Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: A Retrospective from the Wilds of South Central Kansas, Part 2

From grasshopper-eating turtles to omnipresent praying mantises, there were so many interesting sightings in the yard and gardens this year that I hardly know where to begin.  I've shared some of those sightings through posts throughout the year, but tonight it feels like those posts just skimmed the surface of what I observed.  I've got a ve-e-e-ery long post drafted that is relatively complete...but it's way too long already and I'm just now looking at September's photos.

So I'm rebooting and sharing just a select few highlights.

We'll start our trip through 2014 in the yard/garden with a photo of the possum that showed up, snuffling through the birdseed leftovers, one day in early March.  Its tail was stubby and bloody, so something had been after it fairly recently;  I doubt it was feeling too good, which probably explains why it was willing to come in to birdfeeders in the middle of the day.

Incidentally, I have come to really appreciate possums.  First, they rarely carry rabies.  I believe it has to do with their low normal body temperature.  Secondly, they act as supreme "tick sweepers" - they keep their fur almost entirely free of parasites such as ticks, presumably by eating any they find when they groom themselves.  Thus possums will help reduce the population of ticks in an area, rather than increase it.

Amphibians were relatively common this year, which was so good to see. In the gardens around the house, I observed at least 5 or 6 different Woodhouse Toads (Anaxyrus woodhousii) over the course of the summer, ranging in size from a little over an inch to several inches long. 

I also noted at least 3 Great Plains Toads (Anaxyrus cognatus) throughout the summer.  On June 15th, I saw 3 different toads in one day:  2 Great Plains (one big and one little) and 1 Woodhouse!

On April 2nd, I went out one night to find this Plains Leopard Frog (Lithobates blairi) on the front porch, evidently enjoying an early feast on the insects that were being drawn to the porch light.  I've seen toads and tree frogs do that, but I've never seen a leopard frog come to lights before.

The gardening year wrapped up with a new-to-the-yard amphibian species, a gray treefrog (Hyla sp.), who showed up in the vegetable garden on October 19th.  It amazes me how animals that need water as much as amphibians do can survive the droughts we've had over the last several years.

My next highlight wasn't technically in our yard, although we do hear barred owls calling frequently in the evenings and at night.  Coming home from the grocery store on April 17th, we noted this individual on a fence post by the road, about a mile south of our house.  I have no idea what the size of a pair of barred owls' home range is, but perhaps it's possible that this is one of the birds we hear calling?  Or maybe this bird is one of "our" owls' offspring?  At any rate, it's a cool photo to have captured and I wanted to share it with you.  (Actually, I think Greg took this photo, since the bird was on his side of the car.  I want to give credit where credit is due.)

Compared to amphibians, reptiles weren't seen much during 2014.  I was able to get photos of a couple different garter snakes and 3 ornate box turtles.

The best turtle photo of 2014, I guess, is this one of the turtle munching down on a grasshopper.  She was quite nervous about the boys and me being so close, but she sure wasn't going to give up her tasty meal!  Good protein!

Of course, many, many of my photos are of insects, but I'm going to save those for some other time.

Have a wonderful 2015, both in the garden and out of it!   

2014: A Retrospective from the Wilds of South Central Kansas, Part 1

How should I sum up my last year in this blog?  I've been obsessing about this for several days now.  I want to share a couple exceptional books I read...but they aren't gardening books.  I took the time to go through the myriad of photos that I took, looking for special shots that I hadn't shared or trends or a "one a month, best of" sort of theme, but nothing gelled appropriately.  Most problematically, some months I literally had nothing and other months I had lots still to share.

Then, on Facebook this morning, I ran across NPR's best books of 2014.  As I scrolled through the graphic, I quickly realized that I hadn't read a single book they were highlighting - and there were 250 books on the list.  I don't think I even have a single book they highlighted, despite the fact that we have many, many piles of books sitting around the house, waiting to be read!

What could I do?  What should I do...?

Oh, screw it!  After all this angst and navel gazing, I'm just going to share a few things that seem like they were really good or interesting from my year, whether they have to do with gardening or not.  Thanks for sharing these things with me!

Our Daughter's Wedding:

I've been very quiet about this - partly because it wasn't a "gardening" topic and partly because I abandoned my normal role as photographer and thus, for several months after the event, had no photos to share.  There are many photos I could share now, but one will have to suffice.

Jessica and Kyle pledged themselves to each other at the end of May, in front of family and friends.  They seem very, very good together and we are tremendously happy for them.  We wish them many loving years together...and we will do our best to support them and the family they have decided they would like to have.

