Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Another Hawk Moth in the Garden - Snowberry Clearwing

One of my favorite hawk/hummingbird/sphinx moths is the snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis).  With its bumblebee-like appearance, I think it excites the little girl in me - so dangerous looking and yet so gently benign!

I took these photos on the same morning that I captured the images of the white lined sphinx moth that I highlighted in my last post.  The two different species of hummingbird moths seemed to have peaceably divided the yard - the white lined sphinx moths were feeding primarily on the larkspur and the snowberry clearwing seemed to have claimed the Nepeta, or cat mint.

As I examined the photos of the 2 species, I also noted that this moth always seemed to have a foot on the flower it was feeding from, while the white lined sphinx moth never seemed to touch the blossom as it fed except with its proboscis.  I wonder if that was just these 2 individuals?  or is that typical of different feeding patterns between the 2 species?

Like the viceroy imitating the monarch, the snowberry clearwing mimics the bumblebee.  Like the viceroy, the snowberry clearwing is basically defenseless except for its ability to look like it's dangerous.  If you have any questions whether you are seeing a bumblebee moth or a true bumblebee, watch how the insect is feeding.  True bumblebees land on the flower to feed, while bumblebee moths (including the snowberry clearwing) hover in front of the flowers like a small hummingbird.

In the background below, rather blurry, there is a small carpenter bee that was feeding on the Nepeta at the same time as the clearwing.  Notice how perfectly the colors of the two different species coordinate.  The carpenter bee, too, is a bumblebee mimic.  Being solitary bees, although the females of carpenter bees have a stinger, they almost never use it.

As the name suggests, the larvae (caterpillars) of snowberry clearwings feed on snowberry bushes (Symphoricarpos spp.).  Here in Kansas, the most common species of snowberry is actually called coralberry or buckbrush (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus).  According to the literature, snowberry clearwing larvae also eat honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) and dogbane (Apocynum spp.).   I have not heard of snowberry clearwings becoming numerous enough to actually damage any of these plants.

The photo below is from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and shows buckbrush used as a groundcover beneath a tree.  I was impressed at how pretty it looks when grown in a garden setting.

After attaining their full size, the caterpillars form cocoons in the leaf litter, where they remain until they emerge as adults.  This is the overwintering stage for this species, although in the south there may also be a second generation or brood during the summer months. Yet another reason to keep leaf litter on the ground as mulch!

There are several other species of bumblebee hawk moths, as this species is sometimes called along with other similarly marked species.  Since their appearance can be variable, the way to tell it is specifically a snowberry clearwing and not one of the other species is the black line going through the eyes and down the side of the thorax (sort of a facial racing stripe) and the black legs.

A last brief note:  there is also another group of moths known as "clearwing moths" that includes several destructive-to-garden species such as the squash vine borer, but this is NOT the group that the snowberry clearwing belongs to.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

White Lined Sphinx Moth

The larkspur has been blooming for almost a full month now.  Luckily I can see most of them from the kitchen table, so for the last week or so, I've been entertained by several white lined sphinx moths (Hyles lineata) feeding at them almost nonstop;  I've seen as many as 3 feeding at one time.  Unlike the hummingbirds coming in to the bottle feeders hanging nearby, the sphinx moths don't seem to mind sharing the largesse with others of their kind.  Their large size and habit of hovering in front of the flower to feed even have me checking twice occasionally to see whether it's a sphinx moth or a hummingbird that I'm seeing.  They definitely earn their alternate common name, hummingbird moths.

Yesterday, while Greg was being productive in the gardens, I took the camera outside and tried to catch a little bit of the feeding action.  There was only one sphinx moth feeding, but it certainly didn't seem bothered by my presence.  Having only recently discovered the sequence function on my camera, I took a couple series of shots.  This left me with a plenitude of photos.  Luckily, quite a few of those were reasonably decent, so I thought I'd share a couple of the more interesting ones....

In this shot, my moth seems to be imitating an owl.  Take a look at that impressive eye and stern expression!

There is something about this photo, taken head on, that amazes me.  Look at how heavy that moth body is! How can those relatively small wings keep it aloft...and maneuver so adroitly?  And look at how far above the flower the moth hovers - that proboscis looks like a boom being lowered during an Air Force refueling operation!

In this shot it became suddenly obvious to me that butterfly and moth wings are damaged by other things besides birds chasing them.  Look at how the left wing is folded forward by the branch, even during the middle of precise hovering.

