Saturday, September 19, 2020

Migrating Monarchs

 So many Monarch butterflies on McDowell Creek!   They have been drifting through by the hundreds this week, day after day.  The ones pictured here are newly eclosed--you can see how bright their colors are, how strong and whole their wings.   

The ones in this video are nectaring on Jerusalem Artichoke sunflowers by the creek and then on Maximillian sunflowers in the Creek Field.  

These newly emerged Monarchs have reproductive systems that have not yet matured.  They are not interested in mating but rather in gathering nectar to fuel the long flight ahead.  

They are headed for Mexico!  There they will cluster with thousands of others in a mountain fir forest.   This is where their great-grandparents started out, and they have never been there, but somehow they will find their way to this exact spot.   If they survive the winter, they will mature and head north a few hundred miles, where they will mate, lay eggs, and die.   It's their children who God willing will drift north through McDowell Creek next spring.  

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Don't Underestimate the Lowly Thistle!

 The pink/magenta beauty of Tall Thistles (Cirsium altissimum) comes into full force at the end of summer.  Our native Tall Thistles should not be confused with non-native, noxious weeds, such as Musk Thistle.  Tall Thistles contribute energetically to the prairie ecosystem.   With their lavish production of nectar and pollen, they attract hungry visitors--hummingbirds, bees, moths, and butterflies:

Some insects specialize in thistles, such as the gorgeous Paracantha flies.   Here several members of the fruit-fly family meet and greet on Tall Thistles.   You can see some pairing up for the famous fruit-fly courting ritual, which involves "kissing": 

Mama Paracantha chooses a thistle bud and seeks out the parts that are at just the right stage to host her eggs.   When her young ones hatch, they will be surrounded by thistle blossom--the very food they need:  

Never disparage native thistles.   Plant them!   Ecologically, they are a treasure.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Prairie Walkingstick--but don't try to walk with it!

Prairie Walkingstick (Diapheromera velii),
probably female,  as males have a spine
on the femora of the 2nd & 3rd pairs of legs.   
September is a great month for Walking Sticks and Praying Mantises.

Here's a Prairie Walkingstick (Diapheromera velii), clinging to the back door.    

This mild-mannered plant-eater looks so delicate compared to the carnivorous praying mantis clinging to the screen (pictured below).  

Notice the mantis's huge front legs, just made for grabbing--something the vegetarian Walking Stick does not need.   

  Check out those "arms!"
Carolina Mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) perched on a
window screen.  He is probably a male, as females do not have such
long & fully developed wings.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Grass Skippers Grace the Grassland!

 Restoring prairie is a lot of hard work but it's also a thrill--especially when prairie-associated wildlife start to return.   It's been wildly exciting this summer to discover some new "Grass Skippers" here at Bird Runner--that's the name given the butterfly sub-family that uses grasses and sedges as caterpillar host plants.    The Grass Skippers below alighted in or near the bottomland prairie restoration in our Creek Field, next to McDowell Creek in Geary County, Kansas.

This Arogos Skipper (Atrytone arogos) came to get minerals from the stones and mud on the banks of McDowell Creek (August 2020):


Arogos Skipper caterpillars feed mostly on Big Bluestem and sometimes on Little Bluestem.   They weave two leaves together with silk to create a little shelter inside which they eat and grow.   

This Byssus Skipper (Problema byssus) came to nectar on Echinacea Purpurea in the Creek Field (August 4, 2020):

Bysssus Skippers use Eastern Gamma Grass as their caterpillar food plant.   Eastern Gamma Grass has been mostly grazed out of native pastures in the Flint Hills--but it's abundant in our ungrazed Creek Field prairie restoration.  

This Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris) was just basking on a leaf of Giant Ragweed in the Creek Field (August 4, 2020):

Dun Skippers' caterpillar food plants are sedges.   In this rainy year, sedges are flourishing in the Creek Field and in the uplands.

This Zabulon Skipper was basking on the leaf of a sunflower, Jerusalem Artichoke, in the Creek Field (June 9, 2020):

Zabulon Skipper caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses, including wild ryes and Wheatgrass.  

