Sunday, July 05, 2015

A New Beginning and the Start of a Bittersweet Ending

Greg and I spent the month of June in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, on "Baby Watch."  Connor finally decided to join us about 10 days ago, arriving safely but with a whole lot of uproar.  Greg and I stuck around Florida for a week or so, getting him and his parents snuggled in a bit, then we hightailed it back here to Clearwater for a bittersweet fortnight to be spent doing a final cleanup and clearout here, culminating in a total packup and moveout.
Because of Baby Watch, we've literally been gone for over a month.  We've had a great couple mowing our lawn for us, once a week, but otherwise the yard has been on its own during that time.  No weeding (during all of April and May, too, to be honest), no watering, no transplanting, no nothing.  So I had no idea what I was going to find when we got back, especially as wet as the weather was for much of May.

Doing a walkabout yesterday morning, I found some good things and some disappointing things, some expected changes and some unexpected changes. To get the disappointment out of the way without further ado, I was very unhappy to see how weedy the buffalo grass was.  After 3 years of relatively careful weeding, I was hoping that there wouldn't be much crabgrass...but I was sadly mistaken. I'm hoping to find time to weed it out one last time before we leave...but I'm not counting on it.  Weeding the lawn is a pretty low priority right now.

The front flower garden is full, but not very floriferous, a common problem for this bed at this time of year.  The rain has made everything very tall this summer, which is a little overwhelming.  The daylilies bloomed while we were gone, as did the butterfly milkweed. The lanceleaf coreopsis and the pink evening primrose were just beginning when we left;  they are completely done now, but the Echinacea is still blooming nicely.

Looking down the front walk, there is a single tall wild lettuce dominating the center stage, but at least that will be quick and easy to pull out.  The eastern gama grass (Tripsacum dactyloides) that didn't get relocated this spring is liking its spot next to the walk entirely TOO well.  If no one wants it, it will get moved to the compost pile.  Five or six foot tall grasses right next to a front walkway are just not welcome, even if they are native.

The wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) bloomed while we were gone and it is just about finished.  I'm going to cut most of it way, way back and see what happens.  Or, actually, I guess I won't see, but at least it won't be quite so front-and-center with its drying seed heads.  If anyone wants some, I have several nice, healthy clumps that could use a new home.....

The back courtyard is rather wild & woolly and no flowers are currently blooming, but at least there is some open space left.  Looking out my back kitchen door, I just saw some fireflies beginning their nightly display.  Somebody's enjoying the beds in their rather overgrown condition!

The back courtyard was where I started a bit of work this morning, weeding away with a will until I accidentally backed into a healthy poison ivy plant I hadn't noticed.  I tried to go on, but it was hard to concentrate while worrying about how much oil I had on my bare legs, so I gave up and went in to take a shower.  Nine hours later, I can report that the shower, with large amounts of soap vigorously applied, did the trick - no itchy rashes anywhere, at least not yet.

The vegetable garden is the real problem child right now.  We have done absolutely nothing in it all spring, and it is an overgrown disaster.  Sigh.  So much potential and it's just totally buried from sight right now.

So there's lots of work to do this week.  On the plus side, the weather is supposed to be reasonable, with one or two days in the 70s.  On the negative side, I managed to put out my back very thoroughly yesterday afternoon.  On the plus side, as long as I sit in straight chairs or directly on the ground and move slowly and carefully, I can get some work done.  On the negative side, our air conditioner wasn't working correctly when we got home.  On the positive side, we broke down and called Bob Stith Heating and Plumbing and they came to fix it today, despite the holiday.  Cool temperatures in the house is a BIG positive!

I'll leave you with several more positives from our walkabout yesterday....

First, a tiger swallowtail nectaring at the wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum) in the lagoon.  (Yes, the lagoon needs to be mowed, but we won't think about that right now.)

Second, our beautiful patch of smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) in the Cedar Grove beyond the Draw.  (No, I did not see any monarch caterpillars, unfortunately.)