And I love both the bright eye and the partially uncurled proboscis in this view....

Last of all, look at how damaged that left wing is!  It is amazing to me that this moth can do the intricate maneuvering it does while missing such a large portion of what already seem to be very small wings in proportion to its body.  It's truly amazing.  (I didn't realize this moth's wing was so damaged until I started looking at the photos last night.)

The good news about these pretty moths is that, although related to tobacco and tomato hornworms, white lined sphinx moths rarely cause problems even as caterpillars.  They eat a wide variety of foliage, including quite a few weeds, plants ranging from evening primrose to grape, purslane to four o'clocks, elm to apple.  When you factor in their role as pollinators, I definitely think the scale balances in their favor.

Keep your eyes open this summer - white lined sphinx moths fly through early fall and are relatively common.  They nectar at a wide range of flowers; I've photographed them later in the summer on summer phlox, but I've seen them at many flowers throughout most of the growing season.  Best of all, it's not unusual to see white lined sphinx moths feeding during the day (like mine on larkspur), so night photography isn't necessary.  Here's hoping that at least a couple of these beauties come visit your gardens one of these days soon!

Bella's Lazy Day

"Oh, cool, Mom, there's some bugs flying around down there!  If I hide up here and watch, maybe I can catch a couple!"

"Mom, This is getting boring.  It's not fun! Those bugs are a lot harder to catch than I thought...and it's awfully hot today...."

"Maybe I just need to meditate a little so they'll forget I'm here.....  Zzzzzz."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Bit Beyond Official Bt Doctrine

If I had used Bt when I saw caterpillars, particularly on my asters, I wouldn't be having these beautiful little pearl crescent butterflies flocking to my butterfly milkweed recently.

In a recent post, I mentioned that Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) has a wider range of potential targets than usually expected.  I was gently "taken to task" over that statement and given the official party line.  Here is a link to one of the official lists of Bt targets, written by Whitney Cranshaw of Colorado State University Extension Service.  I think this paper is well written and represents the party line accurately.  (I'm sure Dr. Cranshaw will be overjoyed to hear that I approve!)  As far as it goes.


I've researched and reviewed and thought further about what I want to say beyond this official doctrine.  Some of it is hard to explain without going into the opaque depths of biochemistry and entomological physiology that don't seem appropriate for this blog, but I'll attempt to summarize without coming off as too gaga.

First and foremost, compared to many (most?) broad spectrum insecticides, I want to say that Bt seems relatively benign.  If you HAVE to use something to control caterpillars, Bt seems like the least problematic choice. 

With that disclaimer in place, I'd like to share my concerns.

Basic summary:  There are different strains of Bt.  Different strains of Bt produce different mixes of toxins.  Toxins affect different insect species differently.  Different toxins affect different insect species.

Upshot:  In general, Bt toxins only affect insects that go through complete metamorphosis...and not all of those.  The concentration of each toxin matters, so the amount of Bt that an insect eats matters, as does the life stage it's in when it eats the toxin.  An insect eating the plant surface that has been sprayed with Bt will get much more toxin than the insect that simply burrows through the plant surface and eats the plant material below the surface.

Bacillus thuringiensis , kurstaki strain, is the strain used for caterpillar control.  Any caterpillar that eats enough of it will be damaged or killed by it (setting aside developing resistance in a few populations).  Therefore, sprayed non-judiciously on garden plants, Bt (kurstaki strain) will not only kill cabbage worms (cabbage white butterfly), tomato and tobacco hornworms (hawk moths), and all the other "pest" caterpillars listed in the publication above, it will also kill monarch caterpillars, fritillary caterpillars, checkerspot caterpillars, swallowtail caterpillars, and so forth when sprayed on the plants that they are eating.

If you want butterflies, you have to be very careful when and where you use Bt in your garden.  If you kill off all caterpillars, you are effectively killing off all butterflies and moths.

Next, Bacillus thuringiensis, Israelensis strain, is used to control mosquitoes, fungus gnats, and black flies.  All of these are in the insect suborder Nematocera or long-horned flies.  I have not done enough research to know if this strain (or a different Bt strain) affects other flies, but this suborder also contains midges, an important food source for many fish and other aquatic animals and they have been mentioned as being a casualty when this strain is used.  Care in using this strain would also seem to be indicated to avoid accidental wider, food chain consequences.

