Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Coming Under the Influence of "The Spell of the Sensuous"

I've been reading some thought-provoking books this fall, and none more so than the one I just finished, The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.

This book hypothesizes how "civilized" humans became so divorced from the living world around us that many people can't fathom how its health matters to them at all. I've learned some really interesting things while read it. For example, Plato was one of the first humans to use the phonetic alphabet to write down his (and Socrates') ideas. Why didn't Socrates write things down himself? He was probably illiterate. At that point in time, the phonetic alphabet was new technology. Literally. Like all of the most influential new technologies, it changed the way we humans lived, even thought. All of those discussions about what truth, beauty and goodness are? This was the first time in history that those abstract concepts could be looked at and studied without referencing the specific circumstances they occurred under; the first time that you could go back to what you said the day (or week or month or year) before and refresh yourself and others on EXACTLY what you had spoken about.

Divorcing the abstract concept from the specific circumstances changed how we judged our actions and behaviors in very fundamental ways.

Being able to recite (read) the same story, in exactly the same words, day after day after year after year, concretized our experiences too. The stories became unchanging, compared to oral traditions where the filter of new experiences changes the stories every time they are told, even by the same storyteller. This, too, changed how we understood the world around us.

Starting with a research grant to study magic in indigenous cultures, Abram found that he lived in relationship with the surrounding environment differently when he was "home" in the United States than when he was overseas meeting and learning from other "less advanced" cultures, where ties were much closer to the natural world. He found that he missed the deep sense of connection that he felt in those other cultures, and so he set out to try to figure out what had changed in human society to cut us off from that sense of natural connection.

I certainly understand now why Abram was picked by Utne Reader as "[o]ne of the hundred visionaries who are changing the world." I've been interested in the environment and the human role within it for most of my life. This intriguing book literally has me changing my understanding of who and what I am, as well as changing my understanding of my relationship with the natural world around me. I truly can't think of too many books I've read in my life that I can say that about.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Numinous Mundane

Sometimes there is incredible beauty in the mundane.

This morning I awoke at 5 a.m., thinking the dawn was beginning because of the light coming in through the bedroom window. As I slowly gained more awareness, I realized that the light was the glow of the full moon, shining with a luminous aura through the dewdrops caught on the screen of the window....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Compare and Contrast

Two books have recently come into my life that make an interesting pair. I serendipitously read them back to back, which highlighted their interconnectedness.

The first, The Feminine Mystique, is Betty Friedan's classic from the 1960's about "the housewife syndrome." In it, Friedan highlighted the isolation and stagnation that was occurring in the lives of housewives as their husbands and children spent increasing amounts of time away from home and they themselves became little more than tools of consumption for the marketplace. The solution, to Friedan (and to entire generations of women), was to get out of the house, preferably with a career.

The second book, Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes, has just recently been published. Hayes's premise is that the two career family has us chasing our tails, having (or wanting) to purchase more and more to make our lives more efficient and more "meaningful," then needing to work more and/or work harder to make more money to pay for our purchases. This leaves us stressed out and overtired, with no time to enjoy the myriad of expensive things we've bought...or to simply enjoy each other and our homes. With our standard of living based on two salaries, it also leaves us as vulnerable or more vulnerable to economic chaos from unexpected job loss. Her solution is to return the family household to a unit of production, rather than solely of consumption, which requires commitment from all adults in the household and involves building community and interrelatedness. She herself has pursued this path, and she has researched 20 other "radical homemakers" from among the many who replied to her solicitation for guinea pigs when she began writing this book.

I read The Feminine Mystique first. As I worked my way through it, I kept thinking two things to myself: 1) "Why didn't I read this in college or in my 20's? I can so relate to these 1950's housewives! How sad is this that I've been so far behind in understanding what was happening to me?" and 2) "Friedan doesn't address childrearing and caretaking. Who's going to raise the children? Who's going to care for family members, both when they are sick and when they are well? Isn't there more to life than working?"

In the new introduction for her book, written by Betty Friedan in 1997, Friedan herself shares deep concerns over the fact that "two generations later" careers, both male and female, are still based on the model of the 1950's male with a stay-at-home wife to care for the home and children. So both working men and women are getting overworked and stressed out. Meanwhile, women are still getting paid less than 75% of what men earn for the same job, so employers are letting more men go and keeping the "cheaper" women. This is causing increased anger and hostility in men, who blame women in the workplace, rather than their employers, for their loss of money and prestige. Meanwhile, the ultra rich are getting richer and richer and nobody is really paying attention to that. It's much too easy to blame each other.

As I read Radical Homemakers, I kept thinking to myself, "Yes, this is what Greg and I were thinking over the years when we tried to produce some of our own food, keep our wants to a dull roar, and avoid getting too caught up in consumerism!" Hayes keeps in mind the lessons from The Feminine Mystique, warning of the absolute importance of interconnectedness and community building to help stave off the feeling of isolation. To keep radical homemakers mentally growing, she notes the requirement for self-learning that this path requires, since so many of these small-scale production skills are almost lost. She also touches upon the need to pursue personal and community interests, especially after radical homemaker has become comfortable with their productivity level.

As to why I was relating so strongly to "the housewife syndrome"? I think it was because of Greg's and my mobile lifestyle. Moving so often kept us from being able to develop the interconnectedness and sense of deep community that both supports and is a gift of the lifestyle. With Greg's job requiring long hours away from home, it was all too easy for me to get relatively isolated and lonely.

