Saturday, February 25, 2012

Spring Crocus Shining

While I'm nervous about what an incredibly early spring this seems to be, I've decided that I might as well just go along for the ride - heaven only knows that I certainly can't slow it down!

The first yellow crocuses started peaking through several weeks ago and, by now, many of the whites and creams have joined them. 

This bright-eyed clump of white crocuses is on the pathway up to our front door, nicely showcasing the arrival of early spring to any guests who happen to walk up.  It's the Snowbunting crocus, and was first introduced to the nursery trade in 1914.  (I really enjoy using heirloom varieties of many plants.  They're not always the biggest, but I figure they're still around because they do well over time.)

Also heirlooms, this little group of shining yellow blooms is Cloth of Gold crocuses.  They are REALLY heirlooms, having first been introduced to the nursery trade in 1587!  These guys haven't been as prolific as the Snowbuntings, but then they are in a much more "wild" location and get absolutely no extra care or water of any sort.  The soil in this location is a bit rockier and leaner too.

The third group I photographed are just assorted modern crocuses, but they are some of the ones that we have naturalized in the grass throughout the yard.  They come up a little more strongly every year and it's a lot of fun to see the variety contained within their ranks.

If you are interested in checking into heirloom bulbs, I've been using Old House Gardens, which is based out of Michigan.  I've been extremely pleased with their descriptions and information, their service, and (especially) their products.  I've heard great things about Brent & Becky's Bulbs in Virginia, too, but I've never actually ordered from them.  They have so many varieties that I get a little overwhelmed when I visit their site!

I've got some buds on a few of my smaller daffodils, 6" tall foliage on many others, tulip leaves looking strong and healthy, and even hyacinth leaves that are 3" tall.  The next few weeks should be bright and  beautiful!

Skunked and Deskunked

It's spring and, naturally, a young (neutered) male's attentions turn toys???

1:30 a.m.  Blue's internal monitoring system is telling him that his waste disposal system needs emptying.  His antsiness is telling me that he needs a trip outside.  I stumble to his cage, open the door, walk down the stairs with both dogs, flip the front lights on, and let both boys out.  (Note:  Greg has done this multiple times over the last several months, with no negative repercussions.)

A few minutes later, as I lie dozing on the recliner, waiting for them to finish, I think I get a whiff of skunk.  This does not make me happy.

When I open the door, there is definitely "eau de skunk" in the air.  Becker is by the door, waiting to be let in.  He passes the nose test and is admitted.

I call Blue, who comes happily trotting over from next door. 

Blue most certainly does not pass the nose test.  He reeks so strongly of skunk that it doesn't even smell like skunk.  I can't believe he's not rolling in the dirt and rubbing his eyes, but he looks happy as can be.  "Guess what, Mom?!  I just got to play with a new friend!" 

Blue gets trotted out to the kennels and summarily joins the outdoor dogs for a night under the stars.  Two hours later, once my body has had time to relax from the adrenaline high of a skunky dog, followed by a trip (in bare feet and pjs) out to the kennel in 35 degree weather, and finally by a quick washdown of my hands and nose to remove the skunk oil Blue managed to share with me, I finally get back to sleep.

Needless to say, I didn't have the energy to tackle deskunking Blue yesterday, so he got a day's vacation in the outdoor kennel.

This morning, however, it was time to tackle the necessary.  I got out my skunk kit and added a wash cloth and a big bowl, then I changed into an old gardening shirt that could get bleached without harm.  Greg brought the offender inside and I got to work in the downstairs shower.  (This was our first use of said shower for its originally intended use.  It definitely proved its worth this morning!  Prior to remodeling the laundry room, I would have had to bathe Blue outside in the brisk 40 degree air, or take him all the way through the house and upstairs to the tub, perfuming the carpet and any other surfaces he touched along the way.)

So...soak with deskunking solution.  Let it sit for at least 10 minutes.

