Friday, December 30, 2011

A Time to Look Both Ways, Backward and Forward, As We Cross Into 2012

It's the time of year when it seems necessary to look back over the past year, and then right to look ahead towards the year to come.  After reading multiple such posts on other blogs over the past few days, last night I gave into temptation and looked back in my own journal to remember 2011 in our yard and gardens in SW Sedgwick County, Kansas....

The first day over 100 degrees was....(drum roll, please!)...May 9th, when it reached 101 on our sheltered breezeway.  (The average high temperature for that date in Wichita is 74 degrees.)  This was definitely a harbinger of things to come.

We had 53 days over 100 during the year, breaking the all-time record here in the Wichita area.

In my journal, I started whining about unseasonable heat and the lack of rain back in April.  Little did I realize what was in store for us over the next several months!  By August, I'd quit complaining (for the most part) and start cheering on the 100 degree days.  Heck, if we were going to suffer through the horrible heat, we might as well set a record!  And we did.  Several, in fact.

(According to The Wichita Eagle yesterday, Wichita also set a record this year for the widest range between high and low temperatures recorded here for any single year so far:  128 degrees.)

As far as the garden itself went....  We started cleaning and preparing the vegetable garden in February, then did our first seed planting in early March.  Despite my weather whining in April, we had our best spring garden ever.  We're still feasting on the broccoli and cauliflower that I harvested and froze from that spring bonanza.

The summer garden, though, was another story.  I put in some ridiculously large number of tomato seedlings for the two of us (at least 16) and they all took hold nicely and looked great as of May 31st.  I should have had tomatoes falling off the counter and rolling out the kitchen door.  However, out of all of those plants, I got one regular size tomato and 3 cherry (grape) tomatoes in early July.  The plants just didn't set fruit in the scorching heat that never seemed to quit.  Despite the fact that I stopped watering sometime in mid July, most of the tomato plants survived the summer and started to set fruit again in the fall, but a fairly early frost literally froze our hopes on the vine.  We just weren't meant to have tomatoes this year.

So most of our "gardening" this summer ended up being focused on plugging buffalo grass in an attempt to get some sort of decent lawn growing.  (Just for the record, growing lawn grass is NOT really gardening in my book.) The plugs we put in during early July look like they've taken hold pretty well.  The plugs we put in later look...pluggy, even now.  We'll have to see how they look in April or May, as the buffalo grass greens up and starts growing again.

By the time fall got here, I didn't want to step outside to do more than push a camera shutter button.  The thought of a fall garden was simply disgusting.

But it's been a couple months now.  We've had a bit of rain.  The heat of the summer is simply an unpleasant memory.  I can finally start thinking about what I want to do as the weather warms up in a couple months.  Hope, after all, springs eternal in a gardener's breast.

So, for next year???

1)  I'm going to start lettuce seeds indoors, sometime in January, since I learned last year that if young lettuce seedlings experience temperatures below 50 degrees F., it encourages early bolting when hotter weather comes.  Once the young seedlings have more than 3 or 4 leaves, low temperatures apparently don't have the same effect.

2)  I AM going to be home in early April, when the asparagus starts coming up, and again in early June, when the peas start bearing, so they won't all go to waste in the compost pile like they did this year.

3)  Any time now, we are going to put up the bluebird nest boxes that have been ripening quietly in the garage for over a year now.  They'll do a lot more good out on fenceposts where the birds can actually use them!

4)  If the weather gods are good to us and we have decent harvests, I am going to work harder at finding new recipes to utilize our home-grown produce.  Then I'm going to actually try them out!  The recipes I've got are good, but limited, and I know there are many more, wonderful ways to tantalize our taste buds as well as nourish our bodies.

5)  I am going to do a better job of getting our beds well mulched, so that we're ready for the summer baking season ahead of time and don't, hopefully, have to try to play catch-up as much as we did this year.  (I've already got the chopped leaf mulch piled and ready for deployment - its lack was our limiting factor this last spring.)

6) And I am going to continue keeping the garden journal that I started last spring and abandoned in June, when the weather was so discouraging that I didn't have the heart to go on.  I used it to note tidbits from magazine articles, timing for plantings and harvestings, wish lists for purchases and projects, and all sorts of other fun stuff.  While I only kept the journal up for 4 months, I'm finding lots of little notes in it that are getting my blood stirring as I think about getting started this spring! 