The next strains mentioned in the above publication, Bacillus thuringiensis, San Diego and tenebrionis strains, are used to control Colorado potato beetle, elm leaf beetle, and cottonwood leaf beetle.  Again, I have not done enough research to find studies looking at other beetles "controlled" by these Bt strains, but I think it would be safe to say that probably any beetle that ingested enough of the Bt toxin on its food, for example a leaf-eating beetle of another plant species such as aster or skullcap, would be affected.  Again, care needs to be taken to avoid accidental action against non-target animals.

The pretty little beetle below, shining flea beetle (Asphaera lustrans), feeds solely on skullcaps.  Bt used, purposely or otherwise, on skullcaps would kill it.  (I saw this small but colorful beetle only one summer, when I had 2 resinous skullcaps growing in my garden.  The leaf damage pictured in this photo is pretty much the extent of the damage I noted - the blooming didn't seem affected at all, and I had to be very close to notice the leaf damage.  Truthfully, I didn't notice the leaf damage until after I had noticed the beetle and taken its photo.)


My last point is that some of the research I found discussed the fact that some of the Bt toxins can affect Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) and nematodes.  It also discussed how some of the toxins that are lethal to one group of insects may be nonlethal, but still detrimental, to other "non-target" groups.  (That dose-dependent issue mentioned above.)  The articles I found with these concerns were published outside of the U.S. and I have no real way to judge their validity, but with Bt toxins affecting 3 of the 4 major insect orders that have complete metamorphosis, I have strong suspicions about their ability to affect other insects beyond just the "target" species.  I'd love to see strong research verifying that Bt doesn't affect these other insect orders, suborders and/or families, rather than just blithely assuming that no harm is being done because we're not testing for it.

Once again, in my opinion "innocent until presumed guilty" has absolutely no place in the world of toxic substances.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Showing Off Two Milkweeds

This morning, the boys and I went for our first walk around the back 5 in about 2 weeks.   The last of the migrants have arrived - I heard and saw the yellow-billed cuckoos and dickcissels, as well as hearing the warbling vireo.  Mourning dove are nesting.  The quail were calling from somewhere nearby.  And the wind was softly whooshing through the grass.

My most exciting moment, though, came when I found a blooming showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).  I've seen it once before, the first or second spring we were here, when I found a large patch of it on the side of the draw.  That big patch has not reoccurred, although the plant I found this morning is probably a remnant of it.

Serendipitously, there was a smooth or Sullivan's milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) blooming too.

I think of these 2 as part of a trio of tall, pink milkweeds that bloom in late spring or early summer around my yard.  The third is common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).  This photo is actually from a prior year, because the plants have moved down a hillside that is hard to get to now.

These 3 milkweeds look very much alike to me (and my photos from this morning aren't great), although you can see that the blooms do vary a bit when you look closely.  There are ways to tell them apart from the foliage as well, but I haven't memorized those - it has to do with hairy stems and leaf surfaces.

Because of the position of the common milkweed, I don't check it for monarch caterpillars often and I don't see the showy milkweed often, but the smooth milkweed has been the most productive milkweed in my yard as far as actual monarch production.  (I didn't see any caterpillars this morning, though.)  That's a little ironic, given how much green antelopehorn I have.

There is another tall pink milkweed that grows in my yard, swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), but it blooms much later in the summer and in a different habitat from these 3.  Again, this photo is from a prior year....

All of these milkweeds tend to suffer from ugly foliage as the summer wears on, especially if caterpillars have been eating on them, but they can be easily "buried" among asters or other such fillers - the butterflies will find them and the blooms are fantastic.  With luck, maybe you can find a few of these beauties to add to your gardens or meadow area.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Wonder of Miller Moths

Okay, maybe I'm over the top here, but I find this fascinating....

Those nondescript little brown moths that have been so numerous this spring?  The miller moths?  Turns out they have a life cycle almost as interesting as monarchs - they are just not as pretty and they are definitely more pesty.  (Yes, I know that's not a word, but it should be.)

Most of the miller moths we have been seeing this spring are adults of the army cutworm (Euxoa auxiliaris), a well known pest of wheat and grass, as well as of newly planted tomatoes, beans, peppers, etc.  They'll be disappearing soon though, if they haven't already, because in late spring this year's adults fly west from here into the mountains of Colorado and feed all summer long on the wildflowers there.  (You think the millers are a nuisance here?  Can you imagine having all of Kansas's and eastern Colorado's millers fly through your area each spring?)  These newly hatched adults are in a non-sexual phase;  they don't mate and lay eggs at this point in their life cycle - they are simply storing up energy to do so later.

