Thursday, December 29, 2022

Monarchs' Sacred Trees

Monarch butterflies as we know them in the Northwoods—gliding gently on the humid swirl of summer—are intimately tied to milkweed plants.

It’s not easy for tiny monarch caterpillars to eat milkweed leaves, with their sticky, toxic sap, but the caterpillars who survive become little packets of bitter poison. While the cardiac glycosides that monarch caterpillars glean from milkweed leaves do not make them completely immune to predation or parasitism, they are protected from all but the most well-adapted mouths.

Monarch caterpillars are reliant on milkweed plants. Photo by Emily Stone.

But milkweeds aren’t the only plant that monarchs rely on.

Monarch butterflies as I recently experienced them in Mexico—gathering by the millions in their winter sanctuaries—are intimately tied to fir trees. Abies religiosa, the oyamel fir, also known as the sacred fir due to the way their oppositely arranged twigs make the shape of a cross, are essential to monarchs’ winter survival.

Sacred firs make the shape of a cross with their twigs.

The fir forests began with volcanoes, as I wrote a few weeks ago. Rising from the surrounding deserts, the high peaks of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt scrape moisture from the sky, creating relatively cool, humid summers, and moderate winters, between 8,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level. Here, the firs, which blanketed most of Mexico during the last ice age, reside in a series of shrinking refuges, just 12 of which hold monarchs.

While it isn’t known when or how monarch butterflies first came to the oyamel fir forests to overwinter, or precisely how the individual butterflies find their way back, scientists have measured in detail what benefits the insects receive during their stay from November through March.

During the final stages of their southward migration, monarchs sip enough nectar to increase their bodyfat by 500%. That fat has to last them all the way through winter, spring mating, the northward migration, and egg laying in Texas. Being warm increases calorie use. Temperature moderation—effectively being refrigerated—is essential to butterfly survival. That’s where the firs come in.

Oyamel firs provide butterflies with buffers similar to white-tailed deer yarding up under conifers in the Northwoods. The boughs act as a blanket that prevents heat from escaping to the sky, and as an umbrella that reduces the amount of precipitation hitting the ground—or their bodies. By forming clusters at intermediate heights above the ground (something deer can’t do!) butterflies further avoid the sinking cold, the rain, or the clear night sky.

Can you spot the butterfly clusters at an intermediate height above the ground?

Like flying squirrels huddling for warmth, the butterflies further increase their temperature moderation by forming thick clusters on the fir boughs. Monarchs at the center of the cluster stay warmer overnight, protected from freezing. In contrast, daytime temperatures inside the clusters are cooler than on the surface, which results in a lower body temperature, and—like a hibernating bear—fewer calories burned.

Photo by Emily Stone

Researchers have found that big diameter trees are better for temperature moderation than either bough clusters or small trees. Their trunks heat up and cool down slowly, resulting in temperatures that are 8⁰ F warmer than ambient at night and 11⁰ F cooler during the day. They also have more surface area for butterflies to cling to. Even though 90% of monarchs form clusters on the more-abundant fir boughs, butterflies who spend their time on the trunks of oyamels have substantially higher survival rates, especially after bad weather.

In the past, thick old growth forests with big trees likely provided much better protection for butterflies. While managing for big trees could help improve habitat in the butterfly reserves, there’s only so much foresters can do in the face of climate change. The temperatures and moisture levels that the trees need to survive will soon be found much higher up the mountains. A paper in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, written in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, projected that “by the end of the century, suitable habitat for the monarch butterfly may no longer occur inside the Biosphere Reserve.”

Maybe because the nights weren't getting close to freezing yet, I didn't see any big clusters on the trunks. Photo by Emily Stone.

Here's an image of what a butterflies clustered on a fir trunk can look like. From 

While the end of the century seems far off, lead author on that paper, Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero from the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, at Morelia, Michoacán, México, has forecasted that “rising temperatures will shrink the habitat suited to oyamel fir trees in Mexico nearly 70% between 2025 and 2035.”

