster of four footprints, the bigger, 5-toed hind feet lead, and the four-toed front feet follow. This is a function of their hopping stride, shared with rabbits and mice. Squirrels and deer mice are “paired front-foot hoppers,” though, with their feet landing next to each other. This is the stamp of tree-dwelling hoppers. Cottontails and snowshoe hares place one front foot ahead of the other, and are described as “diagonal front-foot hoppers,” in the guides. 

Dainty daisy chains of grouse tracks often wind among the dried grasses and seed heads. Their trails often begin and end abruptly. In deeper snow, the soft fingers of wingtips frame their departure. More than once, I’ve stopped to trace a grouse track into the brush, and been surprised by the whirring flight of their owner. 

Red foxes hunt along my driveway almost every night. Their canine prints with four toes and visible claws might aim neatly down a wheel track for a bit, but inevitably they get distracted. I can see where they’ve turned to look into the hemlock ravine. Or where they’ve investigated a clump of grass, or where they’ve urinated on a prominent stick to announce their territorial claim to the society of sensitive noses. 

Coyotes, too, frequent these woods. I spotted one furry ghost last spring, as it melted into the trees. Their tracks are not much bigger than the fox, but wear less fur and often show up more clearly. Rarely do I see the two canines’ tracks together. While coyotes can catch bigger prey than a fox, they overlap in pursuit of the medium and small meals, and their competition often results in the fox being chased out. 

I run an out-and-back route, but quite often I notice new tracks on my way back home. Probably, I just missed them while daydreaming or skirting an icy patch, or because I was on the other shoulder. But what if I didn’t? What if something snuck across the road behind me? As Lois wrote, “These were some of the things I saw, but how much did I miss?  How many unseen eyes watch me?

The pacing tracks of a raccoon surprised me one morning. With their two-by-two pattern, my first hope was a bounding fisher. Like most in the weasel family, fisher tracks often appear paired, with one foot slightly ahead of the other. Their hind feet land where their front feet just vacated, so you only see their hind feet. Looking closer, I found that each pair of tracks showed one five-toed hind foot and one five-fingered front foot. This pattern is created by the “pace” gait of a raccoon. They move both left legs forward, then both right legs. The fox and coyote would swing diagonal legs simultaneously, similar to how our legs and arms work together. 

Raccoons leave unique pairs of tracks—one front and one hind foot in each pair, and they alternate sides. This is a function of them moving both left legs, and then both right legs. Photo by Emily Stone. 
Watch a raccoon walk!

My arms and legs stopped abruptly last week, when my foot landed next to a rather large track with five naily toes. 

The bear’s tracks were almost as big as mine! Photo by Emily Stone. 
Watch a bear walk here. They are pacers, just like raccoons!

“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” I thought, as I glanced into the woods where the tracks led. Mama bears probably are in their dens. But with an ample acorn crop, plentiful bait piles, and the gut-pile bonanza of hunting season approaching, the males are in no hurry to go to bed. 

And we can’t really blame, them, can we? New stories appear every morning, and the beauty of early winter is something I’d not want to miss.  

How fortunate are those of us who live in an area of changing seasons, each with its own unique charm.” – Lois Nestel

Photo by Emily Stone

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

For more than 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! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Voyageurs Wolf Project: A New Season for Wolf Research

Bitter winds swirled icy crystals around my numb feet. At regular intervals, I spoke into the hand-held recorder about the behavior of a wolf pack milling around an elk carcass on a distant, snow-covered hill. A faint buzz grew louder as the research plane soared over the vast landscape collecting even more data. 

During my stint as a volunteer with the Yellowstone Wolf Project back in March of 2008, that was a typical day in the life of a wolf researcher. With snow on the ground, wolves and their tracks are more visible, they travel as cohesive packs, and they bring down large prey (which leaves behind a noticeable mess). As a result, most of what we know about wolf predation is from the winter months.

Here I am, watching wolves from the North Butte Observation Point in Yellowstone National Park in March, 2008. Photo by Libby, my research partner.

The Voyageurs Wolf Project wants to change that. Tom Gable, project leader and a PhD student from the University of Minnesota, recently spoke about their work as an extension of Wolf Awareness Week at the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute. Since 2015, the project has been conducting intensive research on the summer behavior of wolves in the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem of northern Minnesota. 

