Friday, September 7, 2018

The Hills Are Alive...

     Through the past few years, the Red Hills as well as much of the region, have suffered through drought. Drought still had a persistent presence on the land through the latter part of last year and even until most recent rains which produced flooding in some areas. This short ditty is a testament to the resilience of the Red Hills and its inhabitants through good times and hard times. With replenishment from recent rains, times are good again.

The land is sometimes parched and brown,
with ranchers prone to wear a frown,
for through dry spells it's hard to bare,
the extended dry conditions there. 

But given time, rain comes again,
to revive a seemingly barren land,
colors spring from what had seemed,
monotonous days of dust and wind.

And through it all, our rancher friends,
keep their spirits through thick and thin,
they feed their herds on revived range,
and give thanks for surviving drought again.

The land rebounds with glorious praise,
with plentiful grass and prairie bouquets,
and so wildlife also responds,
to this aquatic gift to streams and ponds.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pollinator Pleasures

     In a post back in late January, I lamented the continuing drought, stating that rain will come again. Well, it did. By late spring the Red Hills region was getting precipitation and the land was starting to bloom. It had been since last October that some parts of the hills had received any measurable rain. With the land drinking up the wet offerings, plants prospered along with the region's herbivorous and rancher occupants. Some ranchers had been on the verge of de-stocking but got rain just in time. So now this land which had portions in the extreme drought characterization has been upgraded to simply "abnormally dry" in most areas and which is an amazing improvement. So now it's time to celebrate with some of the inhabitants most pleased by this natural replenishment--the pollinators. A recent Red Hills field tour was sponsored by the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. About 40 landowners and other participants enjoyed presentations on ranches by ranchers who have made an art of optimizing their pastures for cattle and pollinators. With the fate of monarch butterflies in question from various factors and the general awareness of the importance of pollinators to human life, there is intense interest in this arena. 
Bush morning-glory is one of the showiest of pollinator plants in the Red Hills.

Tarantula hawk on Broad-leaf milkweed.

Slurping on some Sand milkweed.
Loving on the Narrow-leafed milkweed.

       Red Hills ranchers teach each other as well as other guests about their range management that enhances wildflower and wildlife diversity as well as good cattle forage. Shelly Wiggam, Kansas State University pollinator expert, shares a wealth of information.

Fourpoint evening primrose dresses up the roadsides.

       Its a fennel frenzy for these Black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars in the
home garden--another great place for pollinators.

Clouded sulfur butterfly on Aromatic aster.

     There are many resources available if you have interest in enhancing your property for pollinators whether in town or the country. A good place to start if on the farm or ranch is your local USDA office. There is a great cost assistance program available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service and being coordinated through the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts. For more information, go to or visit your nearest USDA service center. Another great source for the home gardener as well as country dwellers is Monarch Watch at Plant some wildflowers for fun and environmental health.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Caving for Conservation

     I recently accompanied a team of scientists into the dark crevices of the Red Hills as part of monitoring efforts for white-nose syndrome. Biologists from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism were conducting some of the annual monitoring for the fungus that causes this affliction in bats. The fungus is known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans. As of this writing, no white-nose syndrome has been confirmed in Kansas, but there are concerns. (SEE UPDATE BELOW) This syndrome has caused severe mortality in populations of some species, particularly in the northeastern states where it was first discovered in New York in 2006. Since then, the fungus and subsequent syndrome has spread to many states including the west coast. There is hope that the disease won't be that devastating to Kansas bats since there are no large hibernating colonies at least of species known to be more susceptible. However, there is still cause for concern and a certain protocol for spelunking in bat caves is recommended. The biologists follow decontamination guidelines utilizing a bleach solution after visitation to help prevent spread of any possible fungus. But, caving is not all seriousness. There are adventures, history, and stories. This episode includes all.
     Since this post, white-nose syndrome was confirmed to have infected bats in several caves in the Red Hills as well as a cave in southeast Kansas. While dead and infected bats were found in this most recent survey, the impacts on populations of most species in Kansas is not considered to be a major issue simply because overwintering populations of most vulnerable species are not large. The potential of spreading to other caves and possible impacts on sensitive species is still a concern. This places greater emphasis on utilizing decontamination practices for cavers as recommended:

KDWPT researchers venture into one of the largest of Red Hills caves
in search of bats to test for white-nose syndrome.

Sam and Zac depart the cavern after taking samples.

Dustin, Zac and Sam thoroughly clean all equipment and clothes with a bleach
solution to kill any possible fungal hitchhikers after each cave visit.
Swabs of wing membranes are taken from captured
bats along with soil samples and sent to labs for testing.

One of the caves visited was "Skunk Cave." The author ventured into this cave
with long-time Red Hills bat expert Stan Roth many years ago and was
confronted by a not-too-friendly striped skunk. A quick exit ensued.

However, for this visit, more time was spent investigating. Milling equipment
was found near and in this cave. A few bats were observed here but the evidence of human
history was even more interesting.

The exit from Skunk Cave was quite large and had a pool of water at its base but
there's more...

Found in the small canyon (more like a draw) just downstream from where the
cave exits, was this brick wall built into one of the sides. Because of the
grain grinding plate found at the entrance as well as evidence of a structure
at this site in the small canyon, this place was obviously set up as a mill
at one time. This is indication that this small canyon once enjoyed sufficient
spring flow to support a mill. This is unusual for such a small drainage
but a testament to the determination of early residents to make this homestead
into their little bit of heaven, complete with flour for fine biscuit making.