I find the radical homemakers' lifestyle very appealing...at least in theory! I am reminded of Greg's grandparents' life during the Depression in Oklahoma: they spent 10 years on a farm during the Dust Bowl. They were "dirt poor", but they raised 5 children and kept everyone fed and clothed without anyone having a paid job or being responsible to an employer. It was obviously hard work, and they chose to leave the farm when World War II gave them other options (and their children began leaving home), but they survived. In fact, their son doesn't even remember feeling particularly poor during those Depression years - "There were a lot of others worse off than we were."

I do some of the lifestyle already - I garden and can, at least a little. I prefer shopping at local businesses, antique shops and thrift stores to buying from big box stores. I watch little TV and pay even less attention to the ads. At least in part, our cars were chosen for their mileage, and they are far from new. I am not known for keeping up with the fashion industry. :-) There's obviously a lot more I (we) could do, but for now I'm grateful to know there are others who value some of the same things we value.

Serendipity shines again!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Just a Walk....

With Becker having decided that we need to take a walk every morning, I've given in and also decided that it's a good idea, at least when I have the time. So he and I struck out this morning, just before noon, taking both my camera and my binoculars.

The last of the aromatic asters are in full bloom right now and they are absolutely bustling with butterflies, skippers, flies and bees. Everytime Becker or I or one of the cats gets near enough to brush part of the plant, clouds of insects briefly arise, then settle peacefully back down again.

Along the creek, the white of the poison ivy berries really stood out, highlighted by the sun against the dark green of the redcedars and the elm and hedge leaves. A few bright red leaves remained, demonstrating again how important it is to be careful about picking up leaves for their color in Kansas!

Speaking of redcedars, too, the blue of the "berries" on this heavily laden tree seemed to bring the blue of the sky down within touching distance for us Earth-bound mortals.

Before I headed out back to the pasture, I sat for a while on one of my stone benches and looked around to see what birds were active. A song sparrow, a flicker, some blue jays, and a couple cardinals were busy, as were a bunch of yellow-rumped warblers (fondly also known as butterbutts) flitting through the treetops. For a while I even got to watch through the binoculars as a butterbutt greedily chowed down on poison ivy berries. I wonder where those new plants will get deposited!

Finally making it out to the back 5, I had to stop several times along the path to de-seed my socks - the threeawn grass (Aristida sp.) has been giving me numerous demonstrations of how it likes to travel and burrow in through the action of its long awns. Here's a closeup of one of the seeds, half screwed into my sock....

...and here is a picture of one of the entire plants, corraled between my socked foot and my clogged foot. They're not very impressive plants and they are easy to overlook, at least if their seeds aren't ripe. The seeds can actually cause harm to the mouths of livestock through their burrowing activities. Threeawn grass is an annual that moves in to overgrazed pastures - I have much less of it than I used to, but it's far from gone.

On my way back to the house, I focused my binoculars on the first white-crowned sparrow I've seen this fall. (I've heard quite a few singing, "Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody," in the yard, so I knew they were back, but this was the first I'd seen.) I've started putting out my feeders, but I still have to get some fresh black oil sunflower seed and disinfect the platform feeders; then I'll be seeing these guys in the backyard, right off the deck.

It was a gorgeous day for a walk, so I'm glad that I listened to Becker's preferences. I'm sure he'll be happy to keep reminding me every morning now!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blue Sky Birding

Becker was anxious for a walk this morning, so I set aside the laundry basket and away we went. For the first time in quite a while, I took binoculars instead of a camera and I was rewarded with a rather respectable series of bird sightings.

The draw was especially active this morning. First of all I noticed a ruby-crowned kinglet, followed shortly by a yellow-rumped warbler and an orange-crowned warbler (or two or three). As I was following their fluttering from tree branch to tree branch, I noticed a big "something or other" fly in behind them - when I focused on the movement there, it turned out to be a pair of flickers.

Blue jays flew in and out several times, and I kept hearing cardinals peeping, but didn't actually see one until I was walking back to the house. Two other woodpeckers came by to say hello, a male red-bellied and a female downy. Several chickadees joined in the activity for a while...

...but the most interesting sighting was a hawk "doing lazy circles in the sky." As I watched it, I was positive that it was an accipiter - probably a Cooper's based on size - despite behavior that was unusual for the species. I looked for a white patch at the base of the tail and didn't see it, but I did note that the head seemed small in proportion to the body and the tail was fairly square with a wide terminal black band tipped with white and smaller bands towards the body.