And that's enough for now.   The catalogs are coming in and the winter season of dreaming is upon us.  Here's wishing all of us a healthy and happy year in 2012!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blue's Diagnosis: Leiomyosarcoma

Well, the pathology report came back yesterday.  Blue's intestinal mass was diagnosed as leiomyosarcoma.  The surgeon attempted to be upbeat, telling me that the margins were complete, so hopefully he got it all.

But in talking with Greg, he reminded me of the enlarged lymph nodes that were seen on ultrasound....  And it is a cancer known for metastasizing.  (Another bit of somewhat good news, though:  at least it wasn't in the liver.)

This is normally a cancer of older dogs.  Median age at diagnosis is a bit over 10.  Blue is 2 1/2.  Does this mean that he's young and can fight it better?  Or does this mean that it's a particularly aggressive variant of the disease?  Only time will tell us, so all I can do is try to move this news to the back of my mind and enjoy our time with him, however short or long it may be.  (Median survival appears to be 22 months after diagnosis.)

Ironically, in this case, it might almost be easier to have the mindset of a dog - and let the future take care of itself.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

FeederWatch Time of Year

It's the time of year when I switch from being unable to keep my eyes (and camera) off foliage, flowers, and insects to the time of year when I obsess over my bird feeders.  Indeed, sometimes I think that I almost prefer wintertime, with its stark silhouettes of trees and bushes highlighted against sky or grasses, its long vistas, and the constant color and movement of the birds in and around our home, to the lusher, more overwhelming and stickier summertime.

Off and on for about 20 years, I have participated in Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.  This is a citizen science project that relies on folks who feed birds in their yards to watch those feeders for two consecutive days every two weeks, then report back about what birds they are seeing and in what numbers.  The Project FeederWatch folks then track large scale bird population patterns from year to year.

It's not a rigid thing to participate in observing your feeders for Project FeederWatch - you can miss weeks, if necessary, while you are away on vacation.  You report the approximate amount of time that you watched during each watch period, so that if you're quite busy one morning, you simply note that you weren't able to put in any time watching at that time.  Since your data is being combined with observations from many, many other bird feeders in your area, the individual variations in observation time cancel each other out.  Best of all, in my opinion, you can now enter your data directly online - my weakest link was always the juncture between writing down my observations and getting them into the mail and back to Cornell.

Along with online data entry, FeederWatch now allows you to enter data for weekly observations, so I've taken to watching my feeders every Monday and Tuesday...when I'm home and have the time.  It continually amazes me how much more I observe when I have a set time and a reason to keep my eyes turned feeder-ward.

One year I saw red crossbills in my yard for a day or two. These are northern birds whose uniquely shaped bills are used to pry open pine cones to eat the seeds.  By watching my feeders, I'm much more aware of irruption years in the northern bird populations, years where weather conditions have decreased food supplies up north and pushed the resident birds there farther south than normal to forage for food during the winter.

A couple springs ago, a small flock of yellow-headed blackbirds stopped by for an afternoon's snack.  I've seen these guys in large flocks at the big wetlands and reservoirs, but never in my "normal" landscape.  I do, however, usually have a couple red-winged blackbird males that actually overwinter in the area, rather than flying further south and reappearing in the early spring.  I'm not sure that I'd notice them without having them pulled in frequently to catch a quick meal.

So far this year, one of my more unusual feeder birds is a Bewick's wren who's been visiting regularly, although not daily.  (Sorry for how blurry this and the next photo are - handheld, long lens, poor light!)  This is a species I've seen before, but only once or twice in any year and only for a day or so at a time, foraging in my winter flower beds or around the deck during the fall.

Along with spotting occasional visitors to my feeders, I'm also much more likely to see the resident Cooper's hawk or sharp-shinned hawk swooping through when I'm watching my feeders purposefully.  Sometimes I even get to see one of them feeding!

Occasionally I'll also see an abnormality among the common birds.  I've seen birds with injuries that seem to have healed.  More commonly, though, I see abnormal feather colorations.  This red-winged blackbird's unusual necklace is a case in point.

Sometimes I get to see birds behaving badly, too! Here a starling and a red-bellied woodpecker face off about who has the right to feed on the suet, while a cardinal acts as impartial observer!  (Conflict between these two species is actually pretty common during bad weather, at least at my feeders.)

