Thursday, January 27, 2022

Sharp Eyes

Winter often brings moments of delight when clean drifts of snow become the canvas for nature’s artwork. If not lost in the tunnel of my thoughts, I might notice the shadows of twigs making purple lace across the white or the detail in a papery seed or frost-lined track. Sometimes it helps to have a friend along to make their own unique observations.

Earlier today I began digging through folders to find photos of those winter delights. Soon I’ll share them with local artist Janet Moore’s “Wheel of the Year: Four Seasons” class. This virtual class will be meeting nine times over this coming year to create a unique piece of art chronicling the seasons in your own woods.

Janet Moore's sugar-maple-themed Wheel of the Year. Course info here

Just outside my office door, coworkers were exclaiming about delights of a different kind. A generous Museum member has given us a few boxes of old books. I expected the nature guides from the 1950s, and big stack of Sigurd Olson’s books, but mixed in with those were cloth-bound covers with shiny gold lettering and copyrights dating back to the 1800s.

I lifted one off the pile, enjoying the texture of the midnight blue cover and the history implied by frayed corners. Sharp Eyes gleamed in gold. Was this a story about far-seeing raptors? Or hyper-focused wolves? Inside, the subtitle gave more clues: “A Rambler’s Calendar of Fifty-Two Weeks among Insects, Birds, and Flowers.” So this was a book about phenology—the study of when specific events happen in nature from year to year in a specific place. The short chapters and black-and-white illustrations reminded me of my own Natural Connections books.

As I skimmed the introduction, a sentence caught my eye.

[Sharp Eyes is] “a cordial recommendation and invitation to walk the woods and fields with me, and reap the perpetual "harvest of a quiet eye,” which Nature everywhere bestows; to witness with me the strange revelations of this wild bal masque [masquerade ball]; to laugh, to admire, to study, to ponder, to philosophize between the lines—to question, and always to rejoice and give thanks!”

I chuckled a little at the verbose style of the era, but felt a kinship with the author nonetheless. We write in the same genre, and with the same purpose. I took the author up on the invitation, but who were they?

Skimming past a few more rambling pages, I found his signature at the bottom: W. Hamilton Gibson, Washington, Conn., July 10, 1891. Quick research told me that Gibson’s father’s death forced him into gainful employment as an insurance salesman, but that lasted less than a year before he turned back to writing about and illustrating nature. I can’t say I blame him.

With a glance to the snowdrifts outside my window, I flipped to the last section of the book, where a whimsical version of WINTER endured a blizzard on the page. How would Gibson’s observations in western Connecticut compare to mine?

WINTER section heading by W. H. Gibson from his book Sharp Eyes.

“But both boys and girls may well put aside their sleds for a walk with me this morning,” wrote Gibson. “This snow is good for something else than coasting…” Oh is it now, I chucked, thinking back to how much fun I’d had writing about the natural history of sledding.

“Those who like a good story-book will do well to study the snow, for they may indeed read it like a book. It is a great white page storied with the doings of the little wild folk which few of us ever see.”

by W. H. Gibson from his book Sharp Eyes

I nodded in agreement, thinking of the many photos of mouse and bobcat tracks that now filled my folder for Janet’s class, and the wolf tracks still visible on my driveway.

“They write their autobiography day by day…but they are not responsible for all the singular hieroglyphics to be seen on this great white page. The wind often takes a hand, and after a light, fresh snow-fall plays pretty pranks with the drooping stems of some of the withered grasses.”

Last winter I struggled to find something kind to write about the gray squirrels that attacked my bird feeders, but Gibson had no such prejudices, and wrote,

“On almost any genial day we are sure of him if our eyes are sharp enough, and our manners sufficiently decorous…Let us observe our squirrel carefully. There he goes in graceful bounds across the snow, his sensitive plumy tail in every movement expressive of its homage to the line of beauty.”

After that I had to set the book aside and tackle other projects. But this was a happy moment of connection. I know I’ll join Mr. Gibson on another walk again soon. This blue-coated man with gold trim will be a friend who will help me make unique—if also longwinded—observations through all four seasons.