Getting back to the kitchen and looking in my guidebook, I'm now thoroughly unsure of which of 3 species it was: the proportionate head size and tail shape was sharp-shinned hawk, the size and lack of white rump patch was Cooper's hawk, and the behavior and size was northern harrier. At this point, my best guess is harrier. Whatever it was, it was fun to watch, but I'll try not to pre-categorize next time!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Piggy-Back Maternity

While out doing a bit of fall gardening yesterday morning, I stumbled across this awesome example of motherhood and was able to get her photo. This is a wolf spider, with her "clutch" of baby spiders (spiderlings) covering her abdomen. Mama's body was about 2" in length - she was a true "big mama"!
Wolf spiders are wonderful predators and great to have in your yard and garden. They primarily eat insects, which they often catch by active hunting, just like a wolf...which is how they got their name. They do not spin a web.
The female makes an egg sac which she carries around under her abdomen until the spiderlings develop. Then she opens the sac and the spiderlings climb out onto her abdomen, where they ride for a week or more. I love seeing a female wolf spider with her babies riding piggy back!
Because of their size, wolf spiders scare many people, but they are very beneficial and will only bite if picked up and handled. (Their bite is similar to a bee sting in pain intensity.) Wolf spiders move rapidly and are "dirt" colored, so they can actually be rather hard to see and even harder to catch. Rather than catch (or kill) a wolf spider, just smile when you see one and send a quick mental thank-you its way for the insect control it spends its life providing!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dainty Sulfur Captured

In an earlier post, I mentioned seeing a dainty sulfur butterfly but being unable to get a good photo. Well, last Saturday I was able to get a nice photo, at least of the underside of the wings. To give you a sense of scale, the aromatic aster that this little one was feeding at is about 1 1/4" in diameter.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bumble Bee Confusion

This is confusion on my part, not on the part of the bumble bees I've seen, who presumably are quite comfortable with their own personal identities.

I've seen several small bumble bees and occasional large bumble bees that all look very much alike - yellow hair on the front of their thorax, plus yellow hair on their abdomen, except for the last 2 segments, which are covered with black hair. Having searched through BugGuide.net, I'm quite sure that these are all American Bumble Bee (Bombus pensylvanicus). I'm guessing that the big ones are the queens and the small ones are the workers.

Then, just last Saturday, I saw this long individual, with the rear abdomen completely covered in yellow-brown hair. It looked like a different species to me, but after searching BugGuide.net and other identification sites, I've decided that it is the male American Bumble Bee.

Oh, and I thought this photo was interesting - I guess the wheel bug decided that the bumble bee was too big to tackle, because it did not attack despite obvious interest.

The Gluttony of Wheel Bugs

The wheel bugs (Arilus cristatus) were out in force last Saturday, the last time I was taking photos of insects in the garden. While praying mantids have the reputation of being the fiercest predators you can have on your side, in my garden I have to give that accolade to the wheel bugs!

At one point I had 3 wheel bugs on one goldenrod plant, all easily visible in one camera view field! That shot isn't as good as these individual ones, though, all of them on that same goldenrod and within about 45 minutes....

Wheel bug 1 eating unknown moth or skipper, 1:35 p.m.....

Wheel bug 2 eating small bee, 2:07 p.m.....

Wheel bug 3 eating female sachem skipper, 2:11 p.m.....

(Note: Although I have labeled them wheel bug 1, wheel bug 2, and wheel bug 3, I have no idea if these were the same individual or different individuals. It was during this time span, though, that I saw all 3 wheel bugs at one time on the same goldenrod plant.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Great Golden Digger Wasp

I met a new yardmate yesterday - a great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus). Isn't that a cool name? She (he?) was nectaring on my Wichita Mountains goldenrod - the overgrown stuff with the bad case of rust (that I presume developed after it spent most of the summer almost overwhelmed by seedling brown-eyed Susans). To give you perspective, this little black and red beauty is an inch long...at least! She totally ignored my attempts to get the camera close and closer as I took photos, so the nectar must have been pretty darn good and not have been too affected by the rust.

Doing my normal bit of research after finding a new species that I don't recognize, I learned that great golden digger wasps are closely related to the giant cicada killer wasps, with very similar habits. One big difference, though, is that their prey are grasshoppers - crickets, short-horned grasshoppers and long-horned grasshoppers.

Like the cicada killers, the females did a hole in the ground, then go in search of their prey. Finding it, they paralyze it and drag it back to their nest. Once they've stocked the nest adequately with (in this case) paralyzed grasshoppers, they lay an egg on each grasshopper and seal up the nest. The eggs hatch out shortly afterwards and the young wasp grubs eat the grasshoppers provided, staying in their snug earthy nests until the following summer, when the life cycle repeats.

These are not aggressive wasps - according to all the reading I've done, you basically have to handle them or step on them to get stung, and handling them doesn't guarantee a sting. If they do sting, however, the sting is very powerful, so it's wise to be a bit cautious around them. There are numerous reports of people coexisting quite peacefully with great golden digger wasps building nest holes in the ground right beside their patios or in their walkways.

The adults feed entirely on nectar and plant sap.

Birds can apparently be quite problematic, learning to harass the wasps and get them to drop their paralyzed grasshoppers, which the birds then snarf up.

Texas A & M has a great write-up on great golden digger wasps, including a fascinating account of some research performed on their seemingly thoughtful behavior in building and provisioning their nests.

I'm definitely glad to have this gentle giant sharing our yard and gardens, and I'll be keeping an eye out for them in the future.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Skippers Are Hard

Skippers are hard. They are just plain hard.

First of all, the little dears often land with their wings folded into something called the "jet plane position," where the hind wings are held parallel to the surface they are resting on and the front wings are held perpendicular to it. This virtually guarantees that you can't see the front wings and the back wings at the same time, either on the top or the bottom wing surface, because they are facing in totally different directions.

Secondly, skippers are masters of three confusing color/pattern trends: 1) males and females of the same species often look somewhat different from each other, 2) there is a lot of color and pattern variability within each species, and 3) the species of skippers often look amazingly similar to each other.