In response, local researchers, conservation groups, and even school kids, are growing oyamel fir seedlings and planting them up to 1,300 feet higher on mountains in the existing sanctuaries, and also on Nevado de Toluca, a much higher peak in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt that does not yet host butterflies. At those elevations, the fragile seedlings need shelter of their own to get established. Bushes and shrubs can help, as well as planting Mexican pines at the same time. But monarchs need big trees, not baby ones. Can the forests grow fast enough?

Visiting the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico and seeing uncountable numbers of these amazing insects all in one place was awe-inspiring. The tight relationship forged between the butterfly and the tree, and the volcanically created climate zone they share, represents everything I love learning about in nature.

Photo by Emily Stone.

Unfortunately, their plight is also a perfect example of the ways our too-rapid climate change is already leading to heart-wrenching loss. My biggest buffer against despair in times like these is not so different than the butterflies’—if you need me, I’ll be in the woods.

Check out this video by trip participant Jenny Minton to seem more amazing footage of our trip to Mexico!

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Monarch Magic

Air whooshed in and out of my lungs as we picked our way up the side of an old volcano on a narrow, rocky trail at 10,000 feet above sea level. This was the third day of the “Mexico: Mystical Migration of Monarchs” trip with twelve travelers from the Cable Natural History Museum, and the altitude was still a challenge.

Our butterfly reserve guide, Diego, identified Salvia flowers in a rainbow of scarlet, pink, and purple, dahlias in sunny yellow. They livened up the forest green—a novelty in December. Hummingbirds zipped from flower to flower, making the woods sound like summer, too. These flowers slowed our pace just enough to get my heart rate under control.

(I later identified these flowers from photos using iNaturalist)

A monarch perches on one of the vibrantly colored Salvia flowers in the oyamel fir forest. Photo by Emily Stone.

Bidens anthemoides

Narrow-leaved Ragwort

Mosquito Flower

Tree Tobacco

Fuchsia microphylla

When a craggy outcrop afforded us a view, the expanse of valley below stole my breath again. The furry green lap of our mountain spilled into the arid brown plain, and there rose a herd of more hazy little volcanoes, flat-topped or dimpled at their summits, erupting only with thick green forests and the possibility of butterflies.

From somewhere in the valley, fireworks boomed (there’s always something to celebrate, our guide shrugged), dogs barked, cows bellowed, roosters crowed, and engines growled uphill. While these sounds intruded on our nature buzz, they were important reminders that many people live among these mountains and rely on them for income, resources, and more. Our tourism dollars are part of that equation.

The trail leveled out, and we stepped into a sunny opening spiked with jagged, decorticated boles of wind-thrown trees. When an orange blur tracked across my vision I followed its path upward, and suddenly there was a dizzying frenzy of movement against the blue. Dozens of monarchs, their wings luminous filters of sun, traced wild paths across the sky while their shadows traced matching paths along the ground.

Then I remembered: monarchs are supposed to cluster on the trees. Looking past the swirling streaks of orange, I peered into the dark forest. Suddenly, I saw.

The oyamel fir branches didn’t droop low of their own accord. Instead, hundreds of butterflies—featherlight and delicate as individuals—became a weighty whole. Human hearts and fir trees both bowed in reverence to the mass of monarchs.

Every pair of gravity-defying wings, each metamorphosed body and magnetic navigational system is worthy of awe. But it is the collective action of an entire population that brought us here. Butterflies, and mariposas monarca specifically, live all over the globe. But no pollinator garden, no butterfly conservatory even comes close to hosting this many winged wonders. Somewhere in these clusters is every single surviving monarch born on our backyard milkweed. These volcanic mountains hold the most spectacular example of an insect migration we’ve ever encountered.

Snowflakes, I thought, incongruously. They are like the uncountable, unrepeatable snowflakes that alone are paragons of natural beauty and collectively make a blizzard that reshapes the forest.

