Friday, December 12, 2008

The Power of Focused Attention

There has been a sad news story that has garnered national attention and an outpouring of generosity lately: the plight of over 100 pit bulls found at a farm in Oklahoma, chained with little or no food, water, or adequate winter shelter. Four of the dogs have either died or had to be euthanized because of their poor condition. Volunteers are caring for the rest of them right now, but their eventual fate is still up in the air. Obviously socializing has not been a major part of their life, and unsocialized adult pit bulls are potentially very dangerous.

Buried in this morning's article, though, was a fact that I found as sad or sadder than the plight of these dogs: apparently in Oklahoma alone, over 100 pit bulls are euthanized EVERY DAY at animal shelters across the state.

It's national news when this number of poorly treated dogs is found in one site. It's business as usual when this number of poorly treated dogs is spread out daily across a state.

Sometimes I'm appalled at what we accept as normal in our country.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Black Cat Battles

Have you ever heard of a cat who is addicted to electrical shocks?

I think we may have one.

Our six month old kitten, Ranger, has developed a VERY frustrating - not to mention dangerous and expensive - habit: he loves to chew on electrical cords.

First I noticed that the adapter cord for the weather radio was in 3 pieces, with numerous other chew marks along it's length.

Next it was the adapter cord for the digital photo frame. It looked suspiciously like the weather radio cord...except, to be fair, it was only in 2 pieces.

The third casualty was the adapter cord for my new laptop. Ranger didn't actually get all the way through this one, just put enough holes in it that I felt much safer spending $100 to get a new one.

However, the most impressive incident was the night after Thanksgiving. That night he went for the big shock and chewed into the floor lamp cord. Single-mouthedly he was able to brown out the entire house, not to mention burning out the lamp and fluorescent bulb therein. He did not appear shocked at all by his experience.

Now we were not only irritated, we were beginning to get scared. What if he did this when we weren't home? He could burn the house down. That trick earned a night shut up in a cat kennel while we tried to figure out what to do.

We discussed our options which, frankly, weren't all that great. Hot sauce on the cords hadn't seemed to phase him. We could make him an outside cat, which neither of us wanted, or return him to the pound, which we wanted even less. We opted for throwing him outside when he got too rowdy.

Unlike most cats, he hates being outside. If big brother Becker is around, Ranger shadows him, rubbing fondly against his legs. Otherwise he tends to sulk under the potting bench, darting for the door the first time it opens.

This strategy seemed to be working for about a week. Then last Saturday, both Prairiewolf and I lost our internet connections almost simultaneously. Our first thought was that the internet had temporarily gone down. Prairiewolf's next thought was that Ranger had been under his feet briefly just a few seconds before. He checked the cords - sure enough, the telephone line between the modem and the wall plug was toast. This time it had only taken one chew zone and about 30 seconds. Ranger was obviously perfecting his technique.

On Sunday night I noticed him playing under the livingroom end table. Outside he went, but not before he had bisected the adapter cord for the telephone cradle.

The pound was looming closer. A night's sleep let us cool down a bit, so the next morning I took our problem to our vet. Unfortunately she had no words of wisdom for us. This was a "difficult problem with no easy answer."

But Prairiewolf asked a question in passing that got me thinking, "Do you think we have enough toys around for him to play with?"

We'd showered Ranger with toys when we first got him, but slowly they had disappeared...under furniture, broken, into that great pet toy heaven in the sky. I hadn't noticed their disappearance since Ranger played endlessly with our other cat, T.J. Then, too, he amused himself (and us) by doing gymnastic leaps and twirls off the sliding glass door after imaginary monsters. He had learned the fine art of unrolling massive streams of toilet paper across the bathroom floor and out into the hall, complete with multiple Braille-like notations along the t.p.'s entire length. He even made it a point of honor to never miss the fascinating sight of water swirling around the toilet bowl every time it was flushed.

With all that excitement, could he possibly just be bored?

I dug out the few cat toys I hadn't given him before. Most were batted around a bit, but didn't cause overwhelming excitement. Then I hung up the squeaky mouse on the elastic string. Ranger couldn't get enough of it. I watched him for several minutes, then went back to other chores, smiling to myself about his enthusiasm. A few minutes later I noticed a pitiful meowing coming from the laundry room doorway. When I checked it out, Ranger was perplexedly looking at his new toy, the elastic string stuck over the back of the door with the mouse decidedly out of his reach. I released the mouse and Ranger immediately set about conquering it again. A few minutes later, the meowing began again. Again I rescued the mouse. This went on for over an hour before Ranger finally got tired and let the poor mouse rest a bit.

The second go-around began a few hours later...but this time the mouse's harness wasn't up to the assault. Fifteen minutes into another serious round of pouncing, the plastic rod suspending the mouse on its elastic cord broke irrevocably. I tied the mouse around the door handle, but it just wasn't the same.

We have since gone out and splurged on more cat toys, looking particularly for squeaky mouse-shaped models. Most of the ones we could find on elastic cords didn't squeak, unfortunately, so we had to settle for more feline powered ones. I'm putting them out slowly, one at a time, being sure to keep a few back for novelty's sake.

I'm hoping we're over the electric cord phase, but I'm probably being overly optimistic. Keep your fingers crossed for us, please. And if you've ever dealt with this problem, especially if you've solved it successfully, I'd love to get your input. Both my preventive ideas and my patience are wearing thin, and I really don't want to test our electrical luck more than we already have, but Ranger is generally a charming member of our family and I certainly don't want to have to send him back to the pound.

As I finish writing this, Ranger has attacked his latest squeaky mouse and is busily conquering it as it "scurries" from room to room. I'm hoping against hope that the answer really is this simple.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

People of Kansas

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a couple friends about Studs Terkel, the author whose specialty was to interview people from all walks of life and capture their thoughts and feelings in printed collections published as books. I've read several of his books, and there are several more calling to me.

Neither of my friends had read any of Studs Terkel's work, but they asked if I had ever heard of "Hatteberg's People"? I hadn't.

They explained that Larry Hatteberg was a reporter at one of the local television stations, and that he had been doing a series on people from around Kansas for years. It sounded a lot like Studs Terkel's work to them, but in a different medium.

This morning I finally got around to checking out their recommendation, and I'm hooked.

Here are two of my favorite interviews so far:

Harold Seipel has been the custodian and caretaker for Harper County Courthouse, one of the area's old courthouses, for 50 years now.

At 103, Martha Smith has the distinction of being the oldest librarian in the oldest library in Kansas. She's worked there since 1926.

These are lives lived deep and rich and embedded in their communities. They are almost the antithesis of modern life, but I have to believe they have important messages for us to consider about meaning and happiness and connectedness.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prairie Wings

I took my two canine walking buddies, Becker and Sunny, out back through the pasture late this afternoon. It was a gray afternoon, but the weather had warmed to a reasonable level and there was little wind.

As we walked, an orange marker caught my attention. I'd been debating leaving the flags until next spring, but now I went over to the long piece of wire and pulled on it. The damp soil released it easily, so I started slowly working my way through the grasses, pulling up every one I could find. It would make finding the emerging plants harder in the spring, but if we burned, I wouldn't be stuck with lumps of melted orange plastic on almost invisible wires all through the healing grassland.

Prairiewolf, who was out hunting, called on the cell phone, so I stopped to talk with him, facing north as I stood with the dogs wrestling at my feet. A movement caught my eye, a flash of white.

It was a female northern harrier. Her rich brown plumage tended to melt into the background of the leafless trees above the grass, but the white rump patch marked her every movement. I stood mesmerized as she skimmed along, just a few feet above the tops of the grasses, dipping from side to side, floating a bit, then taking a few wingbeats and doing a sudden abrupt turn-about to float back the way she'd just come. Every once in a while, she would hover for a bit, raising my hopes that she was about to stoop on a cotton rat in the grass, but she never did. They must have been taunting her, though, with brief glimpses or tempting rustlings, because she kept patrolling the same area over and over, sure that there would be an unwary tidbit for her if she was just persistent enough.

