Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: Pollinators on Flowering Shrubs, March-April 2017

In 1999, we put in a riparian buffer along McDowell Creek.  We planted over a thousand bare-root seedlings that were part of the "wildlife bundle" we purchased from KSU's Forestry Department.   The flowering shrubs featured below--American Plums, Fragrant Sumac, and Chokecherries--were in that bundle.  But the same species also volunteer along the creek.  Over time the two groups have merged with each other as the banks and channels have changed and both creek and bottomground have rewritten themselves.

This year it came home to me how important these early-blooming shrubs are to pollinators.   What did the bottomground look like pre-settlement?  I don't know, but today these shrubs are an essential early-spring sweet spot for butterflies, flies, and bees.

Right at the Equinox the wild plums bloomed.  They sent the most delicate fragrance out onto the breeze--and the pollinators responded by moving toward them.  

They weren't the only ones! I pulled a lawn chair into a thicket and just sat for a few moments.  The blossoms were alive with Red Admiral butterflies, feral Honey Bees, and flies.  

The video above shows some of what I saw.  How I wish it could convey what all my senses perceived!   The rustling, the breeze, the fragrances, the fresh spring feel....
Here Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) appears
to be blooming with butterflies as well
as flowers.

A month later, the Fragrant Sumac bloomed.   So many butterflies!  The shrubs seemed to be blooming with butterflies, as well as with flowers.

The luscious yellow blossoms were covered with butterflies, as shown in the video below.  Most of the butterflies were Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) and American Ladies (Vanessa virginiensis), though two beautiful Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia) also made an appearance, as well as an Eastern Tailed Blue.  

An Eastern Tailed Blue nectars
on Fragrant Sumac.

A Mining Bee (Genus Andrena, Family Andrenidae)
enjoys the nectar-rich blossoms of Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)
Also appearing was a species of bee new to Bird Runner, or at least to my observations on Bird Runner.  It was a Mining Bee (genus Andrena).  Bees in the family Andrenidae nectar on early-blooming shrubs and gather pollen to provision their nests.  True to their name, they burrow in the ground, creating as many as 8 cells per burrow, with a pollen ball in each cell.  That's where they lay their eggs--one egg on each ball.   The newly hatched larvae eat the pollen until it's time to pupate.
A female Mining Bee gathers pollen to
provision her nest.

The Chokecherries bloomed at the same time as the Fragrant Sumac.  In the video below a Question Mark butterfly appears first, followed by a Painted Lady, then the Question Mark again, followed by an American Lady.  The final scene shows an American Lady in the foreground with a Question Mark in the background.  

Flowering shrubs, you are amazing!   Where do you stop and the insects around you begin?   You have roots, leaves, stems, branches, and flowers, but you also have all around you an aura of fluttering and materializing motion and color.  

All photos and videos by Margy Stewart.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Monarchs Are Early. Where Are the Milkweeds?

Monarch butterflies hopped a strong south wind and arrived on McDowell Creek on April 8--a good month earlier than usual.  

There was plenty for them to eat--both the wild plums and the lilacs were blooming profusely--but where would they lay their eggs?  

The milkweeds weren't up yet.

The Monarchs floated here and there, just above the mustards and mints that were already leafing out--and it broke my heart to think that they were looking for milkweeds they would not find.

Still, the butterflies avoided the burns and replenished their energy with nectar.   I blessed the plums and lilacs and yes, the dandelions, that were keeping them alive.

Then on April 12, I saw milkweed noses poking through the soil.

Just in time!

The milkweeds were in an area where I had worked hard to remove the Crown Vetch.  If ever there was a reward for all that labor, this was it.  If ever there was an incentive to continue removing invasive, non-native monocultures to make room for native plants, this was it!  

The milkweeds grew quickly, and soon I found little white spheres on the milkweeds' green leaves.  
These little white balls are the eggs of
Monarch butterflies.  

Within just a few days, the eggs became tiny caterpillars......with a healthy appetite!

They need to grow quickly, because the milkweeds are home to spiders, too--and little caterpillars can make a nice meal for a spider.   Invertebrates don't seem to mind the toxic steroids called cardenolides which the Monarchs absorb from milkweeds.     Birds and rodents have learned to avoid the bitter-tasting Monarchs. But invertebrates such as spiders either have a different palate or a shorter memory.  

I photographed these two spiders on the same milkweed plants where I found the caterpillars.  Some caterpillar-molecules will become spider-molecules.    
I pray enough caterpillars will survive to found dynasties of butterflies!   

