Happy Dancing Turtle Blog

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship


My favorite days are ones that begin with a beautiful sunrise; the first rays of the sun amplifies the spectacular colors of fall and slowly pulls back the blanket of fog and frost that has silently crept in overnight.

When people think of fall, they think of life fading away. The majority of wildflowers have long been gone, leaving behind only a few resilient autumn residents. The leaves put on their magnificent color pageant, but have since turned brown and dropped to the ground. The bare trees have even been abandoned by many of their avian summer residents, heading south to warmer climes. The animals that are going to stick around, are preparing to disappear from our sights until spring brings warmer weather our way. The life that spring and summer brought is fading before our eyes. Soon winter will be here - a cold, silent reminder of how "lifeless" our woods have become. Yet people rarely consider the life that is beginning right before our eyes in the fall. Creating new life is an energy-expensive, daunting task, and many plants and animals have to begin preparing for that spring time awakening right now, during the autumn season.

The fall season is a time of seed dispersal for many plants, including species that make burrs, like this one, 10/6/14.

Let's look at plants for example. Many people associate seeds with spring or early summer; the red maple seeds "helicopter" to the ground in the spring and the cottony seeds of aspens disperse upon the winds. Others may think of seeds during the late summer when they watch many of the plants in their garden "go to seed". But we often forget about the plants that release their seeds during the fall, like the sugar maple (samaras) or the oaks (acorns). The maple seeds (technically winged fruits called samaras) are very light, fluttering in circles as they fall to the ground with the wind or sometimes the water aiding in their dispersal. The heavier acorns typically just drop to the ground under the tree and rely on wildlife, particularly squirrels, to move the seeds around. But trees are not the only plants of the season dispersing their seeds. For any of you dedicated dog owners (or for those of you without a dog but qualify as avid trailblazers), you know that fall can be just as bad as spring for collecting burrs (this picture shows only a small portion of the 200+ burrs I pulled out of my dog's fur!). Burrs are any dried seed or fruit that has hooks or teeth. These seeds disperse from their parent plant by latching on, in a very velcro-like fashion, to the fur of passing animals or the clothes of passing people and hitch a ride a fair distance before falling off or getting plucked off by the carrier. Now this little seed is all ready to begin growth when conditions are right in the spring. Another common type of autumn seed is from our milkweed plants! The flowers have died and the leaves have shriveled up, leaving only the swollen pods, which have now ruptured and are releasing their cottony seeds to the winds of autumn. Some of the plants mentioned (like some of the oaks) will actually germinate this fall, producing little seedlings that will patiently wait to thrive until the warmer temperatures of spring arrive. Others will remain dormant in the soil as a seed until this time. Either way - the life of these future plants has already begun.

October winds are often carry seeds from plants, such as this Milkweed, 10/8/14.

Many of the fauna of Minnesota are also preparing for new life next spring. Mammals have been busy - the bats have just wrapped up their mating season, the porcupines are right in the midst of theirs and the deer are coming up next - so keep your eyes peeled for buck scrapes on your walks. (And although black bears mated during the summer months, the fertilized eggs will implant in November and the embryos will soon start to grow while Mom starts hibernation- cool!) Although this task has begun, we won't see any of these small, adorable new life forms until spring, just like our plants. Our furry friends are not the only ones who have been busy; our creepy crawly friends have been, too.


Left: Just starting to grow some antlers, 9/25/14. Right: Browsing on some frost covered grass, 10/8/14.