And just like a heavy snowfall, if you can steady your breathing and get your heart to come down out of your ears, a phenomenon that at first seems silent becomes a rush of sound. Shhhhhhhhh…said hundreds of thousands of wings as they brushed against each other, the trees, and the sky.

Shhhhh…said our trip leader Daniel, and we fell into silent meditations. Each of us warmed in the sunlight until we, too, could float above it all, the air that cradled their wings also entering our lungs, a little of their magic dust coming with it. The scratching of pencils and the rustle of paper added to the quiet din as we listened, looked, smelled, and felt, recording words, impressions, and magic.

Daniel gathered those thoughts and wove them into a poem, his accent tilting the words like butterfly wings as he read it to us later:

soft light and soft whispers
shade shifting, sunlight through tides and flows
of orange wings

Pendulous branches - fluttering everywhere
amongst the lush green and piercing blue

Soft rustle, flying shadows
Sweetness of expanding valleys and soaring firs

smiles, awe, joy, gracious and loving
quiet still and spiritual awakening
tear drops of gratitude

Fireworks, rooster and motors, and yet...
golden silence
caught in timelessness

A gateway to feeling
to this home inside and out

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Butterflies, Pyramids, and Volcanoes in Mexico

Volcanoes welcomed us as we descended into Mexico City. Their mountainous, erosion-wrinkled forms were dark with trees. They rose like islands above the tangled web of roads, the fields of dry-season beige, and the rainbow rectangles of homes glinting in the arid sun. The haze of smog turned the distant ones to shades of gray.

Dominating the skyline, these peaks are part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt that spans across Central-Southern Mexico from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. They divide the country, and the continent, too. North of this belt you find black bears. South of it you find monkeys. And clinging to the peaks we find magic.

Geology has been on my brain lately, as the Museum’s Exhibit Committee develops a plan to teach the geologic history of Northern Wisconsin, but volcanoes weren’t the reason we traveled to Mexico. Instead, this group of thirteen Midwesterners had followed some old friends south—we came on a Museum-organized trip to visit our monarch butterflies in their winter retreat.

Each fall, one generation of monarchs emerges from their shimmering green chrysalids, senses the shortening days, cooling temperatures, and dying milkweed, and pauses their development. Instead of maturing, mating, laying eggs, and dying within weeks, they set off on a grand adventure. From all over eastern North America, a billion butterflies funnel down, feeding hungrily on flowers all through Texas, turning nectar into fat reserves.

A monarch sips nectar from a flower in El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary

Orange-and-black wings carry these tiny creatures south until they converge on a dozen mountains west of Mexico City in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Since the butterflies who migrate south are 3-4 generations removed from the ones who last overwintered in Mexico, scientists have long pondered their navigational skill. In the absence of thick clouds, the butterflies find their way using the Sun. New research shows that concentrations of the mineral magnetite in a monarch’s thorax may also help them sense the Earth’s magnetic field.

When our group arrived in the old mining town of Angangueo—which now bases its economy around butterfly tourism—we learned that the density of the silver, zinc, lead and copper concentrated by volcanoes, and sought in the mines, is probably “visible” in the local magnetic field. It’s no accident that las mariposas monarca and miners both congregate here.

Daniel and a local guide explain a mural in Angangueo that tells the town's history of boom and bust with the mines, and the current monarch tourism.

And once here, monarchs may have multiplied the effect. Most male butterflies die on the mountain tops after they mate, while the females carry the future north. Thirty-thousand years’ worth of composted monarchs have increased the concentration of magnetite in the soil, leaving signs for their descendants to follow.

This male butterfly (identified by the black dot on his lower wing) died on the mountain. 
Plenty of females die over the winter, too, but more females than males fly north in the spring before they die.

But while magnetism might be the “how,” it’s not the “why.” The cool, wet microclimate on the tops of these volcanic peaks, rising to 10,000 feet above the arid lowlands, is essential to butterfly survival. Cool temperatures, which rarely drop much below freezing, help the butterflies conserve their fat reserves. Clear springs and fog provide water to drink. Oyamel fir trees, which blanketed most of Mexico during the last ice age, find refuge there, too. Now their thick boughs protect monarchs from storms.

