Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fabulous Blooms and Friendly Brains: Kansas Native Plant Society Wildflower Weekend

Last weekend at this time (2 p.m., Sunday afternoon), I was just arriving home after a great weekend getaway.

For seven years I've been thinking about going to this annual event, but something always got in the way.  One year we were heading over to Winfield to go to the Walnut River Valley Music Festival.  Another year we were on a trip to England and Norway.  Yet another year we were getting ready to leave for a trip to Germany.  The year before last, I was getting ready to take an adopted dog down to our daughter in Florida. 

"Where did you go last weekend?  Why did it take you so long to make it?" you ask.  "It sounds like you were doing LOTS of traveling already, so that can't have been the problem."

"To the Annual Wildflower Weekend of the Kansas Native Plant Society," I answer.  The AWW, as many people seem to call it.  As to why it took me so long to make it a priority to attend, I can't give you a rational answer.  All I can say is that I'm glad I went this year.

Each year KNPS's Annual Wildflower Weekend is held in a different location within Kansas, but it's always on the same weekend, the 3rd weekend in September.  No matter where the AWW is held, the weekend seems to hold lots of tromping around through impressive prairie sites full of not-so-common native wildflowers and grasses, as well as a lot of camaraderie with other souls who value the chance to spend time out tromping around and looking at plants too.

This year Greg told me to go.  I politely scuffled my feet a little, feeling quite guilty at leaving him home alone to take care of the homestead for 2 days while I went out to "play"...then I shoved the guilt down, made my reservations, and skedaddled.

I'm so glad I did.  I had a great time and I had a chance to see some beautiful sights and sites.  Most exciting of all, I reconnected with a couple friends from many years ago, had a chance to meet two friends I've previously known only through blogging, and became acquainted with several other folks who are new friends in the making.  The most hopeful part is that all of us share a passion for plants and animals and wild spaces...and learning about the web of which they are all a part.

In the photo above, Theresa and Melanie (with Melanie's daughter Cami) are two friends I've met entirely through garden blogging.  It was so much fun to share time with them in person while poking around and looking at plants.  Cami seemed to have a great time exploring, too, and she and I explored our common interests in taking photos and looking at insects and rocks.

This year's AWW was based in Pratt, Kansas, home of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.  Not surprisingly, our first field trip was to the KDWP museum and to the pollinator garden right beside it, in the southeast corner of town.  The Pratt Master Gardeners have done a superb job of putting together a beautiful and interesting pollinator and native wildflower display garden, complete with a gorgeous pool, for which they received a well deserved award from KNPS.

Whispered on the wind were comments about possible expansions of the native plant display gardens, as well. Wouldn't that be awesome?!

During the course of the weekend, we got to explore 5 different prairie sites - 3 in the Red Hills south of Pratt and 2 sand prairies east of Pratt.  The last site also included a section of the Ninnescah River, so we were able to do a little riparian scouting as well.  Almost all of the sites were on privates land that had been graciously opened up to us to explore, so I don't want to be too specific about the locations.  The photo above show the group moving away from our cars, beginning to explore a site in the rugged landscape near Sun City.

I have no idea what the official plant list (i.e. total species count) for the weekend was because I was doing some landscape gazing, some insect hunting, some photography teaching, and a lot of chatting...besides looking for flowers and grasses, of course.

This delicate white beauty is the flower of the Sand Lily (Mentzelia nuda) in the Red Hills of Kansas.  Such a beautiful, soft looking flower on such a thorny, spiky plant!

Broad-leaf milkweed (Asclepias latifolia) doesn't look all that interesting in this photo, but it really captured my attention in the field...maybe because it was SO green and lush looking in an otherwise scorched looking landscape.  The leaves almost looked like cabbage!  The remnants of the pods were actually rather small and cute;  they were found under and between the leaves, rather than at the top of the plant.  This is one that I want to try to find for our garden.  USDA Plant Profiles does show Sedgwick County as part of this plant's range.

Isn't this guy gorgeous?  This is the rainbow grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor), also commonly called the pictured grasshopper.  It's posing on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), which was in bloom in all of the prairies we visited.

I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of this insect accidentally.  Do you see it?  It's a walking stick, colored perfectly to blend in with the grass.  The only reason I saw it was that it moved as I knelt down to look at a nearby flower.  Sad to say, I don't have a good enough photo of it to risk trying to get it down to the genus level, let alone the species level.  (I would welcome anyone's help on this matter, though.)

A last extra punch for the weekend was getting to hear Iralee Barnard speak about grass identification (an area in which I am sadly lacking) and then being able to purchase her new book, Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.  It's a great help and, after reading it, I already feel more confident in my ability to tackle a few of the more obscure grasslike plants that I'm seeing around our prairie at home, Patchwork Prairie.

