Friday, July 29, 2011

The Same...But Different

Another walkabout with the boys this morning. Again the camera came with us. Again it's hot and dry and sunny today. We walked the same trail. Nothing seems to have changed from yesterday. And we saw lots of the same things....but it's as if different animals chose to let me get close to them today.

This time as we started out, I noticed the "A is for Abbott" logo that had formed itself in the draw sometime in the last couple of weeks. (Actually I noticed it yesterday, but ignored it because I was too busy looking at other things.) To my knowledge, this arrangement of windfall happened spontaneously, but it makes me smile when I pass by it.

About halfway around the Back 5, I saw this dragonfly perched on a bare branch. I stopped and took a photo from about 10' away, then inched forward and took another, inched forward again and took another.... By the time I was done, she had let me get about 4' away from her without flying. When she did finally spook, she came back almost immediately and let me take a couple more shots. Before I could try to go even closer, though, the dogs came over to see what I was doing. Needless to say, hanging around to let 2 German shepherds investigate her wasn't high on her priority list for the day.

I've identified my patient poser: she's a female 12-spotted skimmer, Libellula pulchella. The name, not surprisingly, comes from the 12 brown spots on the wings. Males, interestingly, have a series of cloudy white spots in between the brown spots that both sexes share and their abdomen gets covered with a waxy white coloration as they age. They almost look like a different dragonfly.

The skimmer was perched on a bare branch that is probably her hunting post. I don't know if dragonflies take grasshoppers but I'm hopeful, because close by her stakeout is a mulberry tree that has provided a great deal of fruit for birds and other critters this summer. Now, however, the grasshoppers have stripped the tree almost clean, even of leaves.

As I walked this morning, I ended up taking pictures of plants that grasshoppers had basically stripped but that I hadn't noticed before: mulberry, compass plant, Jerusalem artichokes, peony, cottonwood saplings...even the cattails were loaded with, and being eaten by, grasshoppers! It's impressive, actually. I showed a picture of the top of an 8' tall althea yesterday; today I chose to show a compass plant leaf. I actually took a photo of this same plant yesterday, from a bit farther away, and I could swear that the grasshoppers have visibly eaten away at it in less than 24 hours. Compass plant leaves are very rough and leathery - about as appetizing as eating prickly cardboard, I'd think - so it's surprising to see them enjoyed by grasshoppers this thoroughly.

As I got ready to go back inside, I stopped in the front yard to move a hose. Looking at a nearby green ash, I noticed a green cicada (Tibicen superbus) on the trunk, so I stepped under the canopy to photograph it. As I did with the dragonfly, I started from a fair distance away and moved in slowly. Again, my subject was mesmerized by my slow approach and posed patiently. With the "black shades" across the face between the eyes, this species reminds me of Geordie on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

On one of my last shots of the cicada, a velvet ant busily inserted herself into the picture before I noticed. She didn't pause, but scurried up the trunk, searching the tree for ??? She moved fast and it was hard to focus on her, but I watched her for several minutes. She walked up the trunk to the first branch, walked briskly out along the upper surface for the entire length of that branch, didn't find what she was looking for, came back to a junction in the branch, checked out out the fork not taken, still wasn't happy, came back to the trunk, chose the next branch, and kept going. I got sidetracked taking another photo or two and lost her in the canopy before too long, so I never did see if her search was successful or not.

Velvet ants are actually wingless female wasps and they will sting viciously if handled, despite their warm, fuzzy appearance. The males are winged, generally less hairy than their mates, and look like typical wasps. Apparently most velvet ants parasitize other wasps, including mud daubers, so maybe this female was looking for a wasp to paralyze and bring back to her nest. A couple years ago I noticed a velvet ant (different species) constructing a burrow in bare dirt in my garden, so I assume they provision their young with paralyzed prey in underground cells like the cicada killers do.

Each time I venture beyond the air conditioning these days, I'm beginning to feel pulled to take my camera outside with me. Who knows what I'll see next!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Morning Walkabout

The boys and I went on an early morning walkabout today and, despite the drought, I decided to take my camera along. There wasn't anything particularly unusual or earth-shattering, but I still managed to document a bit of what we experienced....

It's been warm enough that I can't count on getting good bug shots either in the early morning or the late evening. However, shortly after we set out, this bush cicada posed prettily for me. Bush cicadas are among the largest of the cicada species in Kansas and prefer open country to trees. Most cicadas in this group are considered annual, but each individual actually lives for 2-3 years below ground as a nymph before emerging and molting into the adult, winged form.

Without a blind (and with 2 large, rambunctious German shepherds frolicking around me), it's hard to get close to birds on my walks, but I managed to get a shot this morning where you can at least identify this lark sparrow...if you squint and look hard enough! This bird is one of a family of lark sparrows raised in our back 5 acres this spring. In the spring, the parents stayed behind while the rest of the migration wave moved on. Eventually we saw the fledglings learning to fly and now the little family group flies confidently between our back acreage and the horse pasture next door.