An oyamel fir twig -- very similar to balsam fir in Wisconsin!

“This is a sacred site,” our guide Daniel reminded us, as we approached the groves so thick with butterflies that the branches drooped. Monarch wings caught the sunlight and for a second my mind flashed to images in the news of glowing orange lava erupting from Mauna Loa. These butterflies even mimic the colors of volcanoes.

Branches droop under the weight of many monarchs.

On our way back down the trail, an opening in the trees offered a view across the valley. The flat-topped triangles of nearby volcanoes, hosting other winter monarch colonies, printed their distinctive shapes on the sky.

Lava-colored monarch butterflies float through a sunlit gap in Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, while across the valley another volcanic peak rises to hold more of these overwintering pilgrims in a favorable microclimate. Photo by Emily Stone.

That shape appeared again when we visited the pyramids of Teotihuacan. “This is a sacred site,” Daniel admonished once more, and our local guide pointed out that the pyramids seemed to echo the form of the nearest volcano. The building stones, too, were volcanic pumice filled with hardened air bubbles that make it lighter weight—a desirable characteristic when building giant structures by hand.

The Pyramid of the Moon in the ancient city of Teotihuacan is the second-largest pyramid in Mesoamerica. It was likely shaped to honor the volcano rising behind it. Photo by Emily Stone.

The last leg of my trip found me gazing out on a frozen Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior after I shuttled a participant home. I shook my head in wonder, realizing that this sacred place, too, was formed by ancient volcanoes.

Volcanoes are essential to our living Earth. Volcanic activity keeps our planet young and fresh by renewing the Earth’s crust and helping create our life-giving atmosphere. It’s no surprise, then, that at many a volcano someone will whisper, “this is a sacred site.”

So, although we didn’t set out on our trip to Mexico with the intention of visiting volcanoes, that seems to have been the result. Volcanoes provide shelter to butterflies, a model for pyramids, and inspiration to many cultures. And finally, their pull in the Lake Superior basin draws me home.

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Book review by Mariah Rogers

Published in the 2022 October November December issue of The Mycophile
North American Mycological Association

Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature Through Science and Your Senses Natural Connections 2: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer
by Emily Stone Cable Natural History Museum (2016, 2019) 293, 321 pages, respectively

Book Review by Mariah Rogers 

When Emily Stone writes of natural connections, she includes herself – and all of us – too. Senses and observations, facts and figures are caught in the prism of one woman’s awe, curiosity and delight, then cast out for us all to see. She is aware of her readers, and anticipates what of nature we most love to draw us in – and precisely what we have forgotten to notice – calling us back outdoors to experience it all over again. 

This is a true artist’s nature writing, kaleidoscopic visions rather than simple report. Any visual artist knows this process well. A shadow we first think of as black will not be black, but indigo, even if cast by a chanterelle that is a bright yellow onto a verdant forest floor. This same appreciation for our senses, both external and imaginative, sets Natural Connections apart. 

Emily Stone is a naturalist and educator deeply engaged in her community. This engagement is present in those who support and those who most benefit from her writing. When her first book was published, locals and friends chipped in so printing costs were covered and all proceeds would directly benefit the Cable Natural History Museum (CNHM). 

Our mycological community has become a part of this network. Many of you met Stone at the 2017 NAMA Annual Foray or helped benefit CNHM this past year at our WMS/ NAMA 2022 Northwoods Regional Foray in those same exceptional Northwoods. 

The books are compilations of the author’s freely available works, published in newspapers and on her blog. They are gifts you can use to share her work far and wide, without any cost limiting that generosity. Still, many qualities recommend the printed books – the arrangement of the pieces, the tangibility of the paper copies, and the inclusion of many illustrations by children inspired by nature and the stories Stone tells. 

