Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: The Importance of Late, Late Bloomers

Late-blooming Tall Thistle [Cirsium altissimum] is incredibly important to pollinators toward the end of the growing season--from mid-July to mid-September.  (See earlier posts: & )
Sweat Bee
Family Halictidae, Tribe Halictini
on Hairy Aster
Creek Field, Oct. 2016

But with the extended and oddly warm fall, pollinators kept going even after the Tall Thistle had gone to seed.  

Then, late, late bloomers became important!  
Sweat Bees (Halictidae, Tribe Halictini) on Hairy Aster
October 2016
Creek Field

Especially beneficial was Hairy Aster (Symphiotricum pilosum), a total volunteer in the Creek Field.  This perennial bloomed in late September and continued blooming throughout October.  

Sweat Bees (pictured above & in the video below) loved the  Hairy Asters!

Among insects, bees are the most important pollinators. 

However, Black Blister Beetles (Epicauta pennsylvanicus) were also all over the Hairy Asters.  Here they are in the October Creek Field, munching on the petals of Hairy Aster, grooming themselves, and tapping each other in puzzling but suggestive ways.  

The role of beetles in pollination is not as well known as the role of bees.   But we can see that these beetles certainly move from flower to flower.  And is that pollen we see glistening on their bodies?

Moths and flies are also important pollinators. 

Here are two moths I found on the Hairy Asters in October:  The Two-Spotted Herpetogramma, also known as the Southern Beet Webworm, is on the left, and the Beet Webworm Moth is on the right.  
Herpetogramma bipunctalis on Hairy Aster
Southern Beet Webworm Moth or
Two-Spotted Herpetogramma
Creek Field, October 2016

Spoladea recurvalis
Beet Webworm Moth on Hairy Aster
Creek Field, October 2017

The two are in the same family (Crambid Snout Moths, Crambidae), but are in different genera.  However, their similar common names suggest they are both obnoxious to beet-growers! 

Fly on Hairy Asters
Creek Field
October 2016
Flies also go for the carbohydrates in nectar and the protein in pollen, pollinating along the way.

This gorgeously iridescent fly is either a member of the Calliphoridae family (blow flies) or the Muscidae family, genus Neomyia (Neomyia larvae live in dung).  

A gorgeously iridescent fly (family
Calliphoridae [blow-flies] or
family Muscidae, genus Neomyia [larvae live in dung)
feeding on Hairy Aster
Creek Field, October 2016 
Note the pollen caught on this fly's hairs!

In the video below a Tachinid fly visits Hairy Asters while Halictini Sweat Bees try to get some of the goodies, too.    

Tachinid flies lay eggs on caterpillars.  The fly larvae are parasitoids--meaning they develop inside the living body of a host, ultimately killing it.

Also valuable as a late, late bloomer is Gaillardia pulchella, Indian Blanket or simply Gaillardia.   Gaillardia is a native annual that blooms early in the season and then sets seeds. But if the season goes on long enough, those seeds germinate, and Gaillardia blooms again.  

Some Gaillardia bloomed in October!  Here on the left is a delightful little Grass Skipper (Lerodea eufala) nectaring on a late-blooming Gaillardia.   

A grass skipper
Lerodea eufala
nectars on
Gaillardia pulchella.
Creek Field, October 2016
Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
crossed with Clouded Sulphur
(Colias philodice) creates this hybrid.   The
Sweat Bee to the left of the Sulphur is in the
genus Agapostemon--Metallic Green Bees

On  the right is a hybrid butterly --a cross between an Orange Sulphur and a Clouded Sulphur--nectaring on a late-blooming Gaillardia.  That's a Sweat Bee--what else--to the left of the Sulphur!

Thank you so much, Hairy Asters and Gaillardia! 

You were late, late bloomers, just like some pollinators.

You gave the pollinators somewhere to go.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Coyote Spirits

Coyotes were originally creatures of the grasslands.  They responded to over a century of eradication campaigns by adapting to many new environments. 

But it's a special thrill to see them as they are here, in their original habitat.  