How to segue from that news?!  I can't, so I'll just have to change the subject....

Interesting Birds in the Yard:

Of course, the subtext for this section is "...that I was able to catch on camera"!

At the end of January, I noticed this different-looking, sparrow-like bird joining in the flocks at the feeders:  a female purple finch.  She didn't stay around long, but it was fun to welcome her to the group for a brief visit.  I hadn't heard of purple finches in the area and I actually saw fewer northern birds than usual last winter, so having her show up was particularly surprising.

Speaking of brief visits, this male lazuli bunting was a definite first for the yard!  Coming through in May, he didn't stay around long, either, but he'd have been welcome to take up permanent residence.  He's so skinny, though, that I have to wonder if he actually made it to the breeding grounds.

Just as we're saying goodbye to 2014, we've been visited by a deep cold spell, which has brought a couple birds to the yard I hadn't seen all year:

Since this is basically just a female cardinal, she obviously isn't an unusual species, but she is sporting an unusual color pattern known as (partial) leucism or as "piebald".  I've been surprised by all of the oddballs, usually aka genetic abnormalities, that I've seen at my feeders over the last 8 years here.

Finally, the last "oddity" isn't really an unusual species either, it's just the first time I've seen one of these cute birds this year.  Pine siskins are generally a northern bird, but they "irrupt" southwards during many winters.  They weren't here in my yard last winter, but I'm seeing a fair number of them suddenly with this end-of-2014 cold spell.  Sue, of the Facebook group, Gardening with Nature in Mind, asked me for a photo, so here it is!

Good Reads With Staying Power:

I wouldn't be me if I didn't share a couple of the excellent books that I've read this year.  For the last 10 years or so, I've kept a list of all the books I've read "cover to cover" each year, no matter what genre they represent.  If I hate a book, I don't finish reading it any more - there are too many books waiting to be explored for me to waste time on something that isn't intriguing me.  Not all "good" books stay with me, though...and not all books that speak to me need to be shared.   However, some DO need to be shared, and here are the ones that fit this category for me in 2014....

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova:  With a plot line about a highly intellectual woman who develops early onset Alzheimer's,  we read this book for our local book club.  The story is told from Alice's perspective, so the reader experiences Alice's life along with her as the disease progresses and her mind changes.  It is both terrifying and reassuring...and the book seems to be based on a very current understanding of the processes of Alzheimer's.  Our book club discussion about this novel was one of the best discussions we've had yet - and that's saying quite a lot!

The other book that makes my cut this year is A Sting in the Tale, by Dave Goulson, which I reviewed recently.  Definitely excellent, and it seems especially appropriate for anyone who reads my blog!

Sadly, since I've taken up Facebok, my reading seems to have declined.  I used to regularly get through 50 books a year, plus or minus, based on my lists.  This year it was just 31 books.  I think I may need to make some adjustments.....

Well, I think I'll end Part 1 here and continue in another blog post.  Individual posts shouldn't be books, in and of themselves!  Have a great last day of 2014!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"A Sting in the Tale" by Dave Goulson

When I was 9 or 10, my Uncle Ted came to the States after a couple years in Africa, where he had served with the Peace Corps.  He stayed with us for a while as he searched for and found a teaching job, then was able to find his own home (and eventually a wife, Maja!)  Uncle Ted brought with him a VW bug, tales of crashing his motorcycle into a lion basking on the road, and a book that he thought I'd enjoy reading, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

While I was glad when Uncle Ted found his own place (since he'd been given MY bedroom during his sojourn with us, while I had to bunk with my 2 younger brothers), I was always glad that he'd stayed with us.  I was especially glad that he'd shared My Family and Other Animals with me. I loved that book and I've reread it multiple times.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this magical story, it's the autobiographical tale - told from an adult's perspective - of a young English boy's years living with his mother and siblings on the Greek island of Corfu.  As a boy in this magical place, Durrell spent most of his days observing and collecting animals, bringing many of them home (alive) so that he could study them closely and learn their habits.  Not surprisingly, his family didn't share his love of animals.  They particularly disliked sharing their home with his menagerie and many humorous incidents resulted.  The book ends up as an engrossing combination of slapstick humor and natural history information.  Being the grasshopper-catching, toad-racing kid that I was, I loved it...and I learned an incredible amount about a wide variety of animals from reading it.