For a while I sat in the grass watching, my head at the same height as the seedheads of the silver bluestem. It made it harder to see her from far away, though, so eventually I abandoned that perspective and stood again.

Some neighbor teenagers pulled their truck to the back of their property and started target shooting, distracting my attention. By the time I looked for the harrier again, I couldn't find her, so I resumed my walk, pulling flags as I went. I caught a glimpse of her twice more, but never for long. I hope she feasted bountifully today; she certainly fed my spirit well as she shared time with me, however briefly.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Better Than A Garage Sale

Back in early August, I read a particularly intriguing post on Musement Park, one of the blogs I enjoy looking in on when I get a few minutes to browse the web. It was on freecycling, an updated form of passing on things you can't use to other people who can.

It took me a couple months, but I finally researched freecycling a little more and signed on to the local group. I'm hooked now.

The mission statement of the overarching organization is relatively simple and quite self-explanatory:

"Our mission is to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community."

Here in Wichita, it works like this: You sign up with the local group, which is simply a Yahoo group. Besides requesting your e-mail and so forth, they ask that you make a VERY short statement explaining why you are interested in joining the freecycle network. (Note: I had to rewrite my statement about 5 times to get it short enough. Brevity is obviously of great value here.) The moderator takes a look at what you've said and, assuming you haven't written that you intend to rip off everyone you contact, admits you to the group. There is a series of "rules of the road" to read through, and you are off and running.

So far I've used the site to pass along 3 rather large items (a desk in need of repair, a sink and a gun cabinet) that were way too good to throw away, but hardly enough to hold a garage sale for. In all 3 instances, I had multiple responses and the hardest part was choosing who to reply to. Each time the item was gone in short order, best of all to someone who really seemed to be able to use it.

No money is ever involved. This is simply a process of gifting someone else with something they can use which you, for one reason or another, no longer have a use for yourself. I have seen everything from kittens, puppies and animal supplies to used magazines to furniture to clothing to food to building supplies to garden plants listed, and I've been a member for less than a month. It's almost worth a "what's the oddest thing you've seen offered - and taken" sort of article. At the very least, it's addicting to watch the continual parade of stuff.

Give it a try! You might be surprised what you can pass along...or find.

Coyotes and Red-Tails and Owls, Oh My!

Now that most of the leaves are gone from the trees and the cold weather is creeping in, I'm noticing a return of the major winter predators to our homestead.

Last Thursday was a particularly interesting day. When I took our puppy Sunny for an energy-release walk out in the back pasture, I noticed coyote scat (droppings), both old and new. Three sets of scat, to be precise. I'm assuming the coyotes have moved in to feast on the hispid cotton rats and other rodents that are making such glorious sets of runways through our grass back there.

On our way back to the house, I looked up to see a pair of red-tailed hawks in the trees of the draw. We had a pair that seemed to nest in the area late last winter, so this may be the same pair returning. I haven't seen them for most of the summer; I'm excited to have them back.

Last of all, that night we heard a pair of great horned owls calling to each other from the draw. We've had barred owls in the area ever since we moved in almost 2 years ago, but this is the first time we've heard great horned owls.

About 2 weeks ago, I found the mutilated body of a barred owl in our front yard. I didn't examine it too closely at the time, because I didn't want Becker going back to it and helping me "dispose of it" in his own special way. When I went out the next morning, sans Becker, to take a closer look, it was gone. I suspect the coyotes feasted on it somewhere during the night.

At the time, I was trying to decide how the barred owl had died. It was obviously wounded around the face in some way, based on the raw flesh that I could see (and the facial features I couldn't see) from about 30 feet away. I was concerned that a neighbor might have shot it but, without looking at it more closely, that was pure speculation. Other thoughts that crossed my mind were that it had been hit by a car at night, or that it had somehow misjudged a stoop and collided hard with a guidewire on the telephone pole nearby. Now I suspect that it was a victim of the great horned owls moving in.

One of these days I'm going to collect some of the coyote scat and dissect it to see what animals they are feeding on. And I'll keep my eyes peeled for owl pellets, both so I learn where they are roosting and so that I can learn what they are feeding on too. Meanwhile, I'm just going to enjoy the sight of red-tailed hawks soaring during the day, and the sounds of coyotes howling and great horned owls hooting at night. More interesting layers in the ecosystem that is our slowly recovering yard.

It's FeederWatch Time!

One of my favorite wintertime activities is feeding the birds. I feed year 'round, but the birds use the feeders more and are more visible in the winter, which makes it even more enjoyable. In a way, feeding birds takes the place of growing flowers during this quiet season of the year.

Many years ago I joined Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's FeederWatch program. It's a coordinated "citizen science" data collection project, keeping track of trends in the birds that come to people's feeders all across the country.

To help make it manageable but relatively consistent from site to site, FeederWatch traditionally has had each feeder watcher observe and record bird activity carefully for 2 consecutive days during each 2 week period during the winter months, beginning in November. Now, with online data reporting, you can do 2 consecutive days each week, if you so desire.

So that's what I'm aiming for this winter. Last week was my first count period. As usual, by watching closely, I noticed birds that I hadn't seen this winter coming into my count area. Last week it was a yellow-rumped warbler, a spotted towhee, and a female red-bellied woodpecker. Today, the first of my 2 day count period for this week, I "netted" a pair of Carolina wrens and a mockingbird. Plus I noticed a small flock of cedar waxwings just beyond the courtyard hedge that is my official count boundary.

I've seen all these birds before in our yard, but this is the first time I've noticed them at or around the feeders this fall.

Because of the online data reporting, I received feedback last week that I'm seeing unusually large numbers of white-crowned sparrows for this early in the season. That's rather fun to know. And because of more carefully monitoring the feeding birds, I noticed 2 abnormalities in the immature white-crowned sparrows last week: one with a wound on its side, and one missing its tail. I saw the wounded one again today, looking like the wound had healed quite a bit, but I haven't seen the tailless one since last Tuesday.

Most of all, the FeederWatch is just another tool to help keep me observing the wildlife in our yard, especially when it's all too easy to cocoon inside and simply try to keep warm. And it does a darn good job of that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Ignorant of Our Own Country's Wildlife Are We?

Before I shelve My Antonia, I have to comment on something I found deeply disturbing, a symptom of how disconnected our culture is becoming from our land.

First, however, I need to set the stage by commenting about how impressed I was with some of Cather's ecological observations. Given her writing in this novel, she would have made a fine ecologist* if that had been her goal. For example, she talks about elderberry like this, "The elder bushes did not grow back in the shady ravines between the bluffs, but in the hot, sandy bottoms along the stream, where their roots were always in moisture and their tops in the sun."

Another ecological observation that impressed me was her description of a prairie dog town....

"Sometimes I rode north to the big prairie-dog town to watch the brown, earth-owls fly home in the late afternoon and go down to their nests underground with the dogs.... We had to be on our guard there, for rattlesnakes were always lurking about. They came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls, which were quite defenseless against them; took possession of their comfortable houses and ate the eggs and puppies."

At another point in the story, Cather has Antonia and Jim stopping by a prairie dog town to explore a bit....

"...Antonia suggested that we stop at the prairie-dog town and dig into one of the holes. We could find out whether they ran straight down, or were horizontal, like mole-holes; whether they had underground connections; whether the owls had nests down there, lined with feathers. We might get some puppies, or owl eggs, or snake-skins.
The dog-town was spread out over perhaps ten acres. The grass had been nibbled short and even, so this stretch was not shaggy and red like the surrounding country, but gray and velvety."

These are very accurate descriptions of prairie dog towns, including a couple of their "companion" animals, burrowing owls and prairie rattlesnakes.

However, in the introduction written by Marilyn Sides, an author and senior lecturer in the English Department at Wellesley in Massachusetts, Sides refers to Cather's descriptions of the prairie dog towns in such a way that it is obvious she doesn't have a clue what a prairie dog or prairie dog town is. She is commenting on the almost total lack of a Native American presence in this novel when she writes, "The only truly original inhabitation seems to be the prairie dog town, which may allude to a kind of Indian pueblo (in 1916 Cather had toured the pueblos of Taos and the ancient pueblo ruins of Mesa Verde)...."

