Friday, March 28, 2008

Walkabout Woodpecker Music

Lately I've been going on "walkabouts" with Becker, our German shepherd, each morning. I take my binoculars to watch for migrating birds; he utilizes his built-in odor detection system to hunt for cotton rats and other fascinating fauna.

As I walked by the draw two mornings ago, I heard a woodpecker drumming, but couldn't localize it at first. The drumming made me think it was a big one, though. It was very loud and resonant.

Walking to the other side of the draw, I found my musician - a female downy woodpecker, the smallest of the local woodpecker species! For an all-too-brief time she performed for me. The first time I heard her, the drumming had been particularly low and resonant. As I watched further, I noticed that she was drumming on the very tips of the stubs of dead branches in a large, old cottonwood skeleton. She'd drum on the tip of one stub, producing one tone, then fly to another stub and try it out, producing a different resonance and tone.

As the season goes on, will she pick one favorite, or continue to create an arrangement of tones?

At one point she attracted a flicker, who flew in to see what this interloper was doing. Obviously the downy decided that it was the flicker, at least twice her size, who was the interloper, because it wasn't the downy that got chased away!

Each day I notice something just a little bit different as I walk. Rarely are the changes significant: a new bird showing up here, or a few new leaves unfurling there. An insect egg mass under a branch here, an overwintering grasshopper moving stiffly through the grass there. But as I watch, I'm getting to know our little piece of the Earth a little better each day...and I love what I'm learning.

Black Clouds Descend

The spring influx of blackbirds has occurred at my feeders. This is the time of year when I always get discouraged about bird feeding, watching hordes of dark bodies descending on my yard and pushing the other birds out. The mixed flocks of red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles seem to increase in number daily now. Yesterday I counted over 100 grackles at one time, and about 25 red-winged blackbirds. I've counted 22 cowbirds at once, too, although it's entirely probable there have been more. (I only count those on the ground or in the nearby bushes, not the flocks waiting in the treetops to join the feeding frenzy.)

It's the cowbirds that I particularly resent supporting. I know they were a normal part of the Plains' avifauna historically, but I also know how disruptive their populations have become to warblers and many other songbirds as human-wrought habitat changes have increased both their range and their sheer numbers. Of course, those human-wrought habitat changes have unfortunately also simultaneously decreased habitat for many of the other bird species that the cowbirds parasitize, compounding the population pressure the cowbirds exert.

As I watch the swirls of dark birds move in and out of my yard, I'm also uncomfortably aware of their metaphorical use in literature as harbingers of unpleasantness or even evil. I find that very ironic, given that it's human changes to the environment that are behind their unbalanced increase in numbers these days. Have fiction authors tapped into an unexplainable truth of nature: that large, unbalanced increases in the number of crows, jays and blackbirds signal coming distress for humans themselves?

Philosophical musings like this double my discomfort at hosting the black hordes, while my more rational self laughs and reminds me that these birds are migratory in spring and, with the exception of the cowbirds, territorial during nesting. Therefore this "problem" should be self-limiting.

But will my rational self or my emotional self win out in the when-to-quit-bird-feeding-for-the-season debate? Only time will tell....

Friday, March 21, 2008

"For Cynthia" is Beginning to Brighten the Landscape

Each day brings some new indication of spring. Today's change: the tightly furled yellow buds of the forsythia have begun to open. It's always a lift to see the bright sunshine of the forsythia blossoms against the cool clear blue sky of spring. (The photo here was actually taken last year. So far the only forsythia blooms open on our bushes are onesies and twosies about 2' off the ground.)

Just last year I learned that this spring reliable can also serve as a reminder/trigger: it's time to apply corn gluten to the lawn for summer weed control.

I like the idea of using natural signals to time particular garden tasks. It makes biological sense to me.... Truthfully, it also seems a little poetic. And when we're applying a substance that's a fertilizer to already established plants, rather than a poison to almost everything it touches (like so many petrochemical substances that get used by many gardeners), it seems truly life enhancing.

So, folks, let's get out there and get those spreaders spurting. Here's to the golden sunshine of spring!

A Beautiful Start to the Day

It's not even 8:15 yet this morning, and already I want to share a few gifts that I've received today....

Prairiewolf woke me up early to see the moon - full and shining silvery on the undersides of a geometric progression of linear clouds that alternated with the black of the open sky, growing larger and brighter and fluffier as they got closer towards the center of the sky.

