Friday, May 30, 2008

An Unplanned Animal Awareness Day

I was lucky enough to get several glimpses into the vertebrate animal life sharing our property today.

#1: As I was walking out in the back prairie this morning, a jack rabbit spooked up and literally high-tailed it south into the neighbor's horse pasture. It's quite a sight to see this large, gangly, rabbit-like creature racing away from you, topped by huge whitish ears tipped with black . Those ears draw your eyes like a magnet.

After the burn, I worried a bit about how barren that back 5 acres had become. Would it green up fast enough to provide sufficient habitat for the local wildlife that needs to use it this summer? Well, the last time I saw a jack rabbit was before the burn, so just short of 2 months after the burn, the prairie has recovered enough to allow a jack rabbit to feel at home again.

#2: Speaking of the burned area as recovering habitat, after the burn I found at least one bird nest (meadowlark?) destroyed by the fire. That hurt. For several weeks, I saw many birds feeding in the ashy soil and regrowing vegetation, but only recently have I seen signs of nesting birds again.

Meadowlarks and killdeer have been territorializing loudly and melodiously for several weeks now, and for the last few days dickcissels have joined the chorus. Furthermore, I've noticed a killdeer getting particularly agitated in the southwest corner of the prairie when Becker or I were near, so I started skipping that area as I did my walkabout. However, several days ago I saw no sign of a killdeer anywhere, so I ventured back into the area today to pull up some marker flags.

Image my surprise and dismay/delight when I saw this female sitting tightly on her nest near where I was working. She was obviously torn between staying still and leading me astray by distraction. I snapped a quick photo, then moved on rapidly, keeping Becker on heel until we were safely out of range.

#3 and #4: When I got ready to leave on an errand late this afternoon, I noticed a little spotted lump by my front wheel. It turned out to be a young...brown thrasher? I'm not sure what it was, to be honest. The breast was spotted like a young robin, but it had no red on it at all and it definitely had 2 white wing bars. There was a mockingbird raising a big fuss as I knelt to take the photo, so I wondered about that, but the spots have me a little confused. My memory says the baby was rather grayish, but the color in the photo looks rather rusty brown, like a young brown thrasher. Since that would coincide with the spotted breast and wing bars, I'll go with fledgling brown thrasher as my tentative identification.

Whatever it was, the little thing had a lot more gumption than coordination! It couldn't fly at all, but when I got too close for its comfort, it took off rapidly with an odd, distinctly earthbound mix of hopping, running, and trying frantically to use wings that just weren't cooperating. I didn't want to chase it, so this one photo was all I was able to get.

Getting back to the car after all that excitement, I double checked under it and behind all the wheels, managing to scare up a VERY fat toad, who proceeded to exhibit a death wish by repeatedly hopping underneath the car from one side to the other. If anyone was watching, I'm sure I presented a rather comical figure, vainly waving at some small lump on the concrete while bending over and/or kneeling beside the car doors. Finally I was able to chase the toad under some shrubs and get away before some other misguided creature decided to hunker down next to this metallic "mother".

#5: My last encounter for the day occurred at dusk while I was deadheading some Coreopsis grandiflora in the front flower bed. It's a nice sized clump, about 18" in diameter, and blooming profusely. To encourage it to keep blooming, I was chasing each spent bloom down into the foliage, to the nearest stem joint, and snipping the stem off between my thumb and finger. I'd done about 2/3rds of the blooms when the clump suddenly gave a shudder and a thick brown snake about 2 1/2 feet long shot out and shimmied into the thick daylilies about six feet away.

I didn't get a close look, but from the glimpse I got, I'd guess that it was a water snake of some sort. I definitely didn't see (or hear) any sort of rattle, so I don't think it was a rattlesnake. Nonetheless, I felt distinctly disinclined to disturb it further by chasing it down!

Days like today make me feel privileged, both to be granted these brief glimpses of other lives coexisting with us on these 10 acres and to simply be able to live here.

It Only Took a Day....

Update on checkerspot caterpillars on Echinacea:

When I went to check on them around noon today, I could only find 4 caterpillars total (out of a rough estimate of 2-3 dozen last night). Oh, and the crumpled remains of a fifth caterpillar being carried by a wheelbug nymph as it sauntered down the Echinacea stem.

When I looked this evening, I could only find 1 caterpillar on all 3 Echinacea plants.

