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!

The Aster and the Pollinators - A Love Story for All Time

This time of year gives me a smile on my face and a warm, buzzy feeling - make that a warm, buzzy sound in my ears - every time I step out the front door during the day. The aromatic asters are in full bloom and, when the sun is shining, you can hear the contented sound of bees and flies from across the yard. The view above, taken today, is looking across my very summer-tattered front garden; most of the aromatic asters that you see blooming here are (probably) Radon's Favorite or seedlings.

If I walk near one of the lavender-coated mounds, a cloud of insects briefly swirls up into the air, before settling back down to the serious business of feeding on nectar and pollen.

Combined with a bright blue sky and a light breeze, it feels like my own little piece of heaven here on Earth.

Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is native to Kansas, although the varieties that I have planted in my front garden are, I believe, from Texas (Radon's Favorite), Texas via southwestern Pennsylvania (October Sky) and ?South Dakota? (Dream of Beauty). Be that as it may, they are all thriving and providing a wonderful fall feast for the local insect tribe.

At about 12" tall and shown above, on September 26th, Dream of Beauty is the shortest of the 3 varieties that I have, blooming the earliest for me. Instead of the purplish-blue (or lavender) of the other varieties, its flowers are actually a very pretty, light pink. These finished blooming 2-3 weeks ago now. They are my newest aromatic aster additions, having just been planted within the last 18 months. I bought them from High Country Gardens. (It amazes me that the newest little one, planted just this spring, survived the summer and actually BLOOMED this fall!)

At about 2' tall, October Sky is supposed to be the next tallest variety. Truthfully, I lost the labels to my October Sky and Radon's Favorite aromatic asters within a year of planting them, so I'm just guessing about which is which in my garden, based solely on height. Other than height, the plants and blossoms of these 2 varieties look identical to me. My 2' tall aromatic asters, which are therefore presumably October Sky, are just beginning to come into bloom now.

Radon's Favorite is the tallest variety I have planted, reaching about 2 1/2' tall. Time-wise, they seem to be blooming "in the middle" this year, after the shorter Dream of Beauty but before the 2' tall October Sky. That is, of course, assuming that the tallest aromatic asters I have in the garden are actually Radon's Favorite!

Here is a photo of aromatic aster in front of Wichita Mountains goldenrod, taken about a week ago. The lighting isn't very good, but it's one of my favorite plant combinations for both color and form. Last year, with a lot more water during the early part of the summer, the Wichita Mountains goldenrod was a little floppy and developed rust. This year, as dry as it's been, they are much more upright and their foliage is clean.

All of my aromatic asters survived this blistering hot, dry summer with almost no supplemental water. A few of them received a little extra water as we tried to establish the buffalo grass, but I never had to water any bed because these guys looked stressed.

If I faced the old conundrum of taking only one species of plant to a desert island, aromatic aster would be one of the finalists for me...but even as I write that, I realize what a stupid concept that would be. If I were stranded on a desert island, I'd want to try to figure out what was native there and garden with it!

So scratch that idea and just know that, if you garden anywhere this plant is native, I would HIGHLY recommend it for color, pollinator attraction, hardiness and just plain beauty. Give it a try, if you haven't already.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Dainty Blue

Yesterday I pulled one of my "see-if-I-can-photograph-all-the-various-insects-that-are-feeding-at-my-aromatic-asters" marathons. I'll be sharing quite a few of those with you over the next couple posts (Yeah! for native plants!!!), but I wanted to post this one right away.

This is the western pygmy-blue butterfly - the first one I've seen in my yard. (In truth, it's the first one that I've ever seen where I paid enough attention to it to identify it.) There are apparently 2 pygmy-blues, an eastern and a western species. They are the smallest North American butterflies! Note that the aromatic aster blossoms are generally about 1 1/4" in diameter, from petal tip to petal tip....

In this second photo, you can see a little bit of the underside of the wings, which looks very different from the topside, but is quite pretty in a more understated sort of way. The blurry thing to the right of the pygmy-blue is a honeybee on a nearby bloom.

According to Kaufman's butterfly guide, the western pygmy-blues are common in salt marshes, desert salt flats, and disturbed alkaline areas. We are a little east of their normal range, which corresponds fairly well with the dryer regions of the southwest - I guess our summer from hell made them feel right at home.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"What We Did On Our [October] Vacation"

We toddled off to Boston about 2 weeks ago for a long overdue visit with our son, Sean. I was finishing David Abram's interesting book, Becoming Animal, at the time and I fully expected to feel a little "out of place" when we first landed...but, truthfully, I didn't.