Skippers are just plain hard.

Maybe I need to stop a minute and explain what a skipper is, for those of you who aren't familiar with them. Skippers are close cousins to the butterflies and moths; sometimes I think of them as an intermediate form between butterflies and moths. They are usually active during the day, they tend to be rather small, they tend to be fast fliers, and their colors tend to be orange to brown to tan, usually muddled looking with some sort of indistinct spotting. Because skipper bodies are stout and look hairy, while their wings often seem small in proportionate, they are not very graceful little insects and generally aren't considered "pretty." Interestingly, though, their eyes often seem extremely large and exceptionally black to me.

Skippers are just plain hard.

Because skippers are so hard and so often nondescript, I tend not to take a lot of photos of them. However, with my new determination to catalog the biodiversity of my little acreage, I didn't flinch on Thursday. Here are the skipper species that I've identified so far....

The easiest skipper to identify from Thursday's photo-shoot was the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). (Why are so many of the butterflies and skippers that I'm finding called "common"?!) It's a very pretty little thing that conveniently holds its wings out while feeding, so I had no trouble seeing the pattern on the upper surface of its wings at all.

It almost looks like a small, stout butterfly. Common Checkered-Skippers use mallows as their larval food plants and are considered the most common and widespread skipper in all of North America. They are far from the most common skipper in my yard, but that certainly doesn't prove a thing. Common or not, their black & white checked pattern really appeals to me, and I love that touch of irridescent blue close to their body.

The next beauty contestant that I figured out was the Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus), one of the orange, grass skippers. Fiery Skippers are fans of the jet-plane position while feeding, but I got a good enough photo to be fairly sure of my identification on this one. With the larval food plant listed as Bermuda grass and the depressingly large amount of Bermuda grass in my yard, my certainty level is pretty high.

This guy (above) is a male, based on the black "toothed," rear margin of the upper surface on his hind wing.

Evidently Bermuda grass was a brief theme in skipper identification for me; the next skipper I was able to identify was the Sachem (Atalopedes campestris), another orange, grass skipper whose caterpillars chow down on Bermuda grass, as well as on that gardening favorite, crab grass, and on other grasses.

Like the Fiery Skipper above, the Sachem in this photo, with its squarish black spot on the upper surface of the front wing, is a male. Note his long proboscis arching down to suck up the delicious aster nectar!
For the time being, these are the only skippers that I was able to identify from the photos that I took. I'm excited, though - I'm learning a bit more about a "new" group of living things, and that's always a fun proposition. I took a bunch of photos this afternoon of the butterflies, skippers and other insects feeding on the aromatic asters in the front gardens. I'm looking forward to seeing what images I was actually able to capture today!

The Beauty of a Common Butterfly

So the last butterfly that I took photos of on Thursday is the orange sulfur (Colias eurytheme). Interestingly enough, this is one of those butterflies that has 2 color forms of females - some are yellow/orange, like the males, and some are white. I have no idea what the evolutionary advantage would be to the species by having 2 female color forms. (A Lepidopteran "blondes have more fun" sort of thing?) Anyway, I was lucky enough to see and photograph both forms on Thursday.

Sulfurs tend to nectar at flowers with their wings closed, so usually you only see the undersides of their wings, like the photos immediately below. Both of these butterflies are females; you can tell with the yellow form, on the left, because of the wing margin with yellow "bubbles" in the darker portions seen faintly through somewhat translucent wings. The dot pattern on the underside of the wings of the butterfly on the right identifies it as an orange sulfur; the white color tells you immediately, then, that it's a female.

Occasionally, you'll catch the butterflies slowly fanning their wings open and closed or you'll catch them as they are beginning to fly - then you can see what the upper side of their wings look like. The male sulfur, on the left (with the neatly defined dark areas along the wing margins), is probably an orange sulfur, although he doesn't have a great deal of orange in his wings. Without the orange, he could be a clouded sulfur, which looks very similar but has no orange wash to its wings at all. However, the yellow on his wings is very deep in tone and I saw no other obvious clouded sulfurs, so I expect he's actually a yellowish orange sulfur. The white butterfly on the right is the female white form.

Very occasionally you happen to catch a butterfly in mid-flight. Then you get to see some of the interesting maneuvers that their wings go through as they fly, maneuvers that occur much too fast for our eyes to note them without the magic of the camera pausing the movement. Sometimes the movements are graceful, as on the left, and sometimes they aren't!

One way or another, I'm sure that you've seen sulfurs before - they are so common that most of us just overlook them without paying much attention to them at all. There are 8 different species here in south-central Kansas, though, and that's not including the accidental adventurers, so it can be fun to learn to tell them apart.
As far as theses orange sulfurs go, many different legumes serve as their larval food plants, including alfalfa and clovers. The abundance of their larval food plants probably goes a long way in explaining their abundance overall.
Take a look next time you see a "yellow" butterfly and see if it's an orange sulfur or, perhaps, some other sulfur species. If you've read (and you look) carefully, you may even be able to tell if it's a male or female!

Getting Serious About Butterflies

It's been years since I seriously tried to identify butterflies and skippers on a regular basis, but I've decided to start a database of all the plant and animal species that I find on our property...which will encourage me to brush up on all sorts of identification skills and, hopefully, keep learning more and more about what I'm observing. With that in mind, I have worked on the photos I took on Thursday with an eye to identifying every insect that I could.

