Thursday, February 27, 2020

Dying Tamaracks and a Woodpecker Who Loves Them

Impressive pillars of reddish brown seemed to glow under gray skies as our small group of causal birders walked carefully along the narrow path of packed snow through Winterberry Bog. This 25-30 acre black spruce-tamarack swamp is nestled into the larger Sax-Zim Bog birding area about 50 miles northwest of Duluth, Minnesota.

Although the tamarack trees lacked the green needles that clothed their neighboring spruces, that was to be expected. Tamaracks, also known as the eastern larch, or Larix laricina, are a deciduous conifer. In an unusual combination, these trees have needle-like leaves and bear their seeds in cones like spruces and pines, but they lose their leaves in the fall like maples and grow them back each spring.

Following both the trail and these bare, ruddy beacons deeper and deeper into the forest, we kept our eyes open for signs of life. 

Signs of death were all around.

While the lack of needles wasn’t alarming, the beautiful warm brown color of the tamaracks’ trunks is actually their inner bark now revealed by their demise. Eastern larch beetles are the cause. In their hunger for the sweet products of photosynthesis, beetles’ larvae destroy the tree’s phloem. Those vascular tissues in the inner bark are supposed to carry sugars from high in the needles down to the trunk and roots. Once a tree’s vascular system is disrupted, the flow of water and nutrients ceases, and the tree dies.

Eastern larch beetle damage on a tamarack tree. Photo by Emily Stone.

Signs of life did eventually appear, though, revealed by motion among the tree trunks. About a dozen people dressed in bulky winter gear and peering through a spectrum of optical equipment from giant camera lenses to modest binoculars balanced on the network of packed-snow trails. All eyes were focused about 30 feet up on a tree trunk, where a small, black and white woodpecker clung and pecked. 

How many birders can you spot in the woods?

I zoomed in and snapped a few photos, and then zoomed in some more on the camera’s screen. Where the sides of a downy or a hairy woodpecker’s belly would have been pure white, this woodpecker sported fine black barring. Down the center of its black back ran a section of messy white barring. And on other photos, taken at just the right angles, I spotted a small, yellow cap and counted three toes. (Most woodpeckers have 4 toes.)

Three-toed woodpecker.

The three toes of a three-toed woodpecker.

For comparison, the 4 toes of a hairy woodpecker.

This three-toed woodpecker is a rarity in the Northwoods. Its normal range goes farther north into the boreal spruce forests than any other woodpecker besides its Eurasian cousin. Like many birds, though, these woodpeckers take advantage of food bonanzas wherever they can. During the height of the Dutch elm disease outbreak in the 1950s through the 1970s, these opportunistic feeders showed up even farther south. 

Three-toed woodpecker male, with a little cap of yellow just visible on the top of his head.

As we watched, flakes of bark rained down gently and scattered on the snow beneath the woodpecker’s perch in a dying tamarack. As I watched, the bird craned its neck to the side and wedged its beak under a loose piece of bark. A quick chipping motion soon freed the flake. This distinctive foraging style is characteristic of three-toed woodpeckers, as well as their cousins, the black-backed woodpeckers. They rarely excavate deep holes. When your lunch wiggles just under loose bark, there’s no need. 

Some side-angle flaking action.

Although three-toed woodpeckers often find food just beneath the bark of trees in burned areas, blowdowns, flood-damaged forests, and other disturbances where insects have moved in, the Eastern larch beetle has provided them with a giant and long-lasting buffet. 

Eastern larch beetles are native to the United States, and have always produced small and short-lived outbreaks. Since 2000, though, Minnesota has seen 20 consecutive years of outbreaks, with more than 440,000 acres infested, and no end in sight. Climate change is implicated in the beetles’ surge. 

Adult beetles emerge in spring, find a new tree to infest, burrow into the bark, mate, and lay eggs. The mother beetles go on to deposit one or two more clutches of eggs. In the past, these “sister broods” didn’t have time to fully develop before winter. Longer growing seasons now allow more beetles to reach maturity each year, and warmer weather results in less mortality for the overwintering larvae. It’s a perfect storm, and forest pathologists have not found a cure. 

While three-toed woodpeckers are taking advantage of the situation, birders can capitalize, too. Sax-Zim Bog is a southern outpost for many species typically found farther north. Protected areas like Winterberry Bog, and a visitor center run by the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, have facilitated easy access to unusual species for a whole community of people interested in observing the interplay of life and death in nature.

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. Our Pollinator Power exhibit ends after February 29, but our Curiosity Center remains open, and Mysteries of the Night will open on May 1, 2020. Call us at 715-798-3890 or email 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Birkie--Saving Skiing and Saving the World

Can cross-country skiing save the world?