Part of the Tom Gable’s research with the Voyageurs Wolf Project includes putting ear tags on wolf pups. Photo provided by the Voyageurs Wolf Project.

Their field season looks nothing like my experience in Yellowstone. For starters, mosquitoes swarmed thickly in the videos Tom showed us. (Oh, how I love winter!) But what really struck me was how much more difficult it is for the researchers to find evidence of summer kills.

While I used VHF collars and spotting scopes to observe wolves, Tom and his crew rely heavily on GPS collars. With great accuracy, the collar records a wolf’s location once every 20 minutes. That’s 72 points per day. After a computer program filters the raw data, researchers get a map of every point where a wolf spent more than 20 minutes in one spot (called “clusters” of GPS locations). Potentially, the wolf paused to eat something. 
Now the detective work begins. Someone from the team of researchers must visit every single pause point to investigate. So far, the project has visited 11,799 clusters from 18 wolves, which equals about 15,000 hours of field work and 16-17,000 miles of hiking. 

Tom showed us a video of him investigating the site of one GPS cluster. It looked like any other brushy patch of forest: thick, shin-high plants and a rotting log across the middle.  As he walks toward the kill site, we begin to see that a couple of plants near the log have been broken and their leaves wilted. Once the camera is looking directly down on the dead plants, we see a faint, oval depression where something might have sat down. Reaching down into the litter, Tom first holds the tooth of a fawn for the camera to see, and then the ebony tip of its hoof. 

Finding where a single pack member “wolfed” down a tiny fawn is orders of magnitude more difficult than finding where an entire pack killed the fawn’s father. But that’s the reality of studying summer predation behavior in wolves. And the researchers are motivated, because their hard work is resulting in brand-new knowledge. 

Researchers with the Voyageurs Wolf Project use remote cameras to keep track of wolf pups like this one as they grow and survive—or don’t—throughout the summer. Photo provided by the Voyageurs Wolf Project.

The next video Tom showed us was even more astounding. The pale wood of a fresh beaver chew on a medium-sized tree stuck out like a sore thumb. Tom placed his backpack in the oval patch of flattened leaves where he’d spotted a wolf’s bed. According to the GPS data, the wolf had spent 4 hours in this one location. Then Tom walked along the beaver’s trail to show us what the rodent would have seen on their way to work. Nothing. The wolf would have been invisible behind the trunk of a spruce tree—at least until it attacked.

All that was left of the beaver were its two front teeth and its stomach contents. 

Voyageurs National Park has one of the highest densities of beavers in the entire country, so it’s logical that wolves here would rely heavily on beavers for food. In fact, the average wolf in Voyageurs eats 8-10 beavers per summer. The cool part is, researchers were never sure that wolves have the behavioral flexibility to eat such varied prey, and to switch to ambush hunting when the need arose. Now we have a much better grasp on their summer predation habits—which include catching fish and lapping up blueberries as well! 

I was thrilled to be part of the (mosquito-free) Yellowstone Wolf Project, which is continuing to contribute valuable information to our understanding of wolves and their communities. I’m also excited by the possibilities of the Voyageurs Wolf Project, and the discoveries that a new season of wolf research will bring. 

You can find out more at, or follow their popular Facebook and Instagram pages to see incredible videos and get regular updates on their research. 

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

For more than 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! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, November 15, 2019

Finding Fall Color

“November is a sigh; a sigh of weariness after the tumult of summer, a sigh of resignation over projects yet undone, a sigh of regret for hopes unfulfilled,” wrote Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director. Not much has changed in the intervening decades. As our vision is filled by low light, gray skies, and bare trees, keeping a cheerful attitude can feel like a challenge.

Lois Nestel at Juniper Rock in 1980.

My solution? Go outside anyway. Nothing improves my mood like fresh air and exercise. Besides, hot chocolate and cookies taste so much better once they’ve been earned.

So on a recent gray morning I set out on one of my favorite sections of the North Country Trail. The little 0.7 mile jaunt to Juniper Rock Overlook is one of the most popular sections of trail. In the middle of a region socked in by trees, stepping out onto the craggy nose of bedrock above the Marengo River valley invites a deep breath and soul expansion. 

Of course I found mosses to distract me on the way....

