After the Hike| Hike @ Night with HIKEhoppers at Warner Lake Park

This past Saturday, I joined a local non-profit called HIKEhoppers on a glow-stick laden, s’mores filled night hike at Warner Lake County Park in Clearwater, MN. Warner Lake County Park site is 264 acres surrounding the 30 acre Warner Lake. The park was founded in 1973 when the Campfire Girls Inc. donated the first 33 acres—a place formerly known as Camp Suima—to Stearns County.

Now, the park is prime for paddling, picnicking, swimming, campfires, relaxing at the beach, and—of course—hiking.

We began our hike at the parks nature center, a space that you can actually rent out )for a fee). We traveled back with the lake on our left hand side over a bridge where we made our first stop. There, we spotted a familiar critter with beady brown eyes and an oily coat moving twigs across the waters surface to a stream head before somersaulting below the surface. It was a beaver! He was in the process of building a rather impressive dam and the scene lent itself kindly to a brief naturalist moment discussing this beaver behavior.

We continued on to a clearing with several benches where we paused for a time. In that pause, I did a brief lesson on the epic of nature that is the Twilight Zone, wielding a great horned owl puppet and a pair of iPhone headphones as just one part of the segment.

For those of you who were there and would like to learn more, or anyone for that matter, The Wild Life actually did a full episode on this back in season 1.

Afterwards, we continued our hike along a sandy pathway through tall stands of red and white pine as dusk turned to dark, guided by the light of the moon and our glow sticks. Along the way, we made a pit stop to observe an army of American Toads, during which I was pooped on, but such is life, am I right? No? Of course, I gave my spiel about letting them cross, the wart myth, the difference between frogs and toads and other tidbits (or should I say…rib-bits)

Soon, we were at the beach where a warm campfire awaited us and all of the fixings for a variety of s’mores. For the base, there were Fudge Stripe Cookies, Ritz Honey Wheat Crackers, or Graham Crackers.  Marshmallows  were at the center, of course! For the chocolatey center, we had either assorted Ghirardelli Chocolate flavors, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or Hershey’s Milk Chocolate.

What had been expected to be a chilly, rainy evening could not have been more perfect. We returned to the parking lot where we parted ways, but not before pausing to appreciate a dazzling show being put on by the first fireflies

HIKEhoppers will be having another Hike @ Night event on July 20th at Kraemer Lake Wildwood County Park in St Joseph, MN. Details on that hike and how to register can be found here.

I will be joining them again as a guest naturalist, which is all ahead of my new hiking series with them beginning this fall! It’s a naturalist hike series where each hike has a certain theme to allow you to learn about nature while you’re out in nature! Stay tuned for more details.



TWL Hiking Club| Hike @ Night with HIKEhoppers and The Wild Life + a Big Announcement!

See the source imageThe Wild Life is joining forces with HIKEhoppers, a central MN non-profit organization, whose vision we share to connect people to nature through hiking events and educational learning experiences.

At 8:30 pm this Saturday, 6/15, join us for a night hike at Warner Lake Park in Clearwater, MN!

But before we get into the details, I wanted to share a big announcement with you all. This joining of forces isn’t going to be just a one time thing. Starting September of 2019,  I will be hosting a themed naturalist hike on the second Saturday of each month. Exciting stuff, right?! More details are to come, so please stay tuned. I could not be more excited about this new path forward.

Okay, now back to the Hike @ Night details.

There will be GLOW STICKS, Bonfires, and specialty S’mores! There is NOTHING like viewing nature at NIGHT! Explore a Stearns County Park through night vision and enjoy a night out for less than the cost of a movie and popcorn!  I will be joining, nat bag in hand, to share fun nature facts and tell you all of the things you never knew you wanted to know about that bug, or that weird thing some moths do to avoid bats.

Price includes: One pass for a Nocturnal Hike, a variety of Glow Sticks, and access to the S’more bar. For group pricing or questions please email

Please Note: When you register for HIKEhoppers events and programs you are acknowledging and agreeing to our Terms and Conditions for ALL participants in your order. Only parents and legal guardians may register children under the age of 18. Same conditions apply. All hikers (and/or guardians) must read and electronically sign Terms and conditions before registering thank you. HIKEhoppers Terms and Conditions

As you patiently wait for details on my upcoming hikes with HIKEhoppers, I highly recommend you check out their current work and events. Visit for more information on this wonderful bunch of people.