Ben Popp, Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF), has enough energy and ideas to make that hyperbole feel possible. 

Popp has a more manageable mission, too: ensuring the future of cross-country skiing in the Midwest. But these goals are not unrelated. Skiers united behind the sustainability of their sport may find themselves inspired toward ever healthier and greener lifestyles. 

Every February, Popp and his team orchestrate North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon and its accompanying events. Skiing the 55 kilometer Birkie race is a big deal, but so is entering any of the shorter races, participating in the Barkie Birkie Skijor race, the kids’ races, or being one of the 2,845 volunteers or 40,000 spectators. The entire community benefits economically from the influx of visitors during race week and throughout the year. 

Skiers united behind ensuring the future of their sport have found themselves inspired toward ever healthier and greener lifestyles—with the Birkie Green campaign leading the way. ©2020 American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation.

The continued success of this world-class ski event is not a certainty. Back in 2017, after days of rain, the race was canceled for only the second time in the Birke’s 46-year history. It was disappointing, but not overly surprising. Hayward’s average winter temperature has risen 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. The Birkie is featured right alongside maple syruping and ice fishing on the website as Northwoods traditions that are threatened by a changing climate. Just a little farther south, ski conditions become very sporadic.

Soon after the cancelled race, the Birkie purchased their first ever snowmaking equipment using donations from the ski community. The ability to make snow gives the Birkie trail crew more options for dealing with thin spots, bad weather, and whatever the future climate might throw our way.

In another move toward the future, the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation has leased the former Telemark Resort property with an option to buy the 713-acres when the lease expires in July 2021. 

Why is acquiring that land significant? “Wisconsin doesn’t have another venue that has snowmaking and hosts a big event,” explained Popp. The Telemark property—once a premier cross country ski destination with an alpine ski area, too—has been vacant for years. Nevertheless, its 30 kilometers of ski trails are still legendary and still used for several of the Birkie’s events. 

Those trails are important to many locals and visitors, and Popp wants to restore full public access. When the Telemark property moved into private ownership after a final bankruptcy in 2013, access was restricted. “We feel like the trails and the nature experiences available there are integral to our community, and we want to be part of ensuring that the whole community can use it,” Popp told me.

So, with snowmaking capabilities, over a hundred kilometers of trails, and a growing community of skiers, the future of the Birkie—and cross-country skiing in the Midwest is stable, right?

Not really. Snowmaking is energy intensive. “If you make 5 kilometers of snow and use fossil fuels to do it, is that really the right thing to do, especially long term?” Popp questioned. “To make snow responsibly takes some real conscious thought and intent.” Popp is exploring ways that their snowmaking could be fueled by solar power. 

The new Birkie Green initiative embodies that same conscious thought and intent toward reducing carbon emissions and environmental impacts from the ski community. It began with the Birkie Green Gear Bag, which is a durable backpack with ski-friendly features that racers use instead of plastic bags to have warm clothes transported to the finish line. If you don’t want to make the investment, you can still buy a plastic bag, but Birkie skiers have been showing off their packs getting used on adventures all over the world, under the hashtag #BirkieBagAdventure. 

Last summer, the Birkie Trail Run switched to reusable silicone cups that racers carry with them to aid stations. The Birkie Tour ski event used stainless steel cups with carabiner handles for the first time in January. Post-race food is now eaten from compostable containers, and beer is served in cans to facilitate recycling. By putting in plenty of forethought, and getting their partners involved, the Trail Run ended up with just a single bag of garbage. 

Ben Popp, Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF) shows off two initial offerings from the Birkie Green initiative—a durable gear bag and a reusable silicone cup. The Birkie continues to explore ways to reduce waste and save energy. Photo by Emily Stone.

Popp wants to see the Birkie use its leverage to get vendors and contractors committed to going green, too. Best practices can be be highlighted at the Birkie Expo, so that skiers can make educated decisions about the companies they support. 

For thousands of folks, Birkie Fever—“a craving for excitement, camaraderie and challenge”—is a real thing. But it’s not just about skiing fast or helping out with a single week of activities; it’s about the energy that comes from being part of something bigger than yourself. And that’s where Popp’s power lies. What if the Foundation’s new Birkie Green initiatives could get the ski community to think about sustainability in every aspect of their lives? What if skiers become advocates and ambassadors for green practices? What if Ben Popp really could use skiing to help save the world?

Editor’s note: A longer version of this article originally appeared in Northern Wilds magazine, and is reprinted with permission. 

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 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Next Generation of Nature Writers

“It was cloudy with the color of sun between the cracks of the clouds. The snow under the snowshoes sounded like firecrackers walking underneath us.” So wrote a fifth grader from Lake Superior Elementary in Superior, Wisconsin, after I visited their school for a winter hike and writing workshop. 