The overlook is especially popular in the midst of fall colors. The greens of summer mask the diversity of the forest until early October, when the red maples send up their flares, the sugar maples smolder orange, and the aspens glow yellow. With the recent gales of November, though, I expected I’d find a plain, gray view. What actually greeted me at the top was much nicer.

Juniper Rock Overlook offers a wonderful view in any season. Photo by Emily Stone.

The deep greens of spruce and fir trees lining the Marengo River marked a sinuous path along the valley floor. Flanking them, the forest looked almost fluffy, with the pale, round crowns of aspen trees mimicking translucent cotton balls. Far across the valley, a rich brown shawl of oak leaves—still clinging to their twigs—warmed the shoulders of another craggy outcrop. In the foreground, a slender trio of paper birch saplings raised their purple twigs skyward. Finally, sunshine peeked out of a hole in the clouds.

The vibrant colors of autumn leaves are not just for show. All summer, orange carotene pigments capture wavelengths of light that the green chlorophyll cannot, and then transfer that energy over to help fuel photosynthesis. Yellow xanthophyll pigments absorb dangerous excess energy in the leaf and dissipate it as heat. Both are revealed when the trees start to remove nutrients from the green chlorophyll and save them in the twigs for use next spring. 

Here's a very similar view from Juniper Rock--on October 7, 2019. Still a little early for peak color! Photo by Emily Stone. 

Likewise, the pale color of the aspen twigs facilitates photosynthesis, allowing the trees to make food in late fall and early spring, as long as the sun can warm their wood up to at least 45 degrees. 

If you scratch the surface off the young twig of almost any northern tree, you’ll find a thin layer of green—chloroplasts that are ready to make sugar. In aspen trees, their pale, thin outer bark stays translucent for longer as they age, and allows them to photosynthesize throughout more of their surface area. As trees grow, their cells give off carbon dioxide, which can be taken up directly by their inner chlorophyll and used for photosynthesis. In turn, the oxygen produced as a byproduct of making sugars gets harnessed for respiration. 

The pale bark of young birch trunks also lets some light in for photosynthesis, but the deep purple of birch twigs may be a sunscreen to prevent damage through the dormant season. The difference in twig color between aspens and birches is helpful when identifying them from afar. 

My stop at Juniper Rock was brief, because the bedrock cliff with the oak shawl was beckoning. It, too, is accessible from the North Country Trail. As I climbed up the far side of the river valley, more color caught my eye among the pale trunks of aspen and gray spindles of ironwood. The purple and gold of gracefully upward-arching twigs were so rich that they reminded me of the team colors of our high school rivals. 

Pagoda dogwood twigs. Photo by Emily Stone.

I suppose they are rivals of some sort. Rich purple is the normal color of twigs on pagoda dogwood (also known as alternate-leaved dogwood). The golden twigs are dead or dying, having been invaded by a fungus called golden canker. The fungus may live among the cells of healthy-looking dogwoods for years before the symptoms of yellowing bark and tiny orange polka dots manifest. I rarely see a pagoda dogwood shrub without at least one golden twig, and these contrasting colors were pointed out in my very first botany class as a clue to identification. 

The golden twigs of Pagoda dogwood make it easy to identify—even though the color means that they’re dying from a fungus. Photo by Emily Stone. 

By the time I finally reached that far, oak-shrouded overlook and gazed back across the valley at Juniper Rock, more patches of blue sky had materialized. My mood had lifted, too, buoyed by both my ability and willingness to appreciate color where it can still be found.

View of Juniper Rock from across the valley. Photo by Emily Stone.

Lois Nestel must have been on a similar journey when she wrote that essay many decades ago, because by the end of it, she offered these words of wisdom: “A proper perspective is what we need, and perhaps a closer bond with nature could teach us.  That lesson learned, how good it would be if our sighs of dissatisfaction could become sighs of contentment and peace.”

Now, who’s up for some hot chocolate and cookies?

Find directions to the trailhead at: 

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

For more than 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! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Discovering Moss

“Let’s go look for moss,” invited Joe Rohrer, a retired botany professor from University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. So our eager group of amateur naturalists donned puffy coats and stocking hats before leaving the cozy warmth of the Gatehouse at Forest Lodge.

Jane Weber, Janet Barthel, David Broadwell and Laurel Sukup look on as Prof. Joe Rohrer shows us yet another species of moss he found on a single, green rock. Photo by Emily Stone.

