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.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Winter Plums, Winter Wildlife: Part 2 (Invertebrates)

Once the leaves have fallen, so many signs of life appear!
(All photos were taken at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge in the Creek Field, an on-going restoration of bottomland tall grass prairie.)

Here is the egg sac of a Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia), suspended from plum twigs.

The tiny spiderlings inside are waiting out the winter.

A neighboring Garden Spider was even more prolific.  She produced two batches of A. aurantia: 

A. Aurantia egg sacs, attached to plum twigs and leaves.

While some spiderlings grow strong inside their egg sacs, others turn into food for predators.  Here is the egg sac of a Garden Spider ripped open by some hungry bird, possum, or raccoon (thank you, Betsy Betros, for explaining the scenario):

A preyed-upon Garden Spider egg sac attached to plums.

The oothecas of Chinese Mantises also appear in the plums:

The ootheca of a Chinese Mantis 
(Tenodera sinesis) on a plum twig.

But woodpeckers love to snack on the eggs and nymphs of Chinese Mantises.   Here is the tell-tale hole drilled by a woodpecker:  

And here is a Downy Woodpecker drilling one of those holes:  
...while another Downy poses by her hoped-for lunch-bucket:

An occasional bagworm appears on the plums...

...along with the cocoon of a Tussock Moth (thanks to for the ID):

The cocoon is carefully wrapped in a plum leaf, just like a cigar, and firmly attached by silk to the end of a plum twig.    

This rather tattered cocoon attached to a plum twig and leaf might have been made by a Polyphemus Moth, according to entomologist Dick Beeman (thank you, Dick! ):

But other signs of invertebrate life are harder to identify.  I found the following in the plums and submitted photos to my expert friends, Kansas Arthropods, and bugguide, but so far no one has confirmed an ID.  If viewers of this blog can help, your assistance would be welcome!

Among the mysteries were various combinations of silk and leaf attached to plum twigs:

And there was a strange, disk-shaped egg case, smaller than a dime and deposited on a plum twig, that sported three yellow eggs on the surface:
An egg sac on a plum twig with three yellow eggs on the surface.

Was this the product of one species or two?

For the moment, these invertebrate signs remain unidentified--perhaps to declare themselves at a later time.

Even when encased in ice, the plums are interacting with winter wildlife--both the kinds that are familiar to us and the kinds that are still mysterious.  

Powerful life processes continue in the thickets of winter plums.

All photos by Margy Stewart

Friday, January 10, 2020

Winter Plums, Winter Wildlife: Part 3 (Vines and Other Pals)

Plums provide sturdy structures used by vines, lichen, and fungi. 

Winter reveals their presence!  

Here are the spiny pods of Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), a native annual: 

And here is Ivyleaf Morningglory (Ipomoea hederacea), an annual recently arrived from southern climes:

The hairiness is striking!


This one shocked me, when I saw it high up in the American Plums:
I was afraid it was Black Swallowwort, an invasive vining milkweed, native to Europe, hard to eradicate.   

But a close examination of the withered leaves showed it was Honeyvine Milkweed (Cynanchum laeve), a native milkweed, beloved of pollinators.  This perennial is related to the invader, as both are in the same genus. (Black Swallowwort is C. louiseae.)  We just have to hope Honeyvine Milkweed tells its European cousin to stay home! 

Here is Climbing False Buckwheat, aka  Polygonum scandens, a native perennial:

Aren't the seeds beautiful?

 And here are at least three kinds of Lichen:

The lichen are lively, despite the cold.  While plants are dormant, the fungi are creating reproductive structures (those hollow "tubes").  

Finally, here are Shelf Fungi, attached to a plum:

It's not what you know, it's who you know.  
Like vines and lichen, fungi attach themselves to plums, becoming bosom buddies.    

Indeed, otherwise lowly creatures are able to rise up in the world, thanks to plums.   
(All photos are by Margy Stewart and were taken in the Creek Field at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge., late December 2019.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Wildlife on Ice!

The cold weather setting in now reminds me of last year's frozen time--right around the new year, when the creek froze over.

Our trail cam caught a few wild creatures negotiating the ice.  Some were more sure-footed than others!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Wildlife on McDowell Creek during the Drought Summer of 2018

McDowell Creek was low and thin during the drought this past summer--but it was still there, still a source of life for so many creatures, as shown by this collage from our trail cam.  

Wildlife has always used the creek as a corridor but this summer it was especially important as a source of food, drink, and refreshment.  

Bless our upstream neighbors--Al, Jeff, and Brad--who manage their land for water quality, among other things.  Our stretch of McDowell Creek is cleaner and more wildlife-friendly because of them!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Cattail Caterpillars on Indian Grass in January

Acronicta insularis, Cattail Caterpillar,
larva of the Cattail Moth.  The larvae do
eat grasses as well as cattails.
 It was a strange sight to find Cattail Caterpillars on the dry stems of Indian Grass during my walk in the Creek Field in the early evening of January 6, 2020.  I spotted at least a dozen and used a flash to get a photo of one.

I went back the next morning to get photos by daylight.   

I found one resting on--what?  The sheath of the grass leaf?  Webbing?  A combination of the two?

I found another just emerging from between the sheath and the stem.

Except it wasn't "emerging."  

My first thought--that these healthy-looking caterpillars were alive--was just plain wrong.  When I posted the photos to, I received this reply:

These are all cadavers of Acronicta insularis, having been mined out some time ago (late summer or fall?) by the parasitoid mummy wasp Aleiodes stigmator (which has since eclosed, the exit holes not so obvious in your photos).  

Well, now I didn't have to worry about what they were going to eat. 

But if they had been parasitized by wasps, where were the exit holes?

I took several home where I could magnify the little "mummies."

I looked at them from different angles.

From the top:


                                            From the side:

  From the side of the head:

I couldn't find anything that looked like exit holes.  So then I started wondering what else could have killed these caterpillars.     

However, a Google search for Aleiodes stigmator turned up a publication that brought me right back to the wasp track:

Scott R. Shaw 
Professor of Entomology and Curator, University of Wyoming Insect Museum Department of Renewable Resources (3354) 
University of Wyoming 1000 East University Avenue Laramie, Wyoming 82071, USA

This paper explained that the absence of exit holes probably means that the wasp larvae are still inside, as some wasps overwinter inside their mummies.    Dr. Shaw's essay recommended keeping the mummified caterpillars in a closed container at outside temperatures in a shed or garage and photographing the wasps when they do emerge.   

I had better follow his instructions immediately--lest the wasps hatch from the mummies lying on my desk and fly around the house! 

Many thanks to and to Dr. Shaw and all the experts who share their knowledge so generously and help people like me learn more about the invertebrates in our neighborhoods!