Third, my Pitcher's clematis (Clematis pitcheri) is looking better than I've seen it look in several years!  Here are a couple of the blooms, on a stem weaving through one of the rose bushes.  They're not colored as deeply blue-purple as usual, but they are still quite attractive in my opinion.

And, finally, a gorgeous patch of whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) next to the path in the Front Tallgrass.  The pollinators were literally dizzy with delight as they fed on the blooms!

Wish us luck!  I'll try to share our progress over the upcoming several weeks.....

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Buzz in the Meadow

I just finished reading A Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson's latest book.  (He wrote A Sting in the Tale several years ago, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading last December.)  Goulson is a biology professor in England who has done some excellent research on bumblebees;  he is the founder of the Bumble Conservation Trust.  I was really looking forward to reading this book, especially as it was about the run down French farm Goulson purchased about a dozen years ago and his efforts to restore it to decent biological/ecological health. That resonated with my efforts to restore decent biodiversity on our 10 acres in Kansas, so I was curious to see what sorts of results a "professional" had had with the process.

At first I was a little disappointed.  His descriptions of the early years at the farm were fine, but they didn't spark me. In his introduction, he'd described how he'd organized the book into 3 sections, though, so I kept reading.

Things picked up as I read a bit further - some of the natural history relationships that he describes almost seem like the stuff of science fiction or legend, but they are processes that occur every day in the normal course of events.  Do hairstreak butterflies in Kansas have the same weird move, just prior to landing, that hairstreaks in Europe do?

This is the gray hairstreak, feeding on aromatic aster, in my fall garden a couple years ago.  I'll be watching hairstreaks as they land to feed now.

How long do OUR dragonflies stay coupled during the summertime - as long as European dragonflies do?  If so, why have I never noticed that before?

Can U.S. newspapers REALLY affect sexual development in European bugs?

WHY would some flowers evolve to be warmer than their surroundings?  (Remind me to check magnolia blooms in early spring, would you?!)

Apparently in Europe, treating a flower filled grassland with chemical fertilizer (even just for a year or two) will cause the flowers to disappear as the grasses go absolutely berserk and choke the forbs out.  Does the same thing happen in the American prairie???

There are also a few species of wildflowers in Europe that act as partial parasites on nearby grasses, so meadows with those flowers in them tend to have more species diversity as the grasses get kept "in their place" more effectively.  Does that happen in the prairie???

As you can tell, there were many things to think about as I read further into this book.

Then I got to the 3rd section. 

If I'd had one disappointment in A Sting in the Tale, Goulson's earlier book, it was that Goulson didn't seem too hot and bothered about neonicotinoid pesticides and their effect on bees.  I don't remember him saying much at all about colony collapse disorder.  Since he was a bumblebee researcher, this seemed like a huge omission.

Apparently a lot of other people were wanting him to weigh in on the subject, too, so he did what any REAL scientist would do: he decided to study the issue himself.   Then he wrote about what he learned in Chapter 13:  "The Disappearing Bees". This chapter gives a brief history of the issues, then goes into the research that he did on the topic of neonicotinoids' effects on bumblebees, what it revealed, and what happened after that research was published.

It's eye-opening.  If you use pesticides in your yard or garden, if you counsel people about whether they should use pesticides - I highly recommend that you read this chapter, even if you read nothing else in this book. I found my jaw dropping at times.

(Obviously I must be developing facial tics, after re-reading that last paragraph!)

Finishing up the book, the final chapter was so interesting that I read it out loud to my husband.   Talk about historical perspective! Goulson even worked the "hobbit people" in there!

Hobbit people or not, the book had important and interesting things to share.  Reading it left me feeling that I could make a real difference anywhere I lived by creating a small refuge of biodiversity in my yard and garden.  Each of us will change the world, at least a little bit.  I like to think I'll leave the world a little bit richer for my having passed through it.....

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A New Chapter Begins "Down South"...