After we'd been there for a few days, I started noticing things that surprised me. We walked a lot and used public transportation almost exclusively while we were in Boston itself. I loved it (despite my bad knees). In fact, by the 4th or 5th day, my knees were doing somewhat better, which seemed counter-intuitive since the pain is caused, at least in part, from disappearing cartilage. I noticed, too, that the people who walked and used public transportation seemed to have a much lower incidence of obesity than is standard for our country. (It was actually a rather glaring difference.)

Locally sourced foods were rather easy to find in the restaurants - many restaurants even listed "their" local farms by name. The selections in these restaurants were always fresh and delicious and often served in unusual ways.

Sunday brunch at Henrietta's Table in Harvard Square, a gustatory extravaganza that Sean was eager for us to experience, was particularly spectacular. I have to say that getting the chance to sample all of the local foods was really exciting and enjoyable, as I only know one restaurant here in the Wichita area that works with local foods (Lotus Leaf in Delano - which is excellent, by the way).

On the natural front, though, things were a little less rosy. I didn't hear the wind rustling the leaves in the trees there, and it's a constant accompaniment to life here. I missed it. There were few birds around and even fewer bird songs...and I didn't see any bird feeders set up at all. At one point near the Boston Museum of Science, we heard a mockingbird in a small group of Bradford pears and stopped to try to see it, but it had hidden itself craftily out of sight. Yes, Boston is a city, but it still seemed light on bird life in comparison to other cities I've visited. Maybe it was just the season.

There were more honeylocusts being used as street trees than I expected. Somehow I think of this species as a plains tree rather than as an eastern deciduous woodland tree. Occasionally the honeylocusts were used particular effectively. This photo is of an allee of honeylocusts leading from Harvard Square down to the riverside park. I'd never thought of using them in this manner, but it created a distinct sense-of-place with a pleasant, lacy effect...if not the gravitas that I might have expected for a path coming off of Harvard Square!

We were able to make it a little ways up the coast of Maine during the middle of the week while Sean was working. The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge called to us and we enjoyed the opportunity to learn a bit about how the salt marshes along the coast work, as well as enjoying some very pretty fall foliage (photo above). The office had binoculars and a bird guide available to borrow, so I was even able to do a little birding. It was early afternoon, which is hardly a grandly productive time to bird, but I managed to see several fun species: a male black-throated blue warbler (the first I've seen in a long time!), a small flotilla of green-winged teal, and several white-throated sparrows.

Although this last has little to do with nature, we stopped for the night in Camden, Maine, and went down to the harbor to look around. Both of us were rather amazed and amused at the way they now winterize some of the boats, including fairly large sailing vessels - they shrinkwrap them! One had been completed and 2 more were in the process of being "put to bed" in this way. I can only imagine the comments that the ghosts of sailors past are making!

Although I'll spare you further descriptions, we had many other interesting and enjoyable experiences while we were there - a great tour guide on the Freedom Trail, lunch at the Green Dragon pub where the Sons of Liberty often met, the chance to see an excellent exhibit on Pompeii at the Science Museum, and, of course (and foremost!), the chance to enjoy a wonderful visit with Sean and Tina. All in all, a great getaway.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Marching for A Principle

I did something last weekend that I never dreamed I would ever do: I marched in a protest.

We were in Boston, visiting Sean, and we decided to go to the Boston Commons on Monday, Columbus Day, to see what the Occupy Boston rally was doing. It seemed so appropriate - we had just walked the Freedom Trail a few days before and we were going to get a chance to see freedom of speech in action...and on the Boston Commons, no less! This first photo shows people beginning to gather on the Commons for the march.

This was primarily a day for students to protest, but others were joining in too. As a true grass-roots movement, the messages were mixed and most were not professionally choreographed. Signs were on everything from cloth banners to posterboard to scraps of recycled cardboard. Some were well done, most were emotionally hand-lettered, only a few were distracting and definitely just attention seeking. The sign below captured the mood quite well.

Although the topics ranged from wanting better support for education... to anger at the bank bailouts...

to the need for decent health- care... to pleas for more jobs, most signs were (in one way or another) firmly against any more money being concentrated in the hands of a few rich people at the expense of the vast majority of Americans. Only a couple anti-capitalists or anarchists seemed to be in attendance; definitely a relatively minor note overall.

There were student groups from several of the big universities attending - this group from Tufts, for example, marched in together, proudly proclaiming their school affiliation. Several other similar groups did the same, but I didn't get a chance to see their signs. Sean had heard that Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and others were all sending contingents.

There were teachers' groups there too, like this one from Cambridge. Greg even noticed a cluster of medical students!