Rinse thoroughly.  Check for remnant skunk odor.  No skunk detected, but "eau de wet dog" is still less than appealing, so apply dog shampoo.

Rinse.  (Shake.)  Towel dry. 

Put Blue outside. Clean shower stall of caked dog hair and remnant soap. Wipe down shower.. and bathroom cabinets, walls, floor AND bathroom door because Blue determinedly shook after getting out of the shower but before we could get him outside.  Take a shower myself to remove residue of deskunking solution, dog hair, and dog shampoo.  Get dressed.   Finish cleaning up downstairs bathroom/laundry room.  Whew!  Mission finally accomplished.

Blue is now sweetly lying near my chair, once more allowed back in with the indoor pack.

And me?  I'm trying to figure out how 2 supposedly intelligent dogs can have such a hard time learning to leave black and white "play toys" alone!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Unexpected Benefit from Opossums

As I explained in my entry on opossums a while back, I don't know of any real negatives about them (other than their appetite for expensive bird seed), so I tend to let them be in my yard.

Now I've learned of a true benefit to having them around!

Debbie Roberts wrote an interesting blog article for Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, "The Link Between Lyme Disease and Biodiversity."  In it she detailed information she'd heard at a lecture by Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.  (She's got the links to both Dr. Ostfeld and the Cary Institute, so if you're interested in these topics, I'll let you link from her blog post.)

One of the tidbits of information that I learned in reading her post was that opossums are great at grooming off (and eating? killing?) ticks.  On average, they groom off 96.5% of the ticks that attach to them, compared to white-footed mice, which leave 50% of ticks on their bodies.  Extrapolating from this, opossums seems to act as "tick magnets" or "tick vacuums" in their home areas.

I've wondered why we don't seem to have much of a tick problem out here.  Perhaps at least part of the puzzle is that we do have opossums.  (Rereading my opossum post, I had read a suggestion of this, but the information from Dr. Ostfeld puts "legs" under that suggestion.)

Chasing this line of thought a little further....  According to Dr. Ostfeld, white-footed mice seem to act as a Lyme disease reservoir.  So, logically, any animals that decrease white-footed mice population numbers will, by default, act to decrease the reservoir of Lyme disease in the area.  Score a big win for owls, hawks, fox, snakes, coyotes, and other rodent predators!!!

Biodiversity is a good thing.  Seen any snakes or coyotes in your yard recently???

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Spring Blackbirds

It's not unusual these last few days to walk outside in the morning and hear a cacophony.  Given that we live out "in nature," this is not really a usual occurrence for us.  We get the occasional noise of a jet flying overhead or of a car with a noisy muffler zooming by, but often it is so quiet that I can hear the slightest whisper of single bird taking flight or even, on a calm morning in fall, a leaf hitting the ground.

So a cacophony?!  Not our normal fare.  But it's early springtime, and the flocks of blackbirds are passing through.  For some reason, I'm noticing them more than usual this year. 

Coming home from Wichita last Wednesday evening, I saw a ribbon of blackbirds that literally went on at least 10 miles.  It was a long, diffuse flock, maybe 100' across, flying north.  Living in a landscape where the roads mark off the miles is useful occasionally - and this was one of those times.  With each county road, my astonishment grew.  The flock may have actually been longer, but I eventually lost sight of it as I drove straight on south (Kansas roads are funny that way) and the blackbird ribbon sinuously snaked off to the east.

The following morning, the cacophony was deafening as I stepped outside.  When I rounded up the dogs and walked out to the Back 5, the trees and the ground in the neighbor's horse pasture were black with birds.  Every so often a few blackbirds would rise up from the west end of our back pasture too, but the taller grass kept the majority of the flock hidden there.  The bigger flare-ups sounded like a fire igniting as thousands of wings beat the air in unison.

Looking through my binoculars, the flock seemed to be made up primarily of red-winged blackbirds - a mix of males and females.  Scattered in with them, however, I also saw brown-headed cowbirds, both male and female, as well.  It seems a little early for the females to be headed north.

