Friday, March 29, 2013

Another Discovery Through Walking

I can't believe how much I get to see just because the boys encourage me to get outside and walk every day.  Truly, I think I'd miss 90% of what's happening around here, if it wasn't for their daily insistence on getting out for a constitutional.

This morning gave me another perfect example.

What do you see in this photo?  Anything besides a messy tangle of trees and vines?

Look a little closer!

As I followed the path beside the draw this morning, I noticed a bit of movement further in, among some vines by the ground.  At first, I thought I was seeing a big feral cat...but a moment's observation showed me what it really was!

Unhurriedly, but without stopping, the raccoon climbed the vines, seeming to pause only briefly to check me out.

He (she?) clambered onto the branch...

walked along it without changing pace...

climbed onto the trunk...

and disappeared!  One moment it was there and the next moment it was gone.  I watched for a couple minutes more, but saw no further movement.

So I continued on, along the west side of the draw, looking more closely at the tree (especially the area where the raccoon disappeared) when I came closer.  Nothing obvious there....

Then I went around to the east side of the draw...and this is what I saw through the brush.

Walking a little further on, I was able to get an even clearer view.

That, however, was the best I could do without getting on to the muddy, overgrown floor of the draw itself.

I've occasionally seen tracks I thought were raccoon.  Now I've seen who made them!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Enigmatic: Spring on the Prairie

If you want lush photos of beautiful spring plants in March, don't look to the prairie.

Here are my lush, spring plants.  Note:  they are daffodils...and they are not native.  On the plus side, last weekend's snow didn't phase them in the least.  These weren't in bloom yet when the snow hit, but the buds were ready to go.  The snow melted.  We got one day of 60+ degree temperatures...and voila!

This little cluster is Tete-a-Tete.

On the prairie, the plants are much wiser.  Few are really greening up yet, although basal rosettes that have been visible all winter are beginning to wake up, shrug a little, and start to think about putting on some growth.

These ruffly, little, gray-green cuties are young wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum), ready for the magic of spring to call them skyward.  One of the native prairie thistles, wavy-leaf is easy to identify by the namesake curling edges of its leaves and by their attractive color.  It is not invasive.

Another easy-to-identify basal rosette belongs to yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  I love the delicate looking (but tough as nails), ferny leaves that somehow manage to survive everything that winter throws at them.  By the way, I apologize for the distracting bisection of the photo:  a perfect example of my mind erasing something mentally as I took the picture.  The camera lens, unfortunately, doesn't perform the same function!

When we first moved out here to Patchwork Prairie, I noticed these basal rosettes in winter and thought that I was seeing black-eyed Susans...just a bit hairier than normal.   As spring progressed, it was obvious that this wasn't, in fact, a Rudbeckia of any sort; I eventually learned to identify it as hairy hawkweed (Hieracium longipilum).  Now, of course, I can't believe I ever mistook the two!

Despite its unique leaves, to my eyes the flowers of hairy hawkweed are rather blah  - a very open cluster of small, yellow, daisy-like blooms held high above the plant on a thin stem.  Truthfully, those leaves are much more interesting!    I've even found myself mistaking the winter rosettes for dead animal carcases.  I'm not sure what benefit that resemblance would give them, but surely there's some sort of positive gain for the plant there.

Speaking of blah, I think that these little, rather nondescript, green rosettes ARE actually black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta).  Note last year's seedhead on the ground in front of the rosette at the bottom....

The last winter rosette that I will share from this morning's walkabout is, I think, velvety gaura (Gaura mollis).  It's quite attractive, bearing a striking resemblance to a small, green, cabbage rose.  I've qualified my identification, though, since the leaves don't have quite the same velvety feel that later leaves will have.  I haven't watched this plant grow from early spring on, so I'm a bit more tentative here.

In the draw, a few other plants - native plants - are beginning to put forth tiny leaves:  the clove currant, for example, and the eastern wahoo.  None of them, however, are really getting exuberant yet.  The prairie doesn't encourage early spring exuberance.  There's time for that when spring is a little more advanced...and certain.

Animal Enigmas: Spring on the Prairie

Spring on the prairie can be quite enigmatic.  Heck, life on the prairie, at any time, can be quite enigmatic!

As I walked around this morning, I found several freshly excavated holes.  They were about 3" wide and easily as deep, maybe a bit deeper.  This one was quite near the back yard....

...but these were part of a cluster of about a dozen, similarly sized, in the middle of the Back 5. 

In my experience, these holes aren't big enough to be an armadillo's work, let alone a coyote's.  Given that the cluster of holes was far from any tree, I tend to discount a fox squirrel as the digger, which was the first possibility that popped into my mind.   On the other hand, the holes seem too big to have been made by a mouse, a vole or a cotton rat.  Cottontails don't dig holes of this nature, that I'm aware of.  Perhaps a skunk?  Does anyone have any guesses...or, better yet, any knowledge of what might have caused this size of hole, at this time of year?