In late summer and early fall, the millers will return to the plains and lay their eggs in areas of weedy and overgrown vegetation.  While the larvae eat grass and similar plants (like wheat), they actually prefer eating broadleaf plants - which is why the female usually lays her eggs in weedy areas. 

The eggs hatch and the larvae (caterpillars, now called cutworms) eat as long as they can before the cold of winter sets in.  As the weather warms up in the spring, the cutworms begin to eat again until they reach pupating size.  The adult emerges a few weeks later.  And the cycle repeats.  There is only one generation each year.

A couple other cool facts that I learned....

The adult moths are called millers because the scales on their wings come off very easily and reminded early settlers of the flour dust that covered the clothes of grist mill operators.

Millers (the adult moths) are an important part of bear diets during the summer in the mountains.  Each bear can eat up to 40,000 moths/day, which they seem to treat almost like popcorn.  The moth bodies are up to about 70% fat, so it is a great source of calories for the bears.  (This makes miller moths richer in calories, by weight, than elk or deer.)

Other natural predators include birds, toads, predatory ground beetles and bats.

So when you see those dull brown moths fluttering around your lights in the spring or find that little "C" of a caterpillar curled tightly at the soil surface, give it a quick salute for it's audacious life cycle...before you squash it or feed it to the birds.

More Interesting Acquaintances Made While Weeding

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy hand weeding - most recently as I weeded the buffalo grass areas that we planted last summer, and later as I began weeding out the new bed at the corner of the house.  As I continued weeding the new bed (it's STILL not completely done, but it's getting closer!), I've made a couple more acquaintances. 

The first new yard mate I met was this maternal creature....

Not seeing much there?  Look harder.  Concentrate on the bit of white that you see....

Here, let me move the leaf back for you....

That's Mama spider, carefully guarding her egg sac, moving it to cover when it gets disturbed.  Can you imagine trying to guard a huge ball as big or bigger than yourself, probably close to your own body weight, full of your eggs morphing into babies, from a giant staring down right at you?  That takes courage.  And, yes, I'd roll my egg sac back under the nearest cover available as soon as possible too.

I don't know the species of this spider, but I sure enjoyed meeting her.

Ironically, my second new acquaintance also involves a strong mother.  As I pulled up weeds, I kept finding these clumps of tiny red insects in the soil around the plant roots.  They looked like bug nymphs (babies of true bugs, Hemiptera) to me, but I couldn't see them well enough without a magnifying glass to tell for sure.

Imagine my pleasure this morning when I opened up the Kansas State Extension Horticultural Newsletter from this week, May 22, 2012, and found a brief article by Ward Upham on White-Margined Burrowing Bugs (Sehirus cinctus).  My little red soil dots!  They ARE true bugs - and, better yet, they EAT THE SEEDS OF HENBIT!  No wonder I was seeing so many of them.  (I traditionally have an excellent henbit crop each year.)  The photo below shows 2 different instars - stages - of the nymphs.  The bright red one, which looks almost like a tiny ladybug beetle at this angle, is the younger one.  Do you see the older burrowing bug nymph nearby?

As I read Ward's article and then did a little further research on the internet, I came across some photos from a research project involving this species.  It seems that the mother white-margined burrowing bug stays with her eggs and, after they hatch, brings her new little nymphs nutlets (seeds) from henbit and other mints for them to feed upon.  Like the spider guarding her giant egg sac, the nutlets are comparatively huge, but mother burrowing bug somehow manages to trundle them back for her young. Think feeding a gaggle of teenagers with a 55 gallon drum of peanut butter that you have to haul in your mouth over rough ground!

All of the websites I found agreed that the white-margined burrowing bugs were not a problem as far as any human crop was concerned.  To my mind, these little guys would be acting as a control on henbit populations...which could stand a little bit of control, at least in south central Kansas.  In fact, in my yard, I consider the burrowing bugs to be heroes!

So I've discovered yet another natural balancing mechanism in place, functioning quite well (thank you kindly) without my doing a thing...except choosing NOT to spray insecticides around my garden or yard.  The more I see and discover and learn, the more fascinated I become!  Such a wonderful number of things to find,  quite literally, in my own back yard.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Feeding Frenzy on the Prairie!