The American Goldfinch

Meet the American Goldfinch

Spinus tristis

Capture.PNGA few days back while at the park with my son, we were sitting beneath a shady cedar tree watching a family of Canada Geese graze in the grass when, from above, came a familiar summer song— po-ta-to chip, po-ta-to chip. Just then, a pair of birds, one a vibrant yellow and the other olive-yellow in tone and lacking the trademark black mask, dove out of the tree. The skimmed the surface of the grass below as the made their way to a tree across the path with a bouncy undulation like that of a beating heart. They were a male and female American Goldfinch—presumably a breeding pair. One indicator of their pairing was their nearly identical call in flight.


The American Goldfinch, like so many birds, is sexually dimorphic, meaning that the males and females exhibit different color patterns. If you know anything about birds, you’d likely assume the male is the more vibrant. You’d be right! This palette difference doesn’t last all year, however. These birds molt twice per year, meaning that in the winter, the males look quite a lot like the females. When in full color, the vibrancy can be quite striking. The golden feathers and sunset orange beak are the result of carotenoid pigments acquired from their food. (Just for a moment, imagine if you turned color based on what you ate.  Uhhhh, no thank you.) As summer ends, the American Goldfinch undergoes yet another molt, losing its vibrancy in favor of a drab, dirty-yellow dress.

Summer Male Plumage

As you might assume, the females usually go for the most vibrant males. Why? The theory here is that, in doing so, they are inadvertently also choosing the most successful males in terms of ability to gather food. After all, the most colorful must be the most healthy. I say ‘inadvertently’ for one reason: the females likely have no concept of health or how Stan over here must be a good mate because he clearly knows where to get the goods. Maybe she just likes orange and yellow? Maybe she just wants her man to look good? That’s an evolutionary debate for another time.

American Goldfinch Range, Courtesy of Birds of North America

The American Goldfinch is quite abundant as compared to some other species and can be found throughout much of North America, certainly the US, depending on the time of year. In general, with the exception of those who stick around parts of the western US, the Midwest, and east coast, this finch will spend its winter months in more southern areas and summer months farther north—just like you would if you had wings and no responsibilities. This is especially important when you take into consideration what their preferred habitats are and their primary food sources.

In the summer months, this stick of butter size bird can be found plains, fields, the edges of some forests, and right at your bird feeder. Their diet is one of the most strictly vegetarian of song birds, eating almost entirely grains—a fact you can see right on the face of this bird by its conical beak structure. Two such grains are the seeds of milkweed or  the thistle seed. Having a diet dependent on plants means you must travel when those seeds are accessible and available. This may sound like a hard life, but it does come with some added benefits. For example, their seed-filled diet protects them from brood parasitism. Some birds, like the Brown Headed Cowbird, will lay their eggs into the nest of another bird and leave them there, tricking the mother of that nest into taking care of their (Brown Headed Cowbird) egg. However, the solely-seed diet isn’t sustainable enough for Brown Headed Cowbird hatchlings…

Goldfinch In Ozarks Winter, Goldfinch, Bird, Finch
Winter Plumage

Speaking of breeding and nesting, the American Goldfinch is unusual in its timing—often not until late June. But again, this is believed to be related to their food source.  The flowering of the thistle occurs just before the begin nesting in the summer months.  Because of the late timing, it is most common that a goldfinch pair will have just one brood of 2 to 7 eggs per year, incubating the nest for nearly two weeks. However,  every so often, the female will ditch the male with the eggs, leaving them in his care, before going and finding a new man. Kind of messed up, but sometimes it be(ak) like that.

Goldfinch, Female, Bird, Avian, Wildlife, Finch
Female coloration

Want to see more American Goldfinches at your bird feeder? Check out how to safely do so here.


McGraw, K. J. and A. L. Middleton (2017). American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), version 2.1. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

TWL Hiking Club| Savanna Portage State Park

Have you always wanted to know what it feels like to be in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, but don’t know if you’re ready to brave the wilderness just yet? Retreat to the wilderness of Savanna Portage State Park in McGregor, Minnesota—just 60 miles west from Duluth and 150 north of the Twin Cities. This isolated paradise is nearly 16000 acres of scenic hills, serene lakes, and so-quiet-you-can-hear-your-heartbeat bogs.