Identifying some of these little babies is a real challenge, especially identifying them with photos only, rather than with dead specimens. That said, I'm not in the mood to do the whole "catch, kill, spread and pin, then identify and store" routine, so I'm going to do the best I can with the digital images.

First of all, along those lines, I have decided that the white aster growing in 10' wide colonies in this often wet swale is Panicled Aster, Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Just so you and I both know what the flower is that we're seeing in all these photos....

Moving on, and in no particular order, here are the butterflies that I found feeding on the panicled aster two days ago....

One of the most widespread and beloved of butterflies is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). With its caterpillars feeding on thistles, mallows and many other common plants, the painted lady is found throughout North America, even up to the Hudson Bay and almost to Alaska. The adults don't survive where the temperatures are consistently below freezing, so the northern reaches of its range are annually repopulated by individuals moving up from the southern regions.

The common buckeye (Junonia coenia) is one butterfly that I always recognize, but despite its "common" name and the fact that its larval plants are fairly widespread too, I don't see it all that frequently. Some of its larval plants are plantains and snapdragons. The large eyespots on the buckeye's wings are a diversionary tactic - a bird or other predator pursuing one is tricked into going after the big "eyes", taking a bite out of the wing, and thus letting the butterfly fly on, a little tattered for the experience but with all its "important parts" intact.

Colored as if costumed for Halloween, the Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) is quite a common little beauty with a range that covers the entire east half of the U.S. down into Mexico. Asters are its larval plant as well as, in this case, its nectar plant. This is one of those butterflies where you think to yourself, "I've seen this one so often, but what is it called?!"

The "rarest" butterfly I identified from Thursday's gleanings (and I'm using the term "rare" VERY loosely here) is the Texan Crescent (Phyciodes texana). The Texan Crescent is a very pretty, little, black butterfly whose larval food is twin-seeds and their relatives in the acanthus family. The actual range for the Texan Crescent is considered to be far south of Kansas, in mid-Texas and south, but they stray north occasionally and this appears to be one of those years. The males apparently hang out in shaded gullies, waiting to pounce on the females as they fly by, so the habitat I found it in is pretty appropriate.

I found one other butterfly, the orange sulfur (Colias eurytheme) feeding on the panicled asters. However, I took several photos of it that I want to share, so I think I'll make a separate post to talk about and share those images.
Last but certainly not least, in this post most of my information about the range, larval plants and general habits is coming from Butterflies of North America by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2003, 383 pp.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Sunset over the Back 5

I took this two years ago (and the silver bluestem is much thicker now than it was then), but it still seemed appropriate to post it tonight....

Bits and Pieces

Becker, my anal retentive canine companion, encouraged me to take a walk this morning before it got too hot. So I grabbed my camera and a little pad of paper, put on my gardening clogs, and away we went.

My first "coup" was finding a dainty sulfur butterfly (Nathalis iole) resting on the seedhead of a silver bluestem. ("Dainty sulfur" is the official common name, by the way, not my attempt to describe it.) I took a photo, but the strong light bleached the delicate colors out, so I'm not going to post it.
Along the trail, around the corner, the aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica) was breaking out into full fall color. It was after 10 a.m., so the colors are a tad washed out, but this gives you a taste. Kansas is not known for its fall colors, but aromatic sumac is a great native that both attracts wildlife AND puts on a nice red and orange coat in the autumn. (Becker insisted on being in the photo to give scale.)

Our next "stumble" was a neatly formed egg case within the curve of a leaf of tallgrass. Looking a little more closely, Mama jumping spider was carefully guarding the fruit of all her labors. I wonder if she'll live to see her young ones hatch out, or if they'll overwinter safe in their silky nursery while she succumbs to cold weather or old age?

While I was walking through the front tallgrass, I noticed that the Indian grass seedheads looked ripe, so I gathered a handful of fresh seed and, when I walked into the back 5, scattered it in a couple bare spots in the first 100' or so of the path. Then I counted as I walked around the back - 4 healthy looking clumps of Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seeding out, and one nice patch each of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). There might be more small clumps, but it's been so dry that they wouldn't be sending up seedheads this year.

Most exciting of all, though, I noted 2 new compass plant seedlings (Silphium laciniatum) that I hadn't seen before! They bring my total up to 6. The seedlings don't look like much now, but someday they will raise their tall flower stalks, full of bright yellow flowers, 6' high above the ground, while their sandpapery, lobed leaves orient themselves vertically to catch as much sunlight as possible. All but one of these little plants are probably the result of my scattering seed about 2 years ago, but one of the six plants has over half a dozen leaves and is thus more likely a remnant that survived the overgrazing regime somehow. My understanding is that compass plants are rather like trees, adding a new leaf every year.

There is a lot more tall dropseed (Sporobolus asper) this year, scattered in many places throughout the 5 acres. While that's not the end-all/be-all of native prairie grasses, it is a sign of increasing native diversity to me, since I hadn't noticed any tall dropseed at all until last year.

What is really standing out right now, though, as I look at the back 5 acres, is the silver bluestem (Bothriochloa laguroides torreyana). It's not a uniform stand by any means (which is good), but there is a lot of it and the seedheads are full and fluffy these days, catching the light and shining with a strong silver gleam in the sunlight. To have the entire field reflecting the sunlight that way is breathtaking, especially in the early morning or late evening.