These illustrations are of particular interest to the parent, guardian or teacher for their capacity to engage children who may be too young for a chapter-book otherwise. Finding their colleagues with drawings in print inspires kids to draw along to the stories, too. The effect is not limited by age. When reading Stone’s work, I was moved to begin writing regularly again and to pull out old notebooks to sketch without a plan or purpose beyond my experience of that moment within nature. 

Being relatively recently published, with a following principally situated in the not-so-populated north, these books are not nearly as well-known as they rightly should be. I was unable to find them in my local library system in Milwaukee County. That can change; I have now recommended them to my local librarians, and to all of you. 

This is not to say Natural Connections are not widely appreciated! Natural Connections 2: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer won best book in the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s 2020 Excellence in Craft Contest. 

When you navigate to the Cable Natural History Museum website, where the Natural Connections books can be ordered (, you are also provided with Wisconsin and Minnesota bookstores carrying her works. Exploring the site further, there is a podcast of freely available audiobook chapters ( and the author’s blog ( with photos and videos accompanying the writing. With each book purchase, an author’s signature and personal inscription is available on request. 

As mycologists, we are fond of referencing the mycelium to speak of the wisdom of branching, distributed networks, and so many connections you can barely keep count. Emily Stone’s writing and our own personal practices with nature writing, art and phenology take us on the cycles and leaps we need to think like an ecosystem, create like an ecosystem, and move like one too.

Such kind words! Thank you, Mariah! -- Emily

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Bear Tracks and Cold Toes

Note: This article was originally published in 2018

As usual, my toes were cold. So, I hopped off my fat bike and began jogging down the trail beside it instead, trying to wiggle warmth back into my feet. Crunch, crunch, crunch, I ground icy snow under my boots with every step. The day before had been well above freezing, and the briefly slushy snow was now even more solid.

I was keeping an eye on the edge of the trail when my foot landed next to the track of a larger foot. This wasn’t just some deer hunter’s big snow boot. This wide track showed five toes. And claws.

Black bear!

I looked into the woods behind the track. Then I glanced across to the other side of the trail. More tracks scuffed the snow and headed down a steep bank toward a wetland. My urge to follow the tracks was strong, but these were big tracks. Somewhere at the end of the trail was a big bear. I examined them more closely. The bottom of each track was compressed and translucent—obviously made in the previous day’s slush. A sprinkling of snow pellets filled the depressions made by heel, ball, toes, and claws. These tracks were at least 24 hours old.

Cautiously I pushed through twiggy balsam firs and followed the trail downhill. Big, punchy tracks continued across the hummocks of the still-damp marsh. Not wanting to get my already cold feet wet, I turned back.

Besides “how close is he?” the main question on my mind was, “why was he still awake?” Bears should be hibernating right now, shouldn’t they?

Scientists think that hibernation is usually triggered by a combination of weather and lack of food. For example, one researcher observed that the final den entry often occurs during a snowstorm so that fresh snow will hide any signs that could lead unwanted guests to the sleeping bear.

A hibernating bear’s breathing slows significantly, from 40 breaths per minute down to eight. This is matched by a 50-60 percent reduction their metabolic rate. Nevertheless, bears’ huge bulk and thick fur enable them to stay within 12 degrees Fahrenheit of their normal 100-degree body temperature. A den’s small opening, snug fit, and a layer of duff on the floor also help them retain heat, although solo bears are commonly found hibernating in relatively unprotected places as well. Mother bears, on the other hand, are much more likely to stay put in snug dens while their cubs are born.

The definition of hibernation itself has been evolving over the years as scientists learn more about the winter physiology of bears and other hibernators. While it used to focus on animals who show a significant drop in body temperature, the emphasis is now on a specialized, seasonal reduction in metabolism concurrent with scarce food and cold weather. What’s more, scientists recognize that hibernation is on a continuum with the short-term bouts of decreased activity known as torpor. Not only have bears been restored to their place of esteem as hibernators, but many scientists consider them super hibernators.

What happens, though, when there is shallow snow and plenty of food? After I mentioned those big tracks to a couple of biologists, they shared their own recent bear-track-sightings, and hypothesized about the cause.