Gibson illustrated his own books in great detail, including this sketch of the bracts of birch catkins on the snow. Illustration by W. H. Gibson.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is 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. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, January 20, 2022


I love coming home.

It’s not those feelings of comfort and familiarity I’m looking forward to, though. I’m eager to see which of my many wild neighbors have walked down my driveway!

An inch or two of snow on top of the last pass of the plow truck provided excellent tracking last weekend, and big tracks quilting the median had me bouncing in the driver’s seat. After parking, I walked back to investigate. There, within a few dozen feet of the house, I spotted the first tracks. Four toes. Claws. Roughly the size of the palm of my hand. Could it be? This would be a first for my yard…

Wolf tracks are roughly 4 inches long and wide. Coyote tracks would be closer to 2.5 inches. Photo by Emily Stone.

The animal tracks disappeared under my wheel tracks, and then reemerged—still within sight of the house. Four toes. Claws. Roughly four inches long.

I was forming a guess in my mind—a hopeful identification of my new neighbor. Do you have a guess yet?


Northern Wisconsin has hundreds of wolves. The DNR’s maps of wolf packs show a dense mosaic of territories. Neighbors to the east have had wolves on their trail cams. I’ve seen tracks just two miles south of my house in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, and on all of the ski trails I frequent. But, ever since I moved in 11 years ago, the general wisdom was that the high density of homes, resorts, and activity around Lake Namakagon was too busy for wolves.

Of course, in nature, saying “always” or “never” is a tricky business.

As I followed these tracks back out of my driveway, they wandered in and out of the wheel tracks and back and forth across the median. By the time they led me directly in front of my trail camera, my head was buzzing with excitement. Of course I grabbed the memory card. Shadowy figures appeared in the dark photos, looonng legs trotting and tail relaxed. This semester I’ve been teaching 3rd graders how to identify a wolf and a coyote, and there was no question in my mind who this canine was!

My trail camera captured this wolf as it walked out of my driveway after taking a nap in the woods. Photo by Emily Stone.

At 9:22 p.m. a wolf walked into my driveway. At 2:01 a.m. a wolf walked out of my driveway. And then, 12 seconds later, another wolf! The tracks were messy enough that I’d been suspecting more than one animal, but this was my first real proof.

At the end of my driveway I found the snowbank sprayed with yellow urine at about the height of my knee. Wildlife biologists and trackers call this an “RLU,” short for raised leg urination. This is a form of scent marking—the sign of a wolf claiming his territory. Female wolves also scent mark, but are more likely to squat when they pee, and the mark appears lower down. There wasn’t a paired RLU here, though—no evidence of a female joining in. What does that mean for the relationship status of these wolves?

Next, I went back to the place, just out of sight of the house, where the wolves had wallowed through the snowbank and into the forest. Strapping on snowshoes, I followed.

Over logs, under balsam thickets, and past a frozen wetland we traveled. Numerous trees had been sprayed with yellow. Wandering, dispersing wolves tend not to scent mark. If they are just exploring or passing through, there’s no reason to waste energy claiming space for their own or risking discovery by another wolf who is willing to defend their territory. This many RLUs most likely means that these wolves are planning to live here and want to deter any rivals from intruding. I might be seeing evidence of these new neighbors again!

Where did they come from, I wondered? Wolves have been known to travel over 500 miles to find a new territory, but the density of wolf packs nearby suggest that a recently matured wolf may have simply budded off from his natal territory, found a quiet corner of the forest nearby, and befriended another loner for company, or in the hopes of being able to breed.

Finally, only a tenth of a mile from my house, under a balsam thicket, were two icy bowls in the snow. The warm body of a wolf had rested in each, compressing and melting the snow. From the trail cam, I knew that the wolves had passed through on a night when the temperature plunged. They might have sought this protected area, on the south side of a hill and under conifers, to take a five-hour nap in the bitter cold.

I was thrilled to find two icy wolf beds at the end of their tracks. Wolves simply curl up on top of the snow. They only spend time in a den when having pups. Photo by Emily Stone.