I haven't been blogging lately because we're in the middle of a big transition - moving from the prairies of south central Kansas back to the Gulf Coast, this time to Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.

John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you're making other plans," and that sentiment fits this move to a T.  Our first grandbaby is due any minute now (literally), and we are moving down here to help with childcare, since both of his parents are active duty in the Air Force.

It's very hard to leave our little bit of prairie...but it's also enjoyable to have a new challenge greeting me.  I'll be bouncing back and forth between the two places for a while, but I'll try to be clear which one I'm talking about in my blog posts.

Having arrived in Ft. Walton Beach right as summer really took hold, I'm not doing much more than observing what is growing and living in our new digs.  Our new yard is much smaller - a bit less than half an acre backing up to a small, but picturesque, manmade, freshwater lake.  The soil in our yard is VERY sandy and there are good-sized trees, giving a rather savannah-like effect.

As far as plant material goes, for starters, we have 6 sand live oaks (Quercus geminata).  This species is THE major tree in the local area. Visually, however, it is less important in our yard than in the general area simply because our individual sand live oak trees are rather plain.  Here, in contrast, are a couple sand live oak trees in our daughter's yard, about a block away....

Back to our yard, there are also 3 reasonably large southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), ....

...and 3 hickories that I'm pretty sure are bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis).

The native plant material essentially comes to an end there.  Obviously the previous owners were not native plant buffs.  We have camellias and azaleas, all carefully hacked - oh, sorry, "pruned" - into "manageable" sizes and shapes; ...

...and multiple Loropetalums (a large shrub/small tree that likes to top out around 12' tall) carefully planted in front of windows that go almost to the ground.

Finalizing the majority of the plant palette, there are Indian hawthorns pruned into green meatball forms, variegated Pittosporum, a couple Sky Pencil hollies that don't look too healthy, African iris, and Lily-of-the-Nile.

For those of you in areas where these plants aren't common, this array of plants is basically an almost complete list of "non-native shrubs every homeowner finds at Lowe's or Home Depot and plants to make their yard look like everybody else's yard."  The only plant missing is crepe myrtle.

Okay, I exaggerated.  There ARE a couple native shrubs - 2 (remaining of 4) yellow anise trees - planted right below our picture window in the kitchen.  Yellow anise trees naturally grow to about 20' tall and wide and these definitely like their spot, so they're doing well.  Therefore, they've had to be squared off into a 4' tall hedge, neatly nestled right up against the house.  A hedge that has, by the way, grown at least 6" just since the end of May, making sure we can't miss it as we look out the window.

All in all, this is a classic "challenges and opportunities" yard in which to make a garden.  The view to the water is fantastically picturesque without us needing to do anything except (maybe) mow our lawn.   There is a sprinkler system already installed (although it needs a lot of TLC). Drainage will absolutely not be an issue, between the lightly sloping land and the sandy soil.

On the challenge side of the site, did I mention that the soil is VERY sandy?

There is a flat, low area right beside the water, set off by "sea walls".  The soil there is pure sand.  The entire area is overgrown with brambles and weeds.  Obviously some thoughtful landscaping is in order.  However, we have to be careful about inadvertently creating "snake spots" while designing that landscaping.  Cottonmouths ARE a real thing here and, much as I like snakes in general, I don't want sudden surprises with poisonous ones if I can help it.

The neighbor to the west of us has an OLD chainlink fence half hidden with vines and shrubs in a wild area formed from benign neglect.  I don't mind wild areas, in general, but this one is full of popcorn trees and other weedy, woody, invasive plants that need to be judiciously removed.  Then I'll be able to see more clearly what's worth saving in that region.

The neighbors to the east have a gorgeous BLUE hydrangea right on the property line.  Friends in prairie places, eat your hearts out!  I'm more than happy to "borrow" this part of their yard, even if it isn't native.

Dewberries, a very thorny type of bramble, are coming up all over the yard, in the lawn and garden beds alike, so one of my first tasks will be weeding those out...for the first of many, many times, I'm sure.