Detective work of this sort underpins quite a few of my prairie "sightings".  For example, I know we have a fairly active coyote presence, but I rarely see them. Unfortunately, when I do see them, I'm so thunderstruck that I don't even think to throw my camera up and take a quick shot - if, indeed, I have my camera with me.  So far none of the coyotes I've seen have sat around patiently and waited for me to take their picture.

We do hear the coyotes, at night, fairly regularly.  

Two winters ago, we noticed several large holes that had been dug in the Back 5 and I eventually figured out that they were made by coyotes, digging up vole colonies and eating yellow-jacket combs (and probably some voles as well).  By the way, the blue cell phone in the hole is there for scale.

That same winter we had the mystery deer skull appear and move around a bit, eventually parking itself for almost a year beside a compass plant, before magically disappearing one night.  The dogs were always VERY interested in the scents they found around that skull and made a beeline for it as soon as they got close.

Yesterday, I found signs of coyotes again.  This time I noticed tracks, sized appropriately for coyotes, on a couple of leftover snow drifts.  Note the (significantly larger) tracks that Becker made next to the coyote tracks.

Of course, it's also pretty common to find coyote scat, a.k.a. coyote poop, along the trail too.  This is distinguished from dog poop by being smaller and from cat poop by being larger.  It also tends to be full of hair and bones.  There wasn't a great deal of scat to be seen this winter, but in the last few weeks I've been noticing more and more.  Here is one of the coyote piles, showing the hair that commonly makes up such a large portion of their volume.

A couple years ago I even found some coyote scat with cat claws in it, so I knew that one of the many barn cats in the area had been added to the food chain.  Scientists make studies of the bones and hair in scat to determine what the animals they study are actually consuming.

Another common animal trace that I see is a trail.  Some trails are larger and show up in the grass, like this one I photographed leading towards my neighbor's plum thickets.  I believe this trail was made by rabbits....

However, some trails are fairly faint, showing up best after a burn.  These, for example, are prairie vole trails that I photographed after our last burn.  Normally I don't notice vole trails at all, except occasionally when a particularly well trafficked one crosses over one of the mowed paths in summer.

The last trail I'll show here was invisible when it was made - under snow - but exposed when that treacherous white stuff melted.  It seems smaller than a vole trail, so I'm guessing that it's a mouse trail of some sort, but I'll have to do a lot more research to figure out what species.  Unlike the vole trails, shown above, this one was deeply and precisely incised into the soil.  Interestingly, it disappeared from view soon after being exposed and now, 3 weeks later, there is absolutely no trace of it.

Greg got me a trail camera for Christmas, which I've been playing with in and around the bird feeders.  Now that the soil is softer, it's time to sink a couple posts around the property and find out for sure what animals are busily creating puzzles for me.

In the long run, sometimes the most interesting observations and findings come simply from being alert to changes, then asking myself what could have caused an effect like that.  It's far from an exact science - but it certainly keeps the old brain cells busy!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Monarch Waystations: Planning for Monarchs

Last night, at Dyck Arboretum in Hesston, KS,  I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Chip Taylor, of KU's Monarch Watch program.  Dr. Taylor is an insect ecologist and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  He began the Monarch Watch program in 1992.  Monarch Watch is an outreach educational and research program designed to use citizen scientists to learn about and aid monarch butterflies.

It turns out that almost all of the monarchs in the central and eastern portions of North America migrate each fall to one small area in central Mexico's mountains to overwinter.  (The actual site was only discovered by scientists in the mid 1970's.)  There the monarchs cluster on trees at higher elevations, where the temperatures are traditionally cool enough to let them almost hibernate, reducing their need to feed.  In essence, they doze away the winter, then return north in the spring to lay eggs and repopulate our summer meadows and gardens.   

At that important overwintering site, scientists are able to estimate the monarch population simply by measuring the acreage that their dense clusters cover.  Since Monarch Watch began, the highest wintering population was in 1996/1997.  That winter, the butterflies covered almost 21 hectares (over 51.5 acres).  This winter (2012/3) the area covered by wintering monarchs was the lowest yet seen:  1.19 hectares (a little less than 3 acres).

There are lots of reasons for this decline, but a major cause has been the decrease in milkweeds available as larval food for monarchs.  This decrease in milkweeds has occurred primarily because of increased use of herbicides - in crop fields, pastures and along roadsides. 

As gardeners, this is where we can make a difference.  Monarch Watch is encouraging all interested parties to develop Monarch Waystations - gardens specifically geared to provide habitat to help monarchs produce more caterpillars as well as to provide them with good nectar sources to fuel their southward migration in the fall.

