Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Introducing Another Natural Kansas Musician

A new troop of musicians has entered the natural chorus in the yard, and I was lucky enough to get a photo of one of them about 10 days ago. This darkly colored little cutie hiding in the mud is a northern cricket frog, Acris crepitans. It was pure serendipity that I carried my camera that day on my walk-about, and even more serendipitous that the temperatures were cool enough that my subject posed more or less willingly for me.

I believe the plant beside him is a young giant ragweed. He is about 1" in length, by rough estimate. He was exactly where I would expect him to be on our property: in the draw, close to the standing pools of water in an area transitioning from old pond bottom to intermittent stream. The photo below was taken just a few yards from where I saw him, about a week later.

Northern cricket frogs eat small insects, including mosquitoes, and they are said to eat tremendous quantities of them: enough to fill their stomachs 3 times a day. This guy is therefore particularly welcome to continue living in the draw!
As the year moves on, I'm hearing fewer of the chorus frogs now, and more of the cricket frogs. The cricket frog's song is accurately and picturesquely described as "two small pebbles being tapped together" on the Kansas Anuran Monitoring Program Site (

Interestingly, as I've done a little web research to find out more about the range and niche of northern cricket frogs, this species is listed as endangered in New York and Minnesota, and as a species of concern in Michgian. Like so many other amphibians, its populations appear to be declining fairly rapidly. There have been several hypotheses put forward about the reason for these worldwide amphibian declines - fungal infections seem to be a common theme - but the total picture of the cause or causes is not known yet. Even if fungal infections that result in death are the final cause and effect, I have to wonder why there has been such a radical and sudden increase in those fungal infections. What factor(s) has made amphibians less resistant to these infections...or conversely made the infections more deadly for the amphibians?

Misidentification #1

Well, that's what I get for thinking.

Comparing the newly emerging stems of the plains wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata var. leucophaea) in the front prairie with the newly emerging stems of what I thought was Baptisia in the back prairie, I can only conclude that they aren't the same thing. I am quite disappointed.
The photo to the right is of the "pseudo-Baptisia" in the back prairie.

As far as I can tell this early and without fully unfurled foliage (let alone flowers) to help me do a decent identification, the newly emerging plants in the back prairie are probably some type of scurf pea (Pediomelum sp. or Psoralidium sp.). They have palmately compound leaves with 3-5 leaflets. They do not appear to be very hairy nor are they silvery white, which leads me to believe they are probably wild alfalfa or many-flower scurf pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum).

According to Haddock in Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas, livestock do not particularly like this plant, and its roots go down to about 10', which makes it fairly drought resistant. Both factors would have helped it survive the heavy grazing this little prairie obviously received in recent years.

The good news is that this plant is also a member of Fabaceae, the Bean Family, and presumably still acts as a nitrogen fixer. I'm looking for any source of fertility I can find for this little prairie! It also looks like it has a rather pretty, purple flower, and I'm a sucker for a pretty plant face.

The last piece of good news is that, if it is indeed wild alfalfa, it should bloom sometime between May and July. Several of the plants look robust enough to manage flowers this year, so hopefully I'll have a true identification sometime soon.
P.S. If anyone recognizes this (or any other plant I've posted up mugshots for), I'd always appreciate help with identifications!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Meandering Thoughts on Worth and Laziness

As I do my morning walk-about each day, I catch myself feeling guilty for enjoying myself so much. Is it really fair that I should be able to spend an hour most days doing something like this that is so pleasureable to me (but that doesn't earn any money), when most other people have to be at work, "slaving", to pay the bills?

The money seems to make a big difference. I wouldn't feel nearly as guilty if I was doing the same thing, but being paid for it. Then it would be my "job" and therefore sacrosanct in our culture.

It's okay to like what you do, as long as you get paid for it.

If you don't get paid for it, it must not be worth doing?

Most people, of course, seem to feel they have to work, but hate doing so. In our culture, that seems to be what's expected...and therefore that's considered okay too.