This video is from a trail cam at a prairie opening at the end of our Oak Road.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Restoring Bottomland Prairie, 2016: Monarchs & Milkweeds, Pests & Pollinators

A Monarch larva (Danaus plexippus)
on Common Milkweed
(Asclepias syriaca)
A Monarch caterpillar on Common
Milkweed.  Creek Field, 2016
Monarch butterflies have yet to appear in large numbers in our bottomground early in the growing season, when the Common Milkweed is blooming.   In fact, these two photos show the only Monarch caterpillar I have ever found on Common Milkweed in our restoration.

With Swamp Milkweed, it's a different story! 
Monarch caterpillars munch
on Swamp Milkweed leaves.

Every year in August and September, when Asclepias incarnata blooms in our wetland areas, it is covered with Monarch caterpillars--and many other creatures, as well.

Here a Monarch caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed forms a backward "J," indicating that it's getting ready to pupate.    

The tiny round yellow-orange creatures are aphids!

They can strip the milkweed bare.

But nature has its checks and balances.

Here is a Syrphid fly larva on the Swamp Milkweed stem, moving in on that aphid on the right.    The larva's purpose in life?  To eat aphids!

Toxomerus politus, getting minerals from the
surface of my skin, August 2016.
Though a fly, this species is a bee-mimic.
Resembling creatures that can sting is a
good protection!
This year there was a big burst of the Syrphid fly shown here (Toxomerus politus).  This species may or may not be the parent of the larva pictured above ( has a project underway to determine the species of Syrphid larvae--hard to do without DNA analysis).    But either way, the m.o. is the same:  The adult fly eats pollen, getting enough protein to lay eggs.  Then she drinks sugar-filled nectar to fuel energy-expensive flights from plant to plant.   As she flies, inadvertently pollinating as she goes, she looks for aphid colonies.  When she finds one, she lays her eggs on a stem next to the infestation.   By the time the eggs hatch, the aphids will have moved to that very location.   Yum!

Pollinators other than Monarchs love the late-blooming Swamp Milkweed as well.  

 Here is a Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris) nectaring on Swamp Milkweed.   She is one of the subtly patterned but absolutely adorable Grass Skippers.  Those eyes!  That cape!    This one lays eggs on sedges, the larval food plant.  

 Though the Monarchs munched heartily, as shown in the video above, and aphids & milkweed bugs took their toll, the Swamp Milkweed still had enough energy to produce abundant seeds.  

The seeds of Asclepias incarnata dispersing, Sept. 2016
Here the seeds of  Swamp Milkweed disperse on the September wind.

I had been worried because the constant spring rains had turned the wetland into a deep pool.   Swamp Milkweed is a perennial that likes wet feet, but could it survive being underwater for a month?    I was relieved when right on schedule it leafed out and bloomed.

The seeds promise even more Swamp Milkweed next year!   

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Restoring Bottomland Prairie, Early September, 2016: Thistle World, Thistle Stories

Tall Thistle (Cirsium altissimum) 
Creek Field, September 2016
I took this picture because I love the colors of thistle blossoms (each one of those "strings" is an individual flower, on its way to producing a seed).  Can there be anything more magical than that radiant blend of hot pink, cream, lavender, and rose?

Those colors lit up the field in early September!

But if you see a thistle, and you can't stand drama, better look the other way.

Where there's a pollen-filled thistle, there's a story--or maybe two, or three, or four....

I have spent most of my life with my nose in a book.  As a result, my real-world observational skills are just now beginning to develop.

Better observers would have noticed at once many of the stories in this thistle.

But I had to discover them slowly, step by step.

Yes, I noticed there was a soldier beetle in the center.  But I had to look closely to see that there were two beetles, and they were multitasking:  Ensuring a future generation of soldier beetles, and, in the male's case, mate-guarding, while snacking on thistle-pollen and keeping an eye out for unwary aphids or flies that might happen by.   

And I saw the cucumber beetle buried in the florets, enjoying the smorgasbord as well.  

But it wasn't until I stepped away from the thistle and magnified the photo on my phone that I noticed there was something else in the photo, something dark and rough in between the two thistles.  

What was it--a leaf?  Wings?  Good grief--a butterfly!