When native plants take hold, energy extends to other species, seen and unseen.   Believe it or not, it's something we humans can feel.  It's exhilarating!  These little Grass Skippers are messengers from a restored landscape, increasingly charged.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Buntings and Grosbeaks on McDowell Creek

 The creek is a magnet!   Here is an immature Indigo Bunting having a bath, while an adult Indigo Bunting sings overhead:

Adult male Indigo Buntings, unmistakable in their iridescent blue, come to feed on the weeds that spring up along the creek.  Below an adult male feeds on Green Foxtail, Marestail, and Barnyard Grass:

The female and immature Indigos have brown feathers designed to blend in.   Here the male is shadowed by a cryptically colored female or fledgling:

In the video below, a juvenile Painted Bunting also comes to bathe in the creek:

Meanwhile, a female Blue Grosbeak, accompanied by an immature or molting male, is drawn to the creek:  

A first-summer male Blue Grosbeak practices his chip call and little bit of song from the weeds along the creek.    The clip below catches him exercising his voice while perching safely on the Jerusalem Artichoke sunflowers and the Giant Ragweed that grew up on the gravel bar:


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Goldfinches at McDowell Creek

 McDowell Creek has been a magnet for Goldfinches this summer--male Goldfinches, that is.  They come every evening to sing a little bit and drink from the creek.

The females are sitting on nests and don't leave until the youngsters fledge.   The males feed their mates with partially digested seeds.   I hope to see the moms and the new ones later in the summer or early in the fall.   

Monday, August 10, 2020

Butterflies Imbibing Minerals by McDowell Creek

What are you seeing on your walks in nature?  Send comments, photos, or videos to   Here are some things we're seeing:

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Local Musicians Find Refuge at AOK Legacy Sanctuary

During the hottest days of summer, McDowell Creek has been a refuge.   Local musicians, looking for a safe outdoor space to get together, came to Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge to play and sing next to (and in some cases in!) McDowell Creek:  

Local musicians jam while dusk falls on McDowell Creek, July 30, 2020.

But these Homo sapiens aren't the only singers on the creek.   Dickcissels sing constantly, sometimes from the electrical wire above the creek.  Here a male Dickcissels belts out his song, accompanied by flowing water:

You can hear the Dickcissels singing as these American Goldfinches come to drink.  But the goldfinches also sing, sometimes from the same wire:

It would be a first for Bird Runner if expert birders are right.  They think this singer in a tree by the creek is a Rose-breasted Grosbeak:

All musicians at the creek in July are accompanied by the original percussionists, chorusing frogs!   Here Blanchard's Cricket Frogs lay down quite a beat:

It's the season of songs!   Let's store up the music to last us when the blustery winds of winter are what we hear instead.  

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tiny Body, Big Voice--And Oh, Those Legs!

If you thought these little guys were loud in the spring, you should hear them now!   Here are Blanchard's Cricket Frogs on the shores of McDowell Creek:

They make a lot of racket for frogs that are no bigger than a quarter:   

Blanchard's Cricket Frog on Algae-covered Rock by McDowell Creek
Their vocalizations are part of what's called a "breeding chorus."

But there is a lot of mystery surrounding breeding choruses.  For one thing, they can occur separate from breeding.   

Sometimes the males just gather and sing, no females allowed.   And the male Blanchard's Cricket Frogs do a "leg display."

But what's the purpose of these all-male displays?  Famed herpetologist Joe Collins wrote that sometimes the frogs gather "for unknown reasons."  So we can observe and speculate.  The little guys don't appear to be defending territories or establishing dominance.   In fact, their interactions are more congenial than aggressive.  They even appear to take turns sitting on top of each other and showing off those gorgeous hind legs.  

If you have any ideas about what the adaptive advantage could be that impelled the evolution of leg-displays, share it with!

"Breeding" takes place outside the frogs' bodies.   Females deposit eggs underwater, and the males then fertilize the eggs externally.  
All photos and videos were taken at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, an AOK Legacy Sanctuary in Geary County.  Photos, videos and text by Margy Stewart.   