I hadn't brought my camera with me (preferring to carry my binoculars most mornings at this time of year), so I was reduced to using my cell phone camera to try to capture the sight.  Most of the flock was just far enough away that I didn't think the optics of my phone would do it much justice, but I caught a couple flares of the flying flock that were a bit closer.

Imagining myself a farmer, I could feel my blood pressure rising as I thought about "weed seeds" being deposited.  If the fields had been newly planted (which they aren't right now), I would have been livid about the loss of crop seed.  Then switching to my biologist's mindset, I thought about the weed seeds being eaten, the overwintering insects and insect eggs being gobbled up, and the fertilizer being deposited.  Overall, I suspect the flocks are probably beneficial as they visit our area.  (And those "weed seeds being deposited"?  The blackbirds' gizzards should be grinding most of those up - if the seeds aren't ground up, the birds aren't getting nutrition from eating the seeds.)

The other thought that keeps coming to mind is curiosity, specifically curiosity about what it was like 150 years ago.  Were the flocks this big?  Or bigger?  Did they ribbon for miles and miles as they wended their way north?  What part did they play in the prairie's ecology?  The wandering flocks of passenger pigeons have been mythologized in our minds, but what about the migratory flocks of common blackbirds?  I sense a springtime magic that was overlooked because it was so common.  To paraphrase Garrett Hardy's famous essay title, it's probably a tragedy of the common...being overlooked and even villainized.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Joys of Gardening

"Getting one's hands into the earth, spreading roots, making a plant comfortable - it is a totally absorbing occupation, like painting or writing, so that you become what you are doing and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self.  And so, for that matter, is simply sitting in your garden, taking it in."

                                                                                  ~ Diana Athill, in Somewhere Towards the End

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Grasshopper?!

I was walking the dogs out in the back pasture/prairie-to-be about noon today and saw a very-much-alive, 1/2" long, bright green, newly hatched, short-horned grasshopper.  It was only about 45 degrees outside and IT IS FEBRUARY 5th, for Pete's sake!

I don't know whether to be glad or upset.  We had a scourge of grasshoppers last summer, so I know there are eggs everywhere.  Looking on the bright side, perhaps many of them will hatch out now and be killed by succeeding freezes before spring truly arrives.  Looking on the gloomy side, they've started showing up already!  Help!

Bella Bagged a Bird

I lost another bird, a goldfinch this time, to one of the cats.  Watching her play with the poor, dead thing made me immensely unhappy and started me on a guilt cycle once again, especially remembering the angry, anonymous comment on my blog a few months ago when I was so upset about the number of birds Ranger was then catching.  Presumably a birder.

Then I got to thinking a bit more.  It's so easy to get mad at cats for catching and killing birds, but ultimately it's not cats that are responsible for the massive decline in bird populations.  It's people.  As a species ourselves, we destroy millions upon millions of acres of habitat to build shopping malls, homes and to plant crops. 

Even those few acres that could be managed to provide good habitat for other species, our yards, parks and landscapes, are usually planted with exotic species useless for insect food (insects being the primary bird food), saturated with insecticides to further decrease the insect populations, and then groomed to resemble sterile plastic.

If birders want to get mad about something, they should get mad about habitat loss...and then actually start doing something about it.  Habitat loss is the real "bogeyman" here, but working to stop that is much harder than just bitching about your neighbor's cat(s). 

So, folks, I challenge you to put your efforts where your hearts are.  Quit using insecticides.  Plant native plants.  Welcome the insects in your landscapes.  Leave some areas in your yard wild.  Quit worrying about "perfect" lawns.  Then we'll see if we need to be quite so obsessed with roaming pet cats.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Tree Silhouettes: Eastern Redcedar

Eastern redcedar, Juniperus virginiana, is hated by some and loved by others.  As the only native evergreen on the prairie, it has a certain status to it, but its tendency to seed rampantly and overgrow pastures rapidly leads to its demonization by many.

