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.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

The Night Gliders

[Danielle Spak participated in my recent Natural Connections Writing Workshop. She graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. –Emily Stone]

A note from Danielle: Connecting with nature has been a central theme in my life throughout 2022. This spring, I planted my very first garden and deepened my knowledge of the plant world. Hiking portions of the Ice Age Trail and foraging for wild edibles dominated my summer. I completed my Master Naturalist training at the beautiful Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary in Sarona in August. Attending the Natural Connections Writing Workshop with Emily Stone this October was an incredible learning opportunity that taught me how to combine my passions for writing and nature and craft this essay on a particular critter I adore!

The flash of a white, furry belly soars over my head. It is luminous against the backdrop of the nighttime sky. I duck as another small form soars past me with all four legs extended in flight, like a tiny caped superhero. A shrill, high-pitched warning squeak blasts from the pine tree beside me. As a heavy cloak of black velvet envelopes the evening and I round the last bend of my walk, the flying squirrels descend and commence their nightly plunder of my bird feeders.

Contrary to what their name suggests, flying squirrels don't fly: they glide. This action is called volplaning, and if rodents had superpowers, this would be the flying squirrel’s. These little "P.M. Paratroopers" have a loose flap of skin between their front and hind legs called a patagium that allows them to glide through the air, sometimes more than 150 feet!

They also have a small cartilaginous projection on the wrist, called a styliform process, that helps them widen the extension of the patagium and enhance their flight. As if these aerial adaptations weren’t fascinating enough, flying squirrels also have a flattened tail that is used as a brake, allowing the squirrel to slow down for a precise and graceful landing. Their huge, saucer-like eyes facilitate night vision.

The long, flat tail of a northern flying squirrels is used like a brake to facilitate precise and graceful landings. Photo by Larry Master, USFWS.

Before moving to the remote woods of northern Wisconsin, I had never seen a flying squirrel. Apparently, I am not alone. According to the DNR, the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is a Special Concern species in Wisconsin, and sightings are relatively rare. Their nocturnal nature heightens the challenge of observing one up close.

This summer, though, once I adopted a new ritual of an "after-dark walk" on the trails around my home, an entirely new universe revealed itself to me. One that is vibrant, active, and alive while the rest of the world slumbers.

There is a nocturnal symphony that accompanies the pulse of nature when the Sun goes down: the yipping excitement of the neighborhood coyote pack; the haunting hoots of the barred owls that station themselves around our woodshed, waiting for the misstep of an unfortunate mouse; the delicate, ballet-like stepping of deer in the high grass of the field before they bed down; the high-frequency staccato chirps of the flying squirrels as they launch themselves from the tall pines and effortlessly scale the side of the silo.

These nightly observances connect me to the circadian rhythm of wildlife.

Although the flying squirrels drain my birdfeeders with vacuum-like efficiency each night, I cannot help but cherish these charismatic, round-eyed critters and feel some degree of stewardship for them, especially as the season transitions into winter.

Flying squirrels do not hibernate. Instead, they reduce their metabolic rate and body temperature to conserve energy; a physiological state called torpor. And, as if these cartoonish little rodents couldn't get any more adorable, they also snuggle together in small groups called “cuddle puddles” to keep warm in cold weather. So, who would blame me for occasionally leaving small treats of fatty nuts and dried fruit out for them?

Being in darkness is not the preferred state of most humans. We rely so heavily on our sense of sight to safely navigate that darkness is often the catalyst for feelings of vulnerability and fear. I am in awe of the animals who embrace the dark and have adapted to survive when the veil of day melts into night. They have taught me that there is so much to “see” in the world around us in the absence of light.

Guest writer Danielle Spak

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 3, 2022

Spongy Moth Discovery

A dozen yellow aspen leaves, each with a single trapezoid of green still vibrant on the blade, fluttered to the ground. I’d just been sharing one of my favorite fall stories with sixth graders from Washburn Elementary School on a field trip to their school forest. They’d each picked up a yellow and green leaf and examined it closely.

We saw how a tiny moth larvae lives inside the leaf petiole, just below the blade, and nibbles on the green chlorophyll. Although the moth is not native to North America, the trees are not significantly harmed by these small acts of late-season parasitism. Non-native species aren’t always so benign.

I was about to move on down the trail when a couple of students started exclaiming about a tree trunk. A chestnut-colored husk hung there in a bit of a brownish web; tufts of golden hairs erupted from the segments. It looked like an empty pupa, where an insect had metamorphosed and emerged as an adult. “It’s one of those invasive things,” someone exclaimed. Emerald ash borer popped into my head, but these were aspens not ashes. “No, the moth!” a girl clarified. “And look, that’s their eggs!”

A mystery case hung on the tree...Photo by Emily Stone.

Squinting up to where she pointed, I saw a fuzzy, tan-colored lump on the pale tree. “Looks like a fungus to me,” I guessed, before waving everyone down the trail.