There are lots of seedling sand live oaks and hickories, too;  I want to see if there are a couple seedlings I want to "save" to start regenerating the tree canopy, then weed out the rest.

And, of course, there are several species of greenbrier and lots and lots of gripeweed to go after.  Some plants seem to spring eternal in the modern southern yard.  In the photo above, taken under the magnolia in the front yard, is gripeweed lining the sidewalk, backed up by dewberry, and augmented with a small popcorn tree seedling.  This is supposed to simply be mulched ground between the two Indian hawthorns, those green meatballs towards the top of the photo.  Yes, I've got lots of work to do.

So wish us luck!  (And, incidentally, I'd welcome any design ideas or plant suggestions.)

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Maintenance in the Native Plant Garden: Springtime Editing, Part 1

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the tasks that I find needs to be done each spring is editing.   When you invite animals (especially birds) into your gardens, you are going to get quite a few seeds planted, all of which will be encouraged to grow with a nice dollop of fertilizer.  Many of these will not be plants that you want growing, especially not where they've been planted.

Of course, too, native plants are designed to reproduce on their own...and if they are happy where you've planted them, they may well decide to "go forth and multiply".   Some species are notorious for this, while others reseed or spread only when the conditions are particularly perfect.

So, as the native plant gardener, you can keep things looking relatively tidy simply by removing excess plants once a year - and I find that early spring is the best time to transplant.  Why not take advantage of free plants?!

Personally, I fully understand the need to edit plants out...but I have a terribly hard time actually doing it, especially if I have to discard the plants I remove.  To be truthful, I've gone for years without editing, so my beds tend to get somewhat overgrown at times.  Of course, I like the full, cottage garden look, so this doesn't usually bother me too much, but if you like a more controlled look, editing out is a step that you won't want to skip.

So, on to the actual editing that I'm doing this spring.

Once I got the two areas of my front garden bed appropriately and fully cut back this morning, it was much easier to evaluate what needed to be removed or moved.

The Peach Blossom tulips are planted almost on top of a penstemon, which isn't really a problem as the tulips will die back shortly...but there was also a healthy looking young honeysuckle growing up beside them.  You can see it growing from the base of the plant tag in the photo above.  I DO NOT want a 10' honeysuckle shrub in this location, so that seedling had to go.  Given their invasive nature around here, I don't have any qualms about getting rid of honeysuckle seedlings.  For that reason, I don't like to pass along honeysuckles, either. 

For this honeysuckle seedling, a single stab with a dandelion remover to loosen the soil around its roots, followed by a strong yank, removed it, root and all.

In the center of this next photo is an area under the Callery pear that I've not paid much attention to in the past.  If you look carefully, you can see 3 "small," skinny, woody, hackberry saplings.  At the base of the white plant tag there is a clump of green that is actually a cluster of seedlings which includes a honeysuckle and several Callery pears.  There is another biggish honeysuckle seedling to the left of the plant tag, and there are dozens of Callery pear seedlings in the center of this spot, too.  ALL of these baby woody plants had to go, or this will become a thicket in next to no time.

In removing woody seedlings, the sooner you get to them, the better.  That's why an annual sweep is such a good thing.  For the hardy plants that survive on the Plains, the roots will go down deep and strong;  by the time even a year has passed, getting a woody seedling out of the ground is infinitely harder than removing it shortly after it has germinated.  Give one of these plants a couple years' growth and it's going to be hard to remove without utilizing Roundup, probably multiple times.

On the other hand, if you catch a young tree seedling shortly after it has germinated, all you need to do is give a slight tug and it slips out of the ground, root and all.  If you break off the stem at this stage, there's no problem of future growth, because the plant has no reserves yet in its roots.

It's all about the roots, 'bout the roots, no cutting....  (Confession time:  I found myself singing, "It's all about the roots, 'bout the roots, no cutting...." to the tune of "All About the Bass" for way more time than was rational today.  You're welcome for the earworm, by the way.)  Once a native prairie, woody plant is established, if you simply cut it off at ground level, it will just come back, stronger than before.  Prairie plants are like that.