For winter birds, it is extraordinary shelter in a landscape that can be very open and exposed.

For homeowners, it's a tenaciously hardy, evergreen tree that comes in a plethora of varieties/cultivars of all shapes and sizes, ranging from low and horizontal to tall and columnar. 

Despite the horticultural variety available, I (not surprisingly) like the native form the best.  Most of us are used to seeing it when it's quite young as in the photo above, looking like a rather rangy, somewhat weedy, Christmas tree, but that's far from my favorite stage.

My favorite stage is when Eastern redcedars get old.  It is one of those trees that truly develops character and a commanding presence, despite it's moderate size.  I'm looking for more photos showing positive uses and characteristics to share, especially of older redcedars, but this specimen irresistibly draws my eye every time I drive by it.   On the corner of a residential street and the main drag through town, it's even handsomer from the other side.  However, to get a good photo from the east, I'll have to get up early and interrupt my morning routine.  The dogs and I would absolutely hate that!

One other series of redcedars caught my eye as I was driving around the other evening:  these huge green gumdrops lining the front of the cemetery are certainly well groomed, but my question is...why?  Looking to the row of redcedars at the back of the cemetery, you can see what their natural shape should be.  The truly sad part is that these trees will have to be pruned for the rest of their lives...once the pruning stops, they will probably have to be cut down.   In my mind, this is make-work for someone, roughly akin to recreational mowing.  A waste of time and energy and (dare I say it?) ultimately extremely ugly.  Sometimes the human need for control amazes me.

Starting to Record the Tree Silhouettes of Winter: American Elm

I've reveled in the silhouettes of trees against the sky, especially during the winter time, for many years now.  In fact, one advantage of living in a prairie state is that tree silhouettes are very noticeable at every season.

For most of the years I've rejoiced in the beauty of winter trees, I've had a project floating in the back of my brain: to photograph the beautiful silhouettes I stumble upon so that I can share them with others.  Each species is so unique, and each tree is such an individual within its species, that it seems like an imperative to record their existence.

I don't, however, carry my camera with me most of the time.  Unfortunately, conditions in a car are often hazardous to said camera:  it's either beastly hot (summer) or horribly cold (winter).  Add in my concern about thieves relieving me of my precious camera...and it's easier to leave it at home unless I'm on a special trip to take photos.  Needless to say, those special trips don't get made very often and I'm left missing photographic opportunity after photographic opportunity during my normal driving routes and routines.

All that aside, I did make a special trip out two days ago, just to take pictures of trees.  The light wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good, so Becker and I loaded up and away we went.

My main subject for the day turned out to be a huge American elm (Ulmus americana) by the side of a back country road.  Supposedly this tree marks the original location of my local community, settled to service the cowboys as they crossed the Ninnescah River, driving cattle along the Chisholm Trail.  (It's the only town actually founded because of the Chisholm Trail.)  After the trail ceased functioning a few years later, the railroad came through about 1 1/2 miles away, so the enterprising settlers literally picked up their houses and moved the entire town so that it was next to the railroad, leaving this tree to grow in solitary splendor.

Presumably that isolation has helped preserve this tree from the Dutch elm disease that killed so many other American elms throughout the country.  (There are actually quite a few large American elms scattered throughout the prairie states, even in towns - I've often wondered why no one has tested any of them for Dutch elm resistance in developing a new cultivar.)  If you look at the photo above, you can see my 130 pound German shepherd sitting quietly under the tree.  Here is a "closeup" of him next to the trunk of this massive elder.  It's easy to see why American elm was such a popular tree before an imported disease came close to wiping it out.

