Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Demise of the Monarch

Last week, the peaceful transfer of power in our Capitol was a symbol of how—for 245 years—we’ve prevented the rise of a western monarch. This democracy was founded in opposition to the idea of monarchies, and the functioning of democracy can be a source of pride.

But I’m not here to talk politics. I only mention the inauguration to make a bit of word play. Because, an invertebrate species of Western Monarch is currently being vanquished by accident. And that should be cause for alarm.

Monarch butterfly populations have dropped to critically low numbers. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Earlier last week, the Xerces Society (an international non-profit focused on the conservation of invertebrates), announced that the population of monarch butterflies who spend the winter along the California coast is nearing collapse. For the past few years, volunteer counters have found fewer than 30,000 butterflies overwintering in the groves. Those were record lows, and cause for alarm. This year, the community scientists counted a mere 1,914 monarch butterflies. That’s 99.9% fewer butterflies than were found in the 1980s. And still, there exists no legal protection for them or their essential habitat. 

Western Monarchs aren’t all of the monarchs, though. The black-and-orange beauties who spend summers with us in the hot and humid Midwest have migrated to remote oyamel fir tree forests in the mountains west of Mexico City. They are enduring an unusually cold winter there, and official counts have not yet been completed. We can only hope that their numbers won’t show the same precipitous decline as their western counterparts. 

The odds are not in our favor.

Last year, the monarchs overwintering in Mexico exhibited a 53% drop. 

The details of each population’s decline are slightly different, but the big picture holds true: their demise is driven by loss of habitat for overwintering, breeding, and migration; and by pesticide use.

In the past, it was easy to blame our southern neighbor for the declines. Illegal logging in the mountainous butterfly preserves of Mexico was a major problem, but that has largely been addressed by the Mexican government. There is still more to be done with supporting the region’s economy so that the locals won’t need to extract resources from the protected forests, but the biggest challenge to the monarch’s struggle for survival is no longer across an international border. It is right here in the US, in the ever-more-productive Corn Belt where I grew up. 

In early spring, monarchs will head north again—hoping to lay their eggs on fresh milkweed plants in Texas before they breathe their last butterfly breath. 

But what if there isn’t any milkweed? Drought, cold weather, and habitat loss have all caused its decline. And the challenges continue as generations of monarchs leap-frog north into the Midwest. Farming practices have changed a lot since my Grandpa Warren hunted pheasants among habitat-rich fencerows and pastures in southern Iowa. 

Since the first genetically modified (GMO), herbicide resistant soybeans were introduced in 1997 (with GMO corn following shortly), there has been an 80% decline in milkweed in the Midwest, and a concurrent 81% decline in monarchs. In Iowa, one biologist estimates there has been a 98% reduction in milkweed on the landscape. While GMO products have garnered support among some scientists, the changes that GMOs have caused in our farming practices and the subsequent habitat loss for many organisms (not just monarchs) are a significant bit of collateral damage. 

Although habitat loss is the biggest problem, it’s one that you can help address! Now is the time when eager gardeners start making plans for spring. Every additional back-yard milkweed plant and un-sprayed flower garden could host one more caterpillar, and provide nectar for hundreds of pollinators. 

But gardens like these are not going to make up for millions of acres of corn and soybeans. Large conservation efforts—and sustainable farming practices—also are necessary. You can help there, too, by choosing carefully at the grocery store, by supporting the organizations doing good work, and by letting your representatives at all levels of government know that you value conservation efforts. 

Should we work hard and make sacrifices just to save a single species of butterfly? Well, yes. But we also should work to save the monarchs because in doing so we will be conserving nature for ourselves and for our kids.

Emily’s award-winning 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 closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Observing Woodland Dramas with Lois Nestel

A bobcat stares intently at activity around my birdfeeder. The hunt was unsuccessful. But the cat's presence so close to home was thrilling. Nature observations can be made almost anywhere! 
Photo by Emily Stone. 

