“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” —Albert Einstein

Seasonal change. Growing up on a Wisconsin farm, I failed to appreciate the fall season because that meant winter would follow—and I disliked cold weather. My father grumbled about how frigid weather made his arthritis act up: “As soon as I retire, I’m moving south.” His attitude must have rubbed off on me because I decided to do him one better: I would move to gentler climes before I retired!

Here in San Diego, the changing of the seasons is subtle. During October, the summer heat finally subsides; the deciduous trees droop their crinkled leaves onto parched ground; and all of nature sighs and waits for restorative winter rains. The first years after Gunter and I acquired Northern Bliss, our lake home in northern Wisconsin, we treated it as a summer place. We opened it up prior to Memorial Day and closed it after Labor Day.

That was a mistake.

This year, because of Covid, we left San Diego in March when authorities closed the beaches, bays and boardwalks. We returned in late October, just days before the first snow fell on White Ash Lake. There, we experienced all the seasons: the fickleness of April—with tulips bursting forth one day and snow flurries the next—the blush of spring in May, the flowery fullness of June and July, the dog days of August, the transitional month of September, and the magical leaf-peeping month of October.

What Einstein said is true: Everything is a miracle. But spring has been graced with poetry and prose, glorified with the promise of new beginnings. Autumn? Not so much.

Preparation. I had not realized how much nature prepares for fall. Growing up on a farm, I knew all about “harvest time.” My father and my grand-father built wagons and fixed up a rig for silo-filling, and then pulled their “train” to neighboring farms to cut and store their corn silage. My mother and grandmother were busy canning garden produce and storing root crops in the earth cellar. Consumed with our struggle for survival, we did not have time to enjoy nature back then. Nature just was.

This fall, I had the luxury of time to focus on all of nature’s activity on our one acre of land and 200 hundred feet of lakeshore. From the middle of placid White Ash Lake, a pair of loons cried during September nights. One called “Where are you?” The mate wailed, “I’m here.” The call of the loon is an evocative sound you will never forget.

Every day, bald eagles screeched overhead, dominating the scene. Sometimes they spotted a fish and swooped down to the lake’s surface while every other bird scattered. The pair will stay the winter; they need to fatten up. Our resident hummingbirds flew south, so we washed and stored their feeders. Goldfinches followed. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds disappeared from our platform feeder. Only our pair of blue jays, along with ladder-back and pileated woodpeckers, remained at the suet feeder. Below, robins pecked at the ground. Black-hatted and bibbed chickadees continued to flit through treetops searching for insects while calling chick-a-dee-dee- dee. They visited their own “private” feeder often—after the goldfinches disappeared. Undaunted, with their winning personalities, they sat in a pine tree watching me plant bulbs. After Jack Frost paid us a visit, it was time to pull up the annuals and prepare for spring. This year, I added a dash of cayenne pepper to each bulb to foil the squirrels who dug up my bulbs last spring. As I dug and planted, those squirrels dashed about in a frenzy underneath our remaining oaks, burying acorns like prized treasures. Living among nature is never boring; there is always something to observe.

Jack Frost Collage

Our favorite experience this autumn was watching the pair of trumpeter swans teaching their three cygnets how to fly. The swans usually hang out in the marsh at the north end of the lake, where their little ones were born. Females typically lay 4-6 eggs and keep them warm for 32-37 days until the eggs hatch, while the cob helps defend the nest from predators and intruders. Unlike most birds, female swans do not sit on their eggs; instead, they use their feet to keep the eggs warm. Their young are born precocial, with downy feathers and eyes almost open. They are ready to swim from their nest within a few days of hatching but remain close to their parents for the first year. When we crept by on our pontoon, we marveled at how fast the three cygnets had grown since spring: fully feathered and one-half the adult size in less than 10 weeks. The swans still had some pale brown feathers. Apparently, they do not develop white plumage until their second winter.

Swans about to fly

Five swans getting ready to fly.

Trumpeter Swans are the kings of waterfowl. They are North America’s largest and heaviest native waterfowl, stretching to 6 feet and weighing more than 25 pounds—almost twice as large as Tundra Swan. Their first attempt at flying occurs at 90-119 days. Getting airborne requires a lumbering takeoff along a 100-yard runway. One fine September day, Gunter and I heard a commotion on the lake and rushed to see what was happening. The parents were teaching their three children to fly! Quite a racket accompanied the flying lessons. During courtship, trumpeter swans spread their wings, bob, and trumpet together. These flying lessons, however, reminded me of a shouting match! During takeoff, the swans slapped their wings and feet against the surface of the lake. Finally, the family of five took to the air, mother in front, children in the middle, and father bringing up the rear—just like they swim across the lake. We cheered them on, clapping until they were out of sight!

The name for trumpeter swans, cygnus buccinator, comes from the Latin cygnus (swan) and buccinare (to trumpet). (We humans have buccinator muscle in our cheeks; we use it to blow out candles and to blow into trumpets.) These swans produce a variety of sounds, but they are known for their low bugle call. In addition to that call, they use head bobbing to warn the flock of impending danger or in preparation for flight. Listen to the sounds they make here. Both sexes make a flat-toned, single-syllable “hoo” call to locate each other. Younger swans make a more high-pitched sound. But when they want to keep the family together, defend territories, or sound an alarm, the make the characteristic deep trumpeting “oh, OH” call.