On my way back to the house, I stopped to observe all the hustle and bustle going on in the white aster patches down in the swale. There were so many flies and bees and butterflies and skippers that it was hard to keep watching any one insect for more than a few seconds. In an attempt to start recording what I'm seeing, I stayed for a while and took quick photos. Without really trying to decode the several skipper species that I saw, I saw quite a few Lepidopterans, including many pearl crescents, several painted ladies, a common checkered-skipper, multiple orange sulfurs (including a white form female), a couple common buckeyes, and a single Texan crescent.

I would have stayed overlooking the asters a while longer, but a very noisy catfight down in the bottoms drew both Becker and me into running over to see which cat was getting killed. No bodies being found, I decided to head back to the house and see how my photos had turned out.

Nothing I took today is going to make anyone ooh or aah, but here are 2 shots that you might enjoy....

This first photo is of an orange sulfur butterfly in flight. I accidentally caught this, but it seems serendipitous as I find the curved control of the front wings fascinating. (Sorry that the shot is somewhat out of focus.)

The second shot is of the Texan crescent butterfly (the black one in focus) with 2 blurry skippers sharing the field of the photo. It's hard to capture the sheer number of insects working over these asters, but to have this many that are this close together is quite normal in their feeding frenzy.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

An Opportunity to Learn More: The North American Prairie Conference

Deciding at the last minute that I just couldn't miss it, I spent most of the last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa, attending the North American Prairie Conference. The theme this year was "Restoring Prairie." How perfect was that?! The prairie above, for example, is a restored prairie at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, located southeast of Des Moines. (I don't know if the photo begins to do it justice. It was gorgeous - full of color and bustling with life.)

The number of people doing research on restoring prairie was heartening, as was the fact that much of the research appears to be "usable" on the small scale that I'm most interested in, but research is most interesting when translated into less technical, more user-friendly language. I'll do my best to do that.

Some of the topics are worth entire blog entries on their own, so this weekend I'm going to make a big push to get those written. Meanwhile, a few observations....

The roadsides in Iowa are GORGEOUS! The state has put together a program where counties can choose to seed perennial wildflowers and native grasses back along the roadside. They mow one mower's width along the edge of the road and the rest is blooming and beautiful. It's cheaper to maintain, and they said that the plant stems which remain standing over the winter even make a sort of living snow fence.

Iowa had much less native prairie remaining than Kansas. The push for prairie restoration is very strong there (much stronger than it is here in Kansas), which goes along with my general observation that people don't seem to value what they have until it's gone. I'd love to get folks here seeing prairie and prairie plants as the tough, but beautiful, survivors that they are.... (I feel obliged to amend that statement somewhat: Prairie and prairie plants can survive almost anything except all-out human warfare against them.)

Iowa has had two 500-year floods in less than 20 years. Could that, perhaps, be indicative of something environmentally that's not working correctly?

Brown-headed cowbirds are obliged to be nest parasites. They've not only lost brooding behavior, they've even lost the brood patch on their abdomen that serves to keep the eggs warm. On average, there are 2 male brown-headed cowbirds for every female.

Trees interspersed with grasslands or right next to them are great for pheasant cover in winter, but they greatly increase predation on nests during the summer, leading to less healthy pheasant populations overall.

The biomass (weight of all living organisms) of grasshoppers on a given unit of prairie is equal to or greater than the biomass of bison. Now that most prairies don't have bison grazing them, grasshoppers are probably their primary grazer.

The biomass of ants on a prairie is equal to or greater than the biomass of bison.

Over the years I've heard a lot of derision aimed at scientific research: "Oh, yeah, they study important things like the sex life of a crayfish! Ha! Ha! Ha!" As I listened to the research presented this week, it struck me that we really don't know what's truly important until we actually study it. I mean, you could make a point for grasshoppers being as important on a prairie as bison!

Where cattle have been wormed with Ivermectin, you can see piles of manure that are 3 years old. Manure without Ivermectin in it will decompose very rapidly, in days or weeks, especially during the warmer months. Presumably, then, Ivermectin has enough activity level in the manure to kill off some of the organisms involved in decomposition. (This was an observation I heard made and widely agreed with; I did not hear any specific studies on this topic.)

Prairie vegetation adjusts its evapotranspiration rate according to whether the soil is wet or dry. In dry times it "breathes out" less water; in wet times it "breathes out" more water. Corn, the crop that was studied, does not change how much water it "breathes out" whether the soil is wet or dry.

And with that last statement, you can "breath out" a sigh of relief because I think I'll end this potentially endless list here. The other, "bigger," topics will get posts of their own.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ditching for Local Grass Seed

Each year I've started to watch the progress of the native grass seed in the ditches with one eye, while I watch the county mowing crews with the other eye. Last year the mowers reduced the native grasses to stubble well before any seed was ready, but this year the balance of the two has worked out better for me, at least so far.

One of the grasses I've been particularly eye-balling in our local ditches is eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides). I believe this grass is one of the ones being used by Wes Jackson at the Salina Land Institute in his quest for perennial grain crops. It's related to maize (corn) and the seeds are much heftier feeling than those of most of the other grasses.