I will pray for real by creating more habitat for native plants, including milkweeds.    My prayer will be answered if your descendants follow the wingbeat trail next year and find plenty to eat and lots of places to lay their eggs.     

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Burning the West Side: April 11, 2017


There was so much fuel, the burn seemed dangerous.  But the ground was wet, the guys were experts, and all went well.

That's a Monarch butterfly zigzagging in front of the cedars at the beginning of the video.  The powerful south wind on Saturday, April 8, 2017 blew the Monarchs into Kansas way ahead of schedule.

The milkweeds aren't up yet!  Monarchs need milkweeds to lay their eggs.

But the wild plums are blooming, and so are the lilacs planted by prairie ladies many years ago.   

While waiting for the milkweeds, the Monarchs have nectar to drink!  And they are no dummies around fire.  They zigged and zagged and stayed just out of reach of the flames.   Literally, when the fire went low, they went high.   

Hey, little guys--we wish you well.  We hope soon to meet your descendants!


Burning the East Side, April 8, 2017

Rod Moyer and his excellent crew did some backburns to protect the house.  I appreciated the time they took, as they had thousands of acres to burn that day.

After they left, I burned around the Writer's Shack and the solar panel at Jerry's Pond.

The fire crossed onto our land from neighboring pastures.

From Cemetery Ridge the fire jumped to our woods.  In one place it jumped the Oak Road, both tracks of which were running water--and it jumped downhill and against a southwest wind. 
Fire makes up rules as it goes along!

Fire maintains a grassland--without it there would be no prairie--but fire is capricious.  It is helpful but in no way does it confine itself to the helper role.

The woods provide back-access to the house, so I spent most of the day burning the woods near the house--depriving the fire of fuel for a surprise attack.

Everything went smoothly because the ground was wet.  Burning in the woods meant crawling under fences and fighting through brush--it's not an easy place to move with water tanks.  But I was able to drag my flapper around and through tight spots.  With the flapper, I could push the flames down into the damp earth where the moisture put them out.   Why did I need a water tank?  The earth was waiting for me with all the water I needed.

Some of the final clips--with the narration--are video-cards I sent to Ron, who was back east with his family.   Ron recognized immediately other things on the sound track--but I want to draw others' attention to the songs of meadowlarks setting up territories and the Western Chorus Frogs calling from the pond.   While the fire consumes the prairie, small lives on the edges go on!  And overhead, the vultures circle.  They are like the burn itself--ready to turn death into new life.

I forgot all about the trail cam!  It was positioned at the Oak Road overlook, facing northeast.  It thus caught the fire coming down from Cemetery Ridge and moving west.  Luckily (it certainly was nothing I did!), the fire stopped just before the camera.  It remains in good shape!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: Planting the Road Field! March 19-22, 2017

Al is the best!  

It was a windy day when he planted the Road Field for us.   

Given the hardened furrows, planting had to be done north-south.  Every return trip meant a gale-force wind in his face, with a barrage of debris.  

But he persisted until the entire field was planted with 11 species of native forbs and 1 native grass.  

Al used his special native-seed drills so the seeds wouldn't be pushed too far down.  

Ron rakes in some native seed.  Deci stands by, ready
to help.  March 22, 2017

For the next several days, Ron and I planted some species by hand, raking the surface, then stamping the seeds into good contact with the soil.

The seed of wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota),
planted March 22, 2017.  The seeds were
hand-collected by Iralee Barnard.

Here's a wild licorice seed pressed into the ground.  

Licorice seeds were hand-collected by Iralee Barnard.

The 30-acre Road Field has been in crops for 150 years.  

That was a long time to be constricted by humans and their insistence that fields should not be anything but monocultures of annual crops.  

Last year the Road Field was allowed to go fallow, and so it began its journey back toward self-expression.    We gave it a headstart with the seeds of native species that could well have lived in the bottomground before the settlers came. 

As we did with the Creek Field, we used a forbs-first strategy.  Because grasses can push out forbs in restorations, we want the forbs to get established before native grasses come in.  We made one exception for Eastern Gamagrass, as a concession to the need to have at least a small grass-defense against weeds--and also a concession to the sheer beauty and magnificence of Eastern Gamagrass.   