If a butterfly was feeding on that thistle, too, I wanted a better picture of it.

I hurried back to the thistle, and luckily, the butterfly was still there!

It looked like a Silver-spotted Skipper, or at least some skipper with white patches on its wings.   Its head was buried in the flowers.    

But why wasn't it moving?

I touched it gently--no reaction.

Uh-oh.   Not a good sign.  

This butterfly was not alive.   

I know from experience that when insects appear in the open, in awkward, immobile positions, there's usually a spider involved.  

So I looked more closely.  Sure enough, there, under the skipper, barely distinguishable from the thistle, was the round belly and two legs of a crab spider.   

I had seen this kind of spider before--long front legs, abdomen like a white bowling ball with splotches of color--it was one of the crab spiders in the genus Misumena that blend in with flowers and wait for prey.    

According to my Insects of Kansas book, some Misumena can change color to match the flower they're on.

This spider blended in so well with the thistle!

Here is a blow-up of the spider.  Those long front legs are pointed down, vertically, while thistle florets cross in front of the legs horizontally and diagonally.   

The legs look so much like the flowers!

Death looks a lot like life.  

The thistle offered food, in more ways than one.

That butterfly came to eat and stayed to be eaten.  

I took a final photo before I left and saw that a second Cucumber Beetle had shown up--just to keep the stories coming.

Restoring Bottomland Prairie, August 2016: Bugs and Blooms

Creek Field in August 2016
 This August was so beautiful! 

Creek Field in August 2016
Though I have written about August 2016 in 3 previous posts, I am eager to share several other close encounters with the bottomland prairie.

First of all, moths...

The month started with a lovely "bloom" of  tiny White Spring Moths (Lomographa vestaliata) .  
Lomographa vestaliata
Creek Field
Plum Thicket along Driveway
August 4, 2016
These radiantly-attired moths fluttered among the plums (one of their larval food plants) in great numbers, but just for one day, August 4, 2016.   During the next two days their numbers dwindled down to nothing.

For that brief moment, they were a dazzling presence!

You can see how very small the White Spring Moth is, relative to the plum leaf she's sitting on.

Geometrid Emerald Moth (family Geometrinae)
on the stem of Tall Thistle
Creek Field, August 2016

When I saw the angelic Geometrid Emerald Moth (family Geometrinae) later in the month, resting on a thistle stem, I thought it resembled the White Spring Moth except for the horizontal ridges across the wings.   Eva Zurek and identified the family for me.   I learned there is more than one species of moth robed in white lace & satin!

This gorgeous Underwing Moth rests on
the limestone in the Old Barn
August 2016
This Underwing Moth blends right in with the wood chips
and stones on the Oak Road.
August 2016

Near the old stone barn on the Oak Road I made the acquaintance of Underwing Moths (Catocala spp.)  They are not easy to identify down to species.  That's a shame, because the species names are intriguing--"Beloved Underwing,"  "Oldwife Underwing," "Tearful Underwing," & "Darling Underwing."  The names make me think there is quite an on-going story starring Underwings.  I can't just jump in and be a part of it.  I will have to wait for more encounters to catch up and catch on.   

In addition, I finally had the opportunity to meet in person the famous "Birddropping Moth!"   He's the one who knows how to look just like something nobody wants to eat. 

Here is a video clip of Acontia aprica, aka "Exposed Birddropping Moth" (thank you,, for confirming the identification).  He appeared on a Giant Ragweed stem in the Creek Field.    His caterpillar food plants are in the Mallow family, such as Velvet Leaf Weed.  For better or worse, we have Velvet Leaf Weed!  

But it wasn't just moths.    Other insects can have "blooms":

We had a "bloom" of hoverflies (Syrphidae) in August. (Friends in Wamego & Manhattan say the same: These sweet little flies appeared in yards and around houses and landed on people--gently, without biting).

The one pictured here, imbibing salt from my sweaty hand, is Toxomerus politus, and a female (thank you for the ID,!).

When they fold their wings lengthwise, they really do look like bees--it's hard to see for sure how many wings they have.