It was still fairly dark when I stepped outside to get the paper. A robin was loudly and melodically greeting the coming day. On the way back towards the house, I stopped at the car to get birdseed out of the trunk so that I could load the feeders for the early morning crew. As I hoisted the second set of bags, I looked up at some movement and saw a medium sized canine trotting swiftly along the cedar hedge, about 75' away from me, going from west to east. My first thought was to stop Becker, so I called out his name, then realized immediately that he was standing right beside me. At that moment I realized that the trotting canine was a coyote, totally intent on reaching its destination. By the time I'd made the connection, it was gone, but it left behind a little frisson of wild in the air.

Then, as I filled the birdfeeders, I noticed the moon again, setting in the west. The silvery color was gone; now it glowed bright, fresh orange against the deep lavender of the clouds.

And as I took our dear, old, blind Shiner out front for her morning potty break, the sun was finally coming up. First the sky glowed bright peachy pink, silhouetting a big old cottonwood behind our neighbor's home. While I stood watching, the disk of the sun itself came up above the horizon, burning flaming orange against the peach and lavender sky, as if the moon from the western sky had transitted around behind the earth so fast that it caught fire as it came above the horizon again.

The simple pleasures of life in the country....

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Goatweed Leafwing

Okay, so here's the scoop on that butterfly I saw hiding from the wind in the dead grass....

It was a male goatweed leafwing (Anaea andria), fall form. The male and female of this species look a little different - the male's wings tend to be "plainer", i.e. with fewer spots, bars, etc., but brighter than the female's wings. Both are basically a shade of brownish-orange, with the fall form of the male being a particularly rich, velvety looking rusty orange with brownish edging.

The underside of the wings of both sexes looks remarkably like a tannish, dry leaf. The butterfly generally rests with its wings folded, so it can be hard to see the brightly colored upper wing surfaces.

The eggs are laid singly on the underside of the leaves of Croton species. Here in Kansas, it would appear that there are 3 larval plants: Woolly croton or hogwort (Croton capitatus), Texas croton (Croton texensis), and Prairie tea (Croton monanthogynus). When the caterpillar is little, it rests on the midrib of the leaf it is eating for camoflage. As the caterpillar gets larger, it first folds, then wraps a leaf around itself to remain hidden.

The adults feed on rotting fruit, sap, bird droppings, and dung.

This species overwinters in its adult form. They have from 2-4 generations/year, depending on how far north they are. (Goatweed leafwings are found as far north as South Dakota and southern Michigan, and as far south as central Florida, southern Texas, and northern Mexico.)

A last interesting note: One site mentions that the adults play dead when handled. Another site talks about how the young caterpillars attach fecal pellets to their backs and the midrib of the leaf they are eating, probably to keep ants and other predators at bay. These behaviors, along with their camoflage coloration and behavior as larvae and adults, makes this butterfly species a good example of several types of predator evasion.

What Do Butterflies Do When...?

I was out working in the front yard this afternoon when I noticed a bright orange butterfly flittering low above the tallgrass. As I watched, he landed in the grass, so I grabbed my binoculars and went to chase him down.

According to Weather Underground, the wind was blowing about 14 mph with gusts up to 32 mph, so I wasn't surprised that the butterfly was choosing to ground itself for a while. I just wanted to see what species was flying so early in the spring, because I didn't recognize it from a distance.

It took me a while to find the butterfly with my binoculars, as it is a species whose underwings are patterned a beautiful tan/brown that closely mimics dead leaves. Patience paid off, though, and I was able to see the upper wing surface pattern - a male goatweed leafwing, Anaea andria.

As I sat and watched it for a bit, it briefly flew again, then landed and started walking deeper into the detritus of the dead grasses and leaves. I wasn't sure what it was doing at first, but as I watched for a while longer, it became obvious that it was finding a sheltered spot to wedge itself where it would remain out of the wind and safe (hopefully) from predators. Even knowing it was there, it was hard to see it if I took my eyes away for even a moment. If you look at the center of the photo here, you can make out the butterfly. Only the tan undersides of the wings are showing.

I went back to the house and got my camera, capturing a couple pictures, but it's so well camoflaged and at such an odd angle from the camera (due to the wedged position that it had assumed), that it's hard to see. However, here is a closeup from the picture above to help pinpoint the butterfly exactly.

It was the first time I've ever actually watched as a butterfly took shelter from the wind. Somehow I'm surprised that he chose a spot right on the ground. I wonder where he sheltered to ride out the winter? Was it someplace similar?

Their Voices Gave Them Away

Just a brief post to say that, after listening to the recordings on the Kansas Anuran Monitoring Program (, I am quite sure that we have boreal chorus frogs (Pseudacris maculata) singing in the draw. They were particularly vocal last night - a bright moon, warm air...ah, they were in the mood for love!