On warm autumn days, you may have noticed "swarms" of small insects. If you look very closely, you may notice these insects (gnats, midges, crane files and/or March flies) are just sort of hovering, going up and down, in what is actually thought to be a dancing display flight. The males that win the dance off will successfully mate with females, who then have the task of depositing eggs into the water before it freezes. Similarly, the lingerers of the dragonfly world may be seen hovering over ponds and lakes, dipping their ovipositor (rear-end egg depositor) into the water, gently leaving the eggs behind. They will hatch in the water and live their nymph stage at the bottom of our ponds, lakes, and rivers. Daddy-longlegs, often called harvestmen are also very active right now, laying eggs before the cold can kill of the adults. Harvestmen get their name from the time of year they are most active - the months of harvest (how's that for phenology?!). They are not, contrary to popular belief, spiders at all. They are in the same class as spiders, Arachnida, but are separated into a their very own order. Spiders, all of which have two body segments, are in the order Araneae; harvestmen, all of which have one body segment, are in the order Opiliones. But our actual spiders are very active too! Many types of spiders have a late summer hatch, and those young are ready to disperse and find their own territories. They do this by something called "ballooning", which is when the spider emits silk threads into the air, acting like... well... a balloon, catching the uprising thermals on warm fall days. These air movements carry the spiders a further distance than they would be capable of walking (even with those extra legs). This allows the spider to reduce competition from siblings (hundreds of them!) and maintain genetic diversity within the population. So if you are afraid of spiders - this is your worst fear coming true - yes, it can rain spiders! Check out an annual spider migration in the video below!

While I won't encourage you to get outside and intimately observe these acts of life creation, I will encourage you to enjoy the outrageous streak of fall weather we have been having, if you can even call it "fall" weather! Friday, our high in the Pine River area is 71F! That is 30 degrees warmer than the historical average of 41F for that date! Saturday and Sunday are showing highs that are about 20 degrees warmer than the historical average, so there is absolutely no excuse to spend this weekend inside! Go out and soak up the  sunshine! While its warm - I would highly recommend a canoe ride! Most of the tamaracks are still holding their "smokey gold" color, but it won't be long before they drop their needles. Better get out and see 'em! As always, enjoy it out there!


"I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house"

-Nathaniel Hawthorne


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Posted by on in Food & Water Security


Did you know that access to local food is one of the most important factors to lasting community stability?


Would you like to make locally grown food more available?


Do you have a vision for the future of our community and ideas for how to get there?


If you would like hear about some of the work being done to increase access to local food and to share your unique perspective on how to make our rural communities more food secure, join us


November 12th


at Happy Dancing Turtle

2331 Dancing Wind Rd SW

Pine River, MN 56474


at 6:00 pm.


There will be a brief presentation on the concept a Local Food Innovation Center and how such a place might serve the Pine River Area. We will then discuss barriers to local food production and access and how an Innovation Center could address those challenges to help strengthen our communities.


Food and Beverages provided


Check out this link for background information on this project:





Please contact Hannah Klemm to RSVP and with any questions.


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

218-587-5001 ext. 230

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

Comic from the Cartoonist Group

The last couple mornings I have woken up (having fought the urge to stay under the warm cocoon of blankets) to find frost on our grass, fog rising from our lake and a chill in the air that subtly reminds me of what is coming.  For some of us, this may mean saying goodbye to lake life in the Northwoods and hello to ocean life down in Florida. The decreasing day length and dropping temperatures are a signal to (some) humans and birds alike to start preparing to head south. But are birds leaving because they don't like the cold? Actually, most birds are capable of withstanding freezing temperatures, so it's not the cold that drives them south. It is our waning resources. It's hard to find food, whether that be seeds, worms, mice or something else when everything is buried under a couple feet of snow. In this sense, migration can be defined as a movement from areas containing few resources to areas containing abundant resources. In the spring, birds head north in a hurry as our icy days are replaced with sunshine, our white, snow-covered world fades away in place of the bright colors of spring, and the eerie silence of winter is broken by the drone of the insects returning to the Northwoods. Birds can spread out in the northern habitats as we are released from the iron grip of our winters, settling in to find mates, build nests and raise their young on the abundance of food the summer months bring us. Now, as winter slowly creeps back and mother nature begins to prepare, our local birds have one foot out the door. But how can they do it? How can they fly hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles? How can they sustain themselves? Their flight? How do they even know where to go? While many aspects of migration still mystify scientists around the world, light has been shed on some of the migration secrets. Although these blog posts are mostly phenology related, we are going to have deviate momentarily to a more ornithological focus to see how cool birds really are!