Later, I uploaded the snapshot of the pupal case to iNaturalist. When I saw the top ID suggestion, I smacked my forehead. The mystery and the egg mass were from spongy moths—the terribly invasive insect previously called a gypsy moth—just as the two girls had been trying to tell me. “Do you know how the students knew about the spongy moth? Have you been talking about them in class?” I asked the teachers in an email. Personally, I’ve been ignoring the headlines about them, which is why I didn’t recognize these two life stages.

This time of year, spongy moths are preparing to overwinter in egg masses attached to trees. The moth spends 75% of their life cycle in the egg stage. Scraping these egg masses into the trash is a control measure appropriate for late fall. Photo by Wisconsin DNR.

“Two of my students have these moths all over trees at their houses,” wrote back Ms. Van Der Puy. “They climbed up into a tree and found what they are calling a “nest,” proceeded to poke it, which cause ‘tons of eggs to fall out.’ They were super intrigued by this, so they went in and looked it up. And THAT is how they knew about the spongy moth.”

I asked Ms. Van Der Puy to tell the girls that I’d learned something from them on the field trip. Then I called Paul Cigan, Plant Pest & Disease Specialist for the Wisconsin DNR.

Paul gladly took my call, because the northern parts of Douglas, Bayfield, and Ashland counties are experiencing a severe outbreak of spongy moths. These two girls’ homes are in the epicenter! And it’s not over yet.

The adult moths are not the problem. They don’t feed at all. The female sits on a tree wafting pheromones into the breeze. Those scent chemicals are so strong, that if you squash her with your shoe, you’ll attract a horde of male moths, too.

A male flies to her, they mate, and she lays a pile of eggs with a spongy consistency. It’s appropriate that the insects are named for their egg stage, because that’s how they spend 75% of their life cycle. Those eggs can endure negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and like so many critters in the subnivean zone, they are insulated by the snowpack when they are attached near the base of the tree. Milder temperatures near Lake Superior also increase survival.

In May, as new leaves unfold, caterpillars hatch from the eggs and begin feeding. For five to six weeks they eat. And eat. And strip every leaf down to its veins. While spongy moth caterpillars can eat more than 300 species of deciduous and evergreen trees, oaks and aspens are their main targets in northern Wisconsin. Healthy trees can survive, but this summer ended with a drought, so more trees might succumb to the stress of having all their leaves nibbled off.

Next spring the caterpillars will emerge anew, for what Paul hopes will be the last year of a major infestation. Then there will be little left to eat, and the caterpillars themselves will start falling prey to more dangers. A cool, wet spring would be helpful, Paul told me. That weather means more caterpillars die of fungal and viral infections. Who would have thought we’d be cheering for a virus?

In addition, non-stinging, parasitic wasps—introduced in 1908 to help control the moths—lay their own eggs in the moths’ egg masses. Wasp larvae eat the moth eggs.

Predators on the moths’ various life stages include a long list of beetles, flies, stinkbugs, spiders, harvestmen, ants, chipmunks, shrews, voles, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, cuckoos, orioles, robins, crows, nuthatches, blue jays, and even my beloved chickadees peck at egg masses.

Spongy moth caterpillars are covered in irritating hairs, and larger ones hide at the base of trees during the day. This makes them challenging to eat, but deer mice will skin and gut them before feasting.

Unfortunately, natural predators aren’t able to control spongy moths on their own. At this time of year, you can help by scraping the eggs masses off your trees and putting every last one into soapy water and then the trash.

If you need help identifying spongy moths on your trees, I know of a couple sixth graders who are already experts!

In addition, the University of Wisconsin Extension has handy references on their website, and experts are available to give advice at the Spongy Moth Hotline, (800) 642-MOTH, or

Eggs are visible at the top of this spongy moth egg mass. 

This photo is from the middle of the process of scraping an egg mass off the tree. Ew!

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, October 27, 2022

What the North Wind Swirls

It’s hard to know where to look at this stage of fall. Bursts of color still shine from tamarack swamps and groves of oaks. Bedrock outcrops, old foundations, and other bits of history are peeking through the bare trunks of “see-through” season. And dry leaves dance ahead of the breeze, tickling our eyes for attention.

Among those leaves are little dancers who don’t need wind to help them fly. Flocks of dark-eyed juncos and snow buntings have arrived from the far north. They will help animate our landscape now that the warblers, vireos, hawks and other friends have left.

Some folks call juncos “snowbirds,” because their plumage imitates the winter color scheme of dark skies above and white snow below. Here, in their overwintering habitat of the lower 48, they also seem to bring the snow with them as they move south each fall.

“Like the chiming of myriad crystal bells, a flock of juncos was gossiping among the branches. Their notes were so fragile and unbelievably pure they seemed to float on the air.” – Lois Nestel. Photo by Emily Stone.