Besides being more likely to observe more uncommon species of birds - or common birds that appear infrequently, unusual plumage or interesting behavior, I love the chorus of bird calls that I can hear faintly through the windows from all the birds attracted to my feeders.  Even better is that same chorus heard loudly every time I step outdoors.  Obviously the bird song isn't related to whether I participate in FeederWatch or not, but I do think it's more persistent and "multicultural" because of the feeders that I have up.

That said, I don't think that bird feeding really changes the species that winter around here.  I do, however, think that it brings the birds closer to where I can observe them frequently and comfortably from inside, increasing their activity in and around the house itself.

All in all, participating in Project FeederWatch is a very satisfying wintertime activity for me.  While I'm deepening my connection to my surroundings (and getting quite a bit of entertainment), I'm also getting the satisfaction of joining thousands of other bird feeders around the country to monitor certain bird populations around the country.  It's a win-win-win situation for me!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Just a little over a year ago, I brought home a 16 month old German shepherd male that I'd found through a classified ad in the paper.  He was wild and undisciplined, the result of having spent most of his young life (and all of the last 4 months of it) in a kennel with little human or canine interaction.

Between Becker and Greg and me, we've absorbed Blue into our home and into our lives.  (That's Blue on the left, Becker on the right.  This photo was taken near the end of August.)  Now it's hard to remember the wild thing that nearly pulled me off my feet during our first walk together, that tried his best to eat the cats during our first attempts to introduce them.  He's still a hard-headed adolescent at times, but he's an integral part of our family pack.  Like Becker, he almost feels like an extension of me as I go about my daily routine.

And he's not here tonight.  He's in a kennel at the Wichita Emergency Veterinary Hospital with an IV in him, replacing fluids that he's lost over the last few days, awaiting exploratory surgery in the morning.  On ultrasound this afternoon, they found a mass between his spleen and bladder, complete with (probable) enlarged lymph nodes in the area. 

A few days ago, Blue started vomiting copiously.  Huge amounts of slightly digested food.  He continued drinking...but he continued vomiting too.  My initial reaction that this was a normal stomach virus or a reaction to something he had eaten morphed into real worry by late yesterday.  An obstructed bowel seemed probable, although he showed no sign of the pain that normally accompanies an intestinal blockage of that nature.  This morning Blue and I were on the way to our vet as soon as I could get him in.  Their x-rays were inconclusive, so they arranged for us to head to the local specialists for the ultrasound.

So tonight I wait.  And worry....

Friday, December 09, 2011

As the World Turns....

In the latest issue of onearth (Winter 2011/2012, p. 64), Jill Sisson Quinn began an essay with the the lines, "It was forbidden to say the sun was rising.  Instead, advised leaders of the Earth Literacy workshop at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, say you are going to greet the sun as we, on Earth, turn toward it."

My first thought was, "How hokey!  Give me a break.  That sort of hair-splitting sounds so ridiculous."

But the concept stuck with me, and I've decided that it isn't so foolish at all.

To say that the sun rises and sets puts the sun moving relative to us humans, standing still here on Earth.  It's really not that different from the ancient concept of Earth as the center of the universe.  In fact, you could argue that "sunrise" and "sunset" are almost verbal anachronisms left over from that belief.

But to say that we, on Earth, are turning towards the sun in the morning and away from the sun in the evening?  Not only is that more accurate scientifically, it sets up a totally different feeling of our place in the grand scheme of things.  Come to think of it, this way of looking at the pattern of our days is fairly similar to the sun salutation more common in the Eastern cultures.

To describe the photo above as, "My spot on Earth turning away from the sun, turning towards the dark," gives me a frisson of discomfort.  However, at the same time, thinking of the change from day to night in this way comforts me with a welcome feeling that I'm just a tiny part of a magnificent whole, a whole that functions perfectly well without any input from me.  As Eliza Doolittle said to Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, "Without your twirling it, the Earth can spin! Without your pushing them, the clouds roll by!" 