As you would expect from academics, some of the signs were more textbook chart or English paper quote than rabble-rousing rhetoric. (Note the citations at the bottom of the charts!)

Those of you who knew me long ago will realize that I'm generally not a very public-protest sort of person. Those of you who know me now will realize that I sympathize much more with the Occupy Boston marchers than with the uber-rich who are currently controlling our country for their own benefit. Those two sides of my personality were definitely vying for supremacy as we watched the marchers gather and I began to think about joining in the march.

Ultimately, though, I simply decided that if a principle was worth believing in, it was worth standing up for - so Greg and I joined the marchers as we walked from the Boston Commons, through the narrow city streets, and down to Dewey Square. Many folks stood along the sidewalks or at the windows above and watched as we went by. Quite a lot of them took photos. A few gave us a thumbs' up sign or a victory "V". Some watched impassively. Greg only saw one old man who gave a thumbs' down signal, and I didn't see anyone who was overtly negative.

Did the march cause any particular change? Probably not. But I'm glad I was there, and I'm glad I decided to march along. Democracy only works if citizens get involved. When we convince ourselves we're "too good" for politics, I'm more and more convinced that we give away control of our country's destiny into the hands of those who will mine it for their own personal gain. And that's not something I want to sit quietly by and let happen.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Fairy Handkerchiefs and Funnel Web Spiders

Sharon Lovejoy's grandmother called spiderwebs in the grass, highlighted with dew, "fairy handkerchiefs" - I love that image! I've been seeing a few fairy handkerchiefs around the place myself lately.

Have you ever noticed sheets of spider web, usually near or on the ground, with sort of a tunnel or hole formed in the middle or off to one side? These are the webs of funnel web spiders - an appropriately, if not imaginatively, named family. For years I've seen the webs, which are rather intriguing, but I don't remember ever seeing the spiders. Funnel web spiders tend to be nocturnal, hiding deep in their tunnel during the day or anytime they are threatened.

Recently, however, I've been honored to see funnel web spiders in their webs twice, and both times I was able to photograph them. This photo came out the best....

In this genus, Agelenopsis, the spider builds the heavy, bottom "sheet" with its tunnel, then makes a lighter weight layer above the main web. Insects or other spiders don't see the top layer and hit it accidentally, getting knocked down onto the main web where they get tangled for just long enough for the funnel web spider to spring out and nab 'em.

As I did research for this post, I found numerous links to the "deadly Sydney funnel web spiders". It turns out that there is a completely unrelated group of spiders in Australia that also builds a funnel shaped web and are also called funnel web spiders. Unlike our western hemisphere funnel web spiders, the Australian ones are evidently quite poisonous. Unfortunately, they are also considered lots more "exciting" than our native nice guys, so they get more press and the majority of the sites I first found were referencing this totally different group.

Thankfully, our funnel web spiders are a peaceful lot, much preferring to hide when threatened. If you handle them, they can give you a painful bite, but they do not have the deadly venom of the Australian group. So - word to the wise - I wouldn't recommend trying to pick one up!

Meanwhile, enjoy any "fairy handkerchiefs" that you come across this fall - and be sure to look and see if you can see their occupant.

Beauty in the Mundane

As I did my walkabout this morning, I saw this pattern and found it absolutely beautiful: almost a Celtic knot in form.

It reminds me of the quote attributed to Confucius, "Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it."

Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what you're seeing here?

Texture and Tiny-ness in an Aster

If a newly planted perennial made it through this summer in my garden, you can be sure that it's a tough cookie. And, believe it or not, I actually did have a couple that survived, despite the heat and drought. (To be bluntly honest, I also had quite a few that didn't!)

One new variety that I am particularly excited about is Snow Flurry heath aster (Aster ericoides 'Snow Flurry'), which I purchased from High Country Gardens. This is one of the daintiest little plants that I have seen in a prairie garden, but unquestionably it's one of the hardiest too. Here it is, up close and personal, in front of a rose verbena that is reblooming a bit this fall.

When I widen the photo out just a bit, I've got a rather pretty little vignette, with a small sand lovegrass that seeded itself into this corner, the rose verbena carpeting a fair amount of ground, and the Snow Flurry aster lightening the front edge with its pure white, dainty flowers. I especially like the contrast in leaf size that the Snow Flurry aster provides - so many prairie natives are simply "medium" in leaf texture.

The Snow Flurry aster is actually much smaller in scale than I expected, based on its description in the catalog, so I'll be curious to see what it does in less drastic years. For now, however, I'm enchanted, and I fully intend to order a few more to try in other spots throughout my beds.