For several years afterward, I aspired to be a young, female, Gerald Durrell, even going so far as to make a series of "aquariums" out of cardboard milk cartons so that I could bring home unfortunate animals from the beach, then try to keep them alive in my bedroom.  My success ratio was abysmal, but my enthusiasm for animals and the environment never waned.

There's still a strong streak of that "young, female, Gerald Durrell" in me, so you'll understand how special I think a recently published book is when I say that it reminds me of My Family and Other Animals.

The book I'm referring to is Dave Goulson's A Sting in the Tale, which was published in 2013.  However, Dave Goulson isn't just a kid who loved animals, he is now a professor of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Sussex...and he founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006.  This book is that wonderful mix of natural history and human saga that I came to love in Durrell's work, only this time the natural history tales revolve primarily around bumblebees and the human characters are apt to be graduate students or Dr. Goulson himself.

The prologue of A Sting in the Tale briefly describes Goulson's childhood, including some almost grisly (but still humorous) tales of learning about animals the hard way.  The body of the book covers a wide-ranging array of tales such as why (and how) Britain's population of short-haired bumblebees came to be re-established by way of New Zealand, why biologists can sometimes be found snipping toes off bumblebees, and how bumblebees find their way home to the right nest.

Bumblebees are important native pollinators.  They are often some of the earliest insects flying to pollinate spring flowers;  they can be among the latest insects pollinating in the fall as well.  There are species of plants - some of them quite important in our food supply - that rely heavily on the services of bumblebees for pollination, so the fact that bumblebees aren't doing well overall is important to know.  Goulson and his students have been doing much of the recent research learning about bumblebees and trying to determine what's been messing with their life cycles and causing their populations to decline so precipitously.

For any person interested in native pollinators or just interested in how the natural world works, the stories and discoveries in this book are fascinating.  For gardeners, they are likely to be especially intriguing.  I highly recommend reading this book - you'll never look at those fat, hairy, black and yellow bumblers quite the same way again!

P.S.  I would especially like to thank my friend Joan for recommending this book to me...and for almost forcing it onto me!  She was exactly right - it's excellent and I'm so glad that I didn't miss it.

The "It's A Good Life" Jar

Today is December 27, 2014.  There are four days left until the new year is upon us...and I'm actually remembering to start a project that I saw months ago on Pinterest which really spoke to me:  setting up a jar to collect memories of good times in.

I have picked out a jar.  It's our old cookie jar from when the kids were little.  It's nothing particularly unique - just a pressed glass jar, probably a reproduction, that I picked up many years ago.  With no children in the house and therefore no need/excuse to make cookies and keep them around, the jar has just been stored in the basement for years, gathering dust.

Said cookie jar has now been washed and dried, and it is sitting in the place of honor on a beautiful, new-to-us, carved table that was a special Christmas gift from friends Flip & Shelley.  Our old cookie jar is becoming our new "It's a Good Life" Jar.  Into this jar, I plan to place slips of paper anytime something happens that makes me feel lucky or blessed or particularly happy or just glad to be alive.  Hopefully, Greg will join in too.  On December 31st next year, I (we) will take out all of the slips of paper and have a wonderful record of the good things that 2015 has brought into our lives.

Yes, this is a little touchy-feely, to use Greg's favorite dismissive desciptor for activities or comments that look beyond the reality of day-to-day living, but that's okay.  A little touchy-feely-ness is a good thing, in my book, because remembering to be grateful for the positives in my life has always made me feel better overall.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think it would be a good thing for all of us to make a special point of cultivating gratefulness.  In fact, sometimes I think that one of the reasons Americans are so stressed nowadays is that we, as a whole, aren't very good about realizing how much good is already in our lives.  Yesterday reminded me of this:  the emphasis in the U.S. on December 26th is "After Christmas Sales", and this morning our paper reported that many people were disappointed at those sales yesterday.  Compare that to "Boxing Day" on December 26th in Great Britain.  For years I had heard the term and thought it referred to the sport of boxing, which I was at a loss to connect to Christmas.  Just recently I learned that Boxing Day is actually a day put aside for boxing up your extra stuff - the stuff that you just don't need or use anymore - and giving it away to those who could use it.  Isn't that a wonderful holiday?! What a great way to be thankful for all the new we received the day before from friends and family!  What a great way to focus on the good in our lives and try to pass along some of our wealth to others!