In the final analysis, maybe we do need to search for a new way of thinking and talking about the daily movements of the Earth relative to the sun.  However, "My spot on Earth turning towards the sun, away from the night," and, "My spot on Earth turning away from the sun, towards the night," are horribly awkward and not likely to replace "sunrise" and "sunset" anytime soon.  Maybe it's time to speak of "turning to the sun" each morning? and "turning away from the sun" each evening?  A little humility never hurt anyone.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Gifting Question

Now that our children are fully launched into self-reliant adulthood (and there are no grandchildren on the horizon), we've started encountering a thorny question each year as we look towards Christmas - how should we handle giving each other gifts?

Our son, Sean, is an affirmed anti-materialist and flatly doesn't want "stuff".  He is continually trying to pare down his possessions.  He lives in a (series of) smallish apartment(s) in a big city and he prefers to be able to move between them with the least amount of hassle.

Jess, our daughter, loves gift-giving and receiving, loves to create beauty around herself, and finds her home a source of great comfort.  Holidays are particularly special to her, and gift giving is an important part of the feeling of love and family at those times.

Greg's never been a big one for Christmas or Christmas gifts - his philosophy is that he likes to give gifts whenever he want to do so throughout the year, rather than at a culturally determined time of year.

And then there's me.  I love Christmas cards - both sending and receiving them.  I've moved so much throughout my life that Christmas cards are a wonderful way, at least once a year, to feel connected to friends and family that I rarely see anymore.  And I love to give multiple small gifts - the sort that can really lift the spirit if you happen to hit upon a particularly lucky choice, but that leave neither giver nor receiver feeling bad if you totally miss the mark.  The sort that can be re-gifted without angst, but hopefully will give the receiver enough pleasure and/or use that he/she wants to keep them.  Most of the time, that's the sort of gift I'd rather receive, too.

(Anyone else sense a gender issue in my discussion here?!  LOL!)

Sean has suggested, again, that we don't exchange gifts at all.  Greg would happily go along with that.  Both Jess and I would prefer to continue with the usual gift giving tradition.  I've seriously debated just having Jess and I exchange gifts with each other, but that feels very Scrooge-ish.

It seems so ironic to have a tradition that is meant to bring nothing but joy and happiness causing such annual angst...but no one has ever said that the human heart is simple!

When all's said and done, I think Ranger may have the appropriate last laugh here - as he lounges next to his favorite indoor "chewy play-toy," the electric cords!  I suspect we'll figure it all out somehow!

Trees - The Natural Playground

I've been an absent blogger...and I apologize. Not surprisingly, I've got many, many photos to share...because I've been busy...and I haven't had time to blog. Funny how that works!

We got back a few days ago from a wonderful 10 day trip to the wilds of Florida's panhandle. While we were there, we stayed with Jess, our daughter, in her new house in Ft. Walton Beach, and also spent time in Pensacola visiting with my side of the family who were all gathered there for Thanksgiving and in Mobile with some of my good, good friends there.

Jess's new home was actually built several decades ago and the yard boasts quite a few large, picturesquely beautiful, sand live oak trees that corkscrew towards the sun in unusual and interesting patterns.

When the extended family came for a visit one day, it was truly amazing to see how quickly those trees attracted everyone - especially the children and the young at heart! I don't think the most expensive play equipment in the world would have attracted everyone as quickly and surely as these sand live oaks did!

From 7 to 17....

...from 5 to 47....

...from 30 to 57 - all the kids had to play!!!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

And This Year's Survivors & Thrivers Are.....

After a summer like this one, there are times when I am simply amazed that any plants survived. When I find plants that have thrived, they are true cause for celebration! This post is to honor those hardy plants that not only made it through the heat and drought with no special extra care, but those that have bloomed boldly and/or look particularly healthy as we head into the unknown winter.

In the pasture/restoring prairie areas and draw, I first want to give a shout out to the common ragweed (Ambrosia artemesiifolia) and giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida). The plants aren't as tall as usual, especially the giant ragweed, but they had many blooms and should be loaded with seeds - so important because of the high value of their seed as food for wildlife. (In the photo above, taken in early September, Greg is posing by the giant ragweed in the draw. Normally these plants would be well over his head - as high as 10-12 feet in some years. This year they barely reached his waist.) As harsh as the weather's been through the growing season, I'm so glad that there is at least some plentiful, healthy seed to help the wild animals make it through the winter.

Also out in the pasture/restoring prairie areas, the dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) was adorned with many flowers this September - we had more plants, each with more individual bloom spikes, than we've had yet since we lived here!

