Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Scourge of Loons

Ratchet straps, paddles, life jackets, and cameras were flying everywhere as I rushed to unload my kayak from my car and get it to the lake. Nipping at my heels—and my ears, neck, temples, wrists, and eyelids—were swarms of black flies. I snorted one out of my nose, and blew another off my lips, but the rest I tried hard to ignore. Taking time to swat them would mean delaying my escape to the water. 

Finally, with a couple of quick paddle strokes I pulled away from the landing and into a fresh breeze. Mineral Lake sparkled in the late afternoon sunshine, and baby leaves on the surrounding trees glowed with the promise of new life. As I paddled into a headwind, the last of my tormentors disappeared. With a deep breath, I found peace.

Gliding along, my mind drifted off to another lake—Lake Namakagon. While biking around it on May 14, I was ecstatic to spot the distinctive shape of a loon’s head nestled among the grasses on a small island, visible from the road. Thrilled that I’d brought my camera, I zoomed in and snapped a few shots. After a few seconds of stillness, the black flies swarmed—the first of the season for me. 

Just before the black flies hatched, this loon began incubating two eggs on Lake Namakagon.  Photo by Emily Stone. 

The following day was sunny, calm, and perfect for paddling, so I launched from my house and headed toward the bay that holds the nest—hoping to get another glimpse of the loon. Not wanting to disturb a nesting bird, I once again zoomed in with my camera, to check out the nest from afar. No distinctive silhouette stuck up from the island, although I heard a single, plaintive wail from the far side of the bay. Where had the loons gone? 

Drifting closer, I could soon see that the nest was not empty after all. Two large, dark eggs gleamed in the sunlight, and surrounding them was the thickest cloud of black flies I’ve ever seen. 

This loon nest is plagued by black flies who have driven the parents to deeper water—away from their incubation duties. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Simulium annulus is a species of black fly that focuses their insanity-inducing, bloodsucking behavior entirely on loons. They crawl around the loon’s eyes and bill, use special claws to burrow into feathers, and raise welts so big that they ruffle up the loon’s usually sleek neck. With jagged, knife-like mouthparts, black flies tear into tender skin, rupture capillaries, and create a pool of blood. Chemicals in their saliva numb the site and prevent the blood from coagulating as they lap it up. 

Loons in a cloud of black flies suffer from blood loss, irritating reactions to the anticoagulant, and blood-born parasites and viruses transmitted by the flies. Without hands to swat them away, a loon’s only options are to sit and endure, or to dive and leave the eggs cold and unprotected. The embryos can survive some exposure if the parents return frequently to incubate, but there is a limit, and many will not survive.

Luckily, in a normal year with warm spring weather, all of the black flies hatch, seek a blood meal, mate, and lay eggs in just a few days. The brief scourge can be endured, and most loon nests are unaffected. 

The black fly that attacks loons does not bite humans, although this one landed on my cheek. The flies likely identify loons by the smell of the oil used for preening their feathers. Photo by Emily Stone. 

In cool springs, though, like the one we’ve just had, some female black flies delay their quest for a blood meal while waiting for better weather, and others stick to the schedule. This means that loons must endure the plague of black flies for a longer period of time.

Do you remember the spring of 2014—the year of the Polar Vortex—when lakes were still locked in ice for fishing opener? That spring, 70% of loons’ first nest attempts failed. Walter Piper has been studying loons on northern Wisconsin lakes for more than 20 years, and it was the worst rate of nest failure he’s ever seen. 

Although ice-out dates this spring weren’t that extreme, our cold April may have produced the same result. Walter Piper—monitoring remotely from California—wrote about a black fly outbreak in his recent Loon Project blog. Linda Grenzer—one of LoonWatch’s star volunteers, just reported that every loon nest she monitors is coated with black flies and abandoned. Sadly, my observation is just one more depressing data point. 

The good news is that loons have been around long enough to figure out some coping strategies. Even when a pair abandons the nest, they can still try again, after the black fly numbers have diminished. The second attempt is more likely to produce just one chick instead of two, though.

Loons have even learned that when eggs fail due to black flies, they can reuse the same nest location. In contrast, losing eggs to a nest predator like a raccoon—who would not be gone in a week—would necessitate moving the nest in an attempt to find a safer location. 