Not knowing how large the caterpillars get before they either pupate or quit eating "gregariously", I can't say for sure whether the caterpillars moved on of their own accord or whether they became breakfast, lunch, or dinner for a little wheel bug, a cardinal, or some other animal. Whatever actually occurred, it appears that my Echinacea are safe for now.

Once more, doing nothing proved to be a highly successful strategy. Being "lazy" isn't always bad.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"It Pays to Pay Attention"...or "A Natural Course of Action"

You'd think I'd know better. I noticed a few days ago that my young Echinacea plants were looking a little bedraggled, as if some of their leaves had a fungus. Coming from Mobile lately where wet weather made Echinacea extremely difficult to grow, I sighed, lamented that the recent extremely rainy weather had allowed fungus to attack my Echinacea even here in Echinacea-land, and forgot about it.

Then today, while I was letting the dogs out for a bladder relief session, I looked at my Echinacea plants a little more closely.

Imagine my surprise when the "dry, curled, fungus-afflicted" leaves turned out to be skeletonized and covered with frass (bug poop). Obviously there was something other than fungus going on here.

Imagine my further surprise when I noticed that the dark mass of "dead leaf material" I'd noticed from the porch turned out to be a very much living mass of small, dark caterpillar bodies covered with bristles. (Note: My photograph here isn't the best. You can see one caterpillar fairly clearly and 3 more rather fuzzily. The dark bundle at the center of the photo is a mass of other caterpillars, which you can kind of make out if you use your imagination!)

So it was off to my books and the internet for a little research.

To the best of my ability to chase it down at this point, I think these are caterpillars of one of the checkerspot butterflies, probably the silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis). The photo to the right shows a single caterpillar on a partially skeletonized leaf, with several other "used-up" leaves in the background. The silvery checkerspot caterpillars feed "gregariously" on plants such as asters and Echinacea, skeletonizing the leaves as they feed. They are not considered to be a major problem, presumably because they don't get very big...and because we're not trying to compete with them, i.e., eat the Echinacea ourselves. When disturbed, the caterpillars quickly curl up and drop to the ground, behavior which I witnessed firsthand.

I'm not quite sure how I'm going to handle this yet. It would (will?) be easy enough to handpick them off the plants and drop them in soapy water, thus keeping the Echinacea healthier and allowing it to grow bigger and bloom more this year...but one of my main reasons for having a native perennial garden is to provide habitat for the native animals, including butterflies. It hardly seems fair to start killing them as soon as I see them, just because they are eating the plants that I put there for them!

Then again, I may not have to worry about the problem much longer. When I went back out to take a few pictures, I disturbed a pair of cardinals who had been, if I'm not mistaken, busily eating the delicious little black caterpillars they'd discovered in my flower bed.

Mother Nature's 24/7 Scales of Ecological Balance! Once again, I think I've proved to myself that letting nature take its course is the most effective - and interesting - plan of action.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Peony Envy

It always seems like people - sadly, even gardeners (especially gardeners?) - lust for what they can't have. Here in south central Kansas, gardeners lust after azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries, blue hydrangeas, and tropical plants like jasmine, gardenias, and palms.

Down in Mobile, Alabama, they grow those things with little effort. The Mobile gardeners lust after other plants, like apple trees, lilacs, pink hydrangeas...and peonies.

Especially peonies. So in honor of the Gulf Coast Peony Society, of which I was a charter member several years ago, I want to post these photos of my newly expanding peony collection.
To the President of the GCPS, J.W., who has successfully grown a peony in Mobile (and actually gotten it to bloom!), I dedicate these photos. A little over a year ago, we discovered this peony plant sadly crouching under the overgrown yews in front of the house, when we rudely and crudely cut the yews down to daringly expose our windows to sunlight. Last summer this waif had few leaves and looked quite bedraggled, but this year it has recovered strength and even rewarded us with 5 large, fragrant blossoms.

To the Vice President of the GCPS, B.W., who has so far successfully resisted the urge to try to grow peonies in a climate they are inclined to hate, despite remembering how gorgeous they looked in other locales where she has lived, I dedicate these photos. Last spring I ordered a series of 3 peony roots, which promptly arrived...and which I just as promptly forgot about. Five weeks later, I ran across them again and stuck them in the ground with a prayer for forgiveness. Evidently my prayer was successful, since they came up last year and have even given me several blooms this year.