Not only did Marilyn Sides not know what prairie dog towns are, but the editing staff of Signet Classics evidently didn't know either. Prairie dogs are keystone species in the prairie ecosystem. They are part of the prairie lore and mythology of this country. How do you comment on a book, even a novel, about the prairie and not have the faintest idea what a prairie dog is or how and where they live? Especially when the author is describing so many of the prairie animals and their habitats in such straightforward but beautiful prose?!

It's long past time that we include studies of our local and national wildlife and our ecosystems in our basic education system. Kids don't get out and explore wild areas like they used to 50 years ago, so that sort of basic knowledge is literally being lost. While teaching 1st graders about rainforests is theoretically fine, I think it's far more important that they learn first about the native plants and animals that live around them. There's time enough for understanding rainforests after the kids learn prairies and deciduous forests and American deserts.

It's time we all learn our natural neighbors and neighborhoods again.

* Note: The science of ecology, with its understanding of communities of plants and animals that are dependent on each other for existence, was not widely recognized until many years after Cather wrote.

Revisiting My Antonia

I read My Antonia many, many years ago. I wasn't impressed. The very likeable hero and heroine didn't get together, for reasons my adolescent heart just couldn't fathom. Not much else least as far as I remember my long-ago reaction some 35-40 years later.

Fast forward to several weeks ago. Wichita was participating in The Big Read, and Willa Cather's My Antonia had been selected as the book for all of us to explore. Having a few more experiences under my belt, I decided to give it another try. Not only were there several interesting sounding public discussions being offered, but Willa Cather has a reputation as the first major prairie author, and I've been somewhat obsessively reading prairie writers as I reacclimate to life in Kansas.

I loved the book. I understand now why Jim and Antonia would never have been happy together - they had different dreams and different needs for their lives. Furthermore, although Jim's life was much more successful in terms of typically lauded actions (he became a top lawyer for a national firm in New York City, married to a socially prominent and rich woman), I suspect it is Antonia's life that was ultimately richer and more satisfying. She may have remained in Nebraska, married a farmer, had a physically hard life and become "nothing but" a farmer's wife and mother to a passel of kids, but her happiness and pride shines in her eyes and in the eyes of her family when Jim finally visits her after 20 years away. In a loveless marriage with no children, his life suddenly seems rather least to me.

However, it is Cather's descriptions of the prairie as it is being settled that really sunk into my imagination. Cather herself moved from Virginia to Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was 10 and she lived there for about 12 years before heading back east. She arrived in 1883 and left in 1895 after graduating from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, essentially spending her entire adolescence in this half wild landscape. I feel like she offers me a rare moment of time travel back to see what the prairie looked like before so much of it disappeared between the hedgerows and under the plow....

"...this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it."

"Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.... The little trees were insignificant against the grass. It seemed as if the grass were about to run over them, and over the plum-patch behind the sod chicken-house."

"As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running."

"I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass."

"The road ran about like a wild thing, avoiding the deep draws, crossing them where they were wide and shallow. And all along it, wherever it looped or ran, the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms. They made a gold ribbon across the prairie."

"Some of the cottonwoods had already turned, and the yellow leaves and shining white bark made them look like the gold and silver trees in fairy tales."

"All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death - heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day."

Towards the end of the novel, Cather speaks through Jim as he returns to Nebraska after many years away...

"I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces."

My psyche resonates to that statement. I think the lands we come to know well in our lives will always be a part of us in a deep and timeless way. The prairie obviously touched Cather's soul. Her gift was (and is) to share that experience with the rest of us.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Attempting to Begin Restoration Effort Assessments

During this recent growing season, I've tried to keep track of the species that I've identified growing throughout our entire 10 acres, keeping separate lists for the area east of the draw, west of the draw and for the back 5 acres. It's not a terribly scientific undertaking, in that I haven't done transects or any other statistical sampling method, but I have done my best to identify what I've seen.

[One disclaimer here: I'm identifying plants based primarily on wildflower guides (of which I have 6 that I use). That means that I may be misidentifying unusual species as more common ones. Then there's the issue that if the plant isn't blooming or seeding out, I'm probably missing it altogether. Sedges, especially, have been tough for me. I know I have several species of sedge scattered throughout the yard, but I have no guide that makes me feel at all confident about identifying even one of them.]

Recently I started reading a classic on prairie restoration, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. The authors in this book caution that there are few good remnants of tallgrass prairie left, therefore most restorations will begin with land that has been compromised in one way or another. So one of the first topics they cover is how to begin assessing what you are starting with, as a basis for deciding how to proceed with the restoration and for figuring out whether your restoration attempts are moving you in the direction that you want to be moving.

One of the assessment tools they talk about is called the coefficient of conservatism (C or CoC, depending on the source). This is a number from 0 to 10 that is assigned to native plant species based on, in essence, their weediness and desireability within a high quality prairie. A rating of 0 is a widely distributed, weedy species in no need of conservation; a rating of 10 is a rare (possibly endangered) species found only in high quality prairies.

Last spring, Brad Guhr (of Dyck Arboretum) kindly forwarded a list of the coefficients of conservatism for plants species found in Kansas. Last night I used this list to figure out the mean CoC for each of the 3 areas on which I've have been compiling lists. My statistical methodology, for anyone who should happen to care, was simply to look up the coefficient of conservatism for each of the species that I had listed, count the total number of species on the list for that area, then divide the former by the latter.

Using this method, the area east of the draw has a mean CoC of 2.21; the area west of the draw has a mean CoC of 2.31; and the back 5 acres (the area we burned this spring) has a mean CoC of 2.64. That puts all 3 zones firmly in the "Who the heck knows what to do with this plot" category. Seriously. Although, of course, they phrased it a little more elegantly in the book.

So far, the worst plant I've found on this site is Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense). Based on their coefficient of conservatism, the best plants I've found are spring ladies' tresses (Spiranthes vernalis, CoC 8), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla, CoC 7), white prairie clover (Dalea candida, CoC 7), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens, CoC 7).

Plus as I started reading this book, I found one big positive for our site that I had never considered before: the soil is basically intact. It has never been plowed, nor has it been subject to massive erosion or reshaping. Given that plus, I'm determined not to use the "Roundup the whole darn mess, plow it up, and start fresh with seed that you buy or collect" method of prairie re-establishment.

So for starters our negatives are
1) overgrazing,
2) introduction of exotics,
3) lack of burning for years,
4) overgrowth of shrubs, young trees, and weedy species, and
5) small site size.

As I read, I feel like I've been on the right track. So far I've been keeping grazing off (at least for now), burning, using Roundup selectively, and overseeding with desireable species. Especially in the area we burned, I know that quite a few species showed up this year that I didn't see last year.

It's reassuring to know that my instincts have been reasonably good so far. Now if I can just keep threading my way through this continuing maze....

Friday, October 31, 2008

"Insects and Gardens"

Before I quit posting for the day, I want to recommend a great book for anyone who wants to learn more about insects - or for anyone who gardens.

The book is Insects and Gardens by Eric Grissell, and it is a wonderfully readable book that discusses, often humorously, the roles that insects play in our gardens and our yards. The pictures are phenomenal too, making my photos look like the amateurish attempts that they are.

For anyone looking for Christmas gifts for a gardener or a budding naturalist, I can't think of a better gift to add to your Christmas list!

The Flying Confetti Garden, Part IV

The last insects that I'm going to highlight from my "aster collection" are a pair of bees that are often mistaken for each other - the bumble bee and the carpenter bee. They are about the same size (which means big, about 1" or so) and both are colored black and yellow. There's a straightforward way to tell them apart, though.

The bumble bee, the more "well known" of the two, has a hairy abdomen which is very visible in this photo.... Bumble bees generally nest in the ground in abandoned rodent nests, where a queen bumble bee creates a small colony of workers over the course of the summer. Reproductive males and females are raised in the colonies at the end of summer, and it is only the fertilized young queens that survive the winter to start new colonies the next year.