Dark-eyed juncos breed across Canada. The northern forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota are at the southern edge of their mid-continent breeding habitat, and we sometimes see a few juncos through the summer. You can identify them by the flash of white on their outer tail feathers as they fly away. The real influx comes when the leaves begin to fall, as juncos head south to their winter range.

Under the feeders, along roadsides, and in open areas, juncos will forage by hopping, scratching, and pecking at the leaf litter, and flying up to glean food from low twigs and grasses. By eating ragweed, crabgrass, and pigweed seeds in the winter, and insects in the summer, juncos help keep pests under control.

And they make eating weeds look fun. These sparrow-sized birds sometimes land on the top of a grass stem and use their 25-gram bodyweight (the equivalent of 25 paperclips) to “ride” it to the ground. From there, they can stand on the seed head and feed more easily.

Dominance hierarchies in winter flocks mean that females get chased off food when there are too many males around. As a result, females tend to migrate farther south. There’s another reason for the difference in their preferred winter latitudes. Males will risk harsher weather in order to get a jump start on spring migration and arrive first at prime breeding territories. When the females arrive a little later, they get to select a nest site within the territory of the male they choose.

While juncos get the nickname “snowbirds,” snow buntings take that idea to the extreme. There is no apparent northern limit to their breeding range, and they have the ability to spend the winter farther north than almost any other bird.

While snowshoe hares turn white for the winter, snow buntings add brown and spend the season with rusty patches on their feathers. It helps them blend in on the bare fields and among the grass stems where they feed in the United States (eating more ragweed seeds, thank you!). By April, that color has worn off to reveal pure white plumage that will match their still-snowy Arctic breeding habitat.

This female snow bunting blends in well with the mix of snow, bare ground, and dry grasses on her wintering habitat. Photo by Charles J Homler via Wikimedia Commons.

Just like juncos, the winter habits of male snow buntings are dictated by their need to return early to claim a breeding territory. Since snow buntings nest in deep cracks and cavities in rocks to avoid predators, their nesting sites are limited. Not going too far south and arriving early back north to claim one is essential.

Nests in those cold rocks must be lined with fur and feathers, and the eggs incubated almost constantly. Males are attentive, and bring food to their mate every 15 minutes.

While it may seem excessive for snow buntings to endure such cold, their breeding is carefully timed so that chicks are hungriest right when insects are most plentiful. Hard winters seem to keep this timing well-matched. Counterintuitively, warm springs that shift breeding earlier produce a mismatch with their food source. Studies show that nestling weight declines.

“Those lovely little wraiths, the snow buntings,” wrote Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding director and naturalist, as she detailed the beauty of winter in the Northwoods. Of juncos, she wrote: “… I was greeted with one of the woodland’s loveliest sounds. Like the chiming of myriad crystal bells, a flock of juncos was gossiping among the branches. Their notes were so fragile and unbelievably pure they seemed to float on the air.”

As the swirling dance of these two snowbirds livens up the roadsides of fall, I’m grateful that they make the Northwoods their winter home.

Author’s Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from 2015.

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, October 20, 2022

Shades of Rot and Life

In the dim light, under the thick, hardwood canopy of the forest in Fox River Park, Waukesha, death was everywhere.

Autumn leaves carpeted the ground in shades of brown and yellow, with occasional splashes of blood red. Snags stood among the living trees, their decorticated (a fancy term for bark-less) trunks smooth and dry. And long stripes of rusty brown crumbles marked where fallen logs were melting into the ground.

Of course, life was everywhere, too.

Beside the wide, dirt trail, a ruffle of turkey tail fungus cascaded down the graceful curve of a tree trunk like an earth-toned ball gown: a damsel of decay. While the volume of fungal frills—each with a velvety top, concentric bands of color, and tiny pores in the white undersurface—was impressive, the bulk of the being was hidden inside. Intertwined among the wood cells, hidden from view, the fine, white threads of hyphae (the actual body of a fungus) were hard at work. The tree itself was dead, and yet still full of life.

Turkey tails are a white-rot fungus, which means that they have the ability to decompose the major components of a tree. That’s not easy. Wood is tough because the cellulose and lignin molecules it’s made of are long chains of elements that are difficult to break apart. Lignin in particular gives wood its strength.

Do you remember learning about enzymes in your high school science class? I chewed on a saltine cracker until it became sweet. Enzymes in my mouth broke down the long chains of starches until they became glucose, a simple sugar. In a similar, but external process, fungi exude a series of enzymes into the wood, and those enzymes split the chemical bonds of cellulose and lignin, resulting in shorter chains of glucose. The sugar dissolves in water, and fungal hyphae absorb it directly through their cell walls. Carbon dioxide is released to the air.

Because turkey tail and other white-rot fungi break down cellulose and lignin simultaneously but leave some of the cellulose for last, the wood they work on becomes soft, white, and stringy. A large portion of the nutrients once trapped in the wood become available to cycle through the ecosystem again. Bacteria jump in to use those nutrients, paper wasps turn the soft wood into nests, and moose can even eat wood softened by artist's conk fungi.