Each time I walk out to check my new trail camera, the moments are filled with anticipation and excitement. Who will I find today? Lately, though, the critters have become suspicious of my tracks, and of whatever tiny lights and noises emanate from the camera. Good captures have become fewer and farther between. 

A red squirrel mocks my trail cam.

On the other hand, fresh snow on my driveway and in the woods records the tracks of bobcats, otters, and weasels, in addition to the fishers, foxes, and coyotes who are also captured on camera. This bit of technology is not a replacement for paying attention. Good old observation skills may still yield the best—or at least the most plentiful—results. 

Weasel tracks bound around the edges of my driveway--just out of view of the trail cam.

Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director and naturalist, lived in a time before we had such technological crutches to help us spy on nature. In her weekly newspaper column in the 1970s, she wrote eloquently about the many wild events she was able to observe right in her yard, which is now the Wayside Wanderings Natural Play Area in Cable. I’m pleased to share her words with you again.

“On the night of the last full moon the winds were quiet and the sky clear following heavy snow. Awakening in the night I sat by the window gazing out at a familiar world made strange and new by moonlight and shadow.

“The trees were stark silhouettes against the sky, and their shadows were blue-inked traceries upon the sparkling snow. As I watched, one dark form and then another emerged from the shadows as two cottontails came out to eat the food scattered on the ground for them each evening.

“They fed quietly for a while before moon madness struck them and they began to leap and play as only rabbits can. From immobility first one and then the other would leap high, twisting and kicking heels into the crystal air. They would chase madly around the trees, in and out of the shadows, stop, facing each other, and then be off again, often with one leaping over the other to begin the race.

“How long this might have continued is hard to say, but suddenly, quite close by, a coyote wailed and immediately the voices of several others rose in chorus. As if they had evaporated the rabbits were gone. Several times the yipping wails of the coyotes rose and fell; then all was silent.

“The woodland dramas of life and death continue, unseen by human eyes, unheard by human ears. The night was full of life; yet filled with moonglow and shadow, there appeared only the serenity of a painting by the greatest of all masters.”

Although it’s rare for us to be awake and looking at just the right time to witness these nightly activities, curious naturalists can piece together the stories by daylight in the snow. Lois later 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.

“A cat has wandered through the yard and across the porch, its small round paw prints unmistakable. Cottontails have hopped contentedly, picking up scraps in the bird feeding areas, only to bound away in sudden fright, their leaping tracks closely followed by those of a dog. Near a woodpile the springing two-by-two tracks of a weasel trace an erratic pattern that becomes more purposeful as it merges with the tiny pattering tracks of a vole and both disappear down a hole in the snow near a clump of tall dead grass. 

A bobcat track (pictured) is a larger version of the tracks of a house cat.

“Days of soft snow will find areas around the bird feeders stitched in crazy-quilt patterns by the feet of many small birds and perhaps those of a raven or crow who, at some time, strode through to collect a choice morsel.

“These and many other signs may be found along nearly any street or roadway or in one’s own yard. Beyond those more civilized confines are tracks in endless variety. The meandering tracks of deer, of fox or coyote on the prowl for food, the skittering of squirrels from tree to tree, or the shuffling snowshoe tracks of partridge [grouse] are only a few. A streamside or frozen lake may reveal the tracks of mink or the joyful run-and-slide pattern left by otters. 

The joyful run-and-slide pattern left by otters. Photo by Emily Stone.

“The knowledge of tracks is a necessity to the hunter or trapper, but it can be a great source of pleasure to those who enjoy nature for its own sake and like to speculate about the stories tracks can tell.”

Want to learn more about tracking? I’ve written about it many times on this searchable Natural Connections blog. I also recommend the Falcon Guide to Scat and Tracks of the Great Lakes, available with free shipping from our friends at Redbery Books in Cable. Enjoy! 