So, in the face of potentially deadly parasites, loons, as well humans, are weighing our options carefully this spring. For both of us, escaping to the middle of a lake to avoid disease-carrying crowds seems a pretty good idea.

Here's hoping that the loons can still pull through with a successful nest! Photo by Emily Stone.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Two Cases of Mistaken Identity

Everyone makes mistakes, right? 

I’ve had a little more time than usual this spring to walk slowly with my camera in the woods, and my focus has zoomed in on smaller and smaller things. Naturally, I’m not always great at identifying these overlooked underdogs correctly on the first try. Show me three giant white petals rising above three big green leaves, and I can recognize a trillium with a single glance, from 40 feet away. Show me the quarter-inch-tall, reproductive structure of a primitive plant, and that’s a different story. 


Early in April, while snow still covered more than half the ground, I started going for lunchtime walks to stretch my eyes as much as my legs. I’d been consoling myself about the lack of travel opportunities by deciding that the lockdown was as good excuse to finally explore more thoroughly around my own woodsy neighborhood. A patch of sunlight highlighted a mossy log—wet and happy from moisture provided by the melting snow—tucked into a little hollow near a hemlock tree. 

I’m a sucker for happy moss, so I knelt down with my camera on its macro setting to capture the shimmers and sparkles…and found a tiny forest of translucent trunks topped by smooth, brown caps. An understory of tiny green leaves carpeted this magical fairy forest. 

Moss is a non-flowering plant that reproduces using spores. Those spores are born in capsules, perched atop stalks called setae, and that whole reproductive structure is called a sporophyte. These were the youngest sporophytes I’d ever seen, and they glowed so beautifully that I had to post them to social media. At first everyone commented about the beautiful moss, but then my friend Patrick Leacock, a brilliant mycologist, had a hunch, did some research, and changed his identification to leafy liverwort. 

Liverworts are another type of primitive plant. Like mosses, they reproduce using spores and absorb water directly into their leaves instead of transporting it through a vascular system. Mosses and liverworts both prefer moist habitats, and often can be found living side by side.

Liverworts are primitive plants who shoot up beautiful but ephemeral reproductive structures in the spring. The scaly look of the leaves can help distinguish them from mosses. Photo by Emily Stone. 

I went back the next day and looked closer. Indeed, the green parts around the base of the translucent stalks had a vaguely scaled appearance—a trademark of liverworts. Some larger types of liverworts look like lizard skin. In addition to the pattern of the leaves, I also discovered that a few of the dark capsules had ruptured along four seams and peeled open to release their spores. The cup-shaped capsules of mosses usually release spores through a lid, and then remain standing above the moss carpet.

Moss sporophytes, both old and new. 

Although that mossy log has since dried out, I think about the liverworts who live there each time I zoom past, and am glad I took the time to look closer. 

About a month later, I spent an entire afternoon looking closely at spring wildflowers on the trail to St. Peter’s Dome. I’d been worried I was going to miss my favorite flowers, and instead found that I was on the early side for many. Trillium buds were tightly closed, and many plants were just a tightly furled spike of green. 

One slope in particular sticks out in my memory for having an absolute carpet of spring beauties each spring. But as I hiked past, all I saw were the pairs of narrow green leaves with reddish stems poking up through the thick carpet of last year’s maple leaves. Not a single delicate white flower with pink stripes on its five petals bloomed up at me. 

Finding microclimates is one of the joys of searching out spring ephemerals. It’s such a thrill to find that south-facing slope with the very first blossom when all else is still drab and brown. And it’s almost as exciting, weeks later, to stumble upon one final flower still blooming in the cool shade of a north-facing hollow. So, as I mentioned in last week’s article, I wasn’t surprised that this patch was so far behind, while others were in full swing. I snapped a quick photo for reference, and then focused my camera on more colorful things.

Closer to home, I started noticing those same tiny pairs of leaves in new places. I’d never known that spring beauties grew there…or there…or there…and then I found those same paired leaves sprouting from the landscaping rocks near my front door. Spring beauties require rich, loamy soils. Not rocky fill. Something wasn’t right…

One of the little plants from my landscaping rocks...