The next day, I headed back along that same trail with a group of Master Naturalists doing an activity called a Professor Hike. I picked a student with a sense of humor, stationed her by a stump, and made her a duct tape name tag that read: Professor Brown Cubical Butt Rot. “This isn’t a disease caused by too much time in an office chair,” I joked. The name is real, and quite descriptive.

As the Professor explained to her classmates, this tree stump was being decomposed by a brown-rot fungus. Unlike the turkey tail, some fungi can only decompose the cellulose in wood cells, and the lignin left behind is brown. The fungus typically affects the bottom of a tree trunk, which in forester and logger lingo is the “butt.” But the cubical part of the name is most interesting.

Brown-rot fungi send hydrogen peroxide rapidly diffusing through the wood of a tree. The chemical modifies lignin just enough to get at the cellulose also in the cell walls and snips apart the long chains of cellulose into carbohydrates. Two days later, once the destructive peroxides have dissipated, enzymes finish the job of turning the carbohydrates into sugar. The fungus absorbs it.

The process works more quickly than the totally enzyme-dependent decomposition by white-rot fungi, but leaves all the lignin on the table. The lignin-rich wood turns brown, shrinks, and cracks into roughly cubical pieces. Hence the name, brown cubical butt rot. The “professor” bragged about her name all day—accidentally teaching about decomposition along the way.

We’re often tempted to turn everything into a competition. Are white-rot fungi superior because they can break down lignin? Or are brown-rot fungi better because they can work more quickly? In fact, the first to arrive often has the advantage. And when the two types of fungi compete directly on the same log, brown-rot fungi win the short game by being able to access the energy in cellulose quickly, while white-rot fungi play the long game as they slowly access more of the energy stored in the wood.

In the end, the ecosystem wins. The rusty colored crumbles of brown-rot fungi contribute to healthy soils with more capacity to hold moisture and nutrients. White-rot fungi, and especially competition between several different types of fungi, results in a tree being more thoroughly recycled and the materials becoming available for new growth. Humans are also treated to delicious meals when the fungi fruit. My favorite—chicken of the woods—is a brown-rot fungus. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms; plus the medical turkey tails, are all white-rotters.

Lignin and cellulose; brown and white; death and life. In the end, they aren’t all that different.

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, October 13, 2022

Stories Buzzing in a Wasp Nest

A colorful crew of Master Naturalists in my “Finding the Stories in Nature” workshop trickled out of the picnic shelter at Fox River Park near Waukesha, WI, and regathered next to a spruce tree on the lawn. “Here’s your first challenge,” I told them. “What stories do you see?”

A few students came closer and poked at the papery gray remains of a bald-faced hornet nest in the tree. They observed the torn bottom of the once-oval shell, and the way the spruce needles poked up through the paper where the nest encompassed the twig. Someone pointed a tentative toe at the circle of dead brown grass directly below the nest, and reached out as if to touch the paper disc of honeycomb that had come to rest on a lower branch.

“Well,” one student began tentatively, “someone sprayed it.”

I nodded encouragingly, watching their gears turn, and then jumped in to share the ideas that had been churning in my own head.

“I see a story of fear,” I began.

Someone noticed the nest—too close to the picnic shelter—or maybe a visitor complained about a wasp attracted to their sugary drink. (Bald-faced hornets are technically wasps, not true hornets.) Worried about severe allergies, or even just some painful stings, someone decided that the risk was too great, and the nest couldn’t stay.

A park maintenance person took a can of insecticide off the shelf, and drove over in their truck to take care of the problem. It looks like they sprayed, and then tore open the bottom of the nest, and then sprayed some more. The surrounding spruce needles turned brown. The grass turned brown. And all that remains of the dozens of bald-faced hornets in the colony are two mummified bodies caught in the act of crawling toward the exit.

“I also see a story of life,” I continued.

Last fall, at about this time, a new queen emerged from her colony, found a drone from another colony, and mated. The male drone died, while the new queen burrowed into the soft wood of a rotten log and hunkered down for the winter. Glycerol in her cells kept the sharp crystals of ice at bay.

Last spring, the queen emerged and began to build her colony. With strong jaws, she scraped up soft fibers of rotting wood, mixed them with her own saliva, and formed them into a small disk of honeycomb-shaped cells and an outer shell of paper. (This outer shell makes it easy to tell her nest from that of a paper wasp. Their nests leave the hexagonal cells exposed.)

Our bald-faced hornet queen laid her first set of eggs (fertilized with the help of that short-lived drone last fall), then fed her larvae chewed up caterpillars until they were ready to pupate. Twenty-five days after the eggs were laid, the queen finally had subjects to command. She retired to the nest to continue laying eggs while her daughters ventured out to hunt caterpillars and gather paper-making supplies. As the colony grew, they enlarged the nest by transferring material from the inside to the outside.