The carpenter bee, on the other hand, nests in unpainted or soft wood and has a generally hairless abdomen, which is easy to see in this photo. Carpenter bees eat out straight holes into wood, then create a few cells all in a line that they pack with pollen and nectar before laying 1 egg in each cell and capping it. Carpenter bees are often considered pests because of these holes that they create in the trim around porches, doors, railings, etc., but they also nest in dead trees and other wood.
Male carpenter bees, which do not have stingers (egglayers), are particularly noticeable and frightening at certain times of the year, as they zoom back and forth protecting their territory, waiting for females to come along so they can mate. Without stingers, their buzz is much worse than their "bite", but they certainly can be startling and rather disconcerting.

Both carpenter bees and bumble bees are important native pollinators. The photo below of a carpenter bee shows pollen dusting its head and body, pollen that will go along with the bee to the next flower where it can cross pollinate that flower and help create the next generation of plants, as well as the next generation of bees.

With honeybees having so much trouble these days and their populations seemingly in steep decline, native pollinators such as bumble bees, carpenter bees, syrphid flies, butterflies and so forth are all the more important. In some ways, I feel like my asters gathered all of these important insects together to reassure me that diversity and flexibility is the name of the game, at least in nature.

The Flying Confetti Garden, Part III

Syrphid flower flies, jet-winged skippers, little bees with full pollen loads, graceful painted ladies, even black and yellow garden spiders.... That's a good start, but there are many more insects hovering around these seemingly magnetic purple blossoms on the asters.

As the butterflies swirl off the flowers and around me, obviously the painted ladies are not the only butterflies that I see. Here is a black swallowtail who came to nectar this fall, showing obvious signs of having lived a long and adventurous life. Notice how worn out his wings are, almost transparent, and how he has lost one of his beautiful swallowtails.

Sometimes I don't see the actual insect that used the asters, just the remnant that shows me it was there. This shed cicada case is a perfect example. Of course, the cicada wasn't drawn to the aster blooms, just to the stems that it could cling to overnight as it made its final metamorphosis from a digging, underground nymph to a clearwinged, flying adult.

Another insect that probably wasn't drawn to the flowers (or at least not to their nectar) is this katydid, perched jauntily on top of the aster. Katydids eat vegetation, sometimes including the petals and buds of flowers, but they are rarely considered pests like many of the short-horned grasshoppers are.
There is one more pair of insects that I noticed on the asters, but they deserve a post all of their own....

The Flying Confetti Garden, Part II

Continuing on with my enjoyment of all the insect life drawn to my aromatic asters (Aster oblongifolius) this fall, the most obvious insects that I see on the vivid purple flowers are the butterflies. As I walk by, it's their drifting flight that swirls around me and brightens the very air I'm passing through.

While I've seen several different butterfly species drawn to the asters, the most common butterflies I see nectaring on these flowers are the painted ladies. It's not uncommon for my 3' diameter aster to have a dozen or more painted ladies on it at any one time.

Apparently painted ladies live on five different continents, making them the most widespread butterfly on Earth. They can't survive freezing temperatures, so the only adults to live through the winter months are those in the south. In the spring, they migrate northward, occasionally even outpacing the monarchs!

Not surprisingly given their large distribution, the hairy/spiny caterpillars of the painted ladies are generalists, eating thistles, mallows such as hollyhocks, legumes and other plants. Occasionally they occur in such numbers that they become noticed as pests. (I doubt, though, that most people able to identify the caterpillars as painted ladies would be quick to destroy them, even if their hollyhock leaves were getting eaten to a nub.)

As these colorful butterflies descend on my asters, I can easily watch the "ladies" daintily unfurl their tightly rolled tongues and sip nectar elegantly through their straws...

and sometimes I have to witness the end of their graceful lives.
Funny, when the black & yellow garden spider catches and eats a grasshopper or wasp, she seems like a heroine, but when she captures and eats a painted lady, her reputation as a villainess jumps immediately to mind.

No matter what she's eating, the black and yellow garden spider is gaining protein for her eggs, next year's black & yellow garden spiders. Hopefully her prey, the graceful painted lady, has already left progeny to give us next year's painted ladies too. Nature's balance is often difficult to watch objectively, but it's worked for millenia. For our own good, we might be a little less quick to judge and a little slower to interfere in the balance of life.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Flying Confetti Garden, Part I

The asters have been beautiful in my front garden this year. First the New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) bloomed, joined soon after by the little bargain-bin Lowe's asters (Aster x) that I got for 50 cents last year and stuck in just to see if they'd make it. Just as all of those were beginning to fade, one of the aromatic asters (Aster oblongifolius) started in, and as it hit full bloom, it was joined by the second aromatic aster, which is only now beginning to dim. Looking back over my photos, I've had almost 2 months of aster blooms this fall.

Almost more spectacular than the asters themselves are the insects that are attracted to their blooms. For weeks now when I walk by the asters, a cloud of butterflies and other insects flies into the air, then settles back down again. I feel like I'm surrounded by brightly colored, living confetti!

About 3 weeks ago I spent several hours trying to capture close-up shots of the insects feeding on the aromatic asters. Here are a few of them....

This little bee has full pollen baskets, although she seems to be busily collecting even more to pack in. It always gives me a little thrill to see the pollen baskets on the hind legs of bees. I have no idea why, but I love them. (For scale, the blooms in all of these photos are actually about 1" in diameter.)

To the right is a syrphid fly. These little guys are colored to look like bees or wasps, but they have no stingers and can cause no harm to humans. The adults feed at the flowers, while the larvae are great predators on aphids, making this a very beneficial insect to find in your garden.

I think this little bee to the left is a leafcutter bee, although I'm not completely sure. If I'm right, this is the insect that cuts circular shaped pieces of leaf from roses, green ash and others. It uses the pieces of leaves to line its nest cells. The cells are packed with pollen and nectar and a single egg is laid in each cell. The insect overwinters as a pupa in its cell and emerges in the spring. There is one generation per year. Leafcutter bees do generally cosmetic damage to some leaves, but are important pollinators - a function that is increasingly important as honeybee populations continue to decline.
To the right is a skipper, a common relative of moths and butterflies that rarely seems to get noticed. If you look carefully, you can see the straw-like mouth coming out of the front of the head and curving down into the flower. This species always carries its wings in this "power jet" formation.
I have many more photos of insects from this aster, but time is running away from me for now, so I'll have to add more later.

The Big Freeze Has Arrived

As I write, the ground is covered in silvery frost, the green leaves of the perennials are looking bruised, and the water in the buckets is covered with a not-so-thin layer of ice. It's 29 degrees F. on the breezeway. The first hard freeze of fall has come.

I'm ready. I've enjoyed being out in the garden and the prairie tremendously over the spring, summer and early fall, but I'm beginning to crave cozy days inside, watching the birds through the kitchen window.

I still have a few outdoor projects to finish before I feel like I've put the yard "to bed", so to speak. There are about 100 daffodil bulbs, 100 crocus bulbs, and 20 tulip bulbs sitting on my kitchen counter that need to be planted. I need to harvest the sweet potatoes (if the cotton hispid rats and voles have left me any). I need to do a final weeding, to catch the winter weeds that have suddenly sprung up in the last couple weeks. Last of all, when people start raking their yards, I need to gather leaves, chop them, and put another layer of mulch on the flower beds.

Meanwhile, the first white crowned sparrows and Harris sparrows have shown up in the last week, the green ash have completely lost their leaves, and the natural world is glowing gold with tinges of orange. "It's a most wonderful time of the year."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Exploring the Salt Mines

Normally I seek out sunlight and green, growing things, but every once in a while circumstances take me in the opposite direction. Today was one of those days.

With a group of friends from Clearwater, Prairiewolf and I visited the Underground Salt Mine Museum in Hutchinson. It's only been open for about a year and, like so many locals with their own area tourist sites, we hadn't been to see it yet.