Will I return for another AWW?  Absolutely!  It was an AWWsome chance to become active in a human community of interesting and fun plant nerds!  It was also an AWWsome chance to roam around and learn about plants in natural areas that are normally unavailable for "regular folks" to explore.  What wasn't to like?!

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Greg gave me a gift for Christmas last year - Access (the software program, which unfortunately doesn't automatically come with the home version of Office) so that I could begin to keep a coherent database of all the plants and animals that I've found on our 10 acres.

I have been slowly working on this project in the intervening months, and I'm far from done.  For the most part, I've been utilizing the photos I've taken over the years to remind me of what I've found and where I've found it.

For example, I saw this flower beetle (Batyle suturalis) on Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in the Back Five early in July this year; both species are now in my database.

The wonderful folks at are probably quite sick of me, as I've been submitting quite a few photos for their help with identification - which has been wonderful and greatly appreciated.  I can usually get an unknown insect down to order and often to family, using my experience and (if necessary) Borror and DeLong's Introduction to the Study of Insects for its excellent keys .  Then I try, utilizing BugGuide's online guides, to get the insect down to genus and species, but without actual keys specifying what I'm looking for, it can be hard.  It's at this point that I will submit an image for help.

Other species are often easier.  For example, I've been birding for years, so I have a reasonable familiarity with bird species and I can trust my identifications and the species lists I've been keeping since we moved in.  (Besides, it is much easier to figure out which of 450+ possible species a bird is compared to figuring out which of thousands of possible species an insect is.)  Below, for example, is a red-winged blackbird watching a little blue heron, who hung out in our lagoon for several days in 2009.

There are a variety of books and online resources I go to for plant identifications:  Michael Haddock's book and website on Wildflowers and Grassses of Kansas.  Janet Bare's book, Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas.  Stephen's book, Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines in Kansas.  And many, many more.

I've recently purchased Bradley's book, Common Spiders of North America, to improve my ability to identify the spiders that I'm seeing.  BugGuide is also useful with spiders, and I have a few other guidebooks (although most are much less comprehensive than Bradley's).  Below is a male jumping spider (Phidippus clarus) which I photographed last summer hanging out on giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida).

There are, obviously, many more references that I use to compile my species lists, but that isn't the point of this post.  Right now, according to my Access database, I have 201 plant species that I've found (or planted) on our 10 acres, 157 species of insects, 3 species of amphibians, 8 species of mammals, 1 species of snake, and 5 species of turtles.  (I have found quite a few more species of amphibians, mammals, snakes and turtles than that, but I haven't put them into my Access database yet.)  My yard list has 121 bird species so far.  That includes birds seen ON our property, as well as FROM our property (i.e. flying overhead during migration or seen from our property but physically on our neighbors' land).  I haven't started a list of spider species yet, but in looking in my photo organizer, I easily have at least a dozen different species.  Then there are the assorted invertebrates not covered by "insect" and "spider" catergories, species like prairie crayfish, roly-polies, and daddy longlegs.

Here is a boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata) in the buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) of our front lawn last August.

So, in the 7 1/2 years we've lived here, I have documented (so far) 310 animal species and 201 plant species sharing our 10 acres with us.

Why am I posting about this right now?  Because in yesterday's Wichita Eagle, there was an article about Chisholm Creek Park in northeast Wichita.  The article was actually about algae in the lake there, but there was a brief aside saying that "[t]he park is home to 163 species of plants and 214 species of animals...."  Chisholm Creek Park is large - 282 acres, according to the website of the Great Plains Nature Center, which is located there.

I have documented about 25% more species of plant species and almost 50% more species of animals on our 10 acres than have been documented in the 282 acres of Chisholm Creek Park in the same county.

Does this mean that there really ARE that many more species on our little 10 acres than in Chisholm Creek Park?  No.  Absolutely not.  The species summary list on the Great Plains Nature Center site above does not give any number of species at all for invertebrates or grasses, for example, and their numbers for birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are all greater than the number I've observed on our property.  Chisholm Creek Park also has fish species, while we have no year-round water habitat except our lagoon.

I've just been more meticulous about recording (and identifying) the variety of species I've found here, particularly the species of insects and other invertebrates, than the folks in charge of that park have had the time or the inclination to do.  Still, it was definitely a psychological boost to realize just how diverse a piece of property we actually have!

Do you keep any sort of species list of what you've identified on your property?   If so, what sorts of insights or discoveries has that process given you?

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