First, adult male bears use shallower dens, or even den above ground. This makes them more prone to disturbance, especially with the light snow cover and some mild days. Deer hunters may have awakened the bears. In addition, both bait piles of corn and gut piles from harvested deer may have been providing bears with a source of food that convinced them to stay awake.

Two recent scientific studies support those hypotheses. In Russia, researchers found that when warmer temperatures occurred near their brown bears’ typical den entry and den exit dates, the length of their hibernation was shortened. The scientists are worried that this might make it harder for the bears to cope with climate change.

Closer to home, near Durango, Colorado, researchers found that both warmer temperatures and increased food availability impact the timing of when black bears enter and exit their dens. One downside is that this lengthens the bears’ active period—and increases the portion of the year when they could come into conflict with humans.

That’s a concern I share. I eagerly await the first good snow so that I can safely hang my bird feeders. I’m also not used to being bear-aware during my winter activities. As fun as it was to see those tracks, I’m very glad that they weren’t fresh. As I hopped back on my fat bike for the slog home, I just had to wonder—were his toes cold, too?

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Woodpeckers Moving North

On a sunny afternoon at the end of October, I motored slowly out the gravel driveway of the Forest Lodge Estate. I was smiling to myself about wonderful discussions and progress made at the Natural Connections Writing Workshop (you’ve recently read two essays by students of that workshop!) when a flash of color caught my eye. The bright red head and finely barred back was unmistakable: a red-bellied woodpecker!

I’m very familiar with this medium-sized woodpecker from growing up in Iowa. They frequented the feeders at our house in the middle of a restored prairie, and their high-pitched squawky call echoed from the nearby forest. As a middle schooler, their calls reminded me of the distinctive laugh of a certain cute boy in my class. Sometimes hearing it still makes me laugh!

Red-bellied woodpeckers may use our bird feeders to help them survived extra-cold days as they move north even faster than winter warms. Photo by Larry Stone.

While downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers are all common in my new, Up North home, I can’t remember if I’d ever seen a red-bellied, or have just heard occasional reports of others seeing them. But just a few weeks after the writing workshop, a thunk made me look up, as a bird bigger than a chickadee landed at the feeder suction-cupped to my bedroom window (out of reach of bears). Was this the same red-bellied that I’d seen in Forest Lodge?

One of the benefits of my little window feeder is that I get to see birds at odd angles. As the woodpecker clung to the plastic tray, his tail curved way underneath in search of a hard surface to brace against. Woodpeckers use stiff tailfeathers like a kickstand for balance. This awkward position gave me a clear view of his belly, where his namesake splotch of pale red feathers was visible.

Those red feathers are subtle, and not obvious from all angles. The name of this creature is a throwback to an era when birds were “collected” by shooting, and described with a dead body in-hand. As a result, these are one of the most confusing birds for beginners to identify. With the neon-red head of the male, which on the female is shifted back to be just a red nape, red-headed woodpecker seems like a better name. The problem is that moniker already belongs to another bird who deserves it—another bird on a different trajectory.

Red-headed woodpeckers have declined by more than 50% since 1966, and red-bellied woodpeckers have seen a dramatic range expansion from central Wisconsin to southern Ontario since 1950. Similarly, Northern cardinals, Carolina wrens and tufted titmice have all been shifting their ranges northward in recent decades, with warming winters blamed as a driving force behind the shift and access to bird feeders helping them along.

A habitat modeling study done by researchers associated with the Department of Ornithology at the New York State Museum, revealed something else about the movement of the woodpeckers, though.

Red-bellied woodpeckers aren’t just expanding north into areas that now have the milder winter temperatures they are used to. The birds are expanding beyond their previous comfort zone and have somehow adapted to survive colder winters. I can relate. The climate hasn’t quite warmed enough to make winters in Northern Wisconsin comparable to the weather I grew up with in Iowa, but I’ve tweaked my wardrobe and thickened my blood enough to make the cold survivable.