Mrs. Correll and Mrs. Norton invited me to visit their classes after reading one of my articles in the newspaper. Mrs. Correll explained in an email that, “I am in no way an expert in any area of the outdoors, but I do believe students need to experience as much time outside in our beautiful Northland as possible and I love to give them the opportunity to learn about the history of our area and form an appreciation for it and why it's important to protect and conserve all of our natural resources.”

How could I argue with that?

The playground snow was indeed crunchy and loud as one class of fifth graders bypassed the slides and swings to meet me by a shrub at the head of a trail leading into the woods. I was thrilled when a girl looked up into the tips of the willow twigs and asked “what are those pine cones doing there?” 

Photo by Sue Correll

Willow pine cone galls are always a fun observation. The midge larva that burrowed into the stem last spring prevented the willow twig from extending. Instead, leaves once destined to flutter along a twig now layered together in the cone-like structures that caught our attention. At the center of all those layers could be the cocoon of the midge, or any of 31 other species that sometimes wiggle into the galls’ layers for shelter.  

willow pine cone galls

The students were both attentive to my teaching, and scanning their environment for more. Before I’d finished talking about pine cone galls, I had a different willow gall thrust into my hand. This small, football-shaped gall was a swelling of the stem material instead of a cluster of leaves. I carefully opened a multi-tool and pried open the prize. 

A photo from another day, of the same bright orange larva found in a willow stem gall. 

“On some trees I can see galls,” recounted a student. “They are little bumps on trees and you have to use a special tool to open it. On the inside there might be a little orange larva. It makes me want to learn more about the larvae and how galls form.” 

With the teachers, I’d talked about focusing in on the sensory experiences of being outdoors. So, naturally, I suggested to the kids that they all find a nice, tender willow twig at eye level and chew on it for a second. Their puckered faces and exclamations of “ew, gross!” were exactly what I’d expected. Willow tastes like uncoated aspirin tablets because it contains chemicals that are the basis for aspirin. John Pastor, an ecologist from Duluth, later told me that he thinks deer and moose might seek out willow twigs as winter forage specifically for the painkiller properties. 

Madeline, in her hot pink coat, was game for everything! Photo by Emily Stone.

The willows were great, but the wide path into the open aspen forest looked inviting, too. We crunched on into the woods. “As I walk on the trail, I see some beautiful trees. If I listen closely, I can hear the crunch under my feet and the wind blowing. I can also hear my heavy breathing,” wrote a student. 

Deer tracks perforated the wide path. When the lead students gave a shout, I wasn’t surprised to see that they’d found two deer beds in the middle of the trail. The packed ovals were sprinkled with pebbles of brown scat and stained with yellow snow. Of their own accord, the kids took turns kneeling down and sniffing the deer pee. Turns out, they’d read a chapter in my Natural Connections book about smelling fox urine, and most (but not all) were excited to try it themselves.

One student wrote, “As I walked around the bend I saw people circling a hole like a herd of animals eating deer. I had no clue what was going on, so I stopped to see a hole with poop and pee. I heard Emily Stone say, ‘smell the pee or poop if you want to.’ I was scared to do it, but I smelt the pee. It smelt like raw milk and smelly fart.” 

Love these kids. 

As we wound among the aspen trunks, I was happy to see a rainbow of green and orange lichens at eye level. Mrs. Correll and Mrs. Norton had already introduced lichens as a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, but I couldn’t resist telling my favorite story. “Alice Alga and Freddy Fungus took a ‘lichen’ to each other. They moved to the sticks, and their marriage has been on the rocks ever since!” To my right, a girl gave a theatrical groan. I reveled in the moment. Not only was she experienced at groaning at “dad jokes,” she’d grasped the concept and the humor fast enough to react.

Overall, I was impressed by the learning community that Mrs. Correll and Mrs. Norton are creating. Back in the classroom, I shared a few tips on writing, and over the next week or so the teachers guided the students in putting their outdoor experiences into words. They did a great job, so I’ll leave you with a few more of their thoughts.

“Now that you know what I saw you should pay more attention to what's out in the woods because there may be something cool that you could ask an expert or Google it to learn more.”
For example, Madeline found this crazy, spiky gall. I asked an expert, and he told me a long scientific name, and thought it probably came from a willow as well. 

“Sometimes it's good to go outside and see what’s out there.”

“In conclusion, hopefully you learn about nature every day!”

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 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Naturalist Games

Cindy pulled a slip of paper out of the silver mixing bowl. As she read the words that had been scribbled there with a dried-up pen, her face fell and she gave her head a little shake of disbelief. Then she pushed her chair back from the dining room table, moved it aside, and lay down on the ground. We all sat in stunned silence for a second, and then her team started shouting.