Moving around to the front yard, this is what the combination of heat, drought and grasshoppers have done to my althea (Rose-of-Sharon) along the driveway. They are officially sticks, with grasshoppers adorning their branches instead of leaves. If you look closely, you can even see areas where the grasshoppers have begun stripping away the bark. Altheas are tough plants, so I'm trusting that these shrubs will survive even this assault, but if the drought goes on a lot longer, I may get proven wrong.

Passing by my pecan tree, I caught this grasshopper pair in an amorous moment - highlighting EXACTLY why I'm letting the black blister beetles go to town on my tomato plants this year.

In fact, I'm counting on this fat female to lay a bunch of eggs and take out some of the progeny of that romantic couple!

Even in the heat and drought, life goes on.

Fighting the Odds

The courtyard lawn looked rough last fall - full of weeds, patchy, generally yucky. So Greg just decided to nuke it all and start fresh this year.

With our trip to England and Norway in September, we missed our opportunity to plant fescue last fall.

Between the weather and my trip to San Antonio this spring, we missed our opportunity to plant fescue this spring.

So when I saw the sale on Prestige buffalo grass at High Country Gardens this June, I decided that I ought to take advantage of it. Buffalo grass has to be established in the heat of the summer. Once established, it requires almost no watering or mowing. It's native here. This is a greener-than-usual strain of it. And it was on sale. It seemed like all the signals were saying "Go for it!" So I did.

And the grass came. All 27 flats of 70 plugs apiece came. Those of you who are friends on Facebook suffered through our planting of it (as far as it went). Planting entailed bending over (or kneeling, or sitting on my butt on the ground) in full sun, digging a hole, filling it with water, loosening up the roots of the plug, planting it, watering it again, and repeating....900+ times. That means we got about half of the plugs put in before we gave up and just started trying to keep it all alive.

Full summer is one thing. THIS summer is something else. But we're slowly seeing some progress. After 3 weeks now, the grass plugs we planted seem to have taken hold. They are beginning to grow and send out a few runners. They stay healthy green longer and require watering less often. I know there are a few plugs on the periphery that we'll have to replace, but the majority look like they're going to make it. It's our main success story in the garden for the summer. It may not be much - but I'll take it!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Quiet Elegance with 6 Legs

If ever a moth could be considered classy, I have to admit that this guy would be in the running. He (she?) is an Achemon Sphinx (Eumorpha achemon) that I discovered hiding in my Ficus on the front porch the other day. Phlox are among the flowers they prefer for nectaring; so I assume it had been sampling mine and got tired enough to hole up for the day.

Look at the cool way the color shading on the rear margin of the front wing makes it look curled up, like a dried up leaf. (That seems pretty appropriate for this summer!) The hind wings have a great deal of pink on them, but I didn't want to disturb this one to try to get it to strut its stuff for the camera.

Before you get too irritated - I, too, had to look this moth up to identify it. I learned (not surprisingly) that Achemon sphinx is in the same family as the tomato hornworm, but that the larva of this moth feeds on Virginia creeper, grape, and other closely related vines, rather than on tomatoes. It is relatively rare to see the caterpillar, but apparently it looks very much like a typical hornworm, except that it loses its horn as it matures and develops a big eye spot on its hind end instead.

Now that I know they should be there, I'm going to be on the lookout for the caterpillars on the grape vines and Virginia creeper around the yard. I'd like to get a look at that eyespot in person! Meanwhile, I've learned about another fellow Earthling sharing our space. That's always a good thing.

Summer Time...But the Living Ain't Easy

This is truly a long, hot summer. Today was the second time we've reached 111 in the last few weeks. We haven't had a really good rain in months. In fact, we feel lucky if we get enough rain to wash the dust off the leaves. The cracks in the soil are inches wide and gaping. Even my native perennials and grasses are struggling and I've resorted to deep watering a few to nurse them through the summer.

Farther away from the house, the prairie we're trying to restore is struggling too. It greened up nicely after the burn this spring and looked good until about a month ago, but now it's parched. The grasses should be almost up to the dogs' backs, but they are barely ankle height. The deer skull was almost completely hidden by vegetation in mid June; now it's almost as fully exposed as it was after the burn.

I saw a piece on TV a week or two ago asking for suggestions on how to visually show heat. It's hard. A picture of someone sweating? ...or of a dog panting? ...of a plant wilting? Somehow none of them can begin to convey the angst of the sapping heat and drought that has got us in its grip.

Grasshoppers seem to be doing phenomenally well, though, at least in my yard. And blister beetles. I've decided to nurse my tomato plants along just enough to keep the adult blister beetles fed, hoping that they'll lay lots of eggs and produce lots of baby blister beetles to eat all the gazillion grasshopper eggs we're going to have. (Every blister beetle eats about 21-27 grasshopper eggs as it grows to maturity. Doesn't that sound wonderful?!) With this heat, there's no way I'm going to get any tomatoes anyway, so at least the plants are providing us with some benefit!

The prairie is showing its severe side. I think often of what this sort of weather must have been like for the poor pioneers trying to keep themselves fed and watered without any of our modern conveniences. I feel grateful for our well and for our air conditioning every day. I know that this, too, shall pass, but some days I get a little shaky, wondering what would happen if it didn't...