Emily’s award-winning 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 closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Rime Ice and Hoarfrost Make the Hidden Visible

Winter is a season of magic. Hidden beauty becomes visible. Much remains a mystery. 

It begins with our breath.

Chilly mornings are one of the first signs that winter is on her way. We step outside, fill our lungs with a deep drink of invisible air, and send forth a translucent, swirling cloud. Sunlight—because the coldest mornings follow cloudless nights—makes it glow.

Every day of our lives, air goes in and out of our lungs at least a dozen times per minute. Air also cycles in and out of plants, animals, fungi, soil, and more. I love to think about what this means for our connection to the biosphere. The air we sip into the cradles of our lungs was—just a moment ago—part of someone else’s life. The air we return to the world may enter a tree and become maple sugar, or enter a bird’s lungs and become song. 

During the pandemic this has become a terrifying problem. But in the past, in the future, and always when we’re in the woods, this reciprocity is a gift. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget the physical properties of our breath until cold air forces the gaseous water vapor we exhale to condense into visible droplets. They are now liquid, and while big enough to see, are still small enough to float. This is the same alchemy that fills summer skies with cottony puffs of while clouds.

As winter deepens, a lack of humidity makes our breath invisible again. Clouds, however, remain. 

Lately, an unusual combination of winter weather conditions have made visible the exhalations of the Earth herself. Fog that is dense and persistent enough to trigger weather advisories has brought its own unusual magic to the winter landscape. Snow on the ground releases moisture into relatively warm air. That humidity condenses as night falls. Calm winds fail to sweep the resulting fog aside.

Fog is simply a cloud that hugs the ground. It, too, is water in the air made visible as cold causes droplets to grow. Magically—tenuously—that water remains liquid even though its temperature drops below freezing. When these supercooled droplets collide with the solid world, they freeze instantly. The ice they form becomes another solid surface, and more droplets accumulate. As light winds push the fog along, elaborate, bizarre, thick-but-fragile rime ice builds up on the windward side of pine needles, twigs, and more. For the past few weeks, this freezing fog has accentuated the grace of our forests. 

Rime ice formed on the upwind side of these red pine needles when supercooled droplets of fog froze upon contact. Photo by Emily Stone.

Water in our breath, along with fog and rime, goes through the liquid state as it becomes visible. In contrast, hoarfrost and snowflakes materialize into solid form directly from invisible water vapor when the dew point is below freezing. When that water vapor crystallizes around dust particles in the air, we get snow. When crystals grow on twigs, pine needles, even on other bits of ice, we awaken to a lace-encrusted fairyland of hoarfrost.

Down by my lakeshore, a spring bubbles up and feeds a bit of open water under the low-hanging branches of hemlock trees. In this protected haven, on cold nights, invisible water vapor in the air feeds the growth of elaborate crystals patterned like feathers, ferns, needles, and trees. These physical structures—formed of crystal facets and six-fold symmetry—give us a peek into the inner workings of water molecules. It’s a world filled with electricity, with forces of attraction and repulsion, with crystal lattices; a world usually observable only to chemists and physicists. 

Hoarfrost crystals grow directly from water vapor in calm and humid conditions. Their structures reflect the inner workings of water molecules. Photo by Emily Stone. 

Yesterday, when I headed down to the lake, I found it ringed by trees painted white with rime ice and shining in the sunlight. Impossibly complex crystals of hoarfrost bordered the spring. And a maze of otter, fox, and coyote tracks recorded stories of my unseen neighbors in the snow. 

I filled my lungs with a deep drink of air—now with some of its secrets made visible by the magic of winter. 

Emily’s award-winning 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 closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Rocks in our Socks

What did you have on your list when you climbed onto Santa’s lap in years past? If you were one of my brother’s kids, you asked for rocks. Kids after my own heart! We are the Stone Family after all. 