Boy, was our butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) living up to its name today!  You could hardly see the blooms for the huge number of butterflies feeding on them.  These butterflies are pearl crescents, Phyciodes tharos.  The larvae eat the leaves of plants in the aster family and, in fact, I had a dilemma with similar caterpillars feasting on a couple young Echinacea plants several years ago.  By the time I figured out what the caterpillars were (and had decided to let them be), they had dispersed.  The Echinacea plants recovered without issue and bloomed beautifully just weeks later.  By the next year, with no treatment, the plants were huge and well established.

 Even though it looks like this blossom is filled to capacity already, another latecomer is still flying in to join the crowd.

If you look beyond the blooms of butterfly milkweed and the pearl crescents feeding as deeply as they can, you'll see the red foliage of the pink evening primrose.  The pink evening primrose was covered with blossoms a couple weeks ago and finished blooming about 10 days ago.  The leaves started turning red as the blooming ceased, and the color has increased almost daily.  I don't remember noticing this in years before, so I'm watching to see what happens.  It's not flowers, but it sure is colorful!

A last note....   If I had treated my yard with Bt, an organic product often used because it "doesn't hurt the environment and wildlife," I wouldn't have these butterflies.  Bt is a bacterium that produces a toxin which, when ingested, will kill butterfly & moth larvae (Lepidoptera), as well as flies & mosquitoes (Diptera), bees, wasps & ants (Hymenoptera), beetles (Coleoptera), and nematodes.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Garden Tours!

I love garden tour time.  When else can you freely poke around other people's gardens to get ideas, see how different plants are performing in different settings within your own gardening climate, be sparked with ideas on plant combinations and garden art, and generally share your time with other plant enthusiasts?!

I've learned to always bring my camera and snap photos - it's much easier to remember what I saw when I look back on photos, compared to plain old memory or even written notes.  Nothing like a visual!  So here are a few things that caught my eye on the Wichita Garden Tours yesterday....

Floating Clouds redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Floating Clouds')....

I like the white variegation on this variety, although I don't know how hardy it would be around here.  (It hales from South Carolina.)  This plant was just a tiny sapling, so I chose to show a closeup of the leaves, rather than a picture of its (currently uninspiring) form.

Princess Diana clematis (a clematis variety with Clematis texensis, a native clematis, parentage) does very well around here....

Snow Angel heuchera actually can do very well around here, contrary to my prior experience....

It probably needs more water and less competition than I gave it the one time I tried it.  This one is located on the north side in a garden that probably has a sprinkler system.  (Note, also, the block edging right beside it, helping to keep the roots cool and reducing root competition).

A dead peach tree repurposed as a stand for a bird house....

(I've also seen this done on a smaller scale in Mobile with larger crape myrtles.)

A great utilization of the often-hard-to-figure-out-what-to-do-with space under a high deck....

(Yes, there is drip irrigation being used here.)

A new (to me) way to utilize pressed glass plates in the garden....

These are mounted into slots cut into the tops of copper pipes.

Climbing hydrangea seems to grow well here in sheltered locations, which completely surprised me.

My only question is WHICH climbing hydrangea is this?  The native-to-the-southeastern-US one (Decumaria barbara)?  Or one of the true hydrangeas from China or Japan (Hydrangea petiolaris or H. anomala)?  Or one of the hydrangea-looking vines from Japan or China (Schizophragma hydrangeoides or S. integrifolium)?

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) can make a surprisingly dense arbor cover....

Here it was combined with trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), but the trumpet creeper seemed to be localized more on top;  the side shelter was created primarily by Virginia creeper foliage.

The simple pleasure of a piece of rough rock, drilled to create a gently bubbling fountain....

Or, finally, a reminder about my favorite method of bed edging in Mobile - cheap, easy, long-lasting, easy to refresh, relaxing on the eye....

This is simply a small "trench" dug with a shovel.  Cut down almost perpendicular to the grass and gently throw the removed soil onto the bed.  Move one shovel-width to the side and repeat, ad infinitum.  Refresh the mulch after edging.  I don't know how this edging would hold up to Bermuda, but it was great with centipede and with St. Augustine and I'm pretty sure it would be fine with buffalo.  It also looks downright easy with fescue.  Even with the sandy soil and heavy rains of Mobile, this method of edging would last for several years and was easy to refresh when necessary.

The best thing about garden tours is that everyone comes away with a different list of ideas to implement.  If you get a chance, I'd sure recommend going to any garden tours in your area.  Who knows what interesting ideas you would bring home to help make your garden more uniquely you?!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Wildflower Treat in Texas

I remember Lady Bird Johnson primarily for initiating the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign.  Why this sticks in my mind is rather a mystery to me, since the only parts of that campaign that I remember were the anti-litter and anti-billboard pushes that went along with it.  In November, 1963, when Lady Bird became First Lady, I was 7 1/2 years old and in 2nd grade.  While to this day I get disgusted and angry when I see someone throw trash out a car window, I don't remember knowing anything about her interest in wildflowers, along the roadside or within the landscape proper.