I have also heard the simpler call of the spotted chorus frog (Pseudacris clarkii) during the afternoon earlier this week when the temperatures were a little cooler. They could well be singing along with the boreals in the evening, and my ear would probably not be trained enough to separate the two songs. (Thank goodness I'm usually able to learn visually - I'd be a basket case if I had to rely on my auditory learning skills!)

"Magic!": Four New Big Ones

I am really excited. A couple weeks ago, Prairiewolf and I went to the nearby Brady Nursery, known for their locally grown trees, and we splurged, picking out 4 big, balled & burlapped trees to purchase for our yard. They came yesterday!!!

The guys who brought them out and planted them were very efficient and professional, yet took the time and effort to check with me as they put each tree in its hole to make sure that it was oriented the way I wanted it to be. I am tickled pink with how each one looks.

By the front door we now have a 3 trunked eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) to make our entryway a little less mundane. It will also serve to soften the front of the house and give us a little privacy at the front door from the house across the road.

Speaking of which, there is now a Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) in the middle of the yard, perfectly placed to add yet another layer of privacy between us and the across-the-road neighbor when the leaves are out.

In the back yard, there is a multi-trunked Oklahoma redbud (Cercis canadensis ssp. texensis 'Oklahoma') in the northwest corner of the courtyard, which the birds took to almost immediately. Suddenly the courtyard is beginning to have a little interest in it besides the bird feeders. It makes me get antsy to start putting in the flowerbeds that I'm planning for back there.

Lastly, there is a tall, slim bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) to the north side of the parking area in front of the back garage, which will hopefully shade that utility area and give it a little grace and grandeur.

I can't believe how much these 4 fairly young trees add to the excitement of the yard, as far as I'm concerned. Not only are they 4 new, but native, species/varieties, two of them are also multi-trunked specimens, which I think adds an important change of pace to the "single-trunk-green-meatball-single-trunk-green-meatball" theme we sort of had going here.

Now, hopefully, all of them will settle in readily and add their distinctive personalities to the yard for years to come.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Our ancient companion has gone missing.

Yesterday morning when I got up and went out to get the paper, I noticed that our old English setter, Lefty, wasn't in his dog house. For some reason this made me nervous, although he usually goes on patrol around the house and yard at this time of day.

I walked around the yard and couldn't find him. So I went inside, rousted Prairiewolf out of bed, and we both started looking for him in earnest.

Lefty turns 16 next month. (This photo is from 4 years ago.) He's blind with cataracts, totally deaf, can hardly walk and he's been acting as if he's in heart failure. But on his good days, he still gambols like a puppy and it's a rare day that he doesn't want all the petting he can finagle.

Given his physical condition, our first thought was that he'd gone off somewhere to die. However, since he can't walk or see well, we figured that we'd be able to find him nearby. We walked all over our property, checked the neighbors', drove the roads slowly with binoculars, but we couldn't find him.

We walked our property again, drove the roads again, then printed up a few flyers and left them on the doors of the neighbors who weren't home.

By mid-afternoon, I'd had a terrible thought: what if he'd been taken as bait for dog fights? Prairiewolf scoffed at the idea, but once it crossed my mind, I couldn't get rid of it. It made a sad situation even worse.

This morning arrived, and still no Lefty. Prairiewolf, however, discovered obvious signs that we'd been visited by other canines during the night - fresh "markings" around Strider's kennel. Now the most logical theory - and one that makes me feel infinitely better, for some reason - is that Lefty followed some roving dogs, possibly including a female in heat. Now, due to his failing senses and physical incapacities, he's lost.

We expanded the number of flyers we put out this morning, and continued to drive around looking for him.

When we got home, we'd gotten a call from a neighbor up the road that seems to verify the "lost" theory. The neighbor said he saw a muddy white dog hobbling around yesterday, ironically only about 1/4 mile away from our house. Knowing this gives us both hope and frustration: he was obviously still alive and nearby yesterday but how frustrating to have him so close, yet be unable to find him.

Prairiewolf is out walking the creek and pasture again. I'll be joining him shortly. Hopefully, one way or another, we can bring our old boy home again. The yard feels empty without him.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Egg Mass Day

Funny how sometimes serendipity places the same thing in my way over and over again, in close succession. Today it was that way with egg masses.

First, as I was pruning out some eye-pokers on the new trail that Prairiewolf mowed for us in the draw, I found an egg mass glued on the underside of a branch. The entire mass was about 1/2" in diameter and consisted of about 100 small eggs, each almost 1/4" tall, arranged in a honeycomb pattern. The eggs were columnar in shape, black bodied, with a cream colored, round top.

As I was finishing today's pruning, this time working on the honeylocusts along the driveway, I came across 2 more of the same sort of egg mass. You can see one of those egg masses in the center of the photo to the left. A closeup of the egg mass is below.