To the rest of the Gulf Coast Peony Society, N.M., G.S., P.L., P.S., and others, I dedicate the peonies that I am beginning to try to rescue from a home that is due to be auctioned off later this summer. The owner, sad enough about the fate of her family home, is hoping to find new places for many of the plants that she and her mother and her grandmother lovingly tended for so many years. To the best of my ability, I hope to help her in that quest. (I don't have photos of these plants yet, but I hope to by next year.)

Thank you all, members of the Gulf Coast Peony Society, for allowing me to join your august ranks during that wonderful time that I spent in Mobile. Grow a few blue hydrangeas and Formosa azaleas for me!

New to Me This Year: Carolina Anemone

It's amazing how many new wildflowers I'm finding around the yard this year. I don't know if the conditions were somehow "just right" for them to appear this year but not last year, or if they were able to store enough energy last year to really emerge and bloom in full force this year, or if I was just much less observant last year. Whatever the explanation, I'm enjoying the increased diversity.

The first exciting new wildflower that I noticed this year was the Carolina anemone (Anemone caroliniana). I first noticed a blue one, looking very much like a large single aster bloom on a really short stem, some time in late March or early April. Soon I noticed a second blue one nearby, then one or two others which were white and formed another small clump elsewhere in the yard. By the time they were done blooming in late April, I'd found about five small populations and one large population scattered throughout the front areas of our property.

This pretty little flower comes in two color forms: bright purplish blue and white. The photo at the right shows, obviously, the white form, with a tube of lip gloss for scale. Both color forms of Carolina anemone have a clear yellow center. There doesn't appear (at least in my yard) to be any intergrading between the two colors - each "clump" contained either blue or white flowers. The only population to contain both colors was the large group, and it really appeared to be several smaller populations in close proximity.

I don't feel too bad about missing this flower last year, as it is almost impossible to notice the leaves if the plant isn't blooming. It is also one of those plants where the flower opens in response to sunlight, so that in the early morning, late evening, and on cloudy days, the flower remains shut fairly tightly, looking like an unopened bud. (The photo below shows my largest population of Carolina anemones, both blue and white. The purple flower seen tinting the mix is that old Kansas springtime favorite, henbit.)

Since they were so inconspicuous unless they were blooming, I marked the areas where the Carolina anemones were with orange flags, so that I could follow what happened after they bloomed and so that Prairiewolf wouldn't mow them down prematurely. First they dropped their petals, leaving a small central structure that looked rather like a thimble (the righthand structure in the photo to the left)...and presumably giving rise to another common name for them, thimble flower. Later the "thimble" seemed to get fuzzy, as the seeds matured, seen in the lefthand structure in the photo to the left. After some of the seed had dropped naturally, I collected the rest and scattered it in the back prairie.

In summary, I can't really explain why I've been so attracted to this little flower. Perhaps it's because I'd never even heard of it before seeing it early this spring in our own prairie. I'd always thought that anemones were delicate flowers totally incapable of surviving in Kansas! Whatever the reason, my feelings are best captured by a sentence in Janet Bare's book, Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas (p. 115), "No description or photograph can recapture the enchantment of these flowers for those who experienced it in pioneer days when in early April in delicate tints it overspread the prairies around homes and schoolhouses and away toward the horizon." I'd love to increase its numbers enough that I could see that sight here on our own little bit of prairie.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Patty Prairie Seed

You've heard of Johnny Appleseed? Lately I've dubbed myself Patty Prairie Seed. In the last 24 hours, I've donned the role twice.

I'm watching the back prairie as it recovers from both significant overgrazing and this spring's burn. For the most part I'm trying not to interfere too much, although obviously the burn was a management tool. Prairiewolf and I have also been pulling yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) before it blooms, since that can be such an invasive intruder and we have a noticeable, but not yet overwhelming, amount of it back there.