The rocks they wanted were “crack your own geodes”—a surprising treasure! These bland-colored, roundish rocks look positively dumpy on the outside. Whack them with a hammer, though, and they split open to reveal an airy chamber lined with sparkling crystals. What’s not to love about a tradition that includes hitting and breaking things, the joy of surprise, and sparkles all in one? 

That tradition used to require a quick field trip out to the garage in our stocking feet, so that we didn’t spread rock shards all over Grandma’s floors. This year our entire Christmas happened in the garage. Grandma, Papa, and all the kids wore warm clothes and masks, while I zoomed in from afar. For the first time in many years, there were no geodes to crack. I miss them all, though: the Stone kids and the stone rocks. So here’s a trip down memory lane. 

From the outside, geodes often look sallow, plain, and small. I was worried the ones I’d bought for the kids would be duds. Derek wasn’t discouraged, however; in his experience, these boring-looking ones have produced the best crystals. The three younger kids and I put on shoes and safety glasses and headed into the garage. We rummaged on Papa’s work bench until we found a hammer and chisel, and let the cracking commence. 

Derek was lead rock hound, and he cracked the first one. It popped open easily, revealing a delicate lining of clear, glittering, crystals. “Ohhh” and “Ahhh,” we exclaimed appropriately. He also cracked Isaac’s geode, and the kids dutifully set it aside for their big brother after admiring the sparkles. 

Next, Zac, the rock cracker’s apprentice, took his turn. The geode rolled around a bit under his tentative hammer, and Derek bravely helped him out by holding it steady. His fingers survived! A crack formed, and one more gentle tap split it open to an admiring chorus. Somehow, the anticipation and revelation never gets old. After Derek helped Zac’s twin, Kylee, split hers, too, they all trouped back inside to show Grandma.

Derek’s prediction had been correct: these unassuming geodes all held beautiful crystals, and the kids declared this the best round of Christmas geodes yet! 

Zac ad Derek proudly show off their cracked geodes...and their super cool safety glasses.

Curious as to where these splendid geodes came from, I looked up the purchase order. “Moroccan geodes” was their exotic title. This little country at the northern edge of Africa hasn’t seen a glacier in ages, so the rocks there have had time to weather at the surface. The region boasts some cool geology. Morocco’s geodes were formed in basalt—just like our Lake Superior agates. But the photos of Moroccan basalt look nothing like the glacier-polished North Shore. The African rock is crumbly and brown from ages of oxidation and weathering. 

Geodes occur closer to home, too. They are the state rock of Iowa! The epicenter of Iowa geodes is in the far southeastern corner, in a 35-mile radius around the town of Keokuk, including parts of Missouri and Illinois. This world-renowned site sits on the Lower Warsaw Formation, which was deposited as mud in a shallow sea 340 million years ago, and lithified into shales and limestones. 

It doesn’t matter if geodes form in basalt or limestone; they still need a cavity to start with. The holes in basalt were created when gas bubbles formed in the cooling lava. The holes in the Iowa limestone have a more complicated origin. They began as concretions, which are the opposite of geodes. 

Concretions formed when minerals hardened around some nucleus in the mud, creating a nodule. After the chemical composition and acidity of the surrounding water changed, a cryptocrystalline type of quartz (made of crystals that are hard to see even with a microscope) replaced their outer shell. Next, the inner, more soluble minerals of the concretions dissolved and left a hollow space. 

Finally, over thousands to millions of years, mineral-rich groundwater percolated through the space and precipitated sharp-angled crystals of quartz from the walls of the cavity inward. 

Sometimes other minerals will join the mix and expand the color palette. As in agates, these colors occasionally form concentric bands. The difference between agates and geodes is that agates are created when cavities in the rocks are filled with patterns of colorful cryptocrystalline quartz, while geodes grow visible crystals (not always quartz) into a hollow center. 

In any case, getting rocks in your Christmas stocking can be a pretty fun tradition. With the Stone kids, I discovered that even a shiny black lump of coal can be a treat! 

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from 2016. 

Emily’s award-winning 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 closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.