Birds were born to fly. Not ground breaking news? But really, they are fine-tuned flying machines. Many people are aware of the importance feathers and hollow bones play in the role of flight, but it goes much deeper than that, quite literally. Nearly all of the organ systems in a bird have been modified to aid these creatures in their remarkable mode of locomotion. Their skeletal and muscle systems provide the physical requirements for flight. They have pneumatic bones, meaning there are air spaces in between criss-crossing struts, that allow the bones to be strong, yet light. Many of their bones are fused together, including all of the vertebrae (except for cervical, or neck, ones) providing the rigidity required for flight. The sternum has a large, thin keel (blue, at left) protruding from it, serving as an attachment area for the massive muscles involved in flying. The location of the keel helps keep the main mass low in the body, increasing aerodynamic stability during air time.  Their digestive systems are designed to process an energy rich diet quickly and efficiently. Birds need to eat a lot to keep up with the high energy demands of flight, but they don't want to be carrying around that extra weight as food moves through the digestive system - so it does so quite rapidly! A shrike can fully digest a mouse in three hours; a thrush can digest a meal of berries in just 30 minutes! The circulatory system has to work fast enough to support this high metabolism. Birds have a four-chambered heart, like mammals, but it is quite large and strong, comparatively. It also beats extremely fast (a chickadee's heart beats 500 times per minute at rest, increasing to over 1000 beats per minute while active!) to create a high pressure system capable of keeping up with the high metabolic rates required for flight. How can their bodies keep up with the oxygen demand? Birds have very unique lungs that utilize a series of air sacs (for storage) that essentially provide the bird with an almost continuous stream of oxygenated air. They also have a very efficient, vascularized system for getting oxygen to the muscles to sustain flight. Even their excretory system is modified to fly! Birds excrete waste in the form of uric acid, which has a very low solubility compared to the urea of mammals. While it takes about 60 mL of water for a mammal to get rid of 1 g of urea, it takes a bird 1.5-3 mL of water to get rid of 1 g of uric acid (and a lot of that water is reabsorbed before the waste exits!). This greatly reduces the demand for water intake, and thus water weight. Of course, anything that reduces weight is going to make it easier to fly! Lastly, birds have the most developed sense of sight in the animal kingdom - not a bad thing to have if your chosen transportation method is head-first, high velocity flight.

Photo credit to Marco Photography.

Incredible, right? But don't worry - it gets better; their navigational systems give their anatomical systems a run for their money. Bird migration is highly varied; some travel thousands of mile, some travel to the state next door; some migrate in one, continuous flight, others travel more leisurely, stopping many times to refuel; some go one way north, then take a different route back south. But no matter how they choose to migrate, they have to know where to migrate to. Scientists have been studying the mystery of bird navigational systems for many years. And quite honestly, there is no consensus. Different birds use different methods and many likely use a combination of more than one method. Some birds navigate by visuals - they follow topographical landmarks such as rivers, mountains, lakes, etc.  Some experiments indicate that birds have a magnetic compass that uses the earth's magnetic fields to align them in the correct direction for migration. Other experiments indicate that birds have an incredible "internal clock" that keeps track of time extremely accurately. They can then use this clock in collaboration with the sun's movements to figure out directions. But not all birds migrate during the day when they can use the sun. That's okay, because birds have a solution to that, too. Other experiments conducted in a planetarium proved that some birds use the stars as a map, orientating themselves using the location of the constellations that rotate around the north star!  However they complete this magnificent feat, it truly is quite astonishing. The Arctic Tern, the world's record holder for migration distance, navigates north past the Artic Circle to reach is summer breeding grounds and then south to Antarctica for it's wintering grounds - a distance of nearly 12,000 miles! As it turns out, these birds can live to be over 30 years old and the distance they fly in their lifetime is the equivalent of flying to the moon and back.... and then there and back again. ... and then once more.