“I also see a story about risk and reward,” I add. Autumn is when wasps become gamblers. If the queen is too quick in laying the unfertilized eggs that will become male drones, and initiates the formation of new queens too soon, the colony may not reproduce to its fullest capacity. Maybe the colony could have gotten just a little bigger and made just a few more new queens to carry on their genes…

On the other hand, if the queen waits too long, hard frost may kill the whole colony before the new queens can mate and burrow safely into a hibernaculum. The new queens are their hope for the future—the old queen, the drones, and the rest of the colony are doomed to frost no matter what.

Killed by chemicals instead of frost, these bald-faced hornets are frozen in the entry way to their nest. Photo by Emily Stone 

“What other stories do you see?” I posed again to the group, and we returned to talking about fear. One after another, members of the group shared their personal stories of being stung, being chased, and being scared.

Aggression is part of the insect’s story. At any given time, bald-faced hornets have dozens of tender, energy-rich eggs, larvae, and pupae squirreled away in their nest. The colony also contains a significant number of workers whose job goes beyond providing food and shelter to protecting the nest from hungry bears, foraging skunks, and scared humans. More than 99% of wasp species are solitary, with a single female laying eggs and provisioning the larvae all by herself. Those species are rarely aggressive.

Finally, an artist in the group peered closer and admired the shades of gray layered in subtle stripes and swirls. Red-eyed vireos like this material, too, and often incorporate scraps of wasp paper into their own nests, a type of tricky camouflage meant to deter potential nest predators.

From death, to life, to other lives, this nest had tales to tell. “Good work,” I told the Master Naturalists as I motioned toward the woods. “Now let’s go find some more stories!”

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, October 6, 2022

Firefly Fall

Signs of fall were abundant during my recent trip to the Boundary Waters. As I wrote last week, my cousin and I saw flickers, warblers, loons, and geese on migration; and swans eating wild rice. Another sign of the season was that we had a campfire every night.

Maybe some of you would have nightly campfires during a muggy July trip when the mosquitoes swarm at dusk, it hardly cools off at all, and the Sun barely dips below the horizon long enough to get some sleep. That’s not me, though. And even when the Sun sets earlier and the bugs die down, sometimes I’d prefer to spend a rare, bug-free, warm evening with the far-off fire of the stars.

On this trip, evenings were long enough—and chilly enough—that we had time for both fire gazing and star gazing, and perfectly gooey s’mores every night.

I’d just settled into a comfy spot on a log near the fire, zipped up my down vest, and was staring thoughtfully into the shadows when a light outside the fire grate, below the stars, and not near the water caught my eye. It was pale, and dim, and seemed to be coming from the network of white pine roots that lay exposed in the thin soil across this rocky point. Suddenly, the fire wasn’t the most exciting light in camp!

I memorized the location of the glow, then dug through my dry bag for my macro camera, and fished a headlamp out of my vest pocket. The glow pulsed again helpfully, and when I swept the flashlight across the roots, it illuminated a one-inch-long armored vehicle crawling on weathered wood.

The long, oval body was covered by a dozen dark segments of exoskeleton that allowed for limited flexibility when crawling over the curved root, bridging between root and ground, and navigating clusters of pine needles. When I rolled the critter over, the belly segments were pale, and the six tell-tale legs of an insect poked out from the front half. No wings, though. Turning off my light, I waited until the soft glow kindled and faded one more time.

The larvae of all fireflies are bioluminescent, and I was eager to see if the iNaturalist database would confirm my hunch. Sure enough, Photuris genus was the only ID suggestion that popped up. A firefly larva!

Most of us are lucky enough to be familiar with the twinkling summer lights of adult fireflies—a type of beetle. In a firefly’s light organ, oxygen reacts with luciferin to produce light. Males blink a species-specific pattern to attract females. If they’re lucky, she responds by flashing back, allowing him to find her hiding spot in the grass. He flies down, and they mate.

Many species of fireflies only live for a few weeks as an adult, and are so focused on mating that they don’t even bother to eat. Female Photuris fireflies are not so selfless. They have learned to flash the patterns of other firefly species, tricking the unrelated males into thinking they’re going to get lucky. Instead, they get eaten. This habit has earned Photuris fireflies the nickname “femme fatales.”

Their victims contain toxins in an effort to dissuade predators. In a clever move, female Photuris simply incorporate those toxins into their own bodies, making themselves taste bad to their arch enemies the jumping spiders.

The children of lightning bugs aren’t any less ferocious. In fact, fireflies who aren’t femme fatales must do ALL their eating in the larval stage—just like the caterpillars of some moth species, but protein instead of plants. Slugs, worms, and other insects are all on the menu. 

And then, they must find a safe place to escape the clutches of Old Man Winter.

Rotting logs, fallen leaves, and damp soil all provide protection from the most bitter cold, enabling firefly larvae to survive the season. Sometimes they must endure more than one winter before growing big enough to pupate in the spring and emerge as an adult. Mild winters are a boon to the population, as fireflies may persist in greater numbers and emerge earlier in spring, giving them more time to grow and reproduce.