Obviously, if you have to work to pay the basic bills - food, clothing, utilities, living space - that's a necessity and you should feel good about what you are doing. Hopefully some day you will be able to find work that you enjoy, as well as having it support you. However, are you automatically noble and "good" for working, even if you are only doing so to get the luxury car instead of the economy model, or the 5th TV, or the 4500 square foot home with granite countertops instead of the 1800 square foot home with Formica?

Why is it considered "good" to work for money to buy unnecessary, wasteful things, but "lazy" (and therefore "bad") to decide that you have enough without working and then try to live simply while appreciating and enjoying what you already have?

Of course, I'm asking the world at large these questions because I'm feeling guilty about enjoying myself even though I'm not earning money....even though I try to keep learning and sharing what I've learned with others.

Traditionally, I've spent many hours each week volunteering. Through my volunteering, I try to make each community I live in a little better off than it would be without my efforts, because I'm lucky enough to have the time and resources to do some of those things that can benefit the community but that don't pay a living wage. And I've started to do a little volunteering here, too.

But I'm also feeling like I need to take time here and now to explore myself and my new environment, to stabilize myself in this new place, maybe to find new directions to take in my life including the possibility of finding paying employment. And I find myself feeling incredibly "lazy" for producing neither a paycheck nor lots of community service hours while I do it. I can't put "exploring new directions" or "stabilizing myself" on a resume, and people look at you strangely if that's what you reply when they ask, "And what do you do?"

So am I saying that it doesn't matter what you do, so long as you are just doing something? Especially if that something is for pay? I've always resisted that sort of thinking, and here I find myself giving in to it. Well, they say consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds!

If I remember correctly, Jung spent 7 years exploring his dreams and trying to figure out what direction he needed to head in, before he finally found his stride and began to truly accomplish his life's work. During those years, when someone asked him what he had accomplished each day, I wonder how he answered? And how he knew, deep down within himself, that he would find his way if he just kept looking?

That's a kind of faith in oneself that I envy and aspire to find in myself. If only I didn't feel so wasteful in taking the time and energy to look for it....

"Emerging from the Burn", Or "Why I Need Aquatic Insect Eyes"

After almost a month (marked mainly by gray, chilly days), the prairie outback is finally starting to green up. As you can see from the photo, it's beginning to be hard to tell where the mowed path and firebreaks least from far away.

As the burned area greens up, I'm finally starting to see the leaves and shoots of wildflowers emerging. I recognize some of them: yarrow (that's easy), prairie coneflower or Ratibida columnifera, black-eyed Susan or Rudbeckia hirta. Others are total strangers to me, at least at this point in their growth cycle. And still others belong in the "I think I recognize this..." category.

The yarrow, Achillea millefolium, was definitely set back during the burn. I like yarrow, but there is enough out back that I'm not too worried about a temporary setback in its population. The plants in the mowed areas are starting to put up their flower shoots; I'm seeing a few basal leaves scattered here and there throughout the burned area. I'm curiously watching to see if the ones in the burned area gather enough strength to bloom this year, or if this year will be primarily one of rest and recuperation for them.

I've found one plant of fringed puccoon, Lithospermum incisum, out back in a mowed area around a redcedar. (This photo isn't of that specific plant, but it is a fringed puccoon in our yard, with a tube of lip gloss for scale.) The plant was blooming; that's the only way I found it. I did not see any fringed puccoon out in the back 5 acres last year, so I consider this a bit of a find. This, though, may be another of the early spring flowers that has been set back by the burn. I'm a little more concerned about this possibility than I am about the yarrow, but at least I have a pretty good population of it near the house, from which I can collect seed to scatter later this year, if necessary.

Clumps of prairie coneflower and black-eyed Susan are easy for me to recognize, and they are coming up in reasonable numbers. (The clump below is a prairie coneflower, coming up in the firebreak.) Both of these species are primarily confined to the southwest corner of the 5 acres, an area I had noted last year as having the most (positive) biodiversity. I identified both of those species when they bloomed last summer, so I'm not surprised to find them at all.

The most exciting find so far is the many shoots of Baptisia (wild indigo) that I think I see pushing up. These plants also seem to be primarily confined to the southwest corner. What makes this particularly interesting is that I hadn't seen any Baptisia out back all last summer. Not only is this a great prairie species, it's a nitrogen fixer too!