In the spot above, I had to dig down and cut out the hackberry seedlings as far below the soil line as I could manage.  It remains to be seen if that was far enough down to kill the plants.  If not, I'll have to repeat the process or resort to Roundup.  The honeysuckles came out with strong tugs, roots and all.  I must have pulled out 50 pear seedlings - but they were easy, as the soil was moist (I watered) and they had just germinated this spring. 

This little hackberry seedling located right next to the walkway is one that I let get too big shortly after said walkway was put in, then cut out a year or two ago.  Obviously I didn't get down far enough on the roots when I originally tried to remove it, so I had to repeat the process today.  Hopefully today's butchering will do the trick.

I have a LOT of Callery pears germinating in my beds this year.  Callery pear, Prunus calleryana, is the official species of pear that I usually call "Bradford pear."  Bradford pear is actually a cultivar of Callery pear, but there are also many other varieties of Callery pear on the market these days. This is not a native species, but the tree came with the house and I haven't had the temerity to cut it down.  As pretty as it is in the spring, it reseeds ridiculously.  I consider it a real nuisance plant.

I've got more plant editing that I want/need to do in these beds, but I'm waiting for a friend to come over and get some of the plants when I take them out.  Yeah, I'm putting off the next stage of editing again....  I'll show you that stage next time - I promise!

Maintenance in the Native Plant Garden

As I've given talks about utilizing native plants in our landscapes, I've become aware that many people are scared of "losing control" in their gardens by using native plants and by following organic gardening methods.  So I thought folks might be interested in a blow by blow account of how I maintain my native plant landscape.  I actually think that my garden chores are significantly less onerous than those of more traditional gardeners.

To start with (or, perhaps, to end with), I don't cut back my perennials in the fall or winter.  Many insects overwinter in or on dead plant stems, including some of our native bees;  other insect species overwinter in the leaf litter.  Predators are particularly likely to be among the insects overwintering this way.  The leaf litter also provides great foraging habitat for winter birds, as do the standing seedheads.  Watching the birds forage and seeing the patterns of the plant stems adds winter interest to the landscape.  When you add in the fact that standing vegetation holds snow (moisture) in place better than "clean" beds, you definitely have a winning winter combination for the garden.

Winter, then, is pretty basic.  Enjoy the scenery!

As the plants begin to green up in the early spring, it's time to do the first chore of the year:  cut back last summer's dead plant material.  I consider this the main "work" in the organic, native plant garden.  Otherwise, the garden takes very good care of itself.  The timing of the spring cutback is always a balancing act for me.  I prefer to wait long enough that there aren't many late freezes left, although that's not always possible on the prairie.  Since I have planted a variety of crocus, daffodil, tulip, hyacinth, and grape hyacinth bulbs, I've started using their early blooming as my signal.  Darn it - I planted them, so I want to see them!

This year my spring clean up has been particularly protracted, but that's okay.  This is gardening, not a precision dance routine or an accounting balance sheet.

So that I could see the petite daffodils which had begun to bloom in the front beds, I started the spring clean up on March 18th this year.  This photo was taken on the 20th, the day after we burned the front tallgrass (which you can see in the distance).  All I had done so far was cut back the asters at the very front left of the photo...and, if I remember correctly, a few perennials along the sides of the path itself.

Here is a slightly different view, taken at the same time.  Overall, this is what the front garden looked like for most of the winter.  When I looked out the front windows, it was a rare time that I didn't see birds poking around. When we had some snow, the patterns could be stunning.

By the 26th of March, about a week later, I had cut back about half of the stems in this bed, starting at the driveway.  Of course, a few more things were blooming, too, including the Callery (Bradford) pear.  It always amazes me to see how quickly plants green up in the spring!  Several more types of daffodils had opened, and the blue heirloom hyacinths by the driveway were putting on their annual show.  (You can always click on the photos to enlarge them and see more detail.)