So I'm cultivating a new tradition in my life to celebrate my gratefulness.  For starters, I must say that I'm grateful to Pinterest for the idea!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

A "New" Plant Discovery: Woody Goldenrod

In walking through the Eglin Air Force Base Recreational Area last week, I found a plant I'd never seen before - a goldenrod that was relatively short, staying about 18-24" tall, and that grew at the edge of the forest.  I'd seen this plant blooming profusely along all the roadsides about 3 weeks earlier when I was visiting in early November, but I didn't recognize the species and I wanted to find out what it was. It was gorgeous!  The size was perfect for a garden setting.

As I started walking down the old, sandy road and got past the first flush of berries and goldenrod seedheads, I started noticing a different, shorter, past-prime goldenrod flower that seemed to be associated with a small, woody shrub.  Looking more closely, I realized that the spent blooms were actually a PART of the small woody shrubs I was seeing.

Those blooms seriously looked like goldenrod.  Could there possibly be a woody species of goldenrod?!  I took some photos so that I could investigate a little more later....

Lo and behold, when I got back and started looking, there was a plant whose common name was woody goldenrod!  When I looked at the photos, there was little question that this was the plant I had been noticing.  What were the chances that I'd be able to identify a new plant that quickly, especially in an area that I hadn't been actively gardening in for 8 years?!

What was my mystery plant, a.k.a. woody goldenrod?   It's Chrysoma pauciflosculosa, previously known as Solidago pauciflosculosa.  It is exactly what I thought it was:  a woody goldenrod shrub that maxes out about 2' tall.  It's the only woody goldenrod, so it has been assigned to its own genus, although it's still occasionally called by its old moniker, Solidago.  Once established, woody goldenrod grows in pure sand soils and handles drought without issue.  Because it needs deep and widespread roots to handle drought in sandy soil, it is almost impossible to transplant and thus it is hard to find in the horticulture trade.

If you look along the left edge of this road in this photo, much of the low vegetation here is woody goldenrod, beginning to go to seed.  Even in this natural setting, without any supplemental water or fertilizer,  woody goldenrod is compact and low.  It makes a great border plant.

I gathered some seed, which I scattered in Jess's garden.  Hopefully some of the seed will sprout, since finding this plant in the horticultural trade is generally difficult.  Remembering the roadsides lined with this beautiful fall gold, though, I'm seriously hoping to have it crop up in her garden.  I'll be sure to let you know if it makes its presence known.

Reindeer Moss - But There Were No Reindeer in Sight!

'Tis the season to talk about reindeer, so it seems appropriate to share about the reindeer moss I saw in the Florida panhandle last week.

Talk about something you're not likely to see in Kansas - take a look at this cool groundcover!

Called reindeer moss, this is actually a type of lichen classified in the genus Cladonia.  Lichen, if you don't remember your high school or college biology course, is actually a sort of conjoined organism, made up of an algae and a fungus with a symbiotic relationship.  They act in concert, seemingly a single organism.  They have no roots, but instead get their nutrition from their environment - the sunlight, water, minerals and air around them.

Lichens grow slowly - generally about 1-2 tenths of an inch/year.  Because they are so slow-growing, they don't take disturbance well.  In fact, if there is much disturbance, they will disappear quickly.  It can take them decades to reappear, if they ever do.

So when I see reindeer moss, I get pretty excited.  It means that the area doesn't get much foot traffic and is generally undisturbed.

On our walk through the Eglin Air Force Base Recreational Area, I not only saw one species of reindeer moss, I saw TWO species!!!

This puffy species I've been able to tentatively identify as Powder Puff Lichen Moss (Cladonia evansii)....

but this species I haven't found a specific identification for.  So, for now, I'll just call it reindeer moss (Cladonia sp.). 

There were several areas with large carpets of these two species - and I must admit that I get a little thrill every time I see any type of reindeer moss, so I was doubly excited to see so much of it in this recreational area!

Kudos to the Air Force for being able to take such good care of their natural areas.

"We're Not in Kansas Any More!"

There's little like a vacation to stir up the blood and help you see new perspectives.  We've just returned from a 10 day trip to the Florida panhandle, where we celebrated Thanksgiving with our kids and began to get a picture of what the coming years might hold for us.  One of the many enjoyable activities while we were there was a relaxing walk through a recreational area on Eglin Air Force Base.  As winter really starts to descend here in Kansas and throughout much of the country, I thought it might be fun to share some of the plants I saw just a week ago, in a warmer clime....

While Greg, Jess, Sean, and "the girls" walked on ahead, intent on true exercise, I lingered behind to take photos along the old roadway.  Truthfully I was surprised by the variety of plants I saw.  Even more truthfully, I was surprised by how many species I remembered from my gardening days in Mobile!