A few days before leaving Northern Bliss in mid-October, the trumpeter swan family—all dressed with black bills, feet, and legs—paid us a visit. They arrived in the morning and hung around during the day, heads underwater and tails bobbing in the air, foraging for underwater weeds. At night they left, presumably for their nesting grounds. But each day they returned. We liked to think they were saying goodbye. What a treat! We hope this pair survives the winter. They are truly soulmates, the symbol of true love. Did you know that if one partner dies, the other could die of a broken heart?

Nature’s Miracle: A Sense of Time

I learned so much more about trees after replanting 20 of them after the 2019 tornado.
After one of the young maples dropped its rust-red leaves this fall, I examined a stem to see what was left behind and was I surprised! Little buds were already in place, just waiting for the right time to open. How do they know when to bud? Can trees tell time?

Shedding leaves and growing news ones depends not only on the temperature but how long the days are. The folded leaves, resting peacefully in the buds, are covered with brown scales to prevent them from drying out. When those leaves start to grow in the spring, you can hold them up to the light and see that they are transparent. It probably takes only the tiniest bit of light for the buds to register day length. Tree trunks can register light as well because most species have tiny dormant buds within their bark. Amazing!

Leaf-peeping in Wisconsin.

In-between “closing-the-cabin chores,” Gunter and I took day trips throughout Northwest Wisconsin, on leaf-peep expeditions. Wisconsin back roads are wonderfully maintained; during the summer, most of them gained another coat of smooth blacktop, making autumn road trips a pleasure. I hope you enjoy my photos below:

Fall decorated mantle

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Other blogs in the Northern Bliss and Wisconsin series are:
Wander Birds: Migrating North https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/06/22/wander-birds- migrating-north/
April is the Cruelest Month https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/04/25/april-is-the-cruelest- month/

Road Trippin’ Across Northern Wisconsin https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/09/15/road- trippin-across-northern-wisconsin/
Recovery from Natural Disasters https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/09/28/recovery-from- natural-disasters/

Tornado! Disaster at Northern Bliss https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/tornado- disaster-at-northern-bliss/
Memories of Wisconsin Tornadoes https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/07/20/memories-of- wisconsin-tornadoes/

I Never Promised You a Rain Garden https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/i-never- promised-you-a-rain-garden/
How to Drain a Wet Lot https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/how-to-drain-a-wet-lot/

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


A commotion on the lake woke me up in a flash. The splashing was accompanied by a sound I hadn’t heard here—a deep note, like that of a French horn, with a lingering ring. I ran to the window just in time to see a family of five swimming past our dock. My bird book identified them as Trumpeter swans—the largest waterfowl in North America. The next day they came back and I managed to take photos. What a sight—and a privilege.

These swans have had a touch-and-go history in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The last wild nests were located in Heron and Everson Lakes in the late 1880s. The birds were killed for food; their feathers were used for ladies’ hats, and their down, for powder puffs. By 1935, fewer than 70 of these majestic birds could be found in remote areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. That year, Red Rock, Montana became a refuge for Trumpeter swans. Hennepin Parks, Minnesota hosted restoration efforts in the 1960s. Then in 1982, Minnesota’s DNR (Department of Natural Resources) joined the effort by transporting swan eggs from Alaska to Minnesota. The offspring, called cygnets, were raised for two years and released. Now, over 2000 swans trumpet in Heron Lake, Swan Lake, and St. Croix State Park. In Wisconsin, thanks to the state endangered species act and a public-private partnership, trumpeter swan populations are recovering. Trumpeter swans doubled the goal of 20 breeding pairs by 2000, and were removed from the state endangered species list in 2009. Today, the number stands at a modern all-time high of nearly 200 nesting pairs in 23 counties. You can view them at Crex Meadows in Burnett County and Sandhill Wildlife Refuge in Wood County—or come to White Ash Lake, where we have one family of five.

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Life Cycle: The male and female build a nest on a muskrat or beaver dam, on a floating mat of plants, or build up enough plants to make a platform. The female incubates the clutch of 4-6 eggs for 34 days. One day before hatching, the chicks begin to peep. Cygnets can swim as soon as their down is dry, but they stay on their nests for a few days. For the next three weeks, until their new feathers grow in, they are brooded by their parents and fed snails and insects from the bottom of the marsh. The juveniles stay with their parents through their first winter until they return in the spring to the same breeding area. Then they hang out with their siblings for 4-6 years until they are mature enough to mate and raise their own young. If a pair uses the same nesting location two summers in a row, they form an almost unbreakable attachment to the site.

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

The swans create quite a commotion when they take off. They run on top of the water with their wings flapping. Just after take-off they pull their necks into an S and then straighten it out. They sleep with their head tucked down under their wing.

Fluffiing feathers to dry off

Fluffiing feathers to dry off