Eastern gamagrass is a majestic grass, growing in large, bright green clumps, with seed stalks as high as 9' tall. Although it's considered a warm season grass, it seeds much earlier than most of the other prairie grasses. The photo above is a clump of eastern gamagrass in a ditch just south of our home.

Gamagrass flowers are either male or female, but both male and female flowers are found on the same flower stalk. Better yet, they are very neatly arranged, with the female flowers at the base of the stalk and the male flowers at the upper end. (The photo above shows the male flowers in full bloom. You can see the (bare-looking) female flowers at the very bottom of the flowerspike.) Once pollination has occurred and the male flowers' job is done, the male part of the flower spike falls off, leaving just the beefier female flowers, now turning into heavy, fertilized seeds, as you can see in the photo below.

Because it likes dampish soils, eastern gamagrass is naturally found between prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata, which is also known as sloughgrass) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in a wet to dry continuum. It's a perfect ditch plant! I had never seen a lot of eastern gamagrass until moving to Sedgwick County. Here, in this flat land along the Arkansas River, it is not uncommon along the roads and must have once been common in the local prairies. It is highly palatable to cattle and gets grazed out quickly in native pastures, which easily explains why I don't have any in my poor little overgrazed pasture.

So, I'd love to get this species reestablished. Our back 5 acres should be perfect for it, as we have several low areas that hold water for several days after a rain and that have sedges growing in them already.

I've been noticing on the nearby clumps of gamagrass that the male flowers have fallen off the flowerspikes and the seeds are turning brown, so I got Prairiewolf and Becker to accompany me yesterday morning and we set out "ditching". It was, I think, just about perfect timing to do it. The gamagrass seed heads "shatter" (fall apart) very easily once they are completely ripe, so you can't wait too long to collect seed.

As I approached the first clump, I noticed a real mix. Some seed heads were already gone, having ripened and shattered, scattering the seed and leaving just the tall stalk. Most flowerstalks had lost the male flowers and the remaining seedheads were in various shades of green, brown and purple. A few flowerstalks were still in bloom.

I gathered only those seeds that were showing at least some degree of brown and that snapped easily off the flowerstalk. Prairiewolf took some photos (including the VERY unflattering one of me above) and later joined me in harvesting the seed. Becker sat watch nearby, almost lost in the other grasses in the ditch. Between the three of us, we were able to get a full cookie-sheet's worth. I'm letting the seeds dry out a bit, then on the next reasonably pleasant day, I'll scatter the seed and keep my fingers crossed that I'll see eastern gamagrass in our recovering prairie within a few years.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Time Marches Inexorably On

I had a very enjoyable morning with my father-in-law, Bill, and his older sister this morning, hunting for signs of the old house that their grandparents, J.W. and Mollie, had owned 70 years ago.

The little town of Conway Springs was our hunting grounds. In the early 1940's, Bill, his younger sister, and his parents had moved up from Oklahoma to Wichita so that Bill's father could get a job at Boeing. It was wartime and there was no housing to be found in town, so the family moved in with J.W. and Mollie, their parents/grandparents. All six of them lived together in the house until housing was found for Bill's family in Planeview, about 1 1/2 years later.

As we searched through "Conway", my father-in-law was working hard to reconcile his teenage memories with the reality of the town so many decades later. He did a fantastic job. At times I could almost feel the town as it was then. We drove around, first going by the block where Bill felt that the house should have been, then exploring the rest of the town a bit. Finally we went back by the home's street again, driving up and down, looking for signs of which piece of property it had been on.

After about our 5th time cruising slowly up and down the street, a woman came out of one of the houses to ask us if we were lost. When we explained what we were doing, she volunteered that there was an old house behind the newer house on the property next to her's. We were welcome to drive into her driveway and go back there to see if it was the one we were looking for.

It definitely was the right house! I recognized the outline of the living room windows and the vintage of the house from photos I'd seen. Unfortunately, though, it's obviously been uninhabited for years and its condition is terminally dilapidated. Nonetheless, it was interesting to get a feel for the house, its location in respect to the town, and its small size but pleasant setting. As we looked at it, my father-in-law recalled that his bed had been just inside the front door, in the living room.

Apparently J.W. was a perennial "horse-trader". Not literally, but he was always trading houses, even jobs, looking for a better situation for himself and his family. This was their last home; when they left this house, they were in their 80's. Mollie was in poor health, and so they moved in with Bill's parents. Within a year or two, grandmother Mollie passed away. Seven years later, J.W., too, was dead.

After finding the remains of the house, we decided to drive into Wichita and find J.W.'s and Mollie's graves. Again, Bill knew approximately where they were, but couldn't remember the exact location. It took a little searching, but we were ultimately successful.

Listening to Bill and Virginia share memories, I could get a sense of the vibrancy of the times they were recalling, even though the traces left are fading fast. It's hard not to think about what traces of today will still be around in a further 70 years, as time moves inexorably on.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Early Morning Treats

On my way down the driveway to pick up the paper this morning, I noticed how rich the early light was, so I grabbed my camera to see what I could find. Here are a couple images that I like....

The Mesa Yellow gaillardia is beautiful and bright, but it's the perfectly matched crab spider that really caught my attention.

I love Echinacea...and this shot almost captures one of my favorite things about them: their texture. Look at the pattern created by the disk flowers in the center. Isn't that amazing?

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself

After many years of working as a naturalist, I've come to the conclusion that everyone has at least one animal phobia, sometimes more.