You can help fireflies survive by creating wild corners of your yard filled with rotting wood and leaves. They will be winter habitat for many beneficial native insects and critters. Being judicious with your outdoor lighting is considerate of many nocturnal neighbors. Using native plants in your landscaping, and NOT using herbicides or pesticides will all increase habitat.

As nights sparkle with frost instead of fireflies, it’s a good time to make sure our yards provide just as good habitat as wilderness campsites for these fanciful and ferocious critters.

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, September 29, 2022

Journey Through Fall

Every year, when the air turns crisp, the dogbane leaves glow lemony from the ditches, and the ash leaves fade to mustard in the swamps, I feel the urge to travel.

I’m not the only one.

Speeding along the highway with a yellow canoe strapped to my car, more shades of gold swirled upward from the roadsides. Yellow-shafted northern flickers are one of our only migratory woodpeckers, and right now they’re heading from Canada to the southern U.S.

While on the ground, flickers’ smooth brown back with black bars and dots blends in well with soil and leaf litter. As they startle, handsome yellow feathers are visible under their wings and tails, and yellow feather shafts show through from above and below. Their white rump patches flash brightly during short, undulating flights. Flickers catch ants and other insects with their long, sticky tongues, which means they’d better head south before frost kills their food and snow covers their buffet.

My cousin Heather and I flushed up flickers for an hour as we drove west of Ely, MN on the Echo Trail. Then we launched my canoe into the Little Indian Sioux River. The channel meandered back and forth in a wide valley, and we meandered with it.

The stream showed almost no sign of flow, except at the portages where we carried our packs on narrow paths beside beautiful, tumbling streams. As we emerged into Upper Pauness Lake, the water widened but the channel narrowed—cradled by tawny thickets of wild rice. When I daydreamed in the stern and the canoe got off course, our paddles caught the stems and an audible shower of rice grains pattered into the boat.

Photo by Heather Edvenson.

Finally reaching open water in the main part of the lake, we sized up a pale granite knob that seemed a likely campsite, and puzzled at two smaller white shapes along the shore. The shapes rose, arched graceful necks, and became swans.

Trumpeter swans are traveling now, too. Pairs who nested farther north, as well as the locals, will all feast on the wild rice and prepare to head farther south—to where the lakes don’t freeze. These—the largest of our native waterfowl—form pair bonds that can last for life, and unlike many smaller birds, they stay together all year long.

Later that evening, as we watched sunset from the granite knob (it was a campsite—the best one on the lake!), the sounds of a trumpeting conflict erupted from the lake next door as two pairs disputed some territory. Splashing came next—the sound of huge, webbed feet down a 100-yard runway, and finally the rush of air through feathers as the displaced pair appeared over the tops of the trees. Having cleared that obstacle, the swans stopped flapping, arched their wings, and glided down toward the dark lake before sending up a line of glittering spray. Silence descended as the moon rose.

The Moon and Jupiter rise in the east while we enjoy a cozy campfire.

The next morning, we portaged past bur oak trees and paddled north in the wide channel of the Little Indian Sioux. The raucous calls of blue jays cut through the calm. While only 20 percent of blue jays migrate in any given year, that still means as many as 6,000 of them pass through a migration hot spot like Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN, on a busy day.

As we emerged into Loon Lake, the appropriate silhouette was there to greet us. The loon dove and hunted while we paddled by, and white whiskers on their face foretold of more seasonal change. Loons have started their migration toward the Gulf of Mexico, but some will take their sweet time. They can’t molt any flight feathers before they reach the ocean, though. They are already on the edge of not being able to get airborne, and just a few missing feathers could mean the difference between liftoff and iced in.

Our campsite that day was another, even taller granite knob with a commanding westward view of the lake. As we sat around the fire grate eating lunch, activity in the trees caught out attention. The movements of a flock of small birds blended in with the fluttering of leaves in the breeze. Brief glimpses of drab yellow and olive-green feathers told me that these were “confusing fall warblers”; birds without distinctive plumage who I rarely attempt to identify.

The sounds they were making didn’t help either. I can identify plenty of birds by their unique songs meant for attracting a mate and defending a territory, but their sweetly whistled contact calls all sound about the same to my ear. Except for chickadees. Their namesake call was comfortingly familiar. Chickadees stay local all year round, and migrating warblers are known to seek out chickadee flocks to find food and safety as they pass through unfamiliar territory.

These warblers are headed south for the same reason I go north this time of year: bugs. As the mosquitoes, black flies, and other insects who tortured campers all summer prepare to survive the winter in some form of dormancy, the birds who depend on them for food follow their instinct to move out. I, on the other hand, revel in the lack of buzzing in my ears, and unmolested hours outside.

On our last morning, a V of geese honked across the pale pink sunrise. We’d spent only four days in the north instead of four months, but still, it was time to pack up and join all of the restless southward travelers on a journey through fall.

