Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Arrival of Winter - A Sign of the Season to Come?

Well, winter suddenly descended last week with a blast of strong wind that was followed a few days later by a thin blanket of snow.  This was enough of a shock to my system - I'm very thankful I don't live in south Buffalo, New York, right now!

While nothing too exciting has happened with this seasonal change, above and beyond earlier-than-usual cold weather with a couple inches of snow, it still seems like I ought to celebrate the arrival of winter with a brief post.  So here goes.

Since there was little transition between the relatively warm fall weather and a cold snap more typical of January than mid-November, quite a few trees and shrubs were caught with leaves in place.  Thankfully, we didn't get ice, so the leaves simply freeze-dried in place.  Some species, like cottonwood, have gone ahead and shed the remainder of their leaves.  Others, like the oaks, are still sporting a green coat.

This is the young Shumard oak that we planted shortly after we moved in.  I wonder how long the leaves will stay green this winter?

My aromatic asters were also still blooming when the cold hit.  Despite their late bloom cycle, this is the first year I've noticed any of their blooms getting caught by winter weather.  The purple is still obvious, 10 days after the cold originally hit.  How long will I have purple "blossoms" coloring the winter landscape?

After snapping a few pictures of the asters, I noted this grayish "growth" on the side of a basket sitting on the front porch.

Recognize it up close?  A praying mantis's egg case.  I'm actually rather surprised that I haven't found more of them, as I had many, many praying mantises in my gardens this year.  I feel rather lucky that all of the mantises I've seen have been the native Carolina mantis, rather than the interloper, the Chinese mantis.

In the back yard, I managed to catch a photo of a white-crowned sparrow hiding on the far side of a rose bush.  I was quite close, but evidently this little beauty felt safely hidden, because it made no move to flush while I stood there.





The most unusual sighting was the set of little tracks going across the driveway, between the redcedar hedge on the south side and the Rose of Sharon on the north side of the driveway.


With the obvious marks of the tail dragging, I'm quite sure it's a rodent of some sort.  Perhaps a hispid cotton rat.  I really don't know how to tell different rodent tracks apart, but I do know that I've got plenty of cotton rats around!

I didn't get out to take photos until 2 days after the snow fell, so I have no glorious shots of snow, quietly sifting out of the sky, or sitting heavily on the branches of the trees, but there was still enough snow around to document the start of winter.

Each year is so unique - I wonder what THIS winter will bring?  Is this early snow the sign of much more to come?  Or is this the only snow we'll get all season?  There's no way to know so, as always, we'll take the new season, day by day, week by week, month by month.  Suspense - natural style.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Where is Your Wild?"

A meme on Facebook this morning showed a backpacker overlooking a beautiful vista of mountains while standing alone in an alpine meadow.  The caption read, "Where is your wild?"

Well, here is MY wild!

Our front tallgrass....

a patch of smooth milkweed in our yard....


one of the front gardens, needing some "manicuring," when we got back from vacation this summer...

and the draw, with the path into the back, last winter.



All of MY favorite "wild" is within the 10 acres that we live on.

All of us can nurture the wild locally in our cities and neighborhoods and yards.  We don't have to drive halfway across the country to some national park to experience "the wild";  we just have to cherish and value "the wild" that occurs right under our noses.


Where is YOUR wild?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Aromatic Asters - Summer's Last Blast

I love many, many plants, but if pressed to name my favorite, I think it would be aromatic aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium.  Since these are the last perennials to start blooming every year, these plants look like nothing more than small green shrubs for much of the summer.  Additionally, in my garden they tend to suffer from lace bug damage, so their leaves often look light green and somewhat mottled when the summer gets hot and dry.  I grit my teeth and ignore it.  It won't hurt the plants and I'm darned if I'm going to spray.  Sometimes I start questioning how many I have in my gardens, but...

...then they burst into bloom.

They bloom and they bloom and they bloom.

Talk about the garden going out with a splash each year!

Insects love these flowers.  As I walk down the front path while the aromatic asters are in bloom, I'm usually surrounded by a happy hum of bees and by clouds of butterflies and skippers rising and then settling back to feed.