What would a Monarch Waystation entail?  Area-appropriate milkweeds (there are over 70 species in the U.S.), fall blooms for nectar sources, and NO INSECTICIDES.  (Insecticide will kill the monarch caterpillars, as well as the adult butterfly.)  Spots for puddling and other niceties can be added, of course, but the primary focus is on larval food (milkweeds), fall nectar sources, and freedom from pesticides.

This seems like such a simple thing to do - so I'm going to do it, and encourage others to do the same.  As I learn more, I'll share my journey here on Gaia Garden...and I hope that others who are interested in helping monarchs maintain a stable population will do the same.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Winter Redux Interrupting Spring's Advance

We woke up this morning to snow.  Five inches of snow.  Pretty white stuff, clinging to the sides of trees and shrubs and buildings, covering the ground, burying the newly planted broccoli, cauliflower and kale plants....

Yeah, about that.  I let the 80 degree temperatures a week or so ago get me into gardening mode and I started to get busy. 

Not being in a regimented frame of mind this year, I decided to do a little of this and a little of that.  That way gardening remains pleasureable and I don't get the feeling of having to finish a marathon when dealing with a big task.  It also helps me ease into the spring gardening season a bit, which becomes more and more important as increasing years bring on increasing aches and pains.

The first lettuce, spinach, chard, and tomato seeds were planted a little over 2 weeks ago.  They are coming up nicely, under lights and protected in the back shop.

Next on the agenda was beginning to clear out last year's dead flower stalks to make way for new growth.  This is where the "little of this, little of that" really began.  Rather than start at one end of the front flower bed and systematically uncover the entire thing, I decided to start by clearing out around the emerging daffodil clumps.

There was some method to my madness.  The temperatures haven't warmed up as much as they did during the last several Marches, so I've been feeling a bit dicey about uncovering everything already.  Yet the daffodils definitely were being overwhelmed physically by last year's remnant flower stalks.  Hence the compromise.

On the plus side, this gave the daffodils room to open freely and kept me from trying to do too much at one time and then suffering early spring gardener's remorse.  On the negative side, it's not very satisfying visually, since the remaining garden debris is what catches my attention still as I look at the beds.

In between cutting back flower stalks, I took the time to clear out the 2 worst vegetable beds from last summer, left full to overflowing with the carcasses of crab grass clumps and dried Burmuda stalks that had been allowed to overtake them due to the killing heat and drought.  (Yes, I broke my own cardinal rule:  Never let the weeds go to seed, because you'll regret it severely for several years.  And, yes, I fully expect to suffer the consequences of my lack of heat tolerance last year.  My consolation is that only one bed got really bad.  Somehow I kept up on the others reasonably well.)

Having 2 vegetable beds clear, I couldn't resist planting out a couple, purchased six-packs of early spring crops:  2 kinds of broccoli, cauliflower, and 2 kinds of kale. 

Meanwhile, the crocuses quickly finished up blooming and the daffodils began to unfurl.

A pasqueflower ventured TWO blooms this spring, and tulips, naked ladies, grape hyacinths, and standard hyacinths started pushing their green leaves up into the spring light.  I even noticed the newly planted clump of rue anemone blooming a couple days ago.

Now the snow.  I'm not too worried about the wildflowers or the spring bulbs - they should all be quite capable of handling some snow, as well as the predicted lows around 20.  However, my gamble garden of broccoli, cauliflower and kale may not be so lucky.  I'm too chicken to tramp out and look; I'll find out soon enough.  I'm actually more worried about how the low temperatures will affect the young plants, if it gets warm enough to melt the snow off today, than I am about what damage the snow itself will do to them.

I think all gardeners (and farmers) have a bit of the gambler in them.

The Curious Gardener

Winter is traditionally the time for gardeners to cocoon, reading seed catalogs and gardening books, but after the last 2 years of heat and drought, I had precious little interest in either this winter...

...until The Snow.  The Snow occurred in late February and rejuvenated much more than my flickering gardening spirit.  With a little moisture and the beginning of spring's warmer temperatures, daffodils and other bulbs started pushing their way up through the soil, chorus frogs soon started singing, and it seemed like there was some hope for a growing season after all.

The Snow revived my interest in gardening-type publications, as well.  For some unknown reason, I was compelled to pick up a book I'd never heard of but had purchased, on a whim, at the Half Price Book Store in San Antonio, Texas, several years ago.  It had aged appropriately on one of my many (book) piles and seemed to be calling my name.

The Curious Gardener is by Jurgen Dahl, a German bookseller turned garden writer.  He received several journalistic awards during his life and was the author of a dozen books.  Dahl passed away in 2001, but this translation of 3 of his books was published by Timber Press in 2004.