After a slightly daunting safety film, we gathered our courage, geared up and headed down in the hoist. The tour guide was knowledgeable and humorous, while the mine itself was spacious and amazingly pleasant - cool and even temperatures, moderate humidity, and fresh-smelling air. The walls even glittered as the lights reflected off the salt crystals in them!
After a trolley tour during which the guide pointed out geological features, remnants of mining activity from the '30's and '40's, and a variety of features of the mine, we went on a self-guided walking tour, examining the mining equipment, watching videos about the mining process, and learning about some of the interesting items now stored in the hollowed out mining galleries.

Coming back out of the mines, the thought we all seemed to experience at once was disbelief at the amount of activity occurring deep below the seemingly undisturbed surface we were driving over.

There was much more to see than I'd realized, and it was a fun and informative adventure. If you're ever nearby, I'd recommend taking a couple hours to check it out. You'll never look at road salt and table salt in quite the same way again!

Suddenly Seasonal

We left for a weekend trip to San Antonio last weekend and were gone for 4 days. It was late summer when we left...and fall when we returned.

The green ash trees had gone from "streaks" of yellow in their green canopies to "streaks" of green in their yellow canopies. Seemingly overnight, many of the honeylocusts had simply changed with no prior notice, also from green to yellow.

The weather had gone from the mid-80's, requiring the air conditioner, to the mid 50's, requiring the furnace.

Most disconcerting was the apparent disappearance of Charlotte, our newly adopted Argiope spider. For a few days before we left, she had refrained from rebuilding her web across our kitchen sliding door, then she moved away from the door to a spot on the siding about 3 feet away. When we got back from our trip, there was no Charlotte to be seen, but there was a brown ball firmly attached to the siding where she'd been hanging out. Her egg sac. Next year's black and gold garden spiders.

I looked for her body but didn't find it, so I decided that a bird had probably eaten her.

Then just 2 days ago, I spied her! She had moved way up to the eaves, more than 2 stories off the ground at that point on our house. I can't see her now unless I go outside and squint upwards, preferably with the binoculars firmly glued to my eyes, but I'm glad she's there. Who knows? Maybe she'll gather enough energy to lay yet another sac of eggs, ensuring even more garden spiders next year.

Meanwhile, each day brings more signs that summer is wrapping up and winter is fast approaching. I love the clear blue skies, crisp air, and bright fall colors, but I'm not 100% sure that I'm ready for winter yet. Ready or not, it's coming. Then, before I know it, I'll be noticing signs of spring. The rapid cycling of the seasons brings bittersweet poignancy to my heart these days, but thankfulness, too, that I'm lucky enough to notice and revel in it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are [Or Should Be]

On Monday night Prairiewolf and I had the opportunity to attend a talk given by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.

This book has been creating quite a stir in the environmental education community since it was published 3 years ago, so I was vaguely familiar with it. I hadn't, however, read it. Louv's lecture was not only interesting, it encouraged me to pick up his book so that I could delve deeper into his research and findings.,

(Note: I've just started reading the book. Most of the following commentary is based on his talk, his "sermonette" as he called it, and on my concerns and observations.)

Louv has been able to pinpoint a phenomenon that many of us, working with children and nature over the years, have noticed. He's gone further, then, to solidify our growing unease into a coherent theory of a radical change occurring within our culture.

That change, to paraphrase Louv, is the growing alienation of our children from nature.

The need of most children to play outside has basically been an accepted part of childhood throughout human history. In fact, for most of human history, all of us, adults and children, spent a great majority of our time outdoors, interacting with the natural world.

It's been such an accepted part of human behavior that no one has thought to study it...or has even thought much about it at all. Until suddenly it's not occurring anymore.

It's still not studied a great deal, for the simple reason that no one stands to make a great deal of money out of proving that children - or any of us - need to be out in nature. However, the studies that are being done show that free play in natural settings not only develops physical muscles, it also develops creativity. Free time in nature helps children deal with stress and helps them learn self sufficiency. Perhaps most important of all, it grounds them to the natural world in a deeply satisfying way that serves to nurture them throughout their lives.

While they may learn facts and interesting information, often about large animals halfway around the world, watching nature on TV is ultimately alienating if it is your primary exposure to the natural world. It sets nature off as "other". Watching a tree's limbs wave on a screen is very different from being up in that same tree, hearing the wind rustle the leaves around you, feeling it ruffle your hair while the branch below you sways as you look out over the surrounding landscape from your hideout deep in the middle of that tree canopy.

Louv has all sorts of data from various studies to back up his concern and his hypothesis, but those of us who have been lucky enough to experience this free exposure to nature in our childhoods can viscerally sense the loss to children who are unable to have these same sorts of experiences.

One other point that I think is very important to make.... It's tempting to point the finger at TV and other electronic devices as the culprits, or even to vilify the children themselves for being too lazy to get up off the couch or floor and go outside, but the problems are much more multi-faceted than that. Where are the children supposed to go play if they do go outside? Our yards are sterile and there is almost no open space left free around our cities. Our litiginous society makes us scared to let other people's children play on our property, and our overblown fear of strangers kidnapping our children makes us afraid to let them out of our sight. We've become dangerously scared of "germs" and "bugs", to the point where we're willing to poison ourselves in a vain attempt to delete natural bacteria, insect and spider populations from our lives. We're even scared to let our children get dirty because "people" might think we're bad parents!

We live in a free country, but we're caging ourselves and our children in a vain attempt to make life "safe" and we're impoverishing ourselves and them in the process. (Of course, that opens many discussion areas beyond this, but I'll save those for another time.)

Even if you can't take the time to pick up Louv's book and read it, I urge you to look around you with the thought of where you would play if you were a child. I think a connection to the wild ultimately makes each of us a little more human.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Spider vs. Wheel Bug: Battle of the Predators

Not that there was much battle about it. Charlotte won, "hands" down! The wheel bug was still alive and literally kicking when I took this photo, but she didn't last long.

Charlotte feasted on her for at least 24 hours, after moving her back to the center of the web.

The interlocking strands of the web of life fascinate me, especially when I get to observe them firsthand...and literally. Why would anyone simply kill off any bugs and spiders they see, rather than get to watch all of this real-life drama right under their nose?

A Bold, Beautiful, Benign Brand of Spider

As I was trying to learn the exact species name for "Charlotte," I came across some other interesting and fun facts that I thought I'd share.

As a starting point, I'd recognized her as a black and gold garden spider (the common name I knew) in the genus Argiope. As I understood it, Argiope spiders were the ones who wove the zigzag pattern into their webs. I was also quite sure that she was female, based on her size and the relative rotundity of her abdomen.

As is often the case, things were a little more complicated than that.

Charlotte is indeed female. She is an Argiope aurantia, also known commonly as the black and yellow garden spider, the writing spider, the yellow garden spider, the corn spider, and a lot of other similar names. These spiders are common around gardens, homes, and open, sunny areas in much of the U.S.

Males of this species (and many other spider species) are much smaller and more slender than the females. In this species, the male finds his way to a female's web at about this time of year. There he lurks around the perimeter, sometimes building a smaller web on the outskirts of the female's web or just nearby. He carefully plucks and vibrates the female's web, ready to make a run for it if necessary, to let her know he's there. After mating, the male usually dies or sometimes is eaten by the female for the extra protein to supply her eggs.
The female then constructs from 1-3 egg sacs of brown silk, each about 1" in diamater with a narrow neck and containing from 300-1400 eggs, which she suspends near the center of her web. She protects the egg sac(s) as long as she is alive, but she will die with the first frost. The eggs hatch that same fall, but the spiderlings remain dormant in the sac until spring, when they exit their sac and disperse. There is one generation per year.

Believe it or not, the bright yellow and black coloring of these spiders actually serves as camouflage in the open, sunlit areas where they usually build their webs.