The predatory insects are well aware of how many pollinators are visiting.  It's easy to find wheel bugs, praying mantids, and ambush bugs hidden...often with an insect in their grasp.

One of these days, I'll try to collate a list of all the insects I've noted on aromatic asters.  Until then, I'll leave you with one simple question - have you added any to your garden yet?!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Another Worry for Cicadas: Cedar Beetles

Kermit the Frog always said, "It's not easy being green."  Well, I've decided that it's not easy being a cicada either.

My dogs absolutely love to munch cicadas and have been known to catch them in mid-air.  If they find one on the ground, they'll often hold it in their mouth for a little bit to get it to buzz before they chomp down and eat it.  A canine "Fizzy", I guess.

Then there are more "normal" predators like birds and, especially, the huge wasps known as cicada killers.  Female cicada killers hunt down a cicada, sting it to paralyze it (but keep it alive), drag it back to their nest in the ground, carry it below ground, lay an egg on it and seal the brood cell off.  When the egg hatches, the larval wasp eats out the paralyzed, living cicada, pupates, and emerges the next year to repeat the cycle.  An effective population control mechanism for cicadas, although it's extremely unsettling to think about.

I suspect that moles eat a fair number of cicada nymphs, too, as the nymphs feed and mature underground.

Now, I've learned about another animal that feasts on cicadas, specifically on the nymphs while they are still underground - the cedar beetle, Sandalus niger, also descriptively known as the cicada parasite beetle.  I've been observing these large beetles all around the yard over the last few days.  Most often, I'm seeing them on honeylocust trees.


These are fairly large beetles - many are close to an inch in length.  I first noticed one when I saw a big brown beetle being eating by 2 wheelbugs.  I've never seen TWO wheelbugs eating the same beetle before!  I took photos and tried to identify the beetle, but I couldn't quite make it out.  It looked somewhat like a longhorn beetle, but I didn't see long "horns" (antennae) on it.

While I was photographing this interesting vignette, Greg called me over to a nearby lacebark elm, saying that he'd just seen a big black beetle fly into it.  He showed me where she had landed and I took several photos of her;  she appeared to be laying eggs on the underside of a dead limb.

I started to go back to taking photos of pollinators on asters, when I felt something on my shoulder.  Looking down, it was a large black beetle with one of the elytra (thickened wing covers) missing.  I brushed her to the ground, where I photographed her, wondering how she had lost her elytra.  Then I picked her up and put her in the elm tree, thinking she probably got interrupted during egg laying.

Only when I edited the photographs this evening did I notice that all the white "innards" showing were actually larvae(?) or pupae(?) of some other insect that were massed inside her.  I have no idea what they are...but I'm submitting the photo to BugGuide to see if anyone there can help identify what was going on with her.  (Parasites eating parasites.  Sometimes the natural world is really complex in its creepiness.)  Did the larvae have anything to do with how she lost her wing cover?  I have no idea.

Next, I noticed another, similar looking beetle being eaten by a wheelbug on a nearby honeylocust trunk.  As I stood and took photos, I heard and felt yet another big beetle - the 5th one - fly by my head.  It was a male, judging by its smaller size and more slender body, and it landed on the tree trunk right in front of me and starting searching all around.  Its antennae were really interesting, especially when the beetle fanned them all the way out.

While all of these beetles were grabbing my attention, I was also hearing a clicking noise that sounded very much like the rhythmic pattern of a field sparrow, which is often likened to the sound of a bouncing ball.  This noise, however, was more "insect-like" than a bird call, if there is such a thing.  I never did find out what was creating the sound, but I don't recall having heard it before and I wonder if it was some sort of mating call between the cedar beetles.

Before I went in for the evening, I took several more photos of each of the different beetles I'd observed, and  I also found a 6th beetle on the underside of a honeylocust branch. This was another female, based on the size and shape, but I didn't get any clear photos of her.

Looking through Insects in Kansas, by Glenn A. Salsbury and Stephan C. White, I found the tentative identification of my beetles, which I confirmed on BugGuide.net.   They were all the same species, Sandalus nigerInsects in Kansas had noted that males often had blackish-brown wing-covers, rather than black, and on BugGuide, I saw the difference in antennae between the males and females.  There wasn't a lot of information given about the species on its information page at BugGuide, but it was noted that the adult beetles are very short-lived.