Just 5 days later, on the 31st, you can even see how much the daylilies right by the foundation had sprouted up.  I hadn't done any more cleanup in the garden yet, though, because our kids were visiting for the last bit of March and the first week of April.

In fact, I didn't get more cleanup done until 2 days ago, when I noticed the Peach Blossom tulips in full bloom amidst the cacophony of last year's ironweed and Echinacea stems.  So I did a bit more work that day....

...quitting when I'd cleared everything to the south of the little brick access path...except for the aster stems under the redbud clump.  (See?  I told you this wasn't a remotely frantic process!) 

You can see the newly exposed Peach Blossom tulips a few feet in front of the wheelbarrow. The wheel barrow has the last load of stems for that day, which I take to the brush pile out back, while the yellow bucket holds deadheaded daffodil stems and other non-seedfilled detritus that can be put in the compost pile.   Right now there is a lot more for the brush pile than for the compost pile - but that ratio changes throughout the growing season.

This morning, I finished cutting off the last of the aster stems under the redbuds and took this photo of the bed between the house and the walkway....

...and this photo of the bed between the walkway and the buffalo grass, both looking south.  Although cutting back the stems took me bits and pieces of 3 weeks to accomplish, that was due to MY lack of stick-to-it-iveness, not due to this process taking any huge amount of time overall.  Now that my native flower beds are established, this is the primary job that I need to do in any of  these beds all year.  Period.  It's really pretty simple.

That said, the beds do look better if I follow up this tidying chore with some editing, which is best done at this time of year.  I'll discuss that in the next post.

Oh, by the way, I found 4 Carolina (praying) mantis egg cases and 2 black and yellow garden spider egg sacs among the plant stems as I cut them back.  If you look closely, you can see one of the mantid egg clusters at the base of this grass clump.

I saved the plant stalks with the egg cases on them and placed them strategically in the trimmed areas of the garden, so the young could hatch out and do their thing without further interference.  Last year was obviously a good year for predators in my garden!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

First Day of Spring

Just for kicks and giggles, I went around the yard yesterday and took a few photos which I thought I'd share.  Nothing particularly exciting, but just a few quick peaks at how the garden was looking on the first official day of spring....

Most interestingly, the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is blooming gorgeously this year.  It's really taken off in the last year or two, after a rather slow start. Bloodroot, a native that is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring, gets its name from the blood red sap in its rhizomes.  Native Americans used this latexy sap as a face paint and to dye or color various different articles.  Bloodroot was also used medicinally.

Next to the bloodroot, I have a small group of heirloom purple crocuses being protected by an old egg basket.  This has become my favorite rabbit protection method for small plants.  Plus it lets me recycle and reuse old egg baskets (and thus justify my love of antiquing).

Not too far away was another group of purple crocuses showing WHY I use the egg basket over the heirloom crocuses.....

The cottontail(s) in my yard really love purple crocuses.  They'll eat other colors, but purple seems to be their favorite.  The "nibbling" almost destroyed those heirloom purple crocuses that I now protect so picturesquely.

Further down this same flower bed is a nice clump of daffodils in full bloom...facing AWAY from the house and the front of the bed.  It seems like this happens almost every year with this clump, but I'm darned if I know why.  I can't think of any reason why daffodil blooms would face one way or another on a regular basis.  It's not like the bloom faces the same direction the bulb points or something.....

Anyway, this year I decided to sneak around behind the bed to get a shot from the back.  They look much nicer from that angle.

In the "stump bed" (I've GOT to get a better name for that bed!) the Cloth of Gold heirloom crocuses were finished and the pasque flowers not blooming yet, but I got a good photo of the one of the "prairie pinecones", a local name for the seed pods of the Stemless Evening Primrose (Oenothera triloba).  They are really cool little features that add a fun textural touch to the winter garden.