Not as showy, but still interesting, the false boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides) was also much more prevalent than I've seen it before. The flowers are small and off-white, looking quite a bit like little threads gathered together in a small pom-pom. It doesn't take them long to turn into seed heads, complete with white "feathers," forming larger, round puffs that absolutely shine in the light when backlit by the sun.

Another flower that wasn't wildly showy, but seemed more abundant than in most years, was the heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides). The plants and even the flowers seemed smaller than usual, but conversely the plants were more abundant. They formed small white drifts among the grasses that almost looked like light drifts of snow and fed small armies of insect pollinators during the heat of the day when little else was blooming.

Moving out of our yard and into the wider landscape, the sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) were amazing this year. Maybe it was just that so many of the other plants were brown and dry and/or stunted, but the sunflowers seemed to glow even more brightly and golden than in most years. I'm planning on gathering seeds (tomorrow?) to increase the number of sunflowers on our property. They are simply too pretty and too hardy not to establish decent colonies on our property.

In the garden, of course, the aromatic asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) have been astounding, as were the Wichita Mountains goldenrod (Solidago 'Wichita Mountains'). The sand love grass (Eragrostis trichodes) has loved the summer this year, too. (In fact, if anyone would like a seedling or two or ten of the latter, I have plenty to pass around!)

Most of the other natives are doing fine. The rose verbena (Verbena canadensis) required a little extra water during the worst of the heat and drought, as did the summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), but both appear to have survived without any serious problem. Next year, of course, I'll be able to tell a little more certainly about survival rates, but I have reasonable confidence that my prairie flowers will, for the most part, be fine.

It certainly hasn't been the prettiest year in the garden or on the prairie, but there's always next year!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Unsettling Questions This Fall

I'm feeling unsettled and on edge these days. The horrible, blast furnace heat of the summer is gone, but the drought remains. I don't know how best to handle putting my gardens to bed for the winter...or what dreams for next spring and summer are rational to indulge in.

Do I mulch over bare, dry ground? Or do I wait until we get a decent rain before mulching, so I lock in moisture, not dry soil? But if I wait, when will we finally get a good rain?

Maybe I should water well, then mulch? But my experience is that you can NEVER water enough to equal even a moderate rain. And our water is very hard, well water.

On the other hand, bare soil gets even drier, exposing the plant roots to more extremes of temperature, too.... What to do? And when to do it?

Then there's one of our cats, Ranger, a neutered black male. The first winter we had him (and after we finally let him become an indoor/outdoor cat, succumbing to his powerful need to be outside, hunting), I wrote posts about his attempts to hunt birds. He was so patently unequal to the task that it was comical.

Ranger is 2 1/2 years older now, and he has become a hunter extraordinaire, definitely living up to his namesake from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I put out my winter feeders about 2 weeks ago, in preparation for participating in the Cornell FeederWatch program this winter. In that 2 weeks time, he has caught, killed and mostly eaten at least 6 birds - all of them "good" birds. No house sparrows or starlings for this guy. On the worst day, he killed 2 in one day, a male cardinal and a Harris sparrow.

This photo shows Ranger, on the right, and Bella guarding the hummingbird feeder earlier this summer. Bella goes out, but she's not the one bringing the dead or almost dead birds back to the kitchen door on an almost daily basis.

Should I take my feeders down and consider my FeederWatch fee a donation to Cornell Lab of Ornithology? Or should I take a more Darwinian attitude: the fittest will survive? The feeders are all out in the open, so the birds have a fighting chance to see Ranger coming. By providing seed to augment the natural feed around, am I strengthening them...or just luring them in to become cat food?

(I've even put out the word that he would be available to someone who needs a barn cat - he's great at catching rodents, too - but there have been no takers.)

It's a tough autumn for me. I read others' garden posts about how much better their gardens are doing after the summer heat is gone and I'm glad for them, but the drought is still crippling us here. There have been no fall roses, no fall catmint, my hostas are gone....

Then I shake myself. The aromatic asters are lush and have lasted for weeks, despite the heat and drought. The Wichita Mountains goldenrod was spectacular. The gaillardia is vivid. The roses may not be blooming, but they look reasonably healthy. This weather is, after all, why I concentrate on prairie natives.