So it's time to get outside and observe some of these awe-inspiring birds as they pass through briefly! If I could give them a high five as they flew by, I would. Better yet - make sure your bird feeders are full because our feathered friends could use all the caloric help they can get! While many of our summer residents have already departed on their journey south, there will still be a frenzy of bird movement to observe through November. While many of our songbirds have already passed through, such as the majority of the warblers, there are still some headed south. Keep your eyes peeled for large flocks of dark-eyed juncos, lingering robins, a variety of sparrows, palm warblers, hermit thrushes, and a few other songbirds (even though they're currently much quieter then when they move through in the spring!). As we progress further into October, the waterfowl migration scene will continue to heat up - so keep one eye on the lakes, rivers and wetlands for more geese, ducks, mergansers, swans and others! Here are some birds on migrational journeys that I have recently encountered to inspire you! Get outside and enjoy some brisk hikes in the beautiful scenery of fall to search for these winged-wonders!

American robin, persisting through the season's first "wintry mix", 10/3/14.


Left: Palm warbler, 10/6/14. Right: White-throated sparrow, 10/6/14.

Pair of wood ducks (male above, female below), 10/6/14.

Two trumpeter swans & a mallard, waking up to the frost, 10/7/14.

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Posted by on in Food & Water Security

I don't know if you know this, but I drive to work about 45 minutes each morning and back home for another 45 minutes. It gives me a lot of time for sports radio and the latest news and takes on the Twins (the left side of my heart). I also listen to audio books or sing along with John Coulton if the whimsy strikes me. What I'm saying is that I'm in my car a lot. It's a 2006 Toyota Prius and I love it. The mileage is fantastic, the sound system still bounces, and the back-up camera is something I didn't know I needed until I got it. I love this car. It's my baby (or ONE of my babies...I have 6 kids, you know. Here's a pic of three taken just last month.)

What I'm saying is that I try to take very good care of my champagne colored chariot. So, when I first start using the heat in the morning on some random late October day, I make a note to schedule a "Winterization" appointment with our mechanic. If you're interested, I found a great checklist for car winterization. But, now that I mention it, that's the same time you should start looking at setting up a "winterization" appointment with your garden at home!b2ap3_thumbnail_rakingsmall.jpg

The main purposes of winterization is to make your garden area clean for the winter and to make the soil ready for spring planting. There's really not a definitive way to winterize your garden, but there are a few tips that will give your garden a head start next spring.

1) Pull out dead plants - I know what your thinking. "They're dead! I can let them rot over the winter. It'll be better for the soil." Yes, you can, but that also means that any diseases or eggs from annoying bugs will be allowed to live in your garden over the winter. They are pretty hearty pests and might make your summer a long one. Best advice is to dispose of all the dead plants in your garden to start with a clean, healthy slate in the spring.

2) Keep weeding - Nearly the same principle applies to weeds. If you pull out the weeds now, you'll have fewer of them growing (or re-growing) in the spring, which means you'll have to pull them out anyway. Bonus! Pulling older weeds now is much easier pulling newer stronger weeds next summer.

3) Plant for spring - You're making a face now, I'm sure, but follow me here. There are some really neat plants that can be planted in the fall and harvested in early summer. Garlic is one of these plants. Also, if you plant a little earlier (late august around here), you would have a nice green cover crop that makes for a great fertilizer when tilled underneath. Just be sure to b2ap3_thumbnail_rakingleavessmall.pngtill them underneath before they start going to seed. You wouldn't want to have competition for the plants you really want to grow in the spring.

4) Clean your tools- I talked with Jim Chamberlin (one of the fantastic gardeners here at HDT) and he suggested that all tools need to be cleaned before being put away. He recommends cleaning the metal parts with water and soap and then take a steel wool brush and remove any rust that may have collected. Then take a bit of linseed oil and polish all the wooden parts of your tools. This will help keep moisture in the wood (keeping it from cracking and falling apart). Hang them up in your shed (or garage or basement) where they can stay dry for the winter.