Suddenly, my thoughts fell into place and I gave a little exclamation of surprise and delight for figuring out this puzzle. Last fall had been a mast year—a bumper crop of seeds and nuts—for many species. Including sugar maples. I dug around a bit and found maple seeds galore, sprouted and un-sprouted, some with their husk still clinging to a narrow pair of leaves. Of course. Spring beauties almost always grow among sugar maples on the richest sites, but sugar maples can survive in a broader spectrum of soil types, too. Now knowing that these were sugar maple babies, I was in awe of their abundance. Surely some will escape predation and become trees!

I'm not sure how this happened...

So, yes, I make mistakes in identification. But I often remember what I learn from those mistakes a lot more fondly than uneventful identifications. Maybe I should go out and make some more!

Spring beauty flowers often grow under maple trees, which is why I so easily assumed the narrow leaves (lower right) belonged to them…instead of the trees themselves. Another part of my mistake that another species of spring beauty has narrower leaves. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Spring is Not Cancelled

Over the past few sunny days, my anxiety levels have been rising. Oh, there’s the global pandemic to worry about for sure, but that’s not why sunshine has me worried. The issue is that I’ve been laser-focused on my computer lately, while I create virtual versions of our MuseumMobile lessons before schools dissipate for the summer. And while I’ve been working inside, I’ve been worried that outside, spring is happening without me. 

What if I miss the Dutchman’s breeches flowers? Will all the bloodroots have dropped their petals by the time I get there? I usually don’t count on seeing all the flowers before Mother’s Day, but is spring coming early this year? Time is passing differently during the lockdown.

So, on one particularly warm, sunny afternoon this week, I headed up to St. Peter’s Dome and Morgan Falls to see for myself. This Research Natural Area boasts one of the best “northern mesic forest” communities in this area. What does that mean? Rich soils with plenty of nutrients and water (but not too much water) support deciduous trees like sugar maples. And underneath those still-leafless trees, in the strengthening sunshine, thrives a community of spring ephemeral wildflowers. 

Ephemeral means fleeting, transitory, evanescent, flitting, and impermanent. Those synonyms give me a little thrill, I’ll admit, but also a tingle of terror. Ephemeral means that if you don’t get out into the woods at the right time, these absolutely exquisite flowers will return to dormancy beneath the surface and you’ll have to wait an entire year to see them again. Right now, a year feels like a lifetime. 

I examined my anxieties, knowing that my life would indeed go on even if I missed out on this one ritual of spring. A Mary Oliver poem came to mind, where she mourns the death of a river, and grieves for “lost joyfulness.” When someone in the poem asks: “Isn’t this somewhat overplayed?” She justifies her feelings by saying, “it can be a friend.  Companion. A hint of heaven.” Indeed. These wildflowers are old friends. Friends whom I can’t infect, and who can’t infect me. And if not heaven, they certainly transform the forest into a fairyland. 

As I wound my way through gravel backroads—hopefully toward a rendezvous with my friends—I peered into the woods for clues to their well-being. Vivid green patches of wild leeks (also known as ramps) popped up here and there. I’ll be harvesting those soon. I love making both quiche and pesto with the pungent leaves. They replace all the greens and spices in a recipe; no additional spinach, garlic, or onions needed. In a move that’s as lazy as it is sustainable, I pick just one leaf per cluster instead of digging up the muddy roots. Less washing. Less impact on the population. It’s a win-win. 

wild leeks

The green leaves of leeks are refreshing for both the eyes and the palate, but they aren’t one of the flowers I’m seeking. Wild leeks don’t bloom until July, which is weeks after their leaves have finished storing the sun’s energy in their bulbs as carbohydrates, and withered away under the thick shade of the forest canopy. Why this separation? Well, the leaves need sun, but the flowers need pollinators, and each is more abundant in their own season. 

To everything there is a season, and after I’d hiked just a short distance down the trail, I was comforted that I had not missed this one. A few pink-striped faces of spring beauties smiled up at me, but many patches were just filled with their skinny little pairs of leaves. 

Spring beauty flowers

Spring beauty leaves. Note to self: Come back to this patch next week!

Where’s that patch of wild ginger I always look for? The unfurled leaves were still small, and the single flower bud I spotted was tightly closed. In contrast, my chest opened a little, relaxing in the knowledge that my fears were unfounded and I had not missed spring.