The moss was already out there. Unlike most of our other plants, moss doesn’t change all that much as it goes dormant for the winter. Bare twigs etched patterns across the sky. The dead stems of flowers and weeds melted into the sweet-smelling drifts of maple leaves. Big plants must make big changes as winter approaches. Moss simply dries or hydrates or freezes or thaws as the weather dictates. Simply, I say, but truly the moss has an efficient system for turning off its essential functions that allow it to avoid and repair cell damage.

On this first afternoon of a 3-day workshop about moss, our goal was simply to tour the property and start seeing moss. Forest Lodge was the summer estate of Mary Griggs Burke, founder of the Cable Natural History Museum. Her grandfather purchased the land from the logging barons who had just clear-cut it in the late 1800s. Ever since then, the shade under hemlock-hardwood forest has been deepening. When Mrs. Burke passed away in 2012, her 800+ acres of forest on the south shore of Lake Namakagon transferred into the care of the USDA Forest Service. Northland College manages the estate for educational programming.

Our education began immediately.

The vibrant green cushion of moss on a low, rounded rock in Mrs. Burke’s overgrown Japanese garden pulled us toward it like a magnet. From five feet up, the carpet looked uniform. Then Joe knelt down. Sarah crouched in. Elizabeth leaned over. We began to see.

Ingrid Larson was amazed by how many different types of moss we could see on a single rock, once we looked closer. Photo by Emily Stone.

By leaning in, we were able to discern slight variations in color and texture. A patchwork of mosses came into focus. (Here’s a grammar note: when talking about moss in general, or a group of the same species of moss, the plural is just moss. But when you’re talking about more than one type of moss, the plural become mosses.) Two…three...four species materialized where previously we’d just seen green. Then Joe extricated a little string from the cushion and held it out to us. The creeping stem lined with tiny leaves branched several times at wide angles. “This is an example of a pleurocarp moss,” he explained, “They often form densely woven mats.”

Elizabeth examines a mat of pleurocarp moss. 

Then, probing into a different section of rock, he held up a single stalk bristling with spikey leaves. “In contrast, this acrocarp moss is very upright, and if there are branches, they run parallel to each other. They tend to look more like a tiny forest.” 

A tiny forest of acrocarp moss.

Being able to tell the difference between these two growth forms is the first step in identifying mosses using Joe’s field guide: Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians. A few years ago, Joe’s old college buddy, Karl McKnight, asked Joe to help with the book, and they came up with a pretty slick system for identifying 200 common species of moss—184 of which occur in Wisconsin.

Because mosses are mostly known by their scientific names, the book team made up memorable and descriptive common names to help us regular folks. For instance, we all oohed and aahed when Joe pointed out a patch of “windswept broom moss.” The arched tips of its long leaves were bent all to the same side, and even on the calm day it resembled a fairy-sized field of grasses blowing in the breeze.

Windswept Broom Moss

The second step in identifying a moss using Joe’s guide is looking at the shape of an individual leaf. For this, we moved indoors, and used a digital microscope to project fragments of mosses on the big screen, and hand lenses to augment our own eyes. When viewed close-up, in good light, moss leaves glow. The hairlike, lance-shaped, ovate, tongue-shaped or sickle-shaped leaves are just one cell thick, allowing sunlight to pass through, and water to come and go.

Prof. Joe Rohrer checks out the details of a moss through his hand lens. “Mosses are hard because they are small,” he reassured us during the class. Photo by Emily Stone.

Some moss leaves do have a midrib that is a few cells thick, and its presence or absence is the third main feature in Joe’s ID key. After determining those three characters, the key directs you to a section of the species pages with mosses that meet the criteria. There are few enough options that it’s not an onerous task to flip through the photos and sketches for each species and make a visual match of what you’re trying to identify. Or you could flip to the more technical dichotomous keys in the back of the book, which provide a more organized system for identification.

Joe shows us a moss leaf lacking a midrib. 

With hand lenses held close, we dove into the challenge of moss identification. I was successful with some, and confused by others, and I loved every minute of looking.

“…the already gorgeous world becomes even more beautiful the closer you look.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

(Copies of Joe’s moss guide and Robin's beautiful book are available in the Museum Shop, where you can also pick up a hand lens for looking closer.)