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Posted by on in Environmental Stewardship

A week ago it seemed liked winter was right around the corner. Now the forecast for the weekend includes temperatures in the 80's! But the flora of Minnesota is not to be fooled, despite what the meteorologists say. The plants in our woods are getting ready for winter no matter what, but they do so in different ways. In fact, the two types of trees we have here in the Northwoods, the conifer and the deciduous (broadleaf) trees, show different adaptations for surviving winter. We live in a place where evergreen trees are synonymous with conifer trees, but this isn't true in other parts of the country. In warmer parts of the south where snowfall is rather rare, some broadleaf trees hang on to their green leaves all year round - making them an evergreen. Up here, all of our broadleaf trees have leaves that change color and, for the most part, all of them drop to the ground. But why? Why do the conifers get to keep their needles all year long while the deciduous trees get the task of dropping all their leaves just to regrow them in 8 months? Because these trees have winter survival strategies in the Northwoods.

Last year's autumn changes in a small lake near Longville, MN - 10/6/13

Deciduous trees have leaves that are very thin, with a high surface area, meaning they photosynthesize at very high rates. There are advantages and disadvantages to this type of a system. Because they can photosynthesize at such a high efficiency, these trees can put a lot of nutrients into their leaves at a very low cost. On the flip side, those high nutrient leaves attract many insects and other leaf eaters. Also, since they are very thin, they are somewhat fragile and do not endure snow and ice well. Snow can accumulate on the fragile leaves, becoming very heavy and breaking off leaves or even branches from the tree. The high surface area of the leaf means that they loose water easily in the cold, dry weather of winter. So instead of suffering through the long, bitter season like this, the trees drop their leaves in the fall. An advantage of this is the nutrient loaded leaves create a rich carpet of soil underneath the trees, providing an abundance of "food" for other plants, animals and even the trees themselves, come spring when the need a lot of nutrients to regrow their entire set of leaves.


Maples changing on 9/17/14, earlier than last year.

On the other hand, the conifers have a different survival strategy for the cold months. Instead of large, fragile leaves they have very small, sturdy leaves (needles) that come at a higher cost to the tree. The needles have a much smaller surface area and a waxy coating to decrease water loss, especially in the cold, dry months. Due to the small surface area, the rate of photosynthesis is much less efficient than the deciduous trees and their needles have far fewer nutrients - but this means fewer insects/leaf eaters find their needles attractive. Because the needles are lower in nutrients and do not drop every year, the soil below these trees typically isn't as rich as the soil found in the deciduous forests. Conifers do drop their needles, just not all at the same time because they persist on the tree for many years before falling off. If you take a walk right now, you will see a lot of golden or amber needles that are about to fall or already have fallen to the ground.



Many of the needles on conifers are already turning gold & dropping to the ground - 9/25/14

But why do the leaves change color before they fall in the autumn season? Chlorophyll is the pigment in the chloroplasts of the leaves that absorbs light (all but the reflected green light, causing it's color) to use as energy in the process of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll, as it turns out, is a rather unstable compound, that breaks down in bright sunlight. Since the leaves need chlorophyll to make food, they are constantly making more chlorophyll throughout the summer. There is an abscission zone between all of the leaves and the twigs which acts as a bridge, connecting the two parts with a series of tubes that allows water to travel from the tree to the leaf and nutrients made in the leaf to go back into the tree. At the fall signal (decreasing temperature and shorter day lengths) the cells in the bottom of this layer begin to swell, forming a corky membrane that stops the flow of water and nutrients between the tree and leaf. Since water is no longer entering the leaves, the process of photosynthesis begins to slow down, eventually halting, and the production of chlorophyll comes to an end. The top layer of cells in the abscission layer begin to deteriorate, creating a tear layer where the leave will eventually separate from the tree, leaving a leaf scar behind. Before this can happen, in the wake of the chlorophyll, the other pigments in the leaves can begin to shine. Leaves contain carotenoids, a type of organic pigment, in the chloroplasts that help absorb sunlight for the process of photosynthesis. There are two categories of carotenoids - the xanthophylls, which appear yellow, and the carotenes, which appear orange (the same pigment in carrots). Even though these pigments have been in the leaf all summer long, they have been overpowered by the chlorophyll. It is not until the levels of chlorophyll begin to decrease that the other pigments begin to be visible. The brown color in the leaf is caused by pigments in the tannins, a bitter compound that may accumulate in the leaves, particularly in oaks.