The words were a jumble at first, and then “Coarse woody debris!”

Cindy’s face lit up with a big “Yes!” She popped up and grabbed another folded paper from the bowl as the game continued. Soon, a biologist was hopping like a snowshoe hare, a landscaper was buzzing like a rusty-patched bumble bee, and a retired administrator was erupting like a volcano. The room erupted in laughs, too. 

This is what naturalists do for fun after a long day in the field. 

The Museum’s recent Wild About Winter Ecology workshop included plenty of serious learning—the lesson on mammal skulls that I wrote about last week, a lecture on wolves in Wisconsin, and 1.5 days in the field with wildlife biologists showing us their preferred habitat. We also spent one evening playing Salad Bowl. This popular party game is deceptively simple and fun for at least ages 10 and up. 

As the Master Naturalists gathered around the dining room table in the Gatehouse at Forest Lodge, we divided into two teams, and decided that the topic would be “nature.” Then everyone wrote down four words or phrases on separate slips of paper, and tossed them into the “salad bowl.” Naturally, many of the words referred to nature we’d encountered during our day in the field. 

Teams alternate designating a player to pull papers from the bowl. They have one minute to get their co-conspirators to guess as many words as possible. For the first round, you can say anything except the words on the paper. It’s reminiscent of the game “Taboo.” After the bowl is empty, the papers are returned to the bowl, and—using the same words—the teams now play charades. Finally, the words are returned to the bowl for a third round. This time, a player can only say one word for each slip of paper. 

While it may seem daunting to guess the items with only a one word clue, this is often the easiest round. Now the teams have heard all the words twice, and inside jokes often develop from previous attempts at guessing. It’s also good practice for the science-minded to think about communicating ideas as simply as possible. 

Cindy’s performance of “coarse woody debris” was one of the highlights of the night. Learning about it was a highlight of the day, too. “The original CWD,” joked Jon Gilbert, Director of the Biological Services Division of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), when he first mentioned it during a presentation in the Clam Lake Community Center. These days, CWD tends to mean the chronic wasting disease that’s impacting deer. 

Fallen logs provide shelter for little critters, as well as doorway into the magical “subnivean zone” beneath the snow. Photo by Emily Stone. 

The Forest Service defines the original CWD as “Dead pieces of wood including downed, dead tree and shrub boles, large limbs, and other woody pieces that are severed from their original source of growth or are leaning more than 45 degrees from vertical.” Jon Gilbert defines them as essential to marten habitat. He’s been studying martens for most of his 35 year career. These small members of the weasel family need the structure of CWD to provide entrances into the snowpack, warmth, protection, and a breeding ground for voles and other small mammals who are their favorite food. Martens need messy old forests—with evergreens for canopy cover—in order to thrive. 

“Hemlock!” “Yellow birch!” “Complex structural diversity!” “Vole!” “Subnivean zone!” These were all words in the game that came directly from our time in marten habitat with Jon. In fact, there were three versions of “subnivean zone,” and we all converged on the same charade: One arm held flat in front of your chest, while the other hand dove down under like a mouse tunneling into this magical world beneath the snow. Active learning? Addressing diverse learning styles, and multiple intelligences? Check, check, check. 

The habitat of martens can be described using words like “coarse woody debris” and “complex structural diversity.” Martens tend to prefer older, messy forests with conifers. Photo by Emily Stone. 

“Gusto!” was another word in the game. Gusto is a scent lure that trappers use as a “long-distance call.” We got a good whiff while Jon’s colleague, biologist Tanya Aldred, explained a new style of camera trap to us. A marten will be attracted by the scent, then stand up on a platform to reach some meat. A trail camera is perfectly positioned to capture the uniquely shaped patch of orange fur on the marten’s chest, and biologists can identify individual martens from the photos. It’s a brilliant plan, but we thought it smelled a little funky. 

Tanya Aldred describes to Winter Ecology students the function of a camera trap set to capture martens and fishers. Photo by Emily Stone. 

“Bugle,” came up, too, this time in reference to the elk we’d learned about as well. Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Biologist Josh Spiegel took us to recently thinned aspen groves near wide-open fields to share his research subjects’ favorite habitat. Martens and elk are both residents of the Clam Lake area, but they need very different forest types. 

Elk prefer very different habitat from martens. Young aspen thickets and grassy meadows are key. Photo by Emily Stone.

A little bit of contrast can be good, though, as our group illustrates. We were stoic and learned professionals during the day—goofy and competitive teammates by night.

What a great group! Maybe you should join us next year ;-) 

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