While I've wondered if some of this is innate, I've come to the conclusion that much of it is either learned (often from parents) or experiential. There is certainly room here for a great "Nature vs. Nurture" debate, though!

In my own case, I have a phobia about flying, buzzing insects. While it's entirely possible that I learned this from my mother, who also dislikes bees and wasps, she has told me a story that would also explain my intense fear and strong reaction. Apparently when I was quite young, I was playing hide and seek and I hid next to a wasp nest, resulting in a very painful sting right above my eye. That would certainly have done it!

The strangest phobia I've heard was an older adult woman who was extremely afraid of chickens. I was much younger when I learned of her fear and I questioned her about it, curious to understand. She related that when she was a toddler, her family would visit her grandparents' farm...and they raised chickens. The roosters would attack her, hence her fear, which still remained many, many years later. Very logical, when explained in those terms.

About 5 or 10 years later, when we raised chickens for a couple years, I got to experience the behavior of a couple testosterone-driven roosters myself. Talk about aggressive! A full size rooster attacking a toddler would be very frightening and could inflict some painful damage. No wonder the little tyke was scared! The roosters were somewhat intimidating, even to big, old, adult-sized me.

I'm not sure what the statistics are, but I would guess that snakes, spiders, and bees/wasps are close to a 3-way tie for first place in the "feared animal" slot. Other animal phobias I've heard about include bats, cattle, dogs, and horses.

So what to do about it? The best suggestion I've got is to learn as much as you can about your fear. Talk to your parents, if possible, and see if they know why you are scared of that animal. Learn as much as you can about the animal, or class of animals. Finally, try to steel yourself to watch your problem animal going about its daily life. You will probably never be completely comfortable around one, but if you can stop the automatic runaway panic mode, you'll be both less embarassed and less likely to inadvertently pass along your fear to the next generation.

Have I taken my own advice? Yep. I can now photograph bees and wasps without even quaking inside, and I tend to freeze rather than run away, wildly swatting, if one unexpectedly buzzes me. I've actually taught myself to rescue a wasp caught in the house by putting an empty jar over it, sliding a stiff piece of paper over the jar mouth to confine the wasp inside, and then releasing the wasp back outdoors. (It seems like a much better solution than breaking out the pane of glass by hitting the wasp with a shoe, like I did in my 4th floor, college dorm room "a few" years ago!)

The best part of all is that, as you learn, you'll realize that spiders, snakes, and many bees & wasps are great predators who are working to help keep problem insects and rodents out of your yard and away from your home. Good luck! (And I'd be quite curious to hear your favorite phobia stories too.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Snakes Alive!

Sweat dripping off my brow (and lots of other anatomical parts), I tackled the mulching this morning. Beginning with the remains of the big pile of leaves that Prairiewolf had chopped for me last week, I trundled barrowload after barrowload to the garden bed I had cleared of crabgrass on Wednesday.

I was beginning to dig out the last section of leaves, the area closest to the snow fence that surrounds them so the Kansas winds don't distribute them before we do, when I felt something muscular moving as I removed a big double handful of chopped leaves. Looking down, I saw that I had uncovered a pretty good sized snake, buried within the leaf pile.

Assuming that I had uncovered a female in the process of laying eggs, I immediately covered her back up with leaves and moved to the other side of the pile, leaving about a quarter of the pile in place. Hopefully she forgave me my intrusion and continued her business. I'd dearly love to have more snakes helping to control my burgeoning vole population!

I would have loved to have more leaves to use (since I certainly have more bed surface to cover), but snake babies are much more important, so I switched to digging out the pile of wood chips we'd collected early last spring from the local yard waste dump site. I was on about my 4th load when I noticed several white ovals mixed in with the decomposing wood chips I'd just shoveled into the wheelbarrow - snake eggs! Amazingly, all 12 seemed undamaged, so I carefully put them back into the wood pile and reburied them, marking the section so that we wouldn't dig them up again.

The eggs were about 2" long and 1" in diameter, leathery, very white, and felt incredibly alive even though I couldn't feel any movement within them. They looked a lot like the 4 we found last year in a bag of decomposing leaves. I had placed those in a terrarium full of the leaves they had been in and waited several months until they hatched in September. They turned out to be ratsnakes which I released into the garden. (The photo below shows one of the young ratsnakes as it moved away from the block of leaves that had been its nursery in the terrarium.)

Having tried to appropriately take care of the living treasure that I'd uncovered, I turned back to shoveling. Amazingly, the very next shovelful of mulch I loaded contained more snake eggs - each egg about half the size of those in the first clutch and with a rougher, but still white and leathery, shell. This time I hadn't been as lucky in my scooping, having destroyed one egg with the shovel, but the other 6 were undamaged. Again I reburied them.

With several flower beds still needing coverage, I went back to loading mulch. Carefully. I actually changed from digging in with the shovel to hand digging out the mulch, but I didn't find any more eggs.

Now I'm trying to decide whether to leave the eggs where I placed them, or to put them in separate terrariums so that I can monitor their hatching, like I did last summer. I'd especially love to know which species laid the smaller eggs.

Whatever I choose to do, the good news is that all poisonous snakes in Kansas bear their young alive, an important fact that I learned as I researched the parent species' possibilities. By default, any snake eggs I find are from nonvenomous species. Let the snake egg incubation begin!