Tracks led into the beds and then back out, retracing their steps all the way back to my driveway. Where they went from there is anyone’s guess. I couldn’t pick up the trail again after they hit the road. I’ll be watching for them, though. I’m hopeful that my woods are part of their territory now, and (like me) wolves seem to enjoy coming home.

The wolf's RLU and my Private Drive sign in the background are essentially saying the same thing to our own species! Photo by Emily Stone.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is 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. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Least Weasels in the Subnivean Zone

Sometimes, when temperatures struggle to rise above zero, it takes all of my willpower to get out for a simple walk. Even when cheeks sting and the ice in my eyelashes sews up the corners, I know that getting outside will do wonders for my mood. When possible, I do try to plan any outdoor excursions for “the heat of the day.”

So it was noon on one of those bitterly cold days by the time I wrapped up some cookie baking and clomped down my driveway. Coyote tracks quilted the snow between the tire tracks, but they were softened by time and flurries. Nothing new.

And then, there was something new! Several pairs of tiny tracks stitched a line across flat ground and up the bank before disappearing into a hole no bigger than one gloved finger would poke under a mess of dead branches. Each set of prints could have fit on a nickel. In a few places, parallel lines connected the tracks to each other as the critter’s jump didn’t quite rise fully above the snow. Any signs of tiny toes were obscured within the texture of snowflakes.

Tracks of a least weasel disappear into the snow—into the subnivean zone.
Photo by Emily Stone.

“Least weasel!” I exclaimed before taking a few quick photos. Then my phone died from the cold.

With a maximum size of 8 inches long—including tail—least weasels are the smallest weasels in Wisconsin. Female weasels are smaller than males, tending toward 6.5 inches long, and weighing only 37-40 grams. Small animals tend to lose heat quickly, because of their large surface-area-to-volume ratio, so it’s odd that the smallest of the dozen or so least weasel subspecies lives in northern Russia, and the largest lives in North Africa.

There is one major benefit to being small in winter, though: least weasels can fit easily into the narrow passages and tight spaces of the subnivean zone. Inside this magical space where ground meets snow, a crystalline blanket traps the earth’s warmth, and temperatures hover near freezing. The subnivium is so important to Mustela nivalis, that their scientific name means “weasel of the snow.”

Earlier that morning, when the air temp read -13, my thermometer buried under just 6 inches of fluff registered a balmy 28 degrees. Being small means that the least weasels almost never have to venture up into the frigid, windswept winter world.

In fact, their entire body is designed to exploit the underground. A narrow head, lithe body, short legs, and flexible spine allow weasels to maneuver easily in tight spaces. Sensitive whiskers and a great sense of smell guide weasels in the darkness. They don’t dig their own tunnels, but then, why would they? Mice, voles, and chipmunks can be found in the dens they’ve dug themselves—in either snow or soil.

With a bite to the neck, least weasels are even able to take on adult rabbits—prey that is at minimum 16x bigger than this feisty little predator. In fact, least weasels are the world’s smallest carnivore. When relaying this fact, I’m often asked, “What about shrews?” Shrews are insectivores, and members of the now-obsolete taxonomic order Insectivora instead of the weasel’s order of Carnivora.

Unlike wolves—another member of Carnivora—who often gorge on a kill and then go without eating for several days, weasels cache their prey and come back for smaller snacks 8-10 times each day. To feed their fiery metabolisms, weasels eat at least half of their own weight daily, and more in the winter.

Least weasels are prey as well as predators, and they attempt invisibility by transitioning from summer brown to winter white fur. Unlike their cousins, the short-tailed and long-tailed weasels, least weasels do not keep a black tip on their tail. In the larger weasels, that bit of misdirection tricks raptors into aiming for the wrong end. In least weasels, their head and their tail are just too close for comfort.

Least weasels change from brown fur in the summer, to all white in the winter.
Photo by Cecil Sanders,

Speaking of comfort, I found myself a bit jealous of the “weasel of the snow” today as I ventured into a sparkling, -21-degree morning. While my car and lungs protested equally at being asked to work in such conditions, my subnivean thermometer had risen to 31 degrees under the added insulation of a fresh foot of snow.