Finding this many egg masses of the same kind made me suspicious, so I decided to do a google search when I got a chance. THAT many eggs makes me nervous about a pest species. Tent caterpillars sprang to mind.

Before I had a chance to check out the internet, however, I was moving a pile of small cedars that I had cut out of the back pasture earlier today. I noticed that 2 of them had preying mantis egg cases glued to the underside of a branch. Needless to say, I put those 2 cedars aside so that I can salvage the egg cases before we burn the remains of the cedars.

Finally this evening I had time to search for the identity of my mystery eggs. Tent caterpillar egg masses didn't match at all. The only other insect I could remember seeing on the honeylocusts were wheel bugs, so I looked up their eggs. Eureka!!! That is indeed what they are.

Which is wonderful! Here is a photo of a pair of wheel bugs that I saw last September, patrolling a honeylocust while getting ready to lay one of those egg masses. They are about an inch long each. The male is on top, the female (with the swollen abdomen) below.

Wheel bugs are voracious predatory insects, about 1 1/4" long, with appetites resembling preying mantises. They get their name from the wheel-spoke-like half moon structure armoring their thorax. Once you see one, you won't forget it! Don't pick them up, however, as they can administer a painful bite with their sturdy sucking mouthparts (called a beak).

I had to remove the honeylocust branch with the 2 wheel bug egg masses, so now I have to find an appropriate site to stash it where the young wheel bugs will have a good chance for survival when they hatch out this spring. It's so much fun to make discoveries like this in the yard!


Sometimes I really irritate myself.

Actually, I really irritate myself lots of times, but that's beside the point.

This morning's irritation is one of long technophobia.

For those of you who have read my blog for a while, you will have noticed that I haven't posted photos in several months. As counterintuitive as this is, that's because Prairiewolf got me a wonderful new camera last summer which takes really awesome photos. I've now got wonderful closeup photos of insects and flowers, as well as landscapes, family shots, and the normal mix of subject matter that we all take.

But in my normal (read techonologically nonfunctional) way of approaching things, I took a ton of photos immediately, including a bunch that I really didn't want to lose, then got nervous about experimenting with manipulations that I'm unfamiliar with. Now I literally have hundreds of photos with file sizes too big to use on blogger that I need to sort back through (on the camera) so that I can change the file size to one appropriate for web posting. Which means that I get into being both technophobic AND lazy about approaching the task.

I know: Cry me a few crocodile tears too. Maybe if I post this, I'll get the kick in the pants that I need to actually move forward with this task. If you see photos on my blog again, you'll know I took at least a baby step forward!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Chorus is Back!

Prairiewolf and I have been commenting for several days that it seemed strange we hadn't heard any frogs singing yet...and, lo and behold, yesterday they started to sing!

In the past, I've rather generically thought that frogs singing in early spring were probably spring peepers, but this year I decided to try and learn a little more. For starters, if these were spring peepers, I really had expected them to start singing a little earlier than they did.

So I searched out a CD of night noises that I purchased last fall, looked in the only amphibian reference that I currently have at home (The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri) for likely suspects, then listened to the two species on the CD that seemed possible based on the descriptions in the Missouri book.

My possibilities seemed to be either spring peepers or several species of chorus frogs. Listening to the CD, it was obvious that what we were hearing were chorus frogs.

Then it got a little complicated. I went to the web and searched for chorus frogs in Kansas, coming up with definitive looking sources (Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, Kansas Herpetological Society, and the Kansas Anuran Monitoring Program) that said we only had 3 species: Spotted - Pseudacris clarkii, Boreal - P. maculata, and Strecker's - P. streckeri. IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) range maps, though, show that the Western Chorus Frog, Pseudacris triseriata, occurs throughout most of Kansas too.

After more research, I think I've resolved the discrepancy, at least in part. Some sources talk about the boreal chorus frog and the western chorus frog as two subspecies of an overarching species. The classification seems to be in some flux currently.

The upshot is that I'm not sure exactly which species we're hearing, but I am sure that it's a chorus frog.

A little biology:

Adults of these species range in size from 3/4" to 1 1/2" in length. Breeding sites are generally temporary bodies of water; after breeding is finished they are often found under rocks or logs, in grass, or even in loose soil or animal burrows. Western chorus frogs, at least, can generally survive in urban areas, unlike many other species of amphibians.

These chorus frogs overwinter underground, but they don't burrow deeply and they can tolerate freezing temperatures due to increased levels glucose in their blood.

Generally, chorus frogs eat a variety of (small) insects and spiders.

Now my task is to try to listen carefully to the calls and narrow down the species that we're hearing. Auditory learning is NOT my strong point, but it will be interesting to see what I figure out.