Wild ginger -- flanked by spring beauty leaves

My favorite patch of bloodroot was blindingly white, seemingly in full flower. Zooming in with my camera, though, I noticed a couple of bare stems, where a pollinated blossom had already shed its petals. These are one of the earliest bloomers. 

bloodroot flowers

The showy pantaloons of Dutchman’s breeches flowers were also near peak bloom, with no flowers past their prime, and some buds still expanding. But the white of trilliums was still bundled up tight, and not a single plant had more than a swelling bud. 

Dutchman's Breeches flowers -- not fully open

Large-flowered Trillium bud

Several hours flew by as I followed my camera up and down the trail, trying to find just the right light and just the right angle that could help me capture the joyfulness present in these ephemeral wildflowers. 

In our current chaos, it is comforting to know that spring is not cancelled. 

“It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.” 
– Mary Oliver, Invitation.

Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Trees of Sun and Shade

Who doesn’t feel inspired when they tilt their head back and gaze up at big white pine or hemlock? And how could you not admire the grace of a pure white birch tree? Here in the Northwoods, we love our trees. John Muir wrote, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” Happily, we’ve got lots of pines up here. I’m going to go walk between a bunch of them until I find a new world I like better. Who’s with me?

This is the final installment of topics from the Forest Lodge Nature Trail’s new interpretive booklet. I’ll do some final editing, and then send the text off to the Forest Service so they can do layout and printing. With any luck, the new booklets will be waiting for you at the trailhead when it’s safe to travel again. The Forest Lodge Nature Trail will officially re-open for hiking on May 8. Please follow CDC guidelines to protect the health of yourself and those around you. 

Old Growth White Pines
Eastern white pines are majestic trees. They can live for up to 450 years, grow to 150 feet in height, and reach a diameter of more than 5 feet. White pines also are a valuable source of the wood we need to build homes, craft furniture, and make paper. During the logging era of 1850-1920, almost all of the local forests were cut down. 

Look down. The rotting stumps of large white pines still dot this forest. Both their growth, and their death, are important reminders of the history of this area. 

Look up. The next era of majestic white pines are growing now. The oldest of them are probably about 100 years old. You can see their wispy branches poking up above the rest of the forest in a layer called the “super canopy.” In fact, white pines of all ages surround the trail. While they face many natural threats, this forest is now protected from logging. What do you think it will look like in another hundred years?

Eastern Hemlocks
The tall trees in this grove are eastern hemlocks. They are easy to identify by the way the top leader gently flops to one side. Hemlocks often have shallow roots, and they sometimes topple over in strong winds. When a tree falls, more sunlight can reach the forest floor. Hemlock seedlings, which tend to sprout in the shade on the damp wood of a rotting stump or log, race toward this new sunlight in a spurt of growth. It’s hard to imagine that these majestic trees were once tiny seeds hidden inside small cones. 

As hemlocks age, their bark becomes quite thick. That bark was once harvested for tannins, which are the chemicals used in tanning hides into leather. On average, it took the bark of one tree to tan one hide. Today, we use synthetic chemicals instead. 

Look closely at the bark. A yellow-bellied sapsucker has made rows of tiny holes in order to feed on the hemlock’s sweet sap. 

Sun Loving Birch
White or paper birch is a true beauty of the Northwoods. Its smooth, papery bark makes it easy to identify. The dark, horizontal lines on the bark are lenticels. These cells allow the tree to take in and give off carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water vapor. 

Unlike the hemlock trees, whose seedlings can survive in deep shade, birch trees grow best in the bright sunshine available after a fire, windstorm, or other major disturbance. They are known as a pioneer species. While they grow quickly, birches are not long-lived. Firs and spruces often grow up in their shade, and are ready to take over when the birch trees succumb to disease, insects, or drought. 

Birches do have some defenses, though. A chemical called betulin makes birch bark very resistant to rot. Native Americans use the birch’s strong, waterproof bark to make canoes, baskets, and homes. Betulin is also what makes birch bark flammable. The unique chemical is being researched as a treatment for cancer, diabetes, tuberculosis, and more. Chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees concentrate betulin naturally, and some people make it in to a medicinal tea. Please be respectful of future visitors and do not harvest chaga near trails. 

That’s it for this week’s hike. Next week I’ll see you back out on the trails with some new natural connections!

Thanks to Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteers Thom Gerst and Kay Meyer for their help in drafting this booklet! Emily’s second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19, but we're still building our new exhibit and bringing you educational content. Connect with us on Facebook and Instagram to see what we are up to.