Of course, in more recent years, you can't be interested in native wildflowers without being aware of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.  I've been on the website many times, but I had never visited the center itself...until last Sunday.

And what a treat that was!  Truthfully I was actually surprised at how beautiful, practical and educational the Wildflower Center is.  I'd imagined the Wildflower Center as primarily interested in beautification of the roadways, acting in conjunction with the bluebonnets and Indian paint blooms along the Texas highways, but I was not giving Lady Bird Johnson and her Wildflower Center anywhere near the credit that she and it are due.

Walking into the Center, there was a fantastic quote by Lady Bird Johnson...which I stupidly did not photograph or write down.  My memory is that it was the quote from which others have extracted this phrasing, "Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours. I want Texas to look like Texas and Vermont to look like Vermont."  The entire quote set the perfect tone for the rest of the visit: while the educational emphasis was on the importance of native plants in general, the gardens and natural areas were specifically exhibiting native plants of the hill country of Texas. 

That combination of general theory (the importance of native plants) and site specific examples in the Wildflower Center was brilliant.  My only dismay is that there isn't a series of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centers around the entire country, each emphasizing the same general theory, but showcasing that theory with each region's own, site specific examples of wildflowers and cultural use of the vegetation.

For starters, the Exhibit Gallery had a very simple but also very effective stand displaying individual cut blooms of the wildflowers currently blossoming on the property.  (As a side note, I could just imagine being the staff person responsible for keeping that particular display current and looking good!)

There is a big aqueduct that collects rainwater from all of the roof surfaces and stores it for use during dryer seasons.  In the courtyard, the plantings are all native but the ambiance is restrained and sedate.  One planting that caught my eye (and it's native here in Kansas, so I can copy it if I want to!) was coralberry or buckbrush, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, used as a groundcover under one of the trees.

Nature trails went through the region's primary habitat types:  open meadow and woodland.  I was stunned at the carpet effect of many of the wildflowers, especially in the open meadows.  Near the buildings there were smaller areas devoted to dry creekbeds, moist wetlands, etc.   In these photos, Greg is standing beside the relatively small entrance to a cave, hidden in this clump of brush, below, along the open meadow trail.  The brush looked totally unremarkable - only a sign talking about a cave encouraged us to take a closer look.

Probably the most useful exhibits of all were the examples of how the native plants, especially wildflowers, could be used in more "typical" human landscapes, with several different demonstration home landscapes, a big butterfly garden area, and individual beds highlighting a cutting garden, edible native plants, medicinal plants, dye plants, water gardens, groundcovers, a white garden, a succulent garden and so forth.

We toured the Center at mid-day, so I didn't take many photos.  Most would have been pretty badly washed out.  I'm rather regretting that decision, though, as I try to share what we saw in this blog post; hindsight is always 20/20.

At one point as we walked on the trails, Greg overheard a man comment that it was obvious the entire area had been heavily overseeded.  We doubted that...and our suspicions were justified when we drove north out of Fredericksburg the following day:  there were many areas literally and liberally carpeted with wildflowers, especially with golden plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria).  From the large areas of recently bloomed out gaillardia, it was obvious they'd been just as spectacular a week or two earlier. 

It seems appropriate to end this post with another quote from Lady Bird Johnson, this time captured from one of the display boards in the Exhibit Gallery....

Monday, May 07, 2012

A Toad Unburied...or Jabba the Hutt Comes to Life

Seriously, doesn't this guy (gal?) look like the perfect actor to play a young Jabba the Hutt as he "expands" in a "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" prequel?  In fact, in honor of the well-rounded figure, I will refer to this individual toad as Ms. Jabba from here on out.

I discovered Ms. Jabba, a Great Plains toad, while hand weeding yesterday to clear out one of my new flower beds in the front yard.  (On a side note, have I told you how much I enjoy hand weeding?!)  She was buried below ground in a newly moistened area where a young shrub had been planted the day before.  Luckily, as I stuck my trowel in the ground to root out some partially buried little barley, I disturbed her but didn't seem to harm her.  She irritatedly hopped off a foot or so, then sat still to figure out what in the world had disrupted her quiet day's rest and what she was going to do about the interruption.  (Incidentally, I recognized and was able to interpret her bleary look based on my own, pre-coffee, morning moments.)