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

For more than 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! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email

Friday, November 1, 2019

Chimneys Built by Crayfish

Insects buzzed in the heat as our small group from the Outdoor Writers Association of America puttered around the canoe landing getting boats, paddles, and lifejackets ready for a trip around a cypress swamp. I wandered off through a muddy brown field to find some “facili-trees” in the nearby forest. On my way back to the group, a strange shape caught my eye. Parting the tall stems of dried grasses, I found a hollow tower made of mudballs. It was only about 6 inches tall and a few inches wide, but the discovery felt big to me. I’d never seen anything like it!

Crayfish chimneys in a drying wetland at Seedskadee NWR. Tom Koerner, USFWS

Our local guide chuckled at my excited questions, and quickly identified the sculpture as a crayfish’s mud chimney. The crayfish I catch (well, the crayfish that my students catch—I let them have all the fun) in the Namekagon River of northern Wisconsin live in a world of sand, rocks, and swift water. If they built towers like this, the river would wash them away. But there are hundreds of species of crayfish in North America, and some of them are sculptors.

Even though my current local crayfish aren’t much for burrowing, I grew up in the muddy creeks and rivers of Iowa, where surely the crayfish build chimneys. My dad nicknamed me his “mud and water daughter” by golly, how had I not seen this pattern in my mud? He can’t figure it out either. There were lots of burrowing crayfish in the farm ponds and pasture creeks where he grew up in central Iowa. He’s seen them along the Turkey River of northeast Iowa, too, where I first learned to paddle a canoe. Now that I’m looking, I bet I’ll find some next time I visit home.

Journeys of discovery are fun at any age, so I burrowed through the internet for information.

Burrowing crayfish are sometimes called “land-lobsters” or terrestrial crayfish. Most crayfish are aquatic—living in ponds or streams—since they need to absorb oxygen through gills. Others simply inhabit wet ground with a high water table, and excavate burrows that flood and give them space to breathe. As they dig, they are loathe to exit their burrows and expose themselves to danger, so they roll the mud into a ball using their legs and mouthparts and brick it up in an ever-rising chimney of mud around their tunnel entrance. Only under cover of darkness will they exit their bunker and go in search of food.

Have you ever learned something new, and then suddenly started to notice it everywhere?

This September, I was once again on a paddling trip to a beautiful place. My family blew in to an island campsite on Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. While whitecaps crashed against our rocky landing, and the stiff breeze whisked away all available warmth from our tent sites, we bushwhacked to the lee side of the island. The goal was to do some shore fishing in a protected bay. As I stooped out of the alder thicket and onto the muddy shoreline, a strange shape caught my eye.

There, among the grasses and rushes in a mucky flat, were a few little towers of mud. Crayfish chimneys? In the Boundary Waters?

I was both surprised and stumped, and soon distracted by fishing. When the wind finally died and the sun came out, we no longer needed to seek refuge in the bay. I never even went back to snap a photo. My best guess, with some post-trip research and consultation with experts, is that the chimneys could have been made by calico crayfish, a widespread native species that is known to burrow.

Calico crayfish. Photo by Astacoides. Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward to October, when local artist Sara Balbin asked me to be part of the “Going, Going, Gone? Artists Explore Disappearing Species” exhibit at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, WI. Sara had chosen to sculpt the endangered Hine's emerald dragonfly, and asked me to write a few words about its ecology to pair with her artist’s statement.

Hine's Emerald Dragonfly

I discovered that these rare dragonflies with brilliant green eyes live in shallow wetlands on dolomitic limestone bedrock, and Door County is their last stronghold. What’s more, as their wetlands evaporate in late summer, the aquatic dragonfly nymphs retreat into the damp recesses of devil crayfish burrows! I laughed out loud when I read that—a reaction of surprise and delight. These burrowing crayfish are turning up everywhere.

Scientists acknowledge that some dragonfly nymphs may become lunch for the resident crayfish, but the relationship must allow enough of them to survive for it to be beneficial to the population as a whole. It’s important enough that crayfish conservation is recommended as an essential part of the recovery of the endangered dragonfly.

And dragonflies aren’t the only ones who find refuge with the land-lobsters. Federally threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnakes have been found hibernating in crayfish burrows, and it’s likely that the damp habitat helps them avoid both freezing and desiccation.

I’m definitely not alone in my appreciation for mud.

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

For more than 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! Call us at 715-798-3890 or email