The last, and largest, group that I'm noticing are the "I haven't got a clue, but this looks interesting" group. I'm trying to mark samples of most of these so that I can learn which plants they are. Marking them will also hopefully keep us from running over them with the lawnmower when it comes time to cut paths again. The plant here to the right, also in the southwest portion of the mowed firebreak area, is a good example of one of these mystery plants.

As I try to notice what's happening in the prairie right now, I'm caught in an interesting dilemma: as I walk, where do I focus my eyes? If I watch for the emerging wildflower shoots underfoot, I miss both the wildflowers emerging off the path and the birds flying overhead. If I watch the birds, I step on the emerging wildflower shoots underfoot! I've about decided that I need aquatic insect eyes - you know, those divided eyes designed so the insect can see both above and below the water surface at the same time.

Speaking of birds, I haven't been seeing the flickers or the flocks of blackbirds/cowbirds and robins on the burned areas these days, like I did at first. I'm still seeing killdeer and eastern meadowlarks, though. Now I also often see a pair of barn swallows swooping to feed above the newly emerging vegetation, and I've noted a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers decorating the fenceline and/or the tips of the cedars for several days. I'm sure the barn swallows must be setting up housekeeping under a nearby eave; I'm hoping that the scissor-tailed flycatchers find a suitable place to nest too.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How Lazy Are We?

Sometimes I wonder what has happened to us, as a people, in this country. How lazy have we really become?

I've started volunteering on a gardening help line here in Wichita. Last Tuesday we got a call from a woman who wanted to know what to spray on her garden to kill the henbit that was growing among her iris plants. We informed her that

1) there wasn't a spray to kill the henbit that wouldn't also harm her iris plants, since both are broad-leaved plants;

2) the henbit is going to die and disappear soon, so it's really not necessary to do anything; and

3) if not doing anything wasn't an acceptable option for her, henbit is very easy to pull. So in the final analysis, we recommended that she simply weed it out.

She got rather huffy and said that she had way too much henbit to actually pull it out. Then she hung up, obviously unsatisfied with our answer.

Her attitude is far too common these days. Somehow, actually leaning over or kneeling down and (gasp!) pulling out weeds by hand seems to be seen as absolutely beneath any "normal" person's dignity. A triumph on the part of the chemical industry, I'm afraid.

It saddens me. First of all, this attitude leads to the use of ludicrous amounts of herbicide. I've consistently seen reports that say homeowners use many times more herbicide per acre than do farmers.

Secondly, reaching automatically for the spray bottle separates a homeowner from his or her yard. I find pulling weeds to be a relaxing and enjoyable part of yard least as long as I keep mulch on my beds to help control the weed population!

As I've mentioned before, one of my favorite gardening rituals is to grab a glass/bottle/can of my favorite beverage at the end of the day and stroll through the yard. As I stroll, I check on what's newly emerged, what's newly blooming, what's showing stress of any sort...and I keep my eyes peeled for weeds. If I get to them early on and pull them every day, as soon as I see them, the number of weeds never builds up too high and I avoid having them set seed. ("One year of seed leads to seven years of weed!") This walkabout doesn't have to take very long...but I often prolong it, just because it's so pleasurable.

My daily walkabout also keeps me aware of what's going on in the garden, usually before anything reaches crisis level. I notice pests and predators and their changing populations, visiting critters (or their tracks), plants that are doing too well or not well at all, and all sorts of other information. All of this keeps me much more in tune with my garden than I would be if I only acted when I noticed a problem from inside the house or from on the lawnmower once a week.

I can just hear the thought going through many readers' minds about now: "That's fine for you, but I'm much too busy to take time to walk through my garden daily."

Well, by the time you look over your crisis problem (which you could have averted with a quick intervention 2 weeks ago), figure out what you need to do, go to the store to buy the appropriate spray, come home and use it, then wait for whatever results you might get, I can almost guarantee that you've spent a great deal of time...and money. A great deal more time and money than you would have spent doing daily walkabouts with small interventions. Furthermore, you are not remotely relaxed about the situation. Your yard/garden has become a burden, rather than a stress relief, to you.