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Summer Damselflies

Summer is the time for procreation!   Here "dancer" damselflies (Argia spp.) are laying eggs in McDowell Creek.   The pairs have mated, and now the females are placing eggs in underwater vegetation or other substrate.   The males are "mate-guarding"--hanging onto the females and keeping other males at bay.

That clicking noise you're hearing is the breeding chorus of Blanchard's Cricket Frogs--also abundant near McDowell Creek.

The males have little grabbers on the end of their abdomens which fit exactly into slots behind the females' heads.  The exact fit means they can hang onto the females of their own species but no other.  

Here the males appear to be pushing the egg-laying females down into the water.  But don't worry--the females grab a bubble of air and keep breathing, even under water.     

Soon the eggs will hatch into aquatic larvae, called "nymphs."  Both the adults and the nymphs are great predators, feeding on mosquitoes and other insects in the air and in the water.   

Damselflies hate pollution, so their presence indicates a healthy stream.   These Dancers love streams with limestone bottoms, such as McDowell Creek.

Damselflies don't go through a complete metamorphosis--there is no pupal stage.  Instead, the aquatic nymph molts and grows and finally climbs out of the water to molt one final time.  The exoskeleton splits open and out comes a gorgeous damselfly, a beautiful adult with wings!

Damselflies are in the same family with dragonflies but they are smaller and thinner, and when perched they hold their wings upright, whereas dragonflies spread out their wings. 

Damselfly holding wings upright.  See how thin he is
compared to a dragonfly?

Dragonfly holding wings outspread.  See how hefty he is
compared to a damselfly?

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Diving Beetles and Mayflies: What's the Connection?

This video is of two separate diving beetles on two separate days, each attached somehow to a mayfly-form.   The second one turned loose of his mayfly and I snagged it out of the water: it was more like a shed skin than a dead fly with substance--not much there to feed a beetle.   

What are the beetles doing with these mayflies and why do the beetles seem so unintentional?  They seem to be more drifting than directional. 

They seemed so passive I wasn't sure who had ahold of whom! 
McDowell Creek, Geary Co., Kansas, June 2020.

I hope someone can help me understand this scenario!

--Margy Stewart
Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

First Sign of Spring: Cellophane Bees!

Here they are, and spring is here!

Note the downward-slanting, heart-shaped face, and the large tongue--all signs of this species of "Cellophane Bee," a native, ground-nesting, solitary-nesting bee. 

This one is Colletes inaequalis, the "Unequal Cellophane Bee."

Cellophane Bees overwinter as larvae and then emerge as adults on the first warm days of spring.   Here are some that appeared on a gravel bar next to my chair on a warm April day as I sat by McDowell Creek.  

They come out early and feed on redbud, one of the first trees to bloom.   

The males live only long enough to mate.  The mated females dig burrows and furnish brood cells with pollen and nectar.   They close off the brood cells with waterproof "cellophane," which they produce from a gland in their abdomens, sealing it with an anti-fungal liquid from another gland near their tongues.   

I'm not sure what these little guys were doing licking the stones on the gravel bar.   Take a look and leave a comment if you want to tell me what you think!   Enjoy!    
                                                                --Margy Stewart

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Against the Odds: Arachnid Resilience!

The plums were full of Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) egg sacs this winter!

Here are three of them from the plums along the Creek Field:

But by the end of February, some were ripped open by predators:

The sacs were ripped open turning the spiderlings inside into lunch for a hungry raccoon, bird, or possum.

So many eggs sacs had been preyed upon, I began to worry we wouldn't have beautiful black-and-yellow garden spiders in the summer.  

The internal mesh had been dragged out....

...with little white things caught in it.

Were these egg shells left over from the spiders' hatching?

Or were they exoskeletons from an early molt?  

Wanting to answer that question, I took some of the mesh home to put under a microscope.  This is what it looked like magnified:  

Meanwhile, my entomologist friend Dick Beeman confirmed that the white fragments are egg shells.  Black-and-Yellow Garden Spiders hatch inside their egg sacs in the fall and do not feed or molt.

I marveled at the magnified textures in my lens, when, to my astonishment, some of the mesh started to move!  More of it twitched, and then some of it started to crawl--by golly, on eight legs!  Under magnification, the dragged out mesh was full of life!  