No matter what this winter and next spring bring, this past year has shaped my gardens significantly. That, however, is the challenge of gardening. This, too, shall pass. I hope.

Meanwhile.... Any suggestions about my mulching dilemma? Or the ongoing case of Ranger vs. the birds? I would greatly appreciate any words of wisdom!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Ephemeral - A Year in Review

[I've never done this before, but the word intrigued me, so I'm giving it a try. Garden Walk, Garden Talk has a Word 4 Wednesday in Photos challenge, and the word this week is "ephemeral." I came across the challenge in Gardens Eye View on Monday. Here goes....]

Ephemeral. Fleeting. Impermanent. Passing. Transitory. A Year in Review....

A dragonfly lived here....

A cottonwood leaf returned to the soil that nourished its growth....

Movement patterns were momentarily mapped in the water....

Blooms rapidly changed to seed (false boneset)....

For a brief moment, the sideoats grama blooms gleamed....

A baby (leaf miner) grew, highlighted in graphic form....

Golden blooms burst forth for a night and part of a day (on Missouri evening primrose)....

A yellow jacket comb melted back into the grassland it came from....

Frost created hieroglyphics on a wooden step one morning....

Birds left traces of their passage in the snow....

Winter sunlight, through lace, shone bravely on the wall....

How swiftly the year passed - ephemeral moments leaving long-lasting memories for the future.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Aromatic Aster - The Most Popular Plant in the Fall (Butterfly Edition)

Two frosts now, but my aromatic asters are still going strong. (I LOVE native plants!!!)

I've been taking photos of many of the insects that have been visiting these asters over the last couple weeks. I'd love to say that this is a true cross-section of all insects that have been using the asters, but I've definitely been attracted to the prettier ones, had more luck photographing some of the less wary ones, and generally not paid much attention to the tiny ones. So, all in all, it's a pretty biased sample. That said, here goes.... (Speaking of "pretty ones," I thought that I'd start with the butterflies I've seen.)

I figured that I couldn't go wrong starting with everybody's favorite butterfly, the monarch. I haven't seen huge numbers of monarchs at any one time on the asters, but I've seen them come through, one at a time, almost daily. I even saw one as late as Friday! (Most of the monarchs came through a month ago now, though.)

As I mentioned a few days ago in an earlier post, I've also seen a new-to-me butterfly on the asters this fall, the western pygmy-blue. I've just seen the one individual on one day, although I've kept my eyes open for others every day since then. (A perfect example of the concept that, "the more you get outside and look, the more you'll see.")

Most folks will probably recognize this butterfly too - the painted lady. In past years, I've had up to a dozen or more painted ladies feeding at any one time on the aromatic asters. This fall their numbers seem to be much lower. There's almost always one in the garden, but I've never seen more than 2 at one time. On the plus side, I've been seeing lots of honey bees! (Note the honeybee, almost side by side with the painted lady in this photo.)

According to A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Region, a new field guide that I'm finding very useful, the painted lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world!

Another showy butterfly that I've enjoyed seeing regularly on the asters this fall is the common buckeye. Like the painted lady, buckeyes are a butterfly species that moves in and out of our area, generally moving northward in the spring and southward in the fall. In fact, they are unable to successfully overwinter in this area, so any we see here in south central Kansas are considered immigrants rather than residents.

Something else I find interesting about common buckeyes is that the underside of the wings is colored differently in fall individuals than in the spring individuals! The fall individuals, like the one shown here, have a distinct reddish tinge to the underside of the hind wing, while earlier individuals show almost no red tint at all.

In fact, different coloring in the spring and fall individuals of butterfly species turns out to be relatively common. The dainty sulfur, which I'm seeing more frequently this fall than ever before, is another of the seasonally patterned species and is the smallest of the sulfurs we'll see in this area. The darker color on the underside of its wings (dusty greenish-brown compared to bright yellow) allows fall individuals to absorb heat from the sunlight more efficiently than those that live earlier in the summer. Dainty sulfurs, too, are immigrant butterflies here; they are unable to successfully overwinter in our area.

I haven't seen any hairstreaks on my aromatic asters at home, but on my mother's in west Wichita, I found this gray hairstreak busily feeding away. These resident butterflies are generalists, even in the larval stages, and are thus very widely distributed across North America.