I’ve also gotten bigger, since growing from a child into an adult. Having a larger body size is an advantage in colder climates, with less surface area per volume to result in heat loss. Decades ago, red-bellied woodpeckers near the northern edge of their range were larger than their southern counterparts. This makes ecological sense, and is an example of “Bergmann’s Rule.” Surprisingly, though, the researchers found that the woodpeckers who are at the forefront of their current range expansion aren’t the big ones. They must have figured out other ways to survive the cold.

Just like we might use cookies and hot soup to get us through subzero days, the woodpeckers benefit from extra food at our backyard bird feeders, which they’ve been recorded visiting more frequently on the coldest days.

Some of their expansion seems to be tied to habitat more than temperature. While I’ve had to get used to the closed-in feel of thick forests after a childhood spent gazing over rolling hills of corn, the woodpeckers have expanded their range from forests into open farmland.

Whatever the details, red-bellied woodpeckers are an excellent example of how generalist species can be adaptable in the face of climate change. That’s no reason to stop trying to slow the warming of our winters, but just like their flashy red head, it’s a bright spot on the landscape.

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

November Child by guest writer JoAnn Malek

[JoAnn Malek is a long-time Museum member and a recent participant in the Natural Connections Writing Workshop. JoAnn has graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. It touches on realities we all must face at some point—for ourselves and our loved ones--and I’m excited to share it with you this week. –Emily Stone]

I am a November child. The bare bones of empty trees have always fascinated me.

After the leaves finished falling each year, and after I grew tired of jumping in the rustling piles, I looked upward to admire the bare trees. Some are long and straight and stretch upward. Other gnarled tree trunks send out crooked branches every which way. Some form Vs over and over again, just the way I liked to draw them.

These days I look out on a mesh of straight twigs or a labyrinth of curlicues. Every so often the bright white of a birch shines, stretching tall among neighboring hardwoods to sprout branches reaching for the Sun. Some trees who were connected at the base have grown apart, a melancholy reminder of me and my siblings. The many patterns captivate me.

When a tree topples, and underground growth is exposed, we see another kind of pattern. In some we find the broken taproot that was reaching far into the ground, providing needed anchorage, collecting water and nutrients, and storing reserved foods. The plant sends out a maze of lateral roots near the surface. In my garden, placed where trees once stood, I battled these lateral roots as they spread far and wide

Until recently I did not know that the trees I love to look at are able to connect with one another through their roots. Some species have fungal connections known as the mycorrhizal network. Trees can recognize their relatives. They can detect poor health in the network. Saplings rely on sugars from older trees in order to survive in the shade. Elders receive support when necessary. Trees of all ages supply additional nutrients to the ones in need.

In a forest I frequent there is a section dominated by maple trees. A few large “grandmas” are surrounded by many younger trees of different sizes. When I visit in autumn, the whole area is enclosed with a warm golden aura, even on the greyest of days. I, too, hope to create a warm golden aura around my family. I have fed them as they’ve grown, and now they support me, too.

Fallen trees, once strong and beautiful, bring to mind my dear Jim. The photo on my dresser pictures him at the end of the 1995 World Masters Marathon in Buffalo, N.Y., muscles straining, face taut. Jim was broken by Parkinson’s disease; he’s already gone (“can it be?”) nine years. Other trees in the forest, damaged and leaning, bring sad thoughts of friends struggling with physical challenges and their fears.

Our country and culture seem to celebrate independence and autonomy, but we must acknowledge the roots that connect us. Our rootedness in the past. Our relationships. Our faith in higher powers. Our care for the Earth and all that surrounds us. We need one another in thousands of physical ways, but also spiritually and emotionally. Only the rare individual can survive intact when separated from fellow humans.

As I venture through the November of my life, I treasure memories of role models in my family tree. I am honored by a large--even growing--network of friends. I am blessed with a strong root system and the ability to appreciate patterns my life etches on the grey November sky.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Guest writer JoAnn Malek contemplates the shapes of trees in all seasons.
Photo by N. Deegan. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Not a Lowly Lichen

More than a dozen tiny arms reached into the darkness. Clawed tips shone white and their lengths glowed an eerie blue in the beam of my UV flashlight.