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, September 22, 2022

Glacial Refugia

By Cade Campbell
Summer Naturalist Intern at Cable Natural History Museum

Cade Campbell is from Bristol, Tennessee, and is currently studying Biology at East Tennessee State University. An avid naturalist, he spends most of his free time outdoors, and has both worked and volunteered with the Blue Ridge Discovery Center as a naturalist, and as a field technician elsewhere. Cade recently finished his tenure as a Summer Naturalist Intern at the Cable Natural History Museum.

Lush hemlock boughs with tiny, thimble-sized cones wavered in the gentle breeze as I strolled along the crunchy gravel road behind the Forest Lodge Nature Trail. On the ground, familiar friends like wild sarsaparilla, Mayflower, and moccasin-flower were unleashing their vernal beauty. It felt like an evening back home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. These are fragments of plant communities I know intimately from Appalachia, over a thousand miles away from Northwest Wisconsin to the south.

So why are they here?

During the last glacial period (which ended around 11,000 years ago), the inescapable Laurentide Ice Sheet wiped out all life in its path. Some northern inhabitants made their way south, beyond the ice. The mighty Appalachian Mountains, once the tallest mountains ever to exist on the planet, provided a suitable place where these northern plants, animals, and fungi could survive alongside southern counterparts in protected valleys and ridges. The Southern Appalachian Mountains became a “glacial refugium.”

“The mountains have provided a fortress: support and strength to survive” wrote Helen Matthews Lewis, the great Appalachian sociologist and activist, in her poem “Redbud Trees.” Without Lewis’ proverbial “safe place,” much of the beloved life now and formerly indigenous to the Northwoods would not have survived the last ice age. When the glaciers receded, plants, animals and all life spread back across the scoured continent from the mountains and other unglaciated areas. The confluence of two ecosystems prevented the last ice age from exterminating the species we know and love in the Northwoods today.

As I continued ambling down Lost Land Lake Road, starflowers and bunchberries illuminated the mossy knolls. The overwhelming fragrance of sweetfern, the satisfyingly curly sheets of peeling paper birch bark, and the lonesome spires of black spruce indicated that this was a very different place than the distant mountains. These plants survived glaciation in the Appalachian Mountains, but none of them grow in Southern Appalachia anymore.

Bunchberry is a boreal wildflower that survived glaciation in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, but is scarce there today. Photo by Cade Campbell.

Some northern and southern species are still mingling on high-elevation peaks in Appalachia, as the climate and habitats change. Black bears, ruffed grouse, and trillium are equally at home in both the Northwoods and the Appalachian Mountains, despite regional eccentricities. Bears do not spend the winter hibernating in most of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains, and nodding trilliums have diverged into slightly different species. Genetically, they remain long-lost relatives.

Many more species, now common in the north, have been transformed into rarities by time and climate, stranded on cooler, wetter “islands in the sky” in Appalachian refugia. Black-capped chickadees, wood lilies, and any kind of spruce or fir trees are familiar friends in the Northwoods, but increasingly rare in much of Appalachia.

While leading a Junior Naturalist program for the Museum this summer, I watched a snowshoe hare creep from the woods mere feet away from our group. I was just as excited as the kids, if not more! Later, while driving at dusk, I straddled multiple hares with my car as they bolted across the road. Amazingly, none were harmed. But even if I’d run one over, there are plenty of hares deeper in the forest.

In contrast, snowshoe hares were likely extirpated from the southern mountaintops during my lifetime; the climate can no longer support them. They are just one of the species who have disappeared entirely. With each missing member, the health of the ecosystem is drastically weakened.

Where species once migrated south to escape a wall of ice, they must now escape in the opposite direction to avoid excessive heat. My beloved Appalachians are being inundated by wildlife from much farther south. Locations with habitat similar to the Northwoods mere decades ago host life more reminiscent of habitats in the coastal Carolinas or Georgia. Cold-adapted species are forced north or to an untimely local extinction.

This means the Northwoods are receiving new waves of southern species, from great crested flycatchers to swamp darner dragonflies…and for a short time, me. As I prepare for my own migration back south after a summer in the Northwoods, I’m saying goodbye to spruce and fir, black-capped chickadees, and the scarlet clusters of bunchberries. To the wild sarsaparilla, Mayflower, and moccasin-flower I can just say, “I’ll see you at home.” …At least for now.

A Great Crested Flycatcher in a cherry tree outside of the author’s window in Tennessee.
Their range is rapidly shifting northward into Wisconsin. Photo by Cade Campbell.

Millennia after glaciation, the Northwoods of Wisconsin have become a refugium for species trying to survive a modern climate. Only time will tell if life is able to survive heat as well as it escaped ice.

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, September 15, 2022

The Bear Who Gave Us a Sunset

Here's a our "Boundary Waters with a Naturalist" group, in our second-to-last campsite.

The voices filtering through our Boundary Waters campsite were so calm and sweet-sounding it took me a minute to process the words: “Hey, bear.”