I probably won’t have another chance to see tracks or sign from my tiny neighbor this winter. At least I know that they are staying warm under the snow as I imagine their adventures in the subnivean zone.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is 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. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Multi-Species Fun of Sledding

The purple shadows of evening were sliding out as I pulled into the driveway. After tossing my backpack inside the front door, I snugged up the hood on my puffy coat and grabbed the blue plastic sled from its corral behind the bike rack. The first run was slow, as fresh, fluffy snow compacted beneath me. I stomped up the trail and launched again, this time gliding a few feet farther; my heart feeling a few ounces lighter.

My sledding hill isn’t very big, but I do notice that playing on it does release stress and tension at the end of a day. Photo by Emily Stone.

I’ve always loved sledding. Maybe it has to do with my January birthday, or the thrill of going fast (but not too fast), or even the laughing chaos of a tumbling crash. Once I became an “adult,” I would wait until Christmas break when I could use my niece and nephews as an excuse to play in the snow. But after finding a sled in a free pile on a curb last spring, the only excuse I need is to be already wearing snow boots and ski pants.

Last week, while researching play in young animals for our new Growing Up Wild exhibit, I happened across something interesting: sliding down hills is one of the more widespread forms of play, and one of the types of play reported in adult animals, too!

River otters are the classic sliders. I’ve followed their tracks for miles as they scampered up the short, steep banks of a lake, only to launch themselves back down. Even on flat ice, they will propel themselves along the slippery surface. Can we blame all of that playfulness on the juveniles? I doubt it.

Otters are one of several critters who enjoy sliding on the snow, even on the flat surface of a lake! Photo by Emily Stone.

The snowy home of polar bears is conducive to sliding, too. One bear was observed cascading off a glacier, dropping fifty feet into the water, and then climbing up to do it all over again. Smaller hills—including the furry summit of Mom’s back—are also fair game for bear cubs.

Ravens and crows have been caught on video rolling down snowy car windshields, rooftops, and more. Like (college) kids sledding on trays smuggled out of the cafeteria, one crow in Russia made do with a white jar lid. With pokey feet resting on the slippery lid, and wings flapping madly for balance, the crow made run after run down the neighbor’s rooftop. No need for a chairlift, the crow picked up the lid in their beak and flew back to the peak.

Since wild animals slide down snowy hills, and likely have been doing that for millennia, the human history of sledding probably goes back pretty far, too, right? It’s hard to tell. The use of sleds for practical purposes can be confirmed all the way back to 1900 B.C., through paintings depicting rocks being pulled on sleds toward pyramids under construction. In the Cimbric War of 113 B.C. some Germanic tribes surprised Roman warriors by sledding out of the mountains on their shields. It's hard to believe that kids during these eras never saw the grownups using sleds for work, then nabbed one to race down a hill for fun.

Of course, childhood was probably shorter and less fun back then, especially for the working class. In contrast, the youth of Russian aristocrats in the 1650s seemed to have sledding backwards. They made their sleds from blocks of ice, and their chutes from wood!

In the United States, sledding became mainstream when farm equipment manufacturer Samuel Leeds Allen patented the steerable Flexible Flyer in 1889.

Animals slide and humans sled, ski, and snowboard, but my next question is WHY?

Multiple experiments have confirmed that playful young are more likely to survive to adulthood. Despite many hypotheses, however, scientists haven’t been able to prove the mechanisms behind how play increases survival rates.

There are some interesting clues, though. Play might allow young to test, learn, and stretch their own limits and abilities. Creative play seems to encourage brain development. The motor skills and physical fitness developed during play may improve animals’ ability to escape predation. The short-term stress of play might also give the animal’s stress response practice in recovering quickly after an incident. Could being startled in a game of peek-a-boo make being startled by a predator easier to recover from when the danger recedes?

Even in adults, it’s likely that play can release tension, improve the immune system, and ward off disease. What do you say to that?

I say wheeeeee!

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 Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.