I've gone back and picked up the "empty" beetles discarded by the wheelbugs after they were through eating them so that I could examine them more closely, plus I've been able to find a couple more dead specimens.  Sunday, October 19th, was the only day that I saw so many living individuals, although I've seen one or two more each day since then.  I have not heard the clicking noise again.

I have seen one more instance where two wheelbugs were eating the same cedar beetle.  Do wheelbugs do this with any large insect, or is it only with cedar beetles?  I'll be keeping my eyes open to see what I observe in the future.

Isn't the complexity of life fascinating?! 


Monday, October 20, 2014

Surprise! - A Gray Treefrog in the Garden

We've been away in Boston and Vermont for the past 10 days, so a lot has happened in the garden while we've been gone.  The aromatic asters were just beginning to open as we left and I was afraid that I would miss them, but I didn't need to worry.  They are still in full and glorious bloom!

Greg and I did a walkabout yesterday and I took a huge number of photos, most of which still need to be sorted and studied, edited and identified before I can think about sharing any of them - but I have a couple photos showing one surprise visitor that were easy to quickly focus on and that I thought you might enjoy....

After our walkabout, Greg decided to add some old straw to one of the vegetable garden beds for the winter.  As he picked up the decomposing bale to redistribute it, an amphibian jumped out.  Greg's first impulse was that it was a toad, based on location, general size, and general lack of shine to its skin.  It looked different than most of our toads, though, so he called me over to take a look.

The animal was rather small and it wasn't warty enough for a toad, in my mind,  plus the shape was wrong, so I started thinking about the various kinds of frogs that it might be.  Meanwhile, of course, I took as many photos as I could without disturbing the animal or trying to pick it up.  When it hopped, it flashed the most vivid bright yellow on the lining of its hind legs...but that yellow was very hard to see when it was sitting still.  That HAD to be diagnostic.

Over dinner, I opened my copy of Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas, by Joseph T. Collins, et al., and turned almost immediately to the page talking about Cope's Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) and Eastern Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor).  The two species are apparently only distinguishable from each other based on their chromosome number or the size of their blood cells, so I am simply calling this a Gray Treefrog (Hyla sp.).  Even based on the general natural history given, I'm perplexed - Cope's is said to be more arboreal than the Eastern, but to need less humidity in its environment.  Since we are at the absolute western end of this pair of species' range (and thus in the driest part of their range), but the individual was found under an old hay bale in the garden, I'm still split between the 2 options.

As of the writing of Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas, which was copyrighted in 2010, the Gray Treefrog species complex was apparently expanding its range westward "along riparian corridors".  The species occurrence map shown in the book does not show any occurrences documented in Sedgwick County, but there are a few in the counties generally south and east of us.  It would seem that our individual may be one of the "pioneer" Gray Treefrogs, expanding their range west. So we may have a new county record!

This is the sort of find that brightens my week and makes me feel that we're on the right track in our land management decisions. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fabulous Blooms and Friendly Brains: Kansas Native Plant Society Wildflower Weekend

Last weekend at this time (2 p.m., Sunday afternoon), I was just arriving home after a great weekend getaway.

For seven years I've been thinking about going to this annual event, but something always got in the way.  One year we were heading over to Winfield to go to the Walnut River Valley Music Festival.  Another year we were on a trip to England and Norway.  Yet another year we were getting ready to leave for a trip to Germany.  The year before last, I was getting ready to take an adopted dog down to our daughter in Florida. 

"Where did you go last weekend?  Why did it take you so long to make it?" you ask.  "It sounds like you were doing LOTS of traveling already, so that can't have been the problem."

"To the Annual Wildflower Weekend of the Kansas Native Plant Society," I answer.  The AWW, as many people seem to call it.  As to why it took me so long to make it a priority to attend, I can't give you a rational answer.  All I can say is that I'm glad I went this year.