This is what my phone recorded:

These little hatchlings had been dragged out, scrutinized by a predator, and exposed to wind and cold.   Still they are with us, sporting the beginnings of beautiful markings on their backs.  

Following Dick's advice, I put them back in their damaged sac, back on their plum branch, to continue their march toward adulthood.   Here they are, back outside: 
Good luck, little guys!  You are role models of resilience.  

I look forward to seeing beautiful adult Black-and-Yellow Garden Spiders this summer.   When I do, it will be with profound respect.   Their road isn't easy and the ones who reach adulthood have traveled it well!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: Winter Tones

There is nothing quite as moving as the shades of winter in the Flint Hills:

A plum thicket and tall grasses in the "toe" of the Creek Field
(All photos by Margy Stewart at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, an AOK Legacy Sanctuary)

From the creek buffer, looking west toward home.  

The seed pods of Common Milkweed

Asclepias syriaca in the toe of the Creek Field

McDowell Creek, looking west

Bee Balm Inflorescence

Ratibida Pinnata has fed some birds.

Indian Grass has fed birds and rodents.

Purple Top Seedheads on the edge of McDowell Creek.

The rabbit tracks end where the wings came down.

Echinacea purpurea

Hairy Aster

Gaillardia pulchella

Sweet Everlasting

Front to back:  Foxtails, Purple Top, Trees along creek

Perennials and annuals mix in the restoration
Road Field prairie restoration, looking west

Many thanks to the winter prairie for harboring so much life and offering so much beauty.  I will miss you and look forward to your return.  We will both be different when we see each other again!


Monday, January 20, 2020

Juneteenth Celebration: Cook-out and Wildflower Walk, June 16, 2019

The Juneteenth season came to a close in Geary County with a cook-out and wildflower walk at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, on June 16, 2019.   The event was co-sponsored by Audubon of Kansas, Flint Hills Prairie Bison Reserve (which donated the bison-burgers), Junction City Juneteenth Community Association,  McDowell Creek Community Association, and Prairie Heritage, Inc.    Audubon of Kansas's sanctuaries preserve and restore native ecosystems.  They are intended to be people-friendly, as well as wildlife-friendly.  The Audubon of Kansas Sanctuaries Initiative is designed to create an archipelago of sanctuaries across the state of Kansas, so that Kansans will have a nearby location where they can experience their local ecosystem.  "Every child should have a chance to play in a creek," according to board chair Margy Stewart.   AOK is off to a good start at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, a legacy sanctuary in Geary County.   Here are some photos from recent events:



Sunday, January 12, 2020

Winter Plums, Winter Wildlife: Part I (Birds)

Winter comes to the Road Field.
Looking west, toward home.
Winter is not the end of the "growing season."  It's just a different kind of growing.

The plum thickets, for example, have a lot to say about LIFE.

Twenty years ago we planted two kinds of native plums in the riparian buffer along McDowell Creek, American Plums and Sandhill Plums.  

Sandhill Plums on the edge of the creek.

Now they have formed thickets.   

Birds newly arrived from the tundra are drawn to the plums.

There are Harris's Sparrows:

 Tree Sparrows:

An occasional Lincoln's Sparrow:

And a Song Sparrow:

For all these birds the thickets provide protection from the cold--
and from predators.   

For example, this female Merlin is sitting above the thicket, waiting for a sparrow to venture out.   (Thank you to Tom Ewert for confirming the ID.)    

She would love to grab a sparrow-meal!  

But if she succeeds occasionally, the remaining sparrows are still numerous.  As night falls they crowd into the thickets and strike up quite a chorus of cheeps and whistles.  The long whistles are coming from the Harris's Sparrows.    But all the species are chiming in!
Overwintering sparrows 
settle in to roost in this thicket of American Plums.  
These plums were planted by our neighbor, Al Alspach.
To me these vocalizations are among the loveliest and most touching sounds of a winter dusk.

Many thanks to Tom Ewert for confirming bird identifications!   All photos and videos are by Margy Stewart and were taken in the Creek Field, a bottomland prairie restoration along McDowell Creek, at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, in Geary County, Kansas, December 2019-January 2020.