So now, before the season (and the weeds) gets too far advanced, give the daily walkabout a try. Grab a beer, a glass of wine, or a big iced tea and meander tonight. It gets addicting, in a wonderfully relaxing sort of way.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Snakes Alive

On one of my daily walkabouts, about a week ago (April 6), Becker started nosing around a clump of dead stalks down near the swampy area. He was pretty intense, but then jumped back suddenly.

My curiosity caught, I told him to "leave it" and hurried over to see what his excitement was all about. At first what I saw looked like a very long common garter snake, knotted up oddly. As I looked a little more carefully, I realized that it was a cluster of garter snakes, probably just emerging from their winter den.

They were relatively cold, so they stayed quite still as long as I stayed several feet away. Looking carefully, I counted at least 7 of them, of varying sizes, and all within about a square yard. In the photo to the left, there are actually 2 garter snakes. The one on the left is pretty obvious, but if you look closely, you can see the body of another one behind him. Follow that body to the right, and you can make out the second head, partially hidden behind an out-of-focus, dead plant stalk.

The photo to the right is yet a third garter snake from the cluster - nothing special, other than I thought the picture turned out reasonably well!
After taking all the various permutations of photos that I could think of without moving about too much (and spooking the snakes), I moved on to let them continue their lives without further upset. I haven't seen any of them since...but I still check that clump of dead stalks daily!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Flaming Success!!!

The day following my last blog entries (in other words, Wednesday, April 2), we decided to try again to burn the back 5 acres. This time we had the expert help and guidance of Brad Guhr from Dyck Arboretum in Hesston...

and a little more wind...

and a lot less moisture in the air.

This trio of changed circumstances was evidently the key. In about the same amount of time that it took us to burn a tiny corner of the pasture on the prior Saturday, we were able to burn the entire 5 acres. And despite a few anxiety-inducing moments when I watched Prairiewolf, as keeper of the fire, get a little too cavalier about the location of the drip torch in relationship to his pant legs for my taste, the burn went off safely and with remarkably little adrenaline involved.

Since the wind was from almost exactly the same direction as on the prior weekend, we were able to start the backfire in the same location as before, building on what we'd already accomplished. It was almost immediately obvious that this fire was going to be quite different from our earlier attempt!

We took it slow and actually ended up burning much of the field as a backfire. Given the long, narrow shape of the plot, that seemed the safest alternative. The photo above is of the backfire as it engulfed, then passed, a red cedar.

Once we were absolutely sure that the flames weren't going to be able to jump our firebreak into the taller brome grass behind our neighbor's house, Prairiewolf started to set small headfires that travelled quickly to meet the slowly approaching line of backfire. Here in the headfire photo, note how the flames are stretching to meet the dry grass, while in the backfire photo above, they are being blown back over the already burned land through which they've just travelled.

The image of the back pasture as a smoking wasteland didn't last very long. Almost all of the smoldering ashes had already gone out by the time we posed the picture of the successful, but smoky, fire crew (Prairiewolf's father, Prairiewolf, and Brad).

Immediately after the burn, I wondered what would happen to the cedars, since cedar control was one of many reasons we chose to do a burn this year. The cedars generally hadn't flamed up during the fire, as I'd both expected and hoped they would, and many were still quite green. However, Brad assured us that most would, indeed, turn brown and die during the post-burn weeks, and I'm definitely beginning to see that happen now.

I've been walking through the burned area daily, as part of my normal "walkabout". In just 10 days the black has faded to mostly brown with stubs of grass shoots poking up all around. The weather has been cool and rainy, so not much has greened up yet, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that once the sun appears again, new shoots will spring up rapidly. Certainly the mowed paths and firebreaks are much greener now than they were 10 days ago.
In observing the burned area, it's hard to miss the rodent runs all over it. They look like miniature paths, and they definitely bring out the child in me. I have an almost irresistible urge to grab a few Hot Wheels, fall down on my hands and knees, and explore the newly exposed "road" system the rodents have been using. As shown in the photo, sometimes the rodent runs are even right next to the mowed path, yet the human walkers had no idea their route was being paralleled by a different species' busy transportation system until the fire revealed their secret.