By sitting still, Ms. Jabba inadvertently posed quite nicely for several photographs, allowing me to take shots from several different angles.  One of the most important photos turned out to be of her back, as she started squiggling herself downwards into the wet soil, beginning the process of burying herself again to resume her daytime beauty sleep.

This angle shows the large, paired spots on her back, outlined in cream or light brown.  It is these large pairs of warty dark blotches that identify her as a Great Plains toad rather than a Woodhouse's toad, one of the only two other toad species found in south central Kansas.

Of course, a true photographer always goes for a profile picture too, so in the interest of completeness, here is Ms. Jabba's charming silhouette, taken early in the sequence while she was still sporting the moist soil remnants of her daytime sleep ensemble.

After identifying her this evening by her glamor shots, I looked up Great Plains toads to learn a little bit more about this co-inhabitant of our homestead.

Scientifically labeled Bufo cognatus, Great Plains toads spend their days burrowed into the soil, coming out at night to feed on insects.  They seldom emerge during the day (unless some careless gardener accidentally tries to skewer them with a trowel).  This toad species is considered a prairie dweller, most commonly found in mixed grass or short grass prairies throughout much of the Great Plains and southwest.

The call of these toads is mentioned as being especially loud, long and shrill, lasting for as much as a full minute.  If you visit the Great Plains toad page on the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas site, you can hear a recording of the call.  They are considered "opportunistic breeders," breeding in seasonal wet areas such as ditches, ponds or flooded fields whenever conditions are right, from late March to early August.  Only the males call, serenading loudly to entice the females in for a night of amorous activity.  Females, at least in central Oklahoma, can apparently lay as many as 45,000 eggs.  (Wouldn't you love to be the grad student who got to count those?!)  Kansas references mention 20,000 eggs as the maximum number of eggs laid per female.  Whatever the ultimate number each female lays, the eggs are produced in long strings which the male retains for several minutes in a "basket" formed by his hind legs, ensuring fertilization by his sperm.  The eggs hatch in about a week, and from then it only takes the tadpoles 3-4 weeks to become tiny toadlets.

My favorite tidbit of information about Great Plains toads came from the above-mentioned Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas site:  these toads are apparently voracious cutworm eaters.  Given the large number of cutworms I have seen as I've weeded in my yard this spring, I can only hope that Ms. Jabba expands to twice her current size as she eats her way steadily through the bounty that my yard is so thoughtfully providing her.  May The Force be with her (and her appetite).

The Red Hills of Kansas

No, my title is not an oxymoron.  There ARE hills in Kansas.  There are actually quite a lot of hills in Kansas and many of them are quite picturesque.  If, however, the only path you take through the state involves primarily interstate highways, you won't see too many of them.  This is truly a case of taking "the road less traveled."

Last Friday I had the pleasure of being invited along on a Nature Conservancy field trip to the Red Hills, also known as the Gyp (as in gypsum) Hills, of Kansas.  The photo above is from the website, for reasons which I will explain shortly.  The Red Hills region, located in south central Kansas, is the site of The Nature Conservancy's newest initiative in our state, the purpose of which is to build partnerships with landowners to help them in their management of this important area of mixed grass prairie.  One of the most pressing issues they hope to address is the return of cyclical burning to the range, helping to remove the overgrowth of red cedars which has occurred in the last 50 years and thereby improving the health of the grasslands overall.  The Nature Conservancy is also hoping to help preserve the landscape and ranching way of life through voluntary conservation easements.

Note:  the photos I took last Friday were the single most over-exposed series of photos that I remember having taken in years.  Consequently, I have "salted" the photos in this post with the photo above and a couple photos I've taken in prior visits to the Gyp Hills - which I will identify as such when I use them.

During this expedition, we followed the scenic drive loop near Medicine Lodge, visited the Z-Bar Ranch, and talked with another rancher in the area whose range management techniques over the last 30 years have resulted in returning excellent mixed grass prairie to his land. 

First, the scenic loop southwest of Medicine Lodge....

Free and open to the public, this drive is beautiful and it is a rare opportunity to see true open rangeland first hand.  All you have to do is follow the signs, which clearly mark the route. (At times, though, you are likely to wonder if you are really supposed to be driving where the signs direct you!)   If you do take this drive, please remember that the roads are public - but the land is private.