As I started off down the trail, my first impression was of food.  Lots and lots of food...for birds and other animals.  Food seemed to be available everywhere I looked.

There were vividly red yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) berries crowding each other in the sunlight.

Along with the crimson yaupon berries were other berries, such as these deep blue, greenbrier (Smilax sp.) berries, and lots and lots of seeds.  Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) seedheads were particularly full of feathery goodness.

This feathery goldenrod plant joined with beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) berries to offer the local wildlife a feast.

As I walked and looked and took photos, the old phrase, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!" kept echoing through my head.  No, it for sure wasn't Kansas.  Sometimes it amazes me how few plant species are found both along the Florida/Alabama coastline and up here in the prairie land.  Certainly there are genuses that are in both areas, but the species are quite separate.

Between Kansas and the Gulf Coast, the feel of the plant communities is very different too - which is hardly surprising.  Sporting a covering of pine needles and a diversity of moss and lichen on a heavily sandy soil, this view of the woodland floor is typical for the area we were visiting.

Towering over the rest of the vegetation were the longleaf pines (Pinus palustris).  Historically, these keystone plants formed massive open forests which predominated all along the southern coastal plains, from Virginia around the corner to Texas, until about 100-150 years ago.  First the majestic longleafs were tapped to make turpentine and cut to make ship masts, then later they were cut down to burn in steam engines as the country expanded.  Of course, their wood was also used in building as well.  The land that was cleared was either put into agriculture or replanted with faster growing slash or loblolly pines.  Within just a few decades, almost all of the longleaf forests were gone.  Nationwide, a University of Florida study done in 1997 found only 15 sites with virgin longleaf pine forest left, totalling about 1600 acres.

A typical understory plant throughout much of the area, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), gives a vaguely tropical feel to the woodlands.  It is a true native (unlike most of the others palms and palm-like plants you see along the Gulf Coast) and it is very valuable for wildlife.

Here is a remnant of the "stem" of one of the big fan leaves found on saw palmetto.  You can see where the name "saw" comes from!   It makes me think of fossil dinosaur jaws whenever I see it.

Usually not considered a beneficial plant, there was a lot of greenbrier (Smilax sp.) in the understory along the path, too.  I actually like greenbrier for its wildlife versatility - the berries are great food for birds and other animals, while (as is typical for native plants) the leaves are larval food for caterpillars of several different moth species such as the turbulent phosphila and the ruby quaker.  Note:  the names are cool, but the adult moths are pretty cryptic, a.k.a. drab.   Still, they too are food for numerous other animals.  Many greenbrier vines are bristling with thorns and can serve as excellent shelter and nest protection for birds and other small animals.

This essentially thornless greenbrier had a few healthy berries to share, and you can see the parallel leaf veins that help identify it as a Smilax.

One find that surprised me was what I think was a nicely sized American holly (Ilex opaca).  While they are native to the area, I didn't see them very often when we lived in Mobile.

Scattered in small clusters amongst the broad leaves, the holly berries were bright red and looked great, but they didn't put on as much of a show for the camera as the yaupon berries did.  With its yellowish green leaves, American holly is widely used in crosses with other species, but isn't commonly found as a straight species in the nursery trade. 

Walking back along the trail, though, and thus seeing from a different direction with a different angle of light, the leaves of the holly do look much darker.

To eyes accustomed to fall further north, the woodlands still look very green, but signs of fall were everywhere.  While I've talked about the colorful berries and fluffy seedheads, there was also some fall color.  An excellent source of fall color in longleaf territory is sparkleberry, Vaccinium arboreum.  In the blueberry genus, sparkleberry has tiny blue berries that are snatched up by birds as soon as they ripen, which is earlier in the year, but their shiny leaves color beautifully and remain on the plant for a long time.  This individual was a beautiful maroon...

while across the path and down the way a bit, another sparkleberry went in for oranger and golder tones.

Speaking of orange and gold, there were a few yellow-gold blooms still gallantly blazing, although I don't know what they were, ...

and a male monarch was traveling the path with me, too.  He rested on a yaupon long enough to give me a "photographic opportunity" before continuing on his journey.  I wonder if he'll make it to Mexico or not?

There are 2 other plants that I want to highlight from this walk, but I think I'll separate them out into another post or two. 

Meanwhile, Greg, Sean, Jess, Gabby and Dahlia got done walking and have come looking for me - so I'll end this ramble.  Hope you enjoyed my glimpse of the south land in your chilly December!