Up front, the burn still looked pretty stark, although a few small sprigs of green are beginning to poke through.

From the front steps, however, the burn looks less overwhelming.  It forms an interesting contrast with the (uncut) front garden and the buffalo grass lawn, currently looking totally tan.

Looking at the front garden more specifically, by yesterday morning I had only cut back the very front little area in the bottom left of the photo below, where the bright yellow, Tete A Tete daffodils poke up in this photo.  I started seriously working on the garden cut back today, focusing on freeing other clumps of daffodils first, so we could enjoy their bloom if I got distracted from finishing my task. When I get done with the cut back, I'll post another photo for comparison.

I'll leave you with this pair of daffodil clumps....  First this small group of daffodils buried in last year's aster stems.  (I actually liberated this little clump this afternoon.)

And, finally, this nice group of Tete A Tete daffodils - one of my longtime favorite daffodil varieties.  They are so cute and tiny and early.  Perfect bellweathers signalling that spring has actually sprung!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Another Bird Deformity

It has amazed me how many bird deformities I've seen in our yard over the last 8 years.  Some I've shared on this blog.  Mainly beak deformities, but also color changes like the piebald cardinal I've seen this winter and the "yellow breasted" red-winged blackbird I saw several years ago.

At the end of February, another beak deformity showed up.  This time it was a starling that I noticed drinking during a snowstorm.

I am presuming that this is a case of a beak malocclusion - which results in the upper mandible (in this case) not being automatically trimmed as it closes against the lower mandible.

As with so many genetic abnormalities, this one is not a good change from normal.  Note how wet the feathers down the front of this individual are?

That's because it has to drink by almost immersing itself in water and skewing its body sideways, as in this picture.  I presume it has to eat this way, too.

Compared to the "normal way" a starling would eat and drink, shown by the bird on the left, this deformed starling has to work much harder for both calories and water.  As the top mandible grows longer, it will get harder and harder for this individual to get what it needs.  It also can't be good for this bird to get this wet during cold weather.  Presumably, eventually, it will weaken and die, perhaps becoming food for a predator of some sort.

Seeing individuals like this always makes me sad...but, at the same time, I have to admire them for their bravery and persistence in the face of difficulty.  As beautiful as life is overall, sometimes it seems starkly hard and cruel.  I just try to remember how often things go right, rather than how awful it is when they go wrong....

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Beautiful Day for a Burn!

We interrupt the "Tolerating the Uglies" series to bring you this news flash:  Today was an absolutely perfect day for a prairie burn!

It is VERY dry here, so I was a little hesitant, but the conditions were so perfect that we held our breaths and went ahead with our plans.  The winds stayed under 10 mph and were fairly steady from the SW (as predicted), Greg had recruited a couple techs from his clinic, and (most crucial of all) it was a weekend day.  During Kansas springtimes, it's a rare occurrence to have good winds and weather, the free time to burn, AND help with burning all come together!

Greg had mowed the firebreak last weekend, so the only necessary prep this morning was to gather the rakes, shovels, water buckets, burlap sacks, and water packs, then to stretch out the hoses.  We called in the burn permit...and we were off!

We started the burn very slowly and relied on backfiring the entire time to keep things under control.  This kept the flames about 3' high and moving slowly, instead of the lightning fast and 10-15' tall they probably would have been if they had been moving with the wind.

Greg and Pat went along the north and west sides; Justin and I took the east and south sides.  Our job was to patrol the edge of the fire at the firebreak, making sure that the flames didn't move out into the mowed area very far, which would have risked the fire jumping over the firebreak and getting out of control.  The fire basically burned from northeast to southwest, directly into the wind.

When we were done, our privacy from the road was totally gone, but the black ashes will absorb the springtime rays of the sun and heat up the soil.  The nutrients in the ashes will fertilize the soil, too.  With some rain (hopefully coming on Wednesday), we should be seeing green sprouts and then lush growth before long!

Many, many thanks to Chris, Justin, and Pat for their help!