I have not, to my knowledge, read any other books by German gardeners and it was interesting to see that gardening in Germany gave him a slightly different outlook than gardening in England or in the U.S. would have done.  The cultural myths surrounding plants varied from the myths I've been accustomed to reading, for example.

Particularly striking, for me, were Dahl's passages on our native plants, which were, of course, not native for him.  For example, on page 157 he talks about eating the flower buds of sunflower (Helianthus annuus), saying that they taste rather like artichokes when properly prepared.  In fact, some people apparently prefer them to artichokes.

Dahl gives a lot of information on culinary and medicinal uses for plants of all types.  He is an adventurous eater, trying many things that seem a little "on the edge" to my more American palate.

Here are just a sampling of the tidbits I found interesting in this book....

If you cover dandelions with a clay cloche, their leaves blanch and are less bitter when you eat them.  Apparently, this is very popular to do in England.

Turkey tail shelf fungus, dried, used to be worn as a decoration on ladies' black velvet hats.

Sweet potatoes, sliced and panfried, then served with oil and vinegar, are said to strengthen the body...and the libido!

There is a plant called opium lettuce, in the lettuce genus, whose sap can be dried and then supposedly used as a painkiller and sleep aid.  It apparently is not addictive and has no side effects.  (Please note:  I am in no way advocating this!  I am just reporting what someone else has written.)

I'll leave you with Dahl's description of sassafras, a native-to-the-U.S. tree that is rarely glorified here in our own country,
Perhaps [our new tree] will be a sassafras, an Appalachian fever tree, a miracle in scents and colors.  Its timber and bark and roots smell of cloves and camphor with a whiff of fennel.  An oil distilled from it can be used to add that tempting scent to soaps and tobaccos.  And the magnificent orange and red of its leaves are said to be among the most beautiful fall colors to exist anywhere.  Finally, its leaves have differing oval and lobed shapes, so it is just the right thing to commemorate unique people.
Dahl's description of sassafras is rather different from the normal description heard here, where it's native, isn't it?!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Birds of Spring

The birds in my yard seem a little more patient with me than usual this spring.  Some even seem to be posing tolerantly to allow me to get better-than-my-normal photos of them.  (I have no special set-up for photographing birds or anything else - no blinds or special long lenses.  I don't even use a tripod, just a handheld zoom telephoto lens which I point and shoot as I walk around.)

Here are a couple not-so-common yard photos of relatively common spring birds from the last week or two....

One of the most tolerant was this northern flicker, hanging out in a honeylocust on the edge of our restoring prairie.  At first I thought it was a yellow-shafted, which is much more common here, but as I looked at the head markings more closely, I realized that it is technically a red-shafted flicker.  The lining of the tail feathers still looks more yellow to me, so it probably qualifies as an intermediary between the two, which is common.

For the last week, I've noticed up to a dozen flickers feeding in the prairie each morning when I walk with the dogs.  I didn't think they were a migratory species, but I've come to realize that they are.  Each winter I see a couple hanging around occasionally, but then in the spring I see larger groups that are especially noticeable in burned areas.  Funny to realize that this "woodpecker" is a ground feeder, particularly enjoying ants!

Eastern meadowlarks are common around here, but fairly wary about actually being approached closely.  Most of my meadowlark photos therefore show tiny birds, seemingly far off in the distance. 

While this picture isn't precisely up-close-and-personal, it's still a lot closer than I am normally able to get!

As I went out to get the paper a few mornings ago, I noticed a flock of birds in the top of a honeylocust south of our garage.  They didn't flush as I walked by...and I suddenly realized they were cedar waxwings, not the Harris sparrows that I had expected.  It was a cloudy morning and the light was terrible, but I got a couple quick photos without spooking them. 

I think they were still asleep, actually.  Once they all woke up, they disappeared in a flash, but not until I had gone back inside and then come back out to feed the rest of the birds in the backyard.

I am often able to get okay photos of red-bellied woodpeckers at my feeders, but I was particularly pleased to get this shot of a red-bellied female in the top of a tall cottonwood in our draw, even if it is a rather distant view. 

The tree, a male, is just beginning to bud out.  Its red catkin flowers will emerge soon, then the leaves will begin to appear as the catkins drop off.  Since it's a male, this tree doesn't produce the long "necklaces" of seeds that break open into the cotton of spring which we love to deplore here on the prairie.  Secretly, though, I rather wish it was a female tree.  I think the cotton floating on the breeze is graceful, almost as beautiful as the shimmer of cottonwood leaves, dancing in summer breezes.

Each year brings a different cast of characters that pose for my camera.  This year is certainly off to a whiz-bang start!