Spooky though they were, the tiny arms belong to one of the most common lichens I see growing on the ground here in the Northwoods. These lichens, in the genus Peltigera, are part of some pretty amazing events in the history of lichens.

Lichens on the whole are incredible. Each lichen is a symbiotic relationship between a species of fungus—who gives the lichen both their structure and their name—and another partner, like algae, who can photosynthesize. Together, they can live on bare rock, dead tree branches, old rusted-out cars abandoned in the woods, and much more. Nutrients come from the wind and rain. They create sugars from water and air.

One of the main jobs of the fungus in this partnership is to keep the lichen from blowing away (unless they are a tumbleweed lichen on the tundra…). Toward this end, many leaf-like (foliose) lichens grab on to a substrate with little root-like rhizines that emerge from their lower surface. In some species of lichens, these rhizines exude acids that make minerals more accessible to the entire food web, including you. In Peltigera lichens, these rhizines glow eerily in UV light and look like a little Halloween diorama of disembodied arms nestled in the mossy bank of my driveway.

The glowing isn’t unusual—many lichens fluoresce in UV light—but the fact that the rhizines attach the lichen’s leaf-like thallus to the ground and not to a twig or rock is different than most of the lichens I see. That’s one of the ways I recognize Peltigera.

Their color is another clue. While many lichens on twigs and rocks are pale green, bright orange, or sunny yellow, Peltigera’s color scheme is straight out of the hiking pants section of the L.L. Bean catalogue: khaki, mineral gray, storm gray, deep olive, and emerald spruce. A lichen’s colors are a result of the interplay between the fungus, the photosynthesizer, and additional partners like yeasts or bacteria who have joined the party.

Drab though they may be, these lichens, growing in ruffled mats on lumpy ground, are fertilizing the forest. That’s because their partnership includes cyanobacteria. Commonly called a blue-green algae, these bacteria can not only form sugars through photosynthesis, they can also fix nitrogen from the air. That nitrogen becomes part of the lichen until rainwater carries some of it into the soil, and decomposition releases the rest of it once the lichen dies. Peltigera lichens, growing on the ground, are essentially Nature’s slow-release fertilizer pods.

Nostoc is the most common cyanobacterium in Peltigera lichens, and it can also occur outside of lichens in the environment, where it looks like dark green jelly on the ground. Because Nostoc is pretty much invisible until a rain, people have imagined it to be snot that has fallen from the sky, and named it appropriately: star jelly, troll’s butter, and spit of the moon. Its scientific name is a combination of the nos from nostril, and the German word for nose hole.

Despite being a little gross, Nostoc isn’t the main culprit behind the toxic blue-green algae blooms that are becoming more common in lakes.

There’s a little joke about lichens that goes “Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a lichen to each other…” In this case, that first blind date between Freddy Fungus and Cynthia Cyanobacteria set in motion a whole host of things, including 1,200 new species of lichens and all of Peltigera’s relatives. Recently, a Peltigera became one of the first three lichens ever selected for genome sequencing.

While Freddy and Alice’s (or Cynthia’s) relationship has been a very beneficial marriage, the fact that lichens are made up of at least two different species of completely different organisms means that reproduction can be a challenge. The Peltigera lichens on my driveway have little brown appendages at the tips of their ruffled leaves. These inspire the common name “dog-tooth lichen.” They are the reproductive structure of the fungus only, and will release fungal spores who need to re-associate with a cyanobacterium to form a new lichen. Nostoc are quite common, but this does involve some risk!

Other types of lichens create wart-like lumps called soredia that contain both the fungus and the cyanobacteria or algae together, ready to take on the world. Handily, most lichens can also grow a new individual from a broken chunk of the original.

If you can find them, don’t let the drab, ground-hugging forms of Peltigera lichens fool you. They are essential forest fertilizers, role models for partnership, and even contain the spit of the moon.

Emily’s award-winning 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. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.