Black and yellow garden spiders are neat housekeepers, rebuilding the center of their web every night. Actually, when I saw her, Charlotte was working on her web in the early morning hours, just as the sun was coming up. It was fascinating to watch the reconstruction work. As you can see in the photo to the left, first she ate the old web strands, then she would spin the new. Just in the short time I watched, I noted her producing 3 different kinds of silk: the sticky single strand used to make the spiral, a fine strand (presumably not sticky) that makes the cloudy center of the web (the part she's eating in the photo), and a heavy multi-strand silk used to make the zigzag pattern. Add to those the heavier nonsticky strands used to construct the radials and the strands used to make the egg sacs, and Argiope aurantia produces at least 5 distinctly separate types of silk.

Each web has a "free zone" between the central hub and the sticky catching spiral. With only the non-sticky radial lines in this area, the spider is free to move back and forth from one side of the web to the other through this area.

The zigzag pattern woven into the web is called the stabilimentum and is a common feature in the webs of spiders who leave their webs up during the day. At least 78 species of spiders build similar structures in their webs. Since webs with a stabilimentum catch as many as 34% fewer insects than those without, it is thought to be a warning to birds to help them avoid flying through the web and ruining it. Another theory is that it serves as further camouflage for the waiting spider.

Black and yellow garden spiders are important predators on grasshoppers, among other flying insect species. They can catch and eat insects up to twice their own size in their webs.

At the same time, they themselves are eaten by wasps, birds, lizards, and shrews. Their egg sacs are also preyed upon by many other animals, including birds. In fact, one source reported a study showing that 19 species of insects and 11 species of spiders besides A. aurantia emerged from A. aurantia egg sacs.

Last, but certainly not least, black and yellow garden spiders are considered generally harmless to humans. They are very gentle, only biting upon extreme provocation. Their bite usually produces an area of sore, itching swelling that subsides after a couple days. (Note: Individual reactions to any insect or arachnid bite may vary due to individual sensitivity. I would hardly recommending provoking any spider into biting, if it all possible!)

This is a fun type of spider to watch during late summer and fall, when they are the most easily noticed, although not everybody is lucky enough to have their own Charlotte hanging just outside their kitchen door!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Charlotte's Web

"I saw a spider sign her web today."

That's the line that's been singing in my head ever since yesterday morning, when I was allowed to witness a black and gold garden spider rebuild the center of her web.

I first noticed that she'd come to share our home last week, when I saw her in the remains of her web, hanging outside our kitchen sliding door. As I went in and out, she scuttled away to hide in the grill cover that was lying nearby.

When I came down to the kitchen the next morning, her graceful web was spread all the way across the moving side of the sliding door, with the center at nose height. I debated moving her, then decided to let her stay. It's been a little inconvenient, since we can't use that door for now, but being able to watch her daily activivies has been enjoyable. Another up-close-and-personal learning experience for me.

Besides, just seeing her there makes me smile.

As usual, I've done some web research to augment what little knowledge I had about garden spiders. Most of that I'll share in a later post. For now I just wanted to share these photos. The one above is of her weaving the signature into her web. (I was a little surprised - the silk of her signature is spun as multiple strands at once, so making the zigziag actually took her very little time.)
The photo to the left was taken immediately after she finished her daily masterpiece, having "assumed the position" in which she spends her time waiting for her next meal to present itself.

Oh, and by the way.... In my web research, I learned that another common name for this species is writing spider. There could hardly be a more appropriate name. Perhaps I should name our housemate, Charlotte.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dueling Texters - A Tragicomedic Modern Event

Our nearby little community of Clearwater, Kansas, had its annual Fall Festival a couple weeks ago. The weather was lousy, but turnout seemed better than I expected. As usual, I've at least glanced at articles about the event in the local paper, not really expecting to find out anything useful, but curious to keep learning about our newly adopted hometown.

A photo of 4 teenagers standing under a picnic pavilion roof, intently focused on something in their hands while rain poured down in the background, caught my eye in last week's hometown paper. Reading the article, I don't know whether to laugh or cry....

It seems that attendance at the Fall Festival has been traditionally good for the elementary age and younger set, as well as for the adult crowd, but attendance by the middle school and high school age group has been declining for many years now. In a move of sheer brilliance, the game organizer changed the venue to include lots of different video games and...(wait for it!)...text messaging competitions. The local phone company donated 5 cell phones - one for the judge and 4 for the contestants, preset with judge's phone number. The first of each round of 4 contestants' to text the message, "Let Bygones Be Bygones.", to the judge's phone won. After those "qualifying rounds", there were texting duels in a bracket tournament.

I am in awe of this inspiration for increasing young adult attendance at the Fall Festival. I am also LMAO (to quote my son) at the picture of intense teenaged concentration captured by the paper photographer. At the same time, I'm deeply saddened - is this what our young folks are most entranced by? At the peak of their physical prowess, as they are developing neural pathways that have to stand them in good stead for the rest of their adult lives, it is video games and cell phone texting that draw them into competition and some semblance of communication and participation in community life.

The next few decades could be very interesting. I just wish I were observing from the outside, not roped in as an automatically involved participant in this large scale human development experiment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sunny Days

Well, we've gone and done it again. Our household has increased by one - this time a sweetheart of a little English setter puppy whom we've named Sunny.
There's not a lot to say, except that Prairiewolf and I are like kids in a candy shop when it comes to cats and dogs. We never seem to be able to get enough!

Becker's being a great "big brother" and taking little Sunny under his wing...that is, unless she tries to eat his food or take one of his precious sticks! Then she gets told in no uncertain terms that she's the new kid on the block and not approved for those privileges as of yet.

The cats are less than pleased with the new addition. Ranger isn't scared, but he expresses his displeasure by standing at the door to Sunny's crate and growling at her. Of course, he also curls up to sleep in Prairiewolf's lap while Sunny sleeps 6" away on his chest!

It will take us a while, but life will settle back down to its (new) normal rhythm soon.

And I'm taking a sacred vow to myself to stay away from animal shelters, litters of puppies and other areas of temptation...for at least another 6 weeks or so!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Putting Experience in Perspective

I don't normally write about political stuff in my blog, but I have to put up some interesting comparisons tonight.

Sarah Palin, McCain's pick for vice presidential candidate, was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, for several years and has been the governor of the state of Alaska for less than 2 years. This is the sum total of her major political experience.

Compared to Kansas, according to the Rand-McNally atlas that I have (which lists 2000 census numbers)....

City Populations:

Wasilla, Alaska: 5,469

Mulvane, Kansas: 5,155
Abilene, Kansas: 6,543
Pratt, Kansas: 6,570
Augusta, Kansas: 8,423
Haysville, Kansas: 8,502
Wellington, Kansas: 8,647

So Abilene, Pratt, Augusta, Haysville, and Wellington are all bigger than Wasilla, Alaska. That gives me some perspective on her mayoral experience.

The population of Alaska is listed in this atlas as 626,932 people. The comparable figure for Kansas is 2,688,418. So Kansas has roughly 4 times as many people as Alaska. And she's been the governor of Alaska for less than 2 years.

Oh, by the way, Alaska may be the biggest state in terms of land mass, but it is Number 48 in the 2000 census in terms of population.

Based on the response being reported in the national news media, obviously this "vast" experience on Sarah Palin's part has many Republicans thrilled beyond measure, but the thought that this level of experience would be guiding us in the White House should John McCain become incapacitated scares me immensely.

And this choice of a running mate is supposed to give me confidence in John McCain's ability to lead this country competently?

What's That Gold Stuff Tickling My Nose?

It's allergy season. There's pollen everywhere.

The goldenrod is blooming....

But WAIT!!!!

Is it really goldenrod that is causing the problem? It gets blamed all the time. Even my father refuses to have goldenrod in the garden because it "causes his hayfever."
The flower color is gold, but aren't flower colors designed to attract insects for pollination? Why would goldenrod put out the energy to grow golden flowers if it was scattering its pollen to the wind for pollination?

The truth is that goldenrod pollen is too heavy to be carried by the wind. Goldenrod DOES rely on insects for pollination. Instead of producing huge quantities of pollen to scatter widely, goldenrod spends its energy producing flowers that attract those insects.