Their non-stinging nature and their habit of gently probing human skin make them delightful visitors--and welcome participants in the ecosystem, too. Their larvae are important consumers of aphids. In turn, pollen is crucial to hoverflies' production of eggs. We can help them by planting native plants. In turn, they will help us with pest control.

Freeze-frame of an Eastern-tailed Blue
Cupido comyntas
August 2016
There was also a "bloom" in August of Eastern-tailed Blues, gorgeous little butterflies. McDowell Creek neighbors talked about them in their yards; people in town saw them around their houses. I found them both outside our back door and up on the prairietop, in native prairie. They moved so quickly the only way I could get a photo was to video them and then freeze a frame. Thank you to Dick Beeman for confirming the ID!

Then there were the things that appeared in the opposite of a "bloom," whatever that may be (striking few-ness?).  Not in profusion, but in paucity....

The pink & white blossoms of
Gaura mollis are lovely!
Creek Field, August 2016

Disturbingly few in number in the Creek Field this year were the common weeds called Velvet Gaura, Gaura mollis. 

These native annuals in the Primrose family usually volunteer prolifically along field edges and roadsides.     The Creek Field was jam-packed with them last year, especially the buffers, so there were lots of seeds.   But perhaps the burn on March 17 had damaged the seeds?   

Could warm weather and rains have come at the wrong time for them?   They may have germinated too early and then suffered from dry spells and cold.  

Stilt Bugs (Family Berytidae, Jalysus sp.)
on Velvet Gaura.  Creek Field.
August 2016

Gaura is so essential
to the Clouded Crimson 
caterpillar that it appears
in its species name,
Schinia gaurae.
Creek Field, Aug. 2016

What few plants we had were full of the Stilt Bugs and Clouded Crimson Moth caterpillars that call Gaura mollis home.  
Schinia gaurae caterpillars
blend right in with Velvet Gaura
Creek Field, August 2016

The lovely blossoms of
Obedient Plant.  
Creek Field, August 2016.
Native perennial. In our seed mix.  

Moving in the opposite direction (toward greater appearance) though still small in numbers, was Obedient Plant.   

It was in our seed mix, recommended by prairie experts for bottomland prairie, and it bloomed last year for the first time.

What a thrill it was to see it again this year!
The patch of Obedient Plant
has doubled in size.
Creek Field, August 2016

 It is a plant in the mint family and can spread by rhizomes.  

It had only one or two flower stalks last year; this year, there are at least eight.   Are they new plants or is the original plant just adding on?  Either way the footprint of this species, though still very small, is expanding.

Setaria geniculata
Marsh Bristlegrass
Creek Field, August 2016
Perennial.  Volunteer.
I found this little grass blossom all by itself, no others like it.  It  confused me, with its bristles all on one side of the stem, like a Hairy Grama or a Blue Grama--two species that would be unlikely in a tall grass prairie wetland.   My friend Iralee pointed out that half of the inflorescence could have shattered, making this a maimed version of a foxtail--Setaria geniculata, she believed.  

We have lots of exotic annual foxtails--so her suggestion that we could be hosting a native perennial foxtail was welcome news!

Its common name is Marsh Bristlegrass.  It likes moist places--a perfect fit for our Creek Field.  I was moved and impressed that this little guy had volunteered--located here, all on his own.   We'll see if he tells his friends!

So high tides and ebb tides washed over the Creek Field in August 2016.   There were bursts of plenty and lonely stands.  

Each encounter was an opportunity to learn and connect.  Each was a door swinging open under a big sign that said, "Welcome Home!"

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Exuberant August, 2016: Can Plants Share Emotions with Human Beings?

August 2016:
Big Bluestem bloomed prolifically
in the Creek Field. 
With humble gratitude, I think back on the month just past, the month I shall always remember as “exuberant August.”

Has there ever been an August with so much precipitation spread out so evenly into so many gentle, light warm rains?

The result in our Creek Field was Jack-and-the-beanstalk-type growth.  

The clumps of Eastern Gamagrass were ten feet wide; the Switch Grass was ten feet tall.   The Whole-leaf Rosinweeds and Sawtooth Sunflowers were even taller.   Their bright yellow flowers said good-bye to earth and reached for the sky.   