The upper surface of a hairstreak is very different looking from the underside, a not uncommon butterfly characteristic. In this case, to tell male from female, you have to see the upper surface of the abdomen, which has orange in a male and is gray in a female. This individual, therefore, appears to be female.

This pearl crescent is another generalist that is fairly widely distributed across the country. A resident butterfly, these guys actually overwinter in caterpillar form! (It amazes me that a caterpillar could survive the winters here.)

The last butterfly in my aster lineup this fall is the orange sulfur. This female is in flight and is therefore rather blurry, but you can still see her spotted "cloudy" wing margins and orangish yellow coloring. (The coloring on the male of this species actually has a UV component, which helps the females choose the right male compared to the similar, non-UV-reflecting clouded sulfur. We, of course, can't see that!)

As a further note about this last photo, the awkwardness of butterflies photographed in flight always seems odd to me, compared with their gracefulness and beauty when seen with the "naked" eye. Seen in stop-motion, flight actually looks like quite a chore for them.

The butterflies are actually a relatively minor component of the insect population flitting from flower to flower among the asters this fall, but they certainly capture my eye. Next on my aster-visitor recording session will be the pollinator workhorses, the bees.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What Do You Do To Care for Nature? I Leaf Rustle!

Last night I attended a focus group about climate change, presented by a group based at K-State. We had a great moderator, a retired political science professor, which was a good thing, because this is a topic that has a great propensity to get testy.

The point of the focus group wasn't to decide if climate change was occurring or not (although it was very hard to stay away from that argument!), but rather to brainstorm ways that folks could be educated about climate change.

One of the ideas that came up over and over again was how important it was for people to learn about small, doable, inexpensive or free, ideas - things they could do without feeling like they had to completely change or rearrange their lives. Things they could do without spending a lot of money, too.

Another point that came up was how almost everyone lit up over the idea of wildlife and nature. There was basically no disagreement that helping nature was a positive thing to do.

It struck me this morning that many, many people - whether they "believe in" climate change or not - already do things to help care for nature. So I thought it might be interesting to share some of those ideas, looking for ideas that we can "steal" from each other to make the world a little healthier for us as well as for animals.

I'll start the ball (hopefully) rolling: I pick up bags of leaves left out for the trash and bring them home to make mulch for my flowerbeds. By doing this, I hope to keep some trash out of the landfill and to make the soil in my beds moister and healthier. It's also essentially free! And the flowerbeds look really nice with a fresh layer of chopped leaf mulch on them.

So that's my first idea. What do YOU do???

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Not-So-Big [Bird] Year

In honor of The Big Year, a surprisingly good movie that Greg and I went to see last Friday, I thought I'd post a few bird shots from 2011.

This is my most recent bird photo, taken this morning when a hungry white-crowned sparrow forgot that I was less than 10' away and flew in to grab a bite while I was photographing insects on the aromatic asters. White-crowned sparrows are only here during the colder months - the way this guy was eating, he was a new arrival needing to fill up after a long migration.

These next two are from our recent trip to the east coast, both taken at a beach in Acadia National Park. The first one is of a semipalmated sandpiper....

and the second one is of a semipalmated plover. Greg took both of these shots! And although the photos were taken in Maine, these two species migrate through Kansas as well.

The next photo is of a highly irritated Carolina wren who was indignant at my lengthier-than-usual trespass into his/her territory while I was trying to photograph a ground-nesting wasp in the front garden on August 1st.. He/she had babies to feed!

While we were on the spring garden tour on May 21, I noticed this pair of turkeys who seemed really curious about all the fuss and bother going on in their normal feeding grounds.

Photographed in our front yard on April 16th, the male red-winged blackbird at the top of this next picture wasn't satisfied with just red and gold wing epaulets - he was sporting a light gold and pink necklace as well! His more normally clad relative is at the bottom of the picture.

And, lest we forget that seasons change dramatically in Kansas, here is a photo of a female red-bellied woodpecker on the leeward side of a tree trunk last February, taking shelter from the bitterly cold wind.

If these photos intrigued you at all, be sure to see The Big Year. It's a fun movie with appealing human-interest story lines and some pretty decent shots of scenery and birds around the country. Who knows? Maybe you'll decide that birding isn't so odd after all, and feel inspired to do a little binocular time yourself!