On the other hand, there are basic green plants growing all around, usually in disturbed areas, that are busy producing green flowers right now. Those unobtrusive green flowers (that I'd be willing to bet you've never noticed) are putting out massive quantities of pollen, because insects don't notice them either.

What are these drab green plants? We know them by the name "ragweed," if we know them at all. They don't care if we know them, and they don't care if anyone notices them. The wind takes care of their pollination needs, and our noses and sinuses are often our only awareness that they exist.

Here's a closeup of giant ragweed flowers beginning to bloom. I've really become rather intrigued by their exotic "Japanese-pagoda-goes-green" looks.

Part of the reason I'm noticing them so much these days is that we have a bumper crop of giant ragweed in the Beyond. It towers a foot or more above my head as I walk the paths, and I've taken many interesting pictures of insects hiding in its foliage.

Luckily I'm not allergic to ragweed pollen. In fact, as I watch the flowers form, ripen and eventually morph into ragweed seed, I'm smiling. Ragweed seed is very high in protein and an excellent wildlife food. Our gourmet breakfast bar for wildlife will be open and wellstocked when winter's cold comes calling in a few months.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sometimes I Just Feel So Lucky....

Sometimes I just feel so lucky to be who I am, living where I am, and today is one of those days. (At least, it is now that I've gotten over my early morning funk...and the guy is here fixing the blinds!)
We live in Kansas on just 10 acres, which seems "ordinary" enough, but here are a couple views from our little homestead....

The path, through a nice stand of big bluestem and other prairie grasses, from the house to the draw and the Beyond.

The path through the draw and into the Beyond.

The bottomlands in the draw. The brown area in the foreground is the remnant of one of the poison ivy stands that Prairiewolf has been trying to fight back.

The Back of Beyond, otherwise known as the Back Five. This photo was taken in early July, looking back towards the draw, and it shows the silver bluestem catching the light.

Yes, our land is fairly flat. Yes, our land has more grass than trees...and maybe more "weeds" than grass. And, yes, at least half of our land is overgrazed pasture. But it fascinates me and anchors me and challenges me and grounds me.

Sometimes I just feel so lucky....

The Painful Price of Not Paying Attention

I've let myself be lulled by cooler than normal temperatures. How can something so pleasant have led to potential disaster?

See, because of the cooler temperatures and days of overcast skies, I haven't been paying enough attention to how little rain we've actually been getting. My front bed, composed primarily of more established prairie wildflowers, has been looking great (at least as far as water stress goes!). That's what I pass by closely on my way in and out of the house several times a day...and I haven't been looking nearly as closely at my new backyard bed.

After all, it looked fine from the kitchen window. When I actually walked out to it yesterday, however, I was appalled to see that several plants had dried up and disappeared and several others looked like limp caricatures of themselves. Whoops.

I hate it when I fail to follow my own advice! "You can generally plant containerized plants at any time in the growing season, but be sure you keep them well watered for the first year or two, especially if you're trying to get them established during the summer."

At this point, it will probably be next spring before I know the true extent of the damage I've done. I'll try to think of it as an opportunity to try something new. But, blast it! I didn't really even give these plants an even chance at deciding whether they wanted to grow and thrive here. That's what makes me the most frustrated with myself.

Monday Morning Grump

I'm feeling grinchy this morning.

It was a wonderfully cool morning when I went out to get the paper, but it's starting to heat up a bit. I'd love to have taken a walk-about, but someone is coming any moment now to take in one of our blinds for repair. Since the blinds are still under warranty for 5 1/2 more years, I didn't want to risk screwing them up by prying them out myself, so now I wait on someone else's convenience.

I'm getting positively unpleasant about having my mornings interrupted by outside commitments. My mornings have come to be very precious to me - whether I waste them away by sleeping in... or fritter them away reading the paper and playing on the computer... or delight in them by doing a walk-about... or use them constructively to water the garden or get housework or errands done. I "want what I want when I want it!", by golly - at least on weekday mornings.


Okay. Having whined and yelled a bit, I'll try to let my grump dissipate. Even if tomorrow is not as cool, we're heading into fall, and it's a sure bet that one of these upcoming mornings will be nice again. So I'll play around on the computer until Mr. Blind gets out of my way, then move on with the day.

Friday, August 22, 2008

More Milkweed Stuff

I thought that I was pretty much done for the summer with new milkweed finds in our yard...but I find that I was wrong.

Last week I briefly looked into the bottomland area, not expecting to see much except giant ragweed, massive quantities of poison ivy and maybe some smartweed. However, I noticed some 4-6' tall plants with pretty pink puffs of flowers on the top. Way too tall for smartweed. Closer inspection surprised me - they were obviously milkweed blossoms. I had discovered a dozen or so swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata)!

How did I miss that many pretty, fragrant, tall flowering plants last summer?! I'm blaming it on the poison ivy thickets that were viciously guarding the lowlands. Prairiewolf has been working hard to fight them back for the last 2 summers. Obviously he's making some serious progress, and this is one of the benefits of his work.

The next discovery came a few days ago. I was doing a walkabout, not finding much new, when I decided to check out some uninteresting looking white blooms about 20' away from the path. They just looked like nondescript "weeds", but...more milkweeds! At first I thought this was whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), but upon further study, it looks more like plains milkweed (Asclepias pumila). There's not a lot of information on plains milkweed, so I want to look a little farther, but I'm going to tentatively identify it this way for now.

Last of all, yesterday I finally found a monarch caterpillar while I had my camera in hand. He was busy chowing down on smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii). From his size, I would guess that he was close to pupating, and I like to think that he will be one of the monarchs making the long migration down to Mexico this fall.

Many of the milkweeds around the yard are suddenly full of aphids, but they're beginning to look bedraggled in other ways too. Some of their leaves are turning yellow and falling off. A few plants, especially the green antelopehorn, are even dying back. They've bloomed and released their seeds; their work is done for this year. One more sign that summer is coming to a close.
The seasons are whirling by. Next year I'll know that I can chart their course by following the sequential development of the 8 milkweed species (and their associated insect pals) currently calling our 10 acres home. For me, it's a deeply satisfying way of measuring time's passage.

The RangeMan Cometh

We've got a new family member!
His name is Ranger (based on the character from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series), he's about 4 months old and, like most young things, he vacillates wildly between being a little sweetheart and a holy terror.

We got Ranger from the animal shelter on the last Sunday of July. They had been having Cat Liberation Weekends, trying desperately to find new homes for the large influx of cats and kittens they'd received over the summer. Prairiewolf and I decided that it was finally time to give T.J., our 4 1/2 year old feline, a companion. The only kittens left Saturday afternoon weren't available to see until Sunday, since they'd just been spayed or neutered, so we went back that next day. Before we left on Saturday, though, I'd noted one friendly, young, black male still under surgical quarantine...and, sure enough, he was the one who chose us the next day.

I've been nervous about adding another cat, since cats can be unpleasantly territorial towards others of their own species, but Ranger has fit right in. There are even times when I think he's a little TOO bold and when he, the 4 pound kitten, starts attacking Becker's, the 115 pound German shepherd's, ear! The dogs, however, have been quite indulgent, and T.J. seems to be bemusedly alternating between watching this new little squirt's activity and wrestling wholeheartedly with him.

Last week Ranger learned that he could jump straight up into the air, and he spent several days practicing this skill. That morphed into jumping up onto our legs while we're standing up, using all 20 claws to hold on. Or jumping as high as he can onto the window screens and holding on there for dear life. A battle with the blinds led to $75 worth of damage...but we're giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming the blinds were deficient.
Next he realized that he could reach the kitchen counter, and we are currently battling over whether that's my territory or his. I've had to deploy that dreaded weapon, the squirt bottle. Sad to say, though that makes him scram now when he sees it, he's quite happy to check out the countertop again in just a minute or two.

Life's certainly not dull around here right now!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Numeric Coincidences in the Garden

An interesting day in the vegetable garden.....