For seeding new species into the area, however, I'm being very conservative and only adding seed from plants that I find in nearby areas...such as our front 5 acres or roadside ditches within 5-10 miles. Last fall I scattered some little bluestem seed (Schizachyrium scoparium, from the front acreage), sideoats grama seed (Bouteloua curtipendula, from the front and from area ditches), Illinois bundleflower seed (Desmanthus illinoensis, from nearby roadside ditches), and - breaking my general policy - compass plant seed (Silphium laciniatum) from Dyck Arboretum. Earlier this spring in my front prairie, I found a plains' wildindigo (Baptisia bracteata var. leucophaea) seed pod with viable seed inside it, so I scattered that seed after the burn last month.
Last night I collected seed from the Carolina anemone (Anemone caroliniana) plants that I found and marked last month, then scattered them in the back prairie. Feeling rather fey, I lifted the clumps of seed up into the wind and let the wind carry the seeds where it would... making sure that "where it would" would fall within our 5 acre plot! I'm sure my success ratio will be rather low, but I tell myself that I'm mimicking "Mother Nature" in my methodology.

This morning, behind the draw, I found a seed pod from a newly discovered plant of blue wildindigo, Baptisia australis var. minor. That seemed to merit a reappearance of Patty Prairie Seed, so I scattered that seed out back too.

I'm guessing that the back prairie already had a bit of little bluestem and sideoats grama in it, so I'm not sure that I'll be able to confidently tell if any of those seeds germinated and added to the natural diversity there, but I haven't seen signs of any of the forb species that I've seeded in. Knowing how slow prairie perennials are to grow and bloom, I'm not likely to see signs of success for several years. In fact, given my laissez-faire methods, it may be that none of these seeds will ever germinate, but meanwhile I feel compelled to do what I can. Acting as an agent of Gaia, I guess you could say, but "Patty Prairie Seed" sounds much more down home and appropriate.

Excuses, Excuses

It's been a busy spring. We've managed to live through a kitchen facelift/laundry room remodel that is finally about finished. (It looks and feels fantastic. I think we reached the right compromise between doing nothing and doing a complete remodel.) We travelled to Tucson in mid-April to attend my young cousin's wedding and, while in the southwest desert country, treated ourselves to a day and a half of birding. We drove to Topeka in early May to celebrate my birthday, and spent an extremely enjoyable afternoon and evening there with good friends.

And, last weekend, we were lucky enough to be able to host some good friends from 30 years ago for a 4 day visit. While they were here, we talked and ate and played games and shopped and talked and ate some more. Since they live in the Pacific Northwest now, it was a wonderful chance to catch up on the separate paths that our lives have travelled since we last lived near each other.

While all of this has been going on, we've been planting and tending our vegetable garden and working on expanding and planting our perennial beds. I've managed to continue my daily walk-abouts with regularity, but writing here at Gaia Garden has been sporadic, to put it politely. I've composed parts of many, many blog entries in my mind, but few have made it to the computer, let alone the net.

So now I'm vowing to get better at moving my thoughts from mental circling to the keyboard and then to the net. While I do that, I may go backwards and pick up a few topics that should have been covered a month ago - they may not be terribly timely any more, but they are still tugging at me, telling me that they want to be set down. I'll try to be careful to date bloom times and so forth carefully, so as not to confuse readers too much about what happened when biologically.

It's been a busy spring.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Plantaholica incurablis

Today I succumbed to one of the seven deadly sins. I'm afraid that I was guilty of gluttony this afternoon... specifically, plant gluttony.

It was the weekend of the Dyck Arboretum's spring native plant sale, and Prairiewolf and I went up to check it out this morning. My primary object was a Kentucky coffeetree, listed on their on-line inventory. They are very hard to find, and for some reason I find them irresistible - maybe their "milk dud" seeds or their huge, doubly compound leaves. That was my main objective for going...or so I told myself and Prairiewolf.

On the way there, I read through the inventory listed in their recent newsletter to see if there was anything else I wanted to look for. Frustratingly, Kentucky coffeetree was not listed there, but I noticed enough other plants I hadn't seen on-line to occupy me from Clearwater to Hesston.

Once at the sale, I quickly quit worrying about what was on which inventory list and just enjoyed rooting through the available plants. (Yeah, I'm sorry, that pun was intentional.)

"Okay. Two spice bushes. (Maybe with neutral to slightly alkaline soil, I'll get them to actually survive, even thrive, here. Unlike in Mobile.)"

"Hmmm. Oooh. Wow, those native gingers look great! I wasn't sure I wanted any, but I've got to try at least 3 of those beauties. Six, if I try a few on the north side of the house."