The plants had so much energy it spilled over to me.  Every time I was near them I felt exhilarated!  

Exuberance--it was an emotion inextricable from either the plants or me.  We shared it!

But plants don’t have a nervous system.  Surely they didn’t really share an emotion with me?

Let me go into some background information and then return to that question.

Since 2013, we have been working to restore a native plant community to our Creek Field, 30 acres of  bottomground along McDowell Creek.  

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
volunteered near the creek.
Some bottomland prairie species, such as Bee Balm and Spiderwort, also grow in the uplands.   But others absolutely require a low, moist site.   These are the ones made scarce in the Flint Hills by the almost universal plowing of bottomground once the settlers arrived in the 19th century.    Several of those species bloomed in our Creek Field this August.   One of them—the hauntingly beautiful Blue Vervain—had been in our seed mix.   Another was a volunteer--Cup Plant--so named for the vessel formed where its leaves merge at the stem.   This August, all of its “cups” held water!  

Moisture-loving plants such as American Germander doubled and tripled the size of their patches, while early blooming species, like Canada Milkvetch and Echinacea, set seed in July but bloomed again in August.

This profusion of plant life spilled over into an abundance of animals.   

The Creek Field filled up with hummingbirds, quail, goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, and Dickcissels.   At dusk, hummingbirds were replaced by hummingbird moths, while overhead, dragonflies, barn swallows, and nighthawks filled the air.    
Euphoria sepulcralis, Dark Flower Scarab
on a Tall Thistle
in the Creek Field.  August 2016.

Some of the insects I found on August flowers were old friends, such as the drunken Euphoria Beetle, always at his pollen-bottle, deep in a thistle-flower; or the just-emerged Monarch butterflies, not a tatter in their wings, drinking deeply of August nectar.   

A Geometrid Emerald Moth,
(Family Geometrinae)
on a Tall Thistle leaf,
Creek Field, August 2016.
Thanks to Eva Zurek &
for the identification!

Others were new to me, such as the gorgeous moths I slowly came to know only through the help of cameras, computers, generous entomologists, and   
Bush Cicada (Tibicen dorsata)
Creek Field, August 2016

As night fell, coyotes and Barred Owls would begin to call but could scarcely be heard through the almost impenetrable wall of sound put up by katydids’ trills and cicadas’ screams.  Raucous August!

All of this made me feel exhilarated--but not as if the feeling came from within.   It felt as if the emotion were already in the field, and I simply went into it.  As I walked into the field, I walked into the feeling.

I know that sounds New Agey.  How can the human emotion of exuberance arise from a non-human assemblage of life?

But I don’t want to deny the experience just because it sounds wifty, or raises a question for which I have no lock-down, end-of-discussion answer.

What happens if we frame the question within a context of existing knowledge?

Let’s take it step by step:  An exuberant person is a high-spirited person.   But the root of the word has to do with external reality, not with internal feelings.  The Latin root “uber” means fertility, abundance, growth.  Add the prefix “ex,” and it means lavish fertility, super-abundance, phenomenal growth—like our Creek Field this past August. 

 It makes sense that the ancient meaning eventually gave birth to the modern:  Lavish fertility of the land meant humans would survive and thrive—a spirit-lifter, if ever there was one.     Exuberant land meant exuberant people.

So the Creek Field imparted its exuberance to me through ancient associations that became hard-wired in the human brain?

Perhaps.  But could there be additional explanations?

Plants communicate with their environment through the production and release of chemicals.    As Michael Pollan writes, “Plants speak in a chemical vocabulary.”   Wildflowers swaying in the wind are not just a lovely spectacle; they are also emitters of what Pollan calls  “chemical chatter.” 

We don’t have ears to hear this chatter.  

But maybe we aren’t as deaf as all that.  

Among the chemicals plants produce are two that function in mammals as neurotransmitters and mood-regulators—serotonin and dopamine. 

Could we be more attuned to plants’ messenger molecules than we realize?  Do we have capacities we have yet to develop?