Each year KNPS's Annual Wildflower Weekend is held in a different location within Kansas, but it's always on the same weekend, the 3rd weekend in September.  No matter where the AWW is held, the weekend seems to hold lots of tromping around through impressive prairie sites full of not-so-common native wildflowers and grasses, as well as a lot of camaraderie with other souls who value the chance to spend time out tromping around and looking at plants too.

This year Greg told me to go.  I politely scuffled my feet a little, feeling quite guilty at leaving him home alone to take care of the homestead for 2 days while I went out to "play"...then I shoved the guilt down, made my reservations, and skedaddled.

I'm so glad I did.  I had a great time and I had a chance to see some beautiful sights and sites.  Most exciting of all, I reconnected with a couple friends from many years ago, had a chance to meet two friends I've previously known only through blogging, and became acquainted with several other folks who are new friends in the making.  The most hopeful part is that all of us share a passion for plants and animals and wild spaces...and learning about the web of which they are all a part.


In the photo above, Theresa and Melanie (with Melanie's daughter Cami) are two friends I've met entirely through garden blogging.  It was so much fun to share time with them in person while poking around and looking at plants.  Cami seemed to have a great time exploring, too, and she and I explored our common interests in taking photos and looking at insects and rocks.

This year's AWW was based in Pratt, Kansas, home of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.  Not surprisingly, our first field trip was to the KDWP museum and to the pollinator garden right beside it, in the southeast corner of town.  The Pratt Master Gardeners have done a superb job of putting together a beautiful and interesting pollinator and native wildflower display garden, complete with a gorgeous pool, for which they received a well deserved award from KNPS.

Whispered on the wind were comments about possible expansions of the native plant display gardens, as well. Wouldn't that be awesome?!

During the course of the weekend, we got to explore 5 different prairie sites - 3 in the Red Hills south of Pratt and 2 sand prairies east of Pratt.  The last site also included a section of the Ninnescah River, so we were able to do a little riparian scouting as well.  Almost all of the sites were on privates land that had been graciously opened up to us to explore, so I don't want to be too specific about the locations.  The photo above show the group moving away from our cars, beginning to explore a site in the rugged landscape near Sun City.

I have no idea what the official plant list (i.e. total species count) for the weekend was because I was doing some landscape gazing, some insect hunting, some photography teaching, and a lot of chatting...besides looking for flowers and grasses, of course.


This delicate white beauty is the flower of the Sand Lily (Mentzelia nuda) in the Red Hills of Kansas.  Such a beautiful, soft looking flower on such a thorny, spiky plant!

Broad-leaf milkweed (Asclepias latifolia) doesn't look all that interesting in this photo, but it really captured my attention in the field...maybe because it was SO green and lush looking in an otherwise scorched looking landscape.  The leaves almost looked like cabbage!  The remnants of the pods were actually rather small and cute;  they were found under and between the leaves, rather than at the top of the plant.  This is one that I want to try to find for our garden.  USDA Plant Profiles does show Sedgwick County as part of this plant's range.

Isn't this guy gorgeous?  This is the rainbow grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor), also commonly called the pictured grasshopper.  It's posing on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), which was in bloom in all of the prairies we visited.



I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of this insect accidentally.  Do you see it?  It's a walking stick, colored perfectly to blend in with the grass.  The only reason I saw it was that it moved as I knelt down to look at a nearby flower.  Sad to say, I don't have a good enough photo of it to risk trying to get it down to the genus level, let alone the species level.  (I would welcome anyone's help on this matter, though.)

A last extra punch for the weekend was getting to hear Iralee Barnard speak about grass identification (an area in which I am sadly lacking) and then being able to purchase her new book, Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.  It's a great help and, after reading it, I already feel more confident in my ability to tackle a few of the more obscure grasslike plants that I'm seeing around our prairie at home, Patchwork Prairie.

Will I return for another AWW?  Absolutely!  It was an AWWsome chance to become active in a human community of interesting and fun plant nerds!  It was also an AWWsome chance to roam around and learn about plants in natural areas that are normally unavailable for "regular folks" to explore.  What wasn't to like?!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Diversity!

Greg gave me a gift for Christmas last year - Access (the software program, which unfortunately doesn't automatically come with the home version of Office) so that I could begin to keep a coherent database of all the plants and animals that I've found on our 10 acres.