While enjoying and photographing the massive presence of the tree, my eye was drawn to the finer branches, which seemed to be sporting larger buds than I expected.  So I snapped a shot or two of the buds, which are definitely more swollen than I'd like to see on the first day of February.  The response of plants to weather is certainly a process that we are relatively helpless to interfere with, but that doesn't mean I have to like what I'm observing!

I would guess that this grand old beauty is somewhere around 150 years old, presumably planted (or transplanted) by an early settler for shade next to his house.  How much longer will it live?  Who knows.  The farmer whose field is right beside it could decide that the tree's roots and shade are interfering with his crop and cut it down tomorrow.  With increasing heat and drought, it could become stressed enough to slowly succumb to more natural causes.  Certainly there are signs that it's entering old age.

Like the early settler who planted it, though, it's a survivor...and a reminder of how things used to be.   

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Playing Mother Nature with Seed

Last fall Greg and I went driving along the county roads, looking for blooming wildflowers that I might be interested in adding to the prairie areas we're trying to restore.  In one of my September posts, talking primarily about a new-to-me plant that we noticed, I also shared a photograph of one of the roadsides we came across.  It only seems reasonable to repost that photo here, since I'm craving some color and greenery at this time of year!

A month or so later (late October? November?), we went back to the areas we'd scouted and I picked a few seedheads from many of the plants I'd noted earlier, storing the seedheads in small, brown paper, lunch sacks to allow them to finish drying.

Today I took the next step and roughly cleaned the seed (to get it off the flower stalks so it would spread more evenly), then went outside and cast it onto any bare ground I could find.  In some places, I even cast it up into the air to let the wind carry the seeds, particularly the ones with "parachutes," to potential new sites. 

The first species I tackled this morning was Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximilianii.  This species was one I actually collected along the stretch of road in the photo above, along with several other types of seed.  My goal as I worked was to get as much of the seed out of the dried flower heads as possible, so that I could spread it out further and evenly as I scattered it.

Since I wanted to put the Maximilian sunflower in the front yard, along the fence by the driveway to provide some color there, I worked it by itself, but most of the rest of the seed I combined into batches with like cultural needs (sun vs. shade, for example) and spread as a group.  Below is a photo of one of those mixes, ready to be put into a bowl to carry outside. 

This mix includes big bluestem, Indian grass, 3 different goldenrod species, blue salvia, common evening primrose, Illinois bundleflower, and a little bit of leadplant and butterfly milkweed seed that I actually got from a Kansas Native Plant Society seed exchange.  I spread this mix in the back 5 acres, in the area where we burned last spring.  Because of the drought, the burned area did not redevelop good ground cover, so I thought there might be a bit more sunlight and less root competition for the developing baby plants.

As you look at the mix of seeds, notice how fluffy it looks.  This is due to the awns that so many of these seeds sport, allowing the seeds to use the wind to carry them away from the parent plant.  The very structures that solve a problem "in nature" actually create a problem if you are trying to use a mechanical spreader to seed a large area.  Since I was hand scattering, the fluffy seed actually brought out a little bit of the kid in me occasionally, as I tossed the seed up in the air to watch the wind catch it and carry it away.

Doing all the cleaning and scattering took longer than I expected, so I didn't get all the seed put out today.  I still have several different kinds of sunflower to process and scatter.  However, I was able to spread most of the seed I'd collected...before the rain came that's predicted for tonight and all day tomorrow.  It will take a couple years before I know if any of these seeds have germinated and grown, but meanwhile I'll be dreaming of the drifts of wildflowers to come!

If I don't miss my guess, that's thunder I'm hearing in the distance!

Possum Pellets

In the comment section of an earlier post, I mentioned the "possum pellets" that I frequently find in the birdfeeders, letting me know that an opossum has been enjoying the largesse I put out for the birds.  I finally remembered to get a photo....

The main photo is really too busy to be able to see the pellets clearly (they seem much less "camouflaged" in real life), so I zoomed in to let you see the pellets up close.  The closeup is a little fuzzy, but gives a better feel of what you'll see in the feeder.