Canoe rides are a great way to see the fall colors! Left - 9/25/13; Right - 9/22/14.

The brilliant reds are another, more complicated story. The red or purple color in leaves is created by anthocyanins, water soluble pigments that are dissolved in the sap inside the cells of the leaves. The pigment is sensitive to the pH level of the sap, so if it is very acidic, then a bright red color is produced; if it is less acidic (more alkaline) then a deeper red or purple color is produced. The production of anthocyanins requires sunlight and does not occur until the sugar concentration in the sap is quite high. (Anthocyanins are also responsible for the red pigment in many types of apples, which is why many have a red half and a green half - the red half was in the sunlight and the reaction could occur.) Since bright sunlight both breaks down the chlorophyll and is necessary for the production of anthocyanins, it is typical for the leaves at the edges of the trees, where they are exposed to the most sunlight, to start changing colors before leaves of the interior of the tree.

September 25, 2014

But why would the leaves bother spending energy producing this pigment if their leaves will drop soon afterwards? Scientists have tried to answer this question and come up with several theories. The seemingly most popular theory out there is that the anthocyanins can function as a sort of sunscreen for the trees. During this time of the year, the trees are trying to recover the last remaining nutrients in the leaves before they drop them. This process requires the energy from photosynthesis, but autumn is a time where photosynthetic tissues are particularly unstable due to too much sunlight and other stresses, such as near freezing temperatures and drought, that may deteriorate them.  Just as the process of nutrient retrieval begins, the leaves produce large amounts of anthocyanins at the leaf surface, producing the red color. This may act as a sunscreen protecting the remaining chlorophyll from deteriorating in the bright sunlight, and therefore protecting the leaves' dwindling ability to generate energy during this crucial period. This would explain why we see the brightest reds during autumn in years that have many sunny days - because the tree needs this defense.  It would also explain why trees here in North America show those bright red colors, while their European counterparts do not. Autumn in Europe consist mostly of warm, cloudy days, so no sunscreen necessary! Other scientists believe that when leaves containing anthocyanins fall to the ground and decompose, they add a property to the soil that discourages other plant species from growing. Without competition, the tree that the leaves originated on would have more nutrients available at the time it needs to grow all new leaves.

Left: First red leaf of the year - 8/5/14! Center/Right: With many more to follow - 9/2514

Whatever the reason is that trees do this, I am thankful, because the result is beautiful! It is said the best fall colors come to us in the years that are warm and sunny by day, cool (near freezing) and dry by night. Typically, in this region of Minnesota, the reds of the oaks, sumac, and maples come first, followed by the yellows of the birches and aspens. While we have had some cloudy days and some rainy days, the colors are still pretty amazing right now, with reds and yellows blending together in an awe-inspiring scenery! The MN DNR website tracks color changes throughout the state, showing what percent of the peak color change is occurring in different regions, and many areas around here are approaching peak colors! Even if they are not quite there yet, it is beautiful out and there is no denying that! So get outside this weekend and check out some spectacular fall colors - now that you know why we have them! Did you know Minnesota has nearly 4 million acres in over 50 different state forests that you can access for free?! Many of these parks are in peak colors and have an incredible display going on right now! Take an adventure - the weather is supposed to be gorgeous and mother nature is providing the entertainment this weekend! Enjoy!


 There are many scenic routes throughout the state - so get outside & enjoy them (9/25/14)!


“Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.” - Lauren DeStefano




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