For various reasons, I hadn't really been paying much attention to the garden for the last 5 or 6 days, so I thought I'd better get out there this morning to put out any "fires" that had taken hold.

It was immediately obvious that I needed to pick tomatoes. Last week there were no ripe ones and only a few showing a blush of color. This morning I picked 64. From only 7 vines, 5 of them heirloom varieties. I'm actually rather amazed. All of this is totally organic too. (Confession time, though - I had to chuck 13 of the 64 tomatoes into the compost pile immediately, because I'd let them get too ripe...or the insects had claimed them as their own.)

On the down side, a couple weeks of upper 90's and low 100's, followed by cooler temps with rain had caused a lot of cracking. It was interesting to see how the different heirloom varieties responded....

Almost every single ripe German Queen tomato (and there were close to 20 of them, all quite large) was seriously cracked. Also, we've only harvested a couple of these before now and I was amazed to see how many were ripe at one time. If the plant wasn't flowering again, I'd seriously wonder if it was a determinate variety.

The Black Krim plant had produced quite a few tomatoes, but almost all of the ones that were ripe had been cracked and then immediately seriously infested with insects, followed by fungus - much more so than any of the other varieties. I haven't had a chance to taste any yet, but have 2 that survived with little enough damage that I'll try them tomorrow. I went ahead and picked several that were only half ripe, too, to try ripening them off the vine, inside. If they keep their flavor (whatever that is) maybe I can keep a higher percentage of the fruits safe from cracking and insects this way.

The Merced, another variety I haven't gotten to taste yet, had smaller cracks around the top of many of the fruits. Otherwise they looked very good.

The 2 hybrids were their normal, unexciting selves. The Rutgers acts like the hybrids. And the Green Zebra offered 5 fruits, all somewhat scarred and a few cracked (for the first time). The Green Zebras and one of the hybrids are the smallest fruits, on average. I love the look of the Green Zebras; their taste, on the other hand, is okay but not as good as German Queen's.

Meanwhile, the black blister beetles were having quite a field day. Just for curiosity's sake, I decided to keep track of how many I picked off. Including the 3 or 4 gray blister beetles I found too, I found 64 blister beetles and sent them to a watery, if sudsy clean, death.

I found that rather interesting - I harvested 64 tomatoes and 64 blister beetles. And I really tried hard to find more blister beetles!

Other insect counts on the tomatoes included 3 stink bugs (which went the way of the blister beetles) and 2 hornworms. I saw a wood nymph butterfly feeding on the overripe Black Krim tomatoes too.

Last comment: When I see (or rather, don't see) eaten tomato leaves, I can tell what the insect culprit is by the general location of the damage. If the leaves have been chewed near the base of the plant (and have little black frass packets that look like tiny mouse droppings), I know I'm looking for black blister beetles. If the leaves and stems are missing at the tips of branches, especially near the top of the plant, I'm looking for tomato hornworms. Their frass is dark green and almost 1/4" square.

For now, I've decided to let the hornworms live to turn into hummingbird moths. There aren't enough to be a problem fact, I'm enjoying the fact that the caterillars are basically "pinching out" the tips of the vines for me!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Typical Natural Paradox

After picking another 2 dozen or so black blister beetles off my tomatoes again this morning (the photo to the left has both black blister beetles and gray blister beetles on a "hot spot" on one of my tomato plants), I decided to do a little web research and find out more about their life cycle. What could I look for as far as their larval or pupal stage went? Was there something I could do to interrupt their life cycle at an earlier stage?

Well, I came away with yet more respect for the web of life.

It turns out that the larvae of black blister beetles feed on grasshopper eggs, specifically the eggs of short-horned grasshoppers (family Acrididae). Thus black blister beetles are more common during or after grasshopper outbreaks.

Just this afternoon, while I was at the Master Gardener office, we were discussing grasshoppers. Several people in the area are having major trouble with grasshopper outbreaks in their gardens. I was (rather smugly, I'm afraid) noting that I was seeing some, but not any more than usual. It would appear that I may very well owe my "normal" grasshopper population to those same black blister beetles that I've been cussing under my breath as I painstakingly examine my tomato plants to hunt for them.

Other rather interesting facts I learned about black blister beetles (Epicauta pennsylvanica):

* The eggs are laid in the ground or under stones, in clusters of 50-300. The females lay several clusters of eggs throughout their adult life.

* Blister beetles undergo "hypermetamorphosis" - a type of metamorphosis with several different larval forms, rather than the normal single larval form with several "instars" or growth stages. The first larval stage in blister beetles is quite mobile, while the later stages are much less mobile.

* Some of the other blister beetle genuses feed on bee larvae or stored food in bee nests during their larval stage. All blister beetle larvae appear to be predatory.

* Adult blister beetles live about 3 months.

* Blister beetles produce a toxic chemical, cantharidin, in their hemolymph ("blood"). This chemical causes blistering on human don't crush blister beetles if/when you handle them!

* Cantharidin is very stable and remains toxic even after the beetles die. Horses are particularly susceptible to cantharidin. One of the biggest problems that blister beetles cause is illness or death in horses who eat dead blister beetles in their alfalfa hay.

* The good news is that black blister beetles are one of the least toxic of the blister beetle family.
So now I'm left with the conundrum of "Do I want to minimize the black blister beetle adults that are eating my tomato plant leaves, or do I want to let their populations follow normal fluctuations as their larvae feed on grasshopper eggs in the soil?"

The more I learn, the harder this sort of decision becomes.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Summertime Blues

It's been so busy lately that I haven't been blogging much. For that matter, lately it seems that I'm just not going outside much either.

Of course, temperatures that are consistently in the upper 90's have quite a bit to do with that. I'd have to say that this is one of my least favorite times of year. Heat and I just don't get along well these days.

When I do get outside, I usually spend my time watering, picking blossoms and buds off basil plants, or handpicking pests off my tomato, potato, and squash plants. I'd rather do the latter than spray chemicals - or lose my plants to these voracious eaters - but it's definitely not my favorite garden activity.

Last year my biggest insect issue was squash bugs. This year I read a hint somewhere recommending that you plant potatoes around your squash hills as a way to control these pests. Well, it was too late for that, but I reasoned that tomatoes were in the same family as potatoes, so I planted tomato plants at each corner of that bed, then interplanted basil for good measure.

Results? Not too bad. I've had a few squash bugs, but only a few so far. The squash vines are long, luscious and beginning to set fruit. It's early days to say for sure, but right now I'm definitely going to repeat this planting combination next year.

So this year my chief bugaboo is black blister beetles. Yuck. These guys are relishing the remnants of my potato plants and starting in on the tomatoes. So far I haven't found any natural predators preying on them, but I can always hope. Meanwhile I've started my morning p.b. (jar) and soapy water assault run. If I could remember to wear gloves, I'd probably dread this task less, but I always seem to find myself ready to start with bare hands. Then I'm too lazy to walk back to the house and find the gloves to put them on. (I'm also afraid that if I got back into the air conditioning, I'd find lots of reasons not to brave the heat and humidity again that morning!)

So I steel myself and start handpicking. The little brats are very good at dropping to the ground and quickly diving into the mulch there, so I've developed a routine of holding the jar with its soapy waters of death underneath the bug I'm targetting, then trying to knock it off the plant into the "target zone". My last resort is to actually grab the black beastie between my fingers and carry it to its doom. I manage to zap about 75% of the ones I see by this rather inefficient combination of techniques.

The reason these guys give me such a case of the willies eludes me. They can't bite. Their bodies are soft. Theoretically they emit a liquid that stinks and can cause blisters, but I've never had any problems with either issue. Logic, however, doesn't operate well when it comes to this sort of visceral reaction, so I just grit my teeth and get to the task at hand.

Speaking of which, I've neglected my bug guard duty this morning, and writing about it has given me a good case of guilty conscience. So I guess I'll go grab my trusty peanut butter jar, fill it with fresh soapy water, gird my loins (so to speak), and get it done.

Then, maybe, my halo will dully glow for at least a little while!