Depending on the time of year you visit, the wildflowers along this loop are amazing in both their variety and their abundance.  Generally they can be seen and photographed quite safely and readily from the roadside.  The pale echinacea, Echinacea pallida, shown to the left and in the landscape photo below, was just beginning to bloom.  These photographs, though, are actually ones I took in early June 2 years ago.

The scenery along the route ranges from serene to spectacular. After crossing cattle guards and realizing there are no fences along the road, it registers to you that the cattle have as much right to be on the road as you do, which is a rather unusual feeling in this day and age.  The road is dirt and it can be rough;  speed is neither advised nor the point of traveling these byways. 

Ken Brunson, the Nature Conservancy's project coordinator for the Red Hills Initiative, shared many details of the regional biology, geology, and culture with us throughout the day. 

While keeping our ears open to what Ken was saying, several of us were roaming during stops, trying to get photos of the wildflower blossoms that we rarely get to see in our "real" lives.  I saw and photographed great flowers:  purple ground cherry, lemon paintbrush, blue false indigo, scarlet globe mallow, yucca, serrate-leafed evening primrose, green antelopehorn.  Unfortunately, the photos weren't as great as the flowers, being basically all terminally overexposed and not worth sharing.  (I'm hoping that Ruth had better luck and skill than I did!)

Our education on the Red Hills and its ranching community continued on the 40,000 acre Z-Bar Ranch, owned by Ted Turner.  One of the most thrilling sights for many of us was the small bison herd grazing and resting right beside the road in one of the pastures we drove through.  There was no fence between us and them, which is both exciting and a little nerve-wracking!

In the center of the photo, note the dust coming up from the bison's feet - this individual was busy creating a buffalo wallow to roll in.

According to the ranch manager, Keith, the Z-Bar generally runs about 3000 head of bison, many of which eventually end up in the restaurants that Ted Turner owns.  The ranch hasn't gone totally "nontraditional" though; cattle are still part of its operations too.  Grazing of both species is managed for the health of the grass and of the prairie, as well as for the production of meat. 

It is not only possible to manage an area ranch for both a healthy grassland and for meat production, in the long run it is more beneficial for the economic health of both the landowner and of the community.  This was the message that rancher Ted Alexander wanted us to hear when he spoke to us.  His lands illustrate his message very well.  Mr. Alexander took over the management of his family's 7000 acre ranch almost 30 years ago.  At the time it was covered with red cedar trees, like so much of the rest of the Red Hills landscape then and now.  Since the cedar trees outcompete the native grasses by shading them, eventually the result is a cedar scrub forest that supports little diversity of plant or animal life.  Back when he took over the ranch, Mr. Alexander knew that it was vitally important to get rid of the cedars and return his grasslands to better health.  Over the years he has been able to do this through a variety of management techniques including mechanical cedar tree removal and prescribed burning of the range.

Fire is frightening, even when it is being managed as a "controlled burn," but it is an absolutely essential component of the prairie ecology.    Burning releases nutrients back into the soil and it reduces the area covered by trees and shrubs, making for healthier, more productive grasslands.  The dead trees in the photo below were actually killed in a wildfire that occurred several years ago, beginning accidentally at a bridge construction project and spreading for miles.  Wildfires illustrate another important reason to do prescribed burns:  prescribed burns reduce the overall fire load and thereby reduce the chance of a truly destructive wildfire getting a strong hold.

Having just suffered through a prolonged drought which may not be over yet, a vital point that Mr. Alexander made was about the effect that good range management has on the water in the region.  Noting that the area only gets an average of about 20" of rain each year, he said that with excellent range (very good to excellent native grass and forb cover, no cedars in the uplands), about 4" of that annual rainfall is stored each year in the natural aquifers below ground, totalling about 100,000 gallons/acre.  This stored water supplies the area's groundwater, which in turn feeds the streams and rivers and provides the water for the wells on homes and ranches.  Under a poor quality range filled with a cedar scrub forest, only about 20% of that potential 100,000 gallons (or about 20,000 gallons/acre) is stored annually in the aquifer, which can have dramatic, negative  impacts on the economic and ecological health of the area.

Economically, this region has suffered for years, if not decades.  Ecologically, it is an important and diverse region whose health is important to humans, plants, and animals alike, locally and beyond.  I've barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn and know about the Red Hills region of Kansas, but I hope The Nature Conservancy's new Red Hills Initiative is supremely successful and that the Red Hills natural beauty, viability and diversity improves dramatically with each passing decade.