Lake water dripped from my swim shorts, and I continued toweling off in the sun while the meaning sank in. “Hey, bear!”

Looking across the wilderness campsite, where a group of colorful tents lined the woods on the way back to the latrine trail, I saw a fuzzy black shape in their midst. Ally and Caleb, a young couple who’d been resting in a hammock, were calmly talking to the bear, waving their arms, and doing all the right things to let the bear know that camp was full of humans without startling it. The bear did not care.

Likely only two or three years old, his fuzzy back was barely taller than Caleb’s waist, and he showed neither aggression nor fear. He looked healthy. And he kept walking forward, having learned through experience that he could stroll right up and grab some tasty food if he ignored the humans diligently enough.

Although this was the first time I’d ever had a bear in camp, I didn’t feel like we were in danger. Black bears rarely attack humans, especially if they’re not surprised. So I calmly hung my towel on a tree branch and headed over to help, stopping by the fire pit to grab a couple of lids from the cook set. The metallic banging alerted Peter, who had been napping, that the voices weren’t just part of a dream. He popped out of his tent, just as the bear was walking past. “Don’t run!” called Ally (a wildlife biologist), with some urgency in her voice. Running away can sometimes trigger a chase.

Peter didn’t exactly run, but his sudden appearance and quick steps away from the bear, combined with Ally and Caleb’s increased shouting and steps forward, did turn the bear down into the woods beside camp. He circled around, and popped out on a narrow nature trail leading off into magical glades full of blooming twinflower and fairy-fan fungi we’d admired on an earlier walk. Where had the bear been then?

Bob, the most experienced participant in our midst, came to stand beside me as I banged on the pot lids. The bear didn’t retreat. Bob took a step forward, and the bear backed up one step in a long-distance dance. Then a softball-sized rock bounced in front of the bear’s nose. I turned to look just as Ally’s second rock followed the first. Now the bear turned, perhaps with a smarting nose, and slowly disappeared into the woods.

The eight of us—mostly strangers—brought together on this Cable Natural History Museum-sponsored trip, all gathered in the center of camp to make a plan.

First, we celebrated. This had been a pretty successful bear encounter. No one panicked. Everyone helped drive the bear away. The bear wasn’t rewarded, because our food was stored properly.

Being bear aware is always part of a Boundary Waters trip, but we’d been on high alert. As we’d loaded packs into canoes at Rockwood Outfitters just a couple days before, Mike had mentioned that Gaskin, a bigger lake nearby, had problems with a persistent bear in campsites earlier in the summer, but that the bear hadn’t been seen since the blueberries ripened.

Then, the evening before our encounter, two parents with two kids still small enough to sit side-by-side in their aluminum canoe had paddled past our campsite late in the day. Those two shots we’d heard earlier, explained the dad, was him firing his gun as a bear invaded their camp and came too close for comfort to their kids. So alerted, we locked our blue plastic bear barrel up tight, put the cook set on top as an alarm, and fastened the shoulder straps around a tree so it couldn’t be dragged into the woods.

Here’s the blue plastic bear barrel that kept our food safe from the marauding bear. It’s not 100% bear proof, but if you attach it to something so the bear can’t drag it away, the durable seal gives you more time to scare off the bear before he snatches all of your s’mores fixings. Photo by Jill Joswiak.

Now, though, the bear was real, food-focused, and not easily scared. I looked at my watch. 4:30 p.m. There was some discussion, some disagreement, and then a decision to seek a campsite on the next lake. We had our tents packed neatly into our portage packs and the last boat pulling away from the landing 40 minutes later. As Jill and I ducked under the curtain of cedar branches that framed the landing, she looked backward from her seat in the stern of the canoe. “The bear is coming down the landing trail!”

I turned around in the bow to look at her. “Are you joking? Really? Seriously?” It would have been a good joke. Instead it was absolute justification for moving camp away from this pest.

Having previously practiced our paddling and portaging skills all morning on a day trip, the group moved like a well-oiled machine. Tossing the canoe off my shoulders on the far side of the portage, I gazed out across the lake. The slanting rays of evening sun shone on a classic rocky campsite—unoccupied. A hallelujah may or may not have been playing on the wind.

Soon we were relaxing on that beautiful rock with bowls of warm food in our hands, as a magnificent sunset played across the smattering of clouds. A fingernail moon peeked out, too. Pretty soon, the Milky Way splashed a path across the dome of stars, and beetles darting on the quicksilver surface rippled Jupiter’s reflection.

Our new campsite, chosen after the bear invaded our previous one, offered up a gorgeous sunset.
Photo by Peter Marshall.

Our previous campsite, cradled by trees, had been perfect on the gusty day we chose it, but without much of a view. Now, as the wind finally subsided, the bear gave us a site that matched the sunset perfectly. We reveled in our good luck as the Big Dipper rose behind us.

Photo by Peter Marshall

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.