Botantist Robin Wall Kimmerer thinks so.   “Listening in wild places, we are audience to a conversation in a language not out own,” she writes.  She believes we humans were once fluent in that language and that we can become fluent once again.

In her book  Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Kimmerer explores human-plant relationships by comparing the experimental method of Western science with the nature-learning of her Potawatomi culture.   In addition to mutual confirmations, the comparison reveals differences.    Western science asks about a plant,  “What are its parts?  How does it work?”    Indigenous wisdom, based in a tradition of sacred reciprocity, converses with a plant, asking, “What can you teach us?”

When Kimmerer started college, she found that the science curriculum would never address her most basic question, the one that led her to biology in the first place:   “I wanted to know why we love the world, why the most ordinary scrap of meadow can rock us back on our heels in awe.”

That’s not too different from my question:  What is this exuberance that is both out there in the  Creek Field and in here, in my head and heart? 

Scientists, some of whom are at this moment setting up experiments to test entomologist E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis” (which posits humans’ innate affinity for non-human life), will certainly help with the answer.

But all of us can help:  When among plants, we can ask freely and listen deeply.       

We can pay attention, with open hearts.

A modified version of this essay was published in the Junction City Daily Union on September 16, 2016.  

The short video below shows the Creek Field in August 2016.  The sunflowers sport not only blossoms but Dickcissel families and a juvenile Indigo Bunting.  And you can see (and hear) that Deci shares in the exuberance!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Restoring Bottomland Prairie, August 2016: Greetings from the Thistle Cafe!

Sunflowers and thistles provide the dominant colors in
the Creek Field this August.
The sunflowers in the foreground are Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus
).  The thistles in the background are Tall Thistles
(Cirsium altissimum).  Goldenrod is in between!

When the thistles bloomed this August, their lavenders, pinks, and magentas rivaled  the golds and yellows of the sunflowers.

We should never underestimate the lowly thistle--especially not this thistle, which isn't "low" at all, but is Tall Thistle (Cirsium altissimum), a marvelous native biennial! 

Tall Thistle (Cirsium Altissimum)
Creek Field, August 20, 2016.

Tall Thistles are full of nectar and pollen!

Their hot pink blossoms are like menus in a restaurant window, advertising delicious meals within.

Lots of flying folks stop by!  My camera found the following winged patrons at the Thistle Cafe, sipping & supping:

I was able to photograph these visitors during one hour in the Creek Field, around sunset on August 26, 2016.

The visitors were, in order of appearance, Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris); Common Wood Nymph (Cercyonis pegala--Western Missouri form); another Monarch; a Honeybee (Apis mellifera); another Monarch; Corn Earworm Moth (Helicoverpa zea), sorry about that; the honeybee again; a hummingbird flying; same Corn Earworm Moth, sorry again!; yet another Monarch; a returning Monarch; same honeybee; one of the Monarchs again; hummingbird sipping; Monarch close-up; a Geometrid Emerald Moth (Geometrinae) resting, while coyotes start up in the background; and a Snout Moth at the end, family Crambidae.

Thistles may be full of nectar and pollen, but they were not so full after these visitors had come and gone!
Many thanks to Eva Zurek for identifying the Geometrid Emerald and the Corn Earworm Moth.    She identified the Snout Moth for me last year!

Second-year thistles flower in the Creek Field at dusk, on
August 29, 2016.
Tall Thistles are biennials.  The first year, they appear only as low-growing basal leaves; the tall stems and gorgeous blossoms don't emerge until the second year.   

There are huge patches of basal leaves in the Creek Field this year!

Tall Thistle basal leaves form a carpet

First-year Tall Thistles have
sent up their basal leaves.
Thistles were not in our seed
mix.  They are prodigious
(and welcome!) volunteers. 

Some areas look like a monoculture of thistles.  

They form a carpet on the ground.  

Does this mean that thistles will "take over" next year?

Not necessarily.  Prolific, quick-germinating biennials have a short-term advantage over perennials.  But the perennials, with their greater variety of survival strategies, have a long-term advantage.

We'll have to wait and see!

But for sure we'll continue to have lots of Tall Thistles for a long time to come.   

And that means more high living at the Thistle Cafe!