I have been slowly working on this project in the intervening months, and I'm far from done.  For the most part, I've been utilizing the photos I've taken over the years to remind me of what I've found and where I've found it.


For example, I saw this flower beetle (Batyle suturalis) on Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in the Back Five early in July this year; both species are now in my database.



The wonderful folks at BugGuide.net are probably quite sick of me, as I've been submitting quite a few photos for their help with identification - which has been wonderful and greatly appreciated.  I can usually get an unknown insect down to order and often to family, using my experience and (if necessary) Borror and DeLong's Introduction to the Study of Insects for its excellent keys .  Then I try, utilizing BugGuide's online guides, to get the insect down to genus and species, but without actual keys specifying what I'm looking for, it can be hard.  It's at this point that I will submit an image for help.


Other species are often easier.  For example, I've been birding for years, so I have a reasonable familiarity with bird species and I can trust my identifications and the species lists I've been keeping since we moved in.  (Besides, it is much easier to figure out which of 450+ possible species a bird is compared to figuring out which of thousands of possible species an insect is.)  Below, for example, is a red-winged blackbird watching a little blue heron, who hung out in our lagoon for several days in 2009.

There are a variety of books and online resources I go to for plant identifications:  Michael Haddock's book and website on Wildflowers and Grassses of Kansas.  Janet Bare's book, Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas.  Stephen's book, Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines in Kansas.  And many, many more.

I've recently purchased Bradley's book, Common Spiders of North America, to improve my ability to identify the spiders that I'm seeing.  BugGuide is also useful with spiders, and I have a few other guidebooks (although most are much less comprehensive than Bradley's).  Below is a male jumping spider (Phidippus clarus) which I photographed last summer hanging out on giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida).

There are, obviously, many more references that I use to compile my species lists, but that isn't the point of this post.  Right now, according to my Access database, I have 201 plant species that I've found (or planted) on our 10 acres, 157 species of insects, 3 species of amphibians, 8 species of mammals, 1 species of snake, and 5 species of turtles.  (I have found quite a few more species of amphibians, mammals, snakes and turtles than that, but I haven't put them into my Access database yet.)  My yard list has 121 bird species so far.  That includes birds seen ON our property, as well as FROM our property (i.e. flying overhead during migration or seen from our property but physically on our neighbors' land).  I haven't started a list of spider species yet, but in looking in my photo organizer, I easily have at least a dozen different species.  Then there are the assorted invertebrates not covered by "insect" and "spider" catergories, species like prairie crayfish, roly-polies, and daddy longlegs.


Here is a boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata) in the buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) of our front lawn last August.



So, in the 7 1/2 years we've lived here, I have documented (so far) 310 animal species and 201 plant species sharing our 10 acres with us.


Why am I posting about this right now?  Because in yesterday's Wichita Eagle, there was an article about Chisholm Creek Park in northeast Wichita.  The article was actually about algae in the lake there, but there was a brief aside saying that "[t]he park is home to 163 species of plants and 214 species of animals...."  Chisholm Creek Park is large - 282 acres, according to the website of the Great Plains Nature Center, which is located there.

I have documented about 25% more species of plant species and almost 50% more species of animals on our 10 acres than have been documented in the 282 acres of Chisholm Creek Park in the same county.

Does this mean that there really ARE that many more species on our little 10 acres than in Chisholm Creek Park?  No.  Absolutely not.  The species summary list on the Great Plains Nature Center site above does not give any number of species at all for invertebrates or grasses, for example, and their numbers for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are all greater than the number I've observed on our property.  Chisholm Creek Park also has fish species, while we have no year-round water habitat except our lagoon.

I've just been more meticulous about recording (and identifying) the variety of species I've found here, particularly the species of insects and other invertebrates, than the folks in charge of that park have had the time or the inclination to do.  Still, it was definitely a psychological boost to realize just how diverse a piece of property we actually have!

Do you keep any sort of species list of what you've identified on your property?   If so, what sorts of insights or discoveries has that process given you?

Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article2095022.html#storylink=cpy