There you can hike historic passageways like the Savanna Portage Trail. As is its namesake, this trail was used as a 6 mile portage by Dakota, Ojibwe, and fur traders for over 200 years. It took an average of 5 days to reach the West Savanna River using this path.

The Continental Divide also cuts through the park, marking a split in the flow of water into two: western water flows into the mighty Mississippi River, while eastern flows migrate towards Lake Superior.

During the summer, you can swim at Loon Lake, paddle or fish for panfish and bass at Lake Shumway across from the main campground, or camp in isolation at your very own paddle-in camp site on the far side of Wolf Lake.

This park boasts 10 miles of mountain biking trails and 27 miles of hiking opportunities.

During winter, snowmobile on 32 miles of trail or snowshoe your way through the quiet wilderness.

The landscape of Savanna Portage, like much of Minnesota, was shaped by miles thick sheets of glacial ice which carved through the landscape for thousands of years. The tamarack bogs, which are my personal ecosystem in the park, were once glacial lakes, since filled with sediment and sphagnum moss in a stunning example of ecological succession. These bogs will, over time, continue to fill in, eventually allowing the forest to overcome its surface. These bogs are filled with Labrador tea and carnivorous plants such as the pitcher plant and Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia).

Is wildlife-watching your thing? Living within Savanna Portage are deer, bear, skunk, beaver, wolf, moose, and coyote. The park also has excellent birding opportunities!

In terms of camping and lodging, Savanna Portage has camper cabins, the Garni Guesthouse, a canoe in camp site, a 30 person group camp, 6 backpacking sites, and 61 drive-in sites (18 electric).

Our personal testimony

Chelsea (@teacherwhohikes): Okay, so like I am a people person, but I am also not. I like being alone in nature. This park was exactly what I needed. It is super North Shore without the people. There is even some unique campsites there that I excited to try soon. In this park, we canoed a lot. We also saw wildlife. I am not super obsessed with predators (outside of owls) like most Minnesotans, for I appreciate birds, rodents, deer, etc almost more. This is the place to see these animals! We saw beavers every single time we hiked. The bog was also breathtaking in that it is scientifically the most interesting type of ecosystem. Like bro, carnivorous plants everywhere! The water had bryozoans, which again, bro, yes. And again, there weren’t annoying touristy campers with loud music and dogs there. It is not like “the park” to go to, so it is often overlooked.

Devon (@devonthenatureguy): Everything Chelsea said. Plus, we were there at a time when a lot of wildfires were going on elsewhere, so that made for some breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. We watched a beaver devour, like, 40 lily pads before it smacked its tail at us, saw a bunch of carnivorous plants in the bog which is my all time favorite habitat type, and overall had an experience I wouldn’t change or alter for the world. This park is legit the closest state park to the BWCA that I have ever been to and I am stoked to get out there again, probably summer after next, to try out one of their canoe in camp sites!

Click here to listen to a special podcast short about the amazing floating bryozoans

More information on this location can be found here

The Trouble with Trilobites

It’s #FossilFriday, and you know what that means—fossils. Big surprise, right?

This week, with an unoriginal but begging to be used titular parody on the classic Star Trek episode ‘The Trouble with Tribbles”—we’re talking trilobites.

Here is my trilobite.  It was a gift from my brother (podcast co-host) he picked up at a rock convention. Yes, that is a thing.

You’ve probably seen one before. In fact, I’d almost guarantee that you have. They’re incredibly common. Like, ‘for sale at the museum gift shop right next to a bunch of ammonites’ common. There’s a reason for that. Despite the fact that the planets hasn’t seen a living trilobite since the End Permian extinction about 250 million years ago (more on that in a moment), these Pokémon-esque creatures were once the most common and diverse animals on the planet—20,000 species and over 60 different families diverse (there’s even one named, no joke, Han solo). Some even had eyestalks!

Asaphus kowalewskii 3

Despite holding such a coveted spot on the shelves of the “History of Life Hall of Fame”, their success really peaked around the end of the period in which they first arose. Meaning that, despite roaming the ocean floor around the globe for nearly 300 million years, their golden years “only” lasted from roughly 540 mya to 500 mya (myo=million years ago, in case you didn’t catch that).

Still, 40 million years as top dog ain’t bad.