This is what we planted on March 19-22, 2017:

Bee Balm  Monarda fistulosa
Black Eyed Susan  Rudbekia hirta
Canada Milkvetch  Astragalus canadensis
Compass Plant Silphium laciniatum
Eastern Gamagrass  Tripsacum dactyloides
False Sunflower  Heliopsis helianthoides
Foxglove Penstemon Penstemon digitalis
Golden Alexanders Zizia aurea
Indian Blanket  Gaillardia pulchella
Plains Coreopsis  Coreopsis tinctoria
Purple Coneflower  Echinacea purpurea
Wild Licorice Glycyrrhiza lepidota

But if our experience with the Creek Field is any indicator, many other species will volunteer.   

Who knows what will grow and prosper?  Who knows what the Road Field will make of itself?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Burning the Bottomground: Feb. 21, 2017

  We burned the Creek Field and the Road Field on Feb. 21, 2017.   
     Al and Jeff took charge and did an expert job, as always.

 Before the smoke had cleared, hawks and eagles lined the field.  

These carnivorous birds have stayed around or revisited every day for the two weeks following the burn.   Here are some of the raptors that came to dine:

Birds aren't the only predators that visited:

A coyote is cousin to smoke itself.

Attracting the raptors and the coyotes were the rodents that are normally hidden in the thatch. 

Here is a clip of some of the rodent runs which the burn laid bare:

The superb mammologist Drew Ricketts tells me that golf-ball sized holes are made by voles; bigger ones are made by cotton rats.  
Runs smaller than 2" wide are vole-runs; bigger runs are made by cotton rats.

Songbirds also find the newly burned field a wonderful smorgasbord!  Here are some of the little birds that did some serious eating:

Right after the burn, seeds and insects were unusually accessible.

I had been so worried that a February burn would be hard on birds.  So many winter residents spend the cold nights in the bottomground thatch.  But the cool burn left lots of thatch.  And as the clips above show, the burned fields turned into giant bird feeders, and a coyote feeder, too.  

Fire--and then feast.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Creek Field Animal Homes

Yesterday I asked if anyone could help me identify the residents of the animal homes shown in the video, all located in the wooded areas between the Creek Field and McDowell Creek.  Also, I wanted to know about the little white circles scattered just outside a hollow tree.  Animal?  Vegetable? Mineral?

Today I was thrilled to receive an answer from one of the most knowledgeable mammalogists in Kansas.   KSU's Andrew Ricketts wrote as follows:

The first animal home (the hollow tree) in your video has a lot going on, and, likely, a long history.  The secret is the little white circles, which are the pits from hackberry fruits.  Many animals eat hackberry fruits, but most only digest the outer part of the fruit, and then pass the little white pits in their feces.  Raccoons often consume the fruits in very large quantities in the winter.  They also defecate repeatedly at latrine sites to mark their territories.  This results in a buildup of many hackberry pits in a small location (often at the base of a den tree that has a hollow area large enough for a raccoon to enter).  Mice, usually white-footed mice around here, are able to bite through the hard shell that forms the pit of the hackberry fruit, which allows them to eat the seed that is contained within the pit.  They will eat fruits and seeds that are scattered on the ground, but will also mine seeds from raccoon latrines because they are large deposits of easily accessible food.  The little white circles are hackberry pits that mice have opened in order to eat the seed.  From what I can see in the video, I think that white-footed mice have lived in the hollow portion of the tree and have been depositing seed remains in there for a very long time.  Recently, the wood near the ground in the hollow part of the tree has become rotten enough that a larger animal (probably a raccoon or a skunk) was able to dig into the hollow area, in order to get inside and use it for a den.  The red substrate is rotten wood that the larger animal scattered as they were opening the hollow, and the seed remains came along with it.

As for the hollow log on the ground, it looks like either a mouse or an eastern woodrat (aka packrat), or both are living in there.  If it is a mouse home, they would likely be white-footed mice, given that it is located in a wooded area.

It is hard to be sure about the holes in the ground near the pocket gopher mounds that are featured near the end of the video.  As I hinted at, the mounds of dirt are from pocket gophers cleaning out their burrow system that is below ground.  They almost never leave holes in the ground that would allow a predator, such as a snake, easy access to the burrow system, though.  In my work with small mammals at Konza, I regularly observed deer mice, prairie voles, and cotton rats escaping into similar holes that they had made, which gave them access to the pocket gopher tunnels.  So, my best guess is that similar species of rodents have made the holes near the pocket gopher burrow system, to make their home.

Please let me know if you have any questions.  I think it is really neat that you are sharing so much natural history from your property with others.

Thank you so much for this information, Drew.  You're the best!
I am so grateful for your expertise and your kind & generous willingness to share it.
All best,