Each day as I walk around, my eyes are always peeled for casualties of the burn. The later the burn, the more issue there can be with animals being up out of hibernation and caught by the flames. So far the tally hasn't been too bad: I've found the baked remains of 2 lined snakes (which really do bother me) and 1 mouse of some sort.

On the other side of life, there have been large flocks of cowbirds and other blackbirds, as well as smaller flocks of robins, and pairs of killdeer, eastern meadowlarks, and flickers combing through the ashes looking for tidbits to consume. Since all of this birdlife has been coming back daily ever since the burn, I have to assume they are being successful in their searching.

It's going to be fascinating to watch how the burned area recovers. I'm hoping that there will be less weedy annual grass material and many more prairie grasses and forbs, but of course that all depends on how thoroughly overgrazed the land has been. In any event, it's now up to "Mother Nature" to work her magic, but I'm going to do my best to watch and record as she does.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Let the Photos (Re)Begin

Well, I finally took the time to figure out what I was doing, more or less, with the photos from my new camera, so I've started to post a few.

Obviously the last post about the attempted burn contained a couple, but I've also gone back and added photos to 2 prior posts:

1) the post about the goatweed leafwing sheltering deep in the grass (

2) the post about the wheel bug egg masses (

As I find time, I'll try to add more photos that might clarify some of my posts from the last 8 months or so. I guess it will make it easier to figure out which I've illustrated if I list them at the time I make the change, so I'll try to remember to add brief posts to that effect.

Let me know what you think.

Well, We Tried....

Not unexpectedly, given how overgrazed it was when we moved in, the back 5 acre pasture needs to be burned. Burning will, at least theoretically, decrease the seed load of undesireable annuals and change them into a nice little burst of fertilizer for the plants that are left.

With pastures on 3 sides of our little plot, first Prairiewolf mowed a 20' wide firebreak on all 4 sides to give us a safety margin. (This photo shows him beginning to mow the firebreak as the smoke from another fire fills the air to the west.) We got a fire permit from our local fire station, then we started religiously watching the upcoming weather forecasts. The wind has to be between 5 and 15 mph, and we'd prefer to have it out of the east, since that would push the fire towards the wheat field on the west, with much less chance that it would accidentally get out of control. Last but certainly not least, without slave labor (i.e. children) at home to help, we have to round up bodies ahead of time to help us keep the fire under control.

All systems looked like they'd be "go" last Saturday morning. We cajoled Prairiewolf's father, cousin, and brother into getting up early to help us, and we set out the water buckets and rounded up the rakes and shovels the night before.

On Saturday, everyone miraculously showed up on time. The winds were behaving just as forecast. We had coffee and muffins to fuel us, then tramped out back to see what we could do.

It wasn't raining, but it was cloudy and there was a mist in the air. Since it hadn't rained for 2 weeks, we thought we'd be okay despite the mist. After all, it wasn't actually raining. We started the backfire and tried to spread it along the edge of the firebreak. It would burn a few feet, then flicker out, despite piles of dead grass raked over from the firebreak mowing. For over an hour we nursed the backfire along, managing to get black earth almost 30' deep at one point, but nothing really carried. (Here is the remnant of our backfire...after the fire had totally gone out.)

So, having little success working against the wind, we decided to switch gears and set the headfire. Surely with the wind, which now seemed to be about 8-10 mph, the flames would become strong enough in the dead grass to move across the pasture reasonably well. By this time, we were pretty sure that too strong a fire wasn't going to be our problem!

However, even moving with the wind, the flames were no match (no pun intended) for the mist, which had moistened the grass just enough to make it resist the fire. Our grand "headfire" sputtered out within 10 feet.

My final photo here is of the valient burn crew, after we'd finally decided that the weather had outsmarted all of our grand plans for the day, posed in front of the blackened remnants of our "grand headfire".

We'll try again as soon as the weather, personal schedules, and extra personpower becomes available. Hopefully, we'll have better luck next time.