Their evolutionary arrival on earth came about in a period of time called the Cambrian Explosion when multicellular life diversified rapidly, relatively speaking—or at least an explosion in diversity of hard-bodied animals that fossilized well. It’s hard to say. We weren’t there after all. What lead to such an explosion? A lot of things: richly oxygenated atmosphere, warm temperatures, high sea levels, you name it. Either way you look at it, the fossil record evidence indicates that new creatures branches and speculated at unprecedented rates.

But where did they live? What did they do? And what the fossil are they? The fossil record holds some answers.

File:Trilobite Mivart.png

Trilobites had a global expanse, and their fossils have been found on every continent. They were arthropods and, like all other arthropods, were spineless critters with an exoskeleton, a segmented body (trilobite means three lobes, after all, except those three refer not to the head, thorax, and tail, but to the three distinct side to side lives running vertically on the body), and paired, jointed appendages. Arthropoda is a Phylum, the classification level just below Kingdom, so it encompasses a ton of life, including arachnids, insects, and crustaceans. They account for nearly 1 million of the estimated 8.7, with over 90% of those being insects. Trilobites were more akin to crustaceans like the Horseshoe Crab. As such, these creatures dotted the ocean floor. Masters of niche-acquisition, different species are different things. Some ate algae; others ate worms. Earlier species fell more into the latter category as predator-scavengers, while later species were more commonly particle-feeders.

Most trilobites had eyes, though some were blind. Many had complex compound eyes with a wide range of vision. Not always well preserved, trilobites also has a variety of spines, and other surface structures to aid in underwater sensory. They had many little legs under their armor plated bodies, and even had complex digestive systems.

Like modern crustaceans, trilobites molted as their body outgrew their exoskeleton. In fact, a likely majority of their fossils are actually just empty casings left behind. The largest fossil ever found was nearly 28 inches long and belonged to the species Isotelus rex, but they range in between all the way down to just a few millimeters. Tracks of their movement have even been fossilized, some lending evidence to their diet composition as they converge on and stop at worm hidey-holes. Imagine being a worm and peeking out of your front door to see a scuttling mass of trilobites inching toward you. Yikes.

Terataspis grandis eIf ever the tables turned (which, side note: everytime I hear or write this phrase, I immediately think of Michael Scott’s “My, how the turntables” moment on the office and nearly cry-laugh), because they did (the Permian is when earth really first saw the rise of predation as a thing), trilobites, some at least, could roll themselves up like a rolly-poley (pill big, potato bug, whatever). We know this because, you guessed it, fossils! Some have even been found crushed or with bite marks from the jawed fish who were coming into the seen. In fact, in the Devonian fossil record is when we begin to see more drastically spiky trilobites—surely adaptations to protect them from this new threat from above and make them more difficult to swallow.
However, no amount or armadillo-ing could protect them from the Great Dying—a mass extinction 250 million years ago that wiped out over 70% of land species, 95% of those on the ocean, and all trilobites. Most haven’t even heard of that extinction event. Everyone’s favorite (which we will be covering in a two parter season 2 finale of the podcast), that of the dinosaurs, gets all of the attention. According to a 2018 study, this extinction occurred in a geological instant with organism dying en-masse.


What exactly caused it? There are a lot of theories. The leading hypothesis is that a massive series of volcanic eruptions covered  part of what is now Siberia with over 4 million cubic kilometers of lava. This released huge amounts of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the air, and apparently burned immense amounts of coal, heating the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans. Other theories relate to an impact or death by change in climate due to microbial life.

Geologic time scaleThis was hardly the first of mother nature’s first attempt at assassinating these little creatures. For example, in the Ordovician period, their was a drastic cooling of the earth which diminished algae and other food sources, followed by glaciation and a drop in sea levels. This was another major extinction event for the planet long before the Great Dying known as the Ordovician-Silurian extinction. It say the elimination of roughly a 1/4 of life and about 1/2 of trilobite families.

Again, in the late Devonian, massive carboniferous sediments covered the ocean floor and the oxygen levels began to drop significantly. This had a massive cascading effect on ecosystems around the globe and nearly wiped out the trilobites. Only 4 trilobite families survived.

Despite their eventual demise, the story of trilobites is a story of survival and perseverance—much of which can be read like ancient hieroglyphs from the very earth they once ruled.

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