"Liverleaf. I didn't recognize that name on the inventory, but those little plants are sure cute. It's Hepatica americana, so it 'must' be native somewhere on this continent. I know it's a stretch, but...those are just so cute. I've got to try those. I'll take 3, so that I can trial them in a couple different places in the courtyard."

"Clematis fremontii. Fremont's Clematis. I wasn't going to get one of those since they are native to north central Kansas and northward...but I just saw several growing and blooming in front of the Visitors' Center and they are spectacular. If they do so well here, there's a reasonable chance I can grow them at home. I've got to try at least one of them."

And so it went. One box of perennials. Two boxes of perennials. Three boxes of perennials. Four boxes of perennials. Five and one half boxes of perennials. And a half box of herbs.

Hanky Panky hosta, Eco Happy Traveller prairie phlox, War Axe penstemon, Screaming Yellow wild indigo (my "Barbie" plant!), pink shooting star, mayapple, Lavendar Towers Culver's root... I don't think that I need to go on. You get the picture.

Barbie gave me a little sign for my new garden when I left Mobile. It says "Plantaholica incurablis." It took me a little over a year to begin to live up to it, but after today, I'd say I'm well on my way.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Further Serendipity With Wheel Bugs

Wow. I went back outside to see if the hatchling wheel bugs had dispersed away from the egg clusters yet, and found that new eggs were I watched!

As you can see, the newly hatching wheel bugs come out a light, bright orange. When I first saw them, I wondered if they had been parasitized or if something else had laid eggs interspersed with the wheel bug eggs. Evidently, though, that's just the color they come out. Then, as they harden, they turn black with a red abdomen.

It also intrigued me to see how they came out of the egg - head first through the whitish top of each egg. It's like a well-packed box, the kind where once you unpack it, you have to wonder how it all actually fit neatly inside the original dimensions. Try as you will, you can never pack it all back in.

I checked to see if any other egg clusters were hatching, and in a short time I found a total of 4, all with newly emerging babies amid a group of already emerged ones. It amazes me how insect lives can be so closely coordinated, despite seemingly great distances separating them.

It reminds me of how the termite colonies all emitted their winged reproductive termites on the same day, at basically the same time, around Mobile. Of course, I can understand how the timing of that event would be critical - for proper genetic recombination, reproductives from multiple colonies need to be flying (and mating) at the same time.

I'm not sure that I understand why it would be so important for the wheel bugs eggs to emerge in such a closely coordinated event...but whether I understand it or not, it's evidently what occurs.

The Right Place at the Right Time

In late winter, I wrote about finding egg cases that I identified as being laid by wheel bugs (Arilus cristatus).

Well, in a continuing saga, I just happened to check out one of the groups of eggs this morning... and, lo and behold, the eggs were hatching out! These are probably babies that only a wheel bug mother could think are beautiful, but I'm still quite excited.

I checked out several other egg clusters, and a second group was hatching too. It looks like our yard will be well supplied with wheel bugs this summer.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Music Lost - Historical Toad Memories

Recently, as I shared my discoveries of chorus frogs and cricket frogs around our yard with my mother, she commented that she misses hearing frog choruses in the spring around their home in suburban west Wichita. She then reminded me of some "ancient history"....

Our family moved to Wichita in 1971, moving into the home that my parents still live in today. That home is on a manmade large pond/small lake, next to a natural creek. There has always been a lot of wildlife around their neighborhood, from water snakes to nesting green herons.

For the first several years that we lived in Wichita, there was a mass outpouring of baby toads every year. They were literally everywhere, by the thousands. You couldn't drive down the road without squashing them by the hundreds. Even walking without squashing them was hard for a few days each summer.

Mom said that she hasn't seen a similar phenomenon for many, many years now - in fact, since just a few years after they moved to Wichita.

That is quite sad to me. Even sadder is that there are no chorus frogs or cricket frogs singing in their neighborhood at all anymore. What has changed? I don't know for sure. Most of the houses had already been built in our neighborhood before we moved in, although in the intervening years there has certainly been a lot of residential development upstream from their home.

Maybe it was the cumulative impact of development. I also have to wonder about lawn chemicals - when we moved in during the early 1970's, few folks used lawn services. Some certainly used lawn chemicals themselves, but I don't think their use was as common back then as it is now.

Whatever the reason, I mourn the loss of the frog chorus every spring. I can only hope it's not a harbinger of things to come.