There's always so much more to discover in the Red Hills from the spectrum of natural science to human history.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Red Hills Requiem

     In the midst of a brown, drought stricken, winter Red Hills, here's some reminders of eventual rains and rebirth. And it will rain again. It may be hard to visualize right now with red flag warnings, precipitation non-existent and temperatures above normal much of time. But, it will rain again. Here are some images to remind us of better days to come.

Bison on a Hill

Solitary Fight Against the Elements

Cave Creek
      Summer Sumac (a rare mix of green and crimson due to some roadside, summer
         spraying to try to control this invasive species to the prairie)
A White Prickly Poppy and Indianblanket
stand guard at the pond

Sumac Up Close

Purple Poppy Mallow 

Summer Spelunking Fun

Mushroom on Cottonwood Log

Scarlet Globe Mallow

Catclaw Sensitive Briar and Breadroot Scurfpea

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Outback Oddities-Sign Sign Everywhere a Sign

     There are many interesting people, places, and things in the Kansas Outback and one posting cannot come close to capturing them all. So this first one starts with simply signs observed in this intriguing region. They include directional signs, business signs, and even calls to a higher power sign. All are some of the man-made and sometimes quite curious attractions of the Red Hills.

              In the middle of "nowhere" in Meade County, western Red Hills,
        a rancher has a keen sense of humor.
An old sign warning of a dip on a hill??

Signs depict all the interesting place names of the Red Hills.

Some signs depict a lot of irony. What traffic? 

The Red Hills are, indeed, a giant park!

A call for a higher power during drought.

Have to be careful with a caption for this.

It's "Red Hills" in Clark County.
In the eastern portion, you better say
"Gyp Hills."

The "Gyp Hills" weren't too scenic immediately
after the Anderson Creek
Wildfire but recovered nicely. 

A number of what appears to be "home-made" signs are found in some weird places.

Another business proud of its geography.

...and another Red Hills sign.

...and another seemingly "home-made" road sign.
The sign that depicts perhaps the top iconic feature of the Red (Gyp) Hills
 just southwest of Medicine Lodge.
     Nothing stationary about this sign on Hiway 160 east of Coldwater on a windy day.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Caving the Kansas Outback

     Few know the underground secrets of the Red Hills. As delicate as these resources are, that's a good thing. Fragile refuges in a world of dark, these caves harbor delicate wildlife, special cultural records and ancient art. But some dedicated spelunkers and wildlife biologists investigate these secrets. By better understanding the biological components as well as the structural elements, good conservation of this rare Kansas habitat and its features might endure. Of the state's 800 plus caves known, over half occur in the Red Hills. More accurately, they are in a portion of the Red Hills called the Gyp Hills. Named for the gypsum layer (Blaine Formation) the Gyp Hills are primarily identified with the western half of Barber County and the south-eastern portion of Comanche County. Composed of calcium sulfate, this layer dissolves and over time exposes many cracks, crevices and caves--some big enough for adventure. All of this is on private land. This has been beneficial in preserving these precious resources as they are hard to get to and require landowner permission. Landowners have been gracious in permitting researchers and students some access as they appreciate their special stewardship responsibilities as well as understanding the cool plants and animals occupying their ranches. Come along for a special trip and exposure to some of the best kept secret treasures of Kansas.

Note: Vids may not play on Iphones. They are supposed to take MP4 format but may not for some reason. There shouldn't be any issue playing on a PC or MAC.

No one knows more about the cave bats of the Red Hills than Stan Roth. Mr. Roth has educated
young and old for over four decades of the amazing plants and animals in and around these caves.
As he investigates Gentry Cave, hundreds of Cave Myotis Bats swirl about him.

Some students have had the privilege of visiting and
learning about Red Hills caves.

Big Gyp Cave boasts the largest opening of any Kansas cave as well as the only
known harbinger of ancient cave pictographs in the state.

Brazilian (Mexican) Free-tailed Bats flit about in the
deep space of Merihew Cave.


Many of these caves harbor bats. 
These spelunkers count some of them
in Lost Colony Cave.

One of the most interesting features of any
Red Hills caves is the "Devil's Backbone"
of Dancer's Cave.

These kids get a super exposure to not only a
cave but up close to a Giant Desert Centipede
found near the opening.

     Many thanks to the ranchers who practice stewardship of the unique caves of the Red Hills. Thanks also go to folks like Stan Roth and other teachers and scientists who have taught hundreds of kids as well as many adults of the values of these natural resources. Special thanks go to the Kansas Speleological Society whose members have spent many hours and resources in mapping many of these caves as well as providing valuable information contributing to their conservation.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Prairie Rebirth

   Much has been reported about the record Starbuck Wildfire that hit the Red Hills of Kansas on March 6. That day and the week that followed was a disastrous period for several wild fires in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Many people lost their homes, livestock, and some human lives. It's hard to not overstate the devastation this catastrophe brought to the affected areas. Losses are still being evaluated. While it's not hard to count lives, homes, livestock and miles of fences lost, it's more difficult to assess impacts on nature. The prairie does not suffer much from this event. After all, prairies evolved with fire so enjoy overall benefits in the long run. But, there are some immediate casualties. These include direct mortality of large and small animals as well as some desired trees. Losses of cedar trees which have encroached on the riparian zones as well as uplands of some of the area affected are generally not mourned. Windbreaks made up of cedar rows were lost and this is certainly regretted. But, the death of some of the large lowland hardwoods is very unfortunate. The most notable of these losses include the Kansas state (and world for that matter) record Little (Texas) Walnut tree in northern Clark County. This is the third state/world record of this species lost over the last year due to this fire and the Anderson Creek Wildfire of 2016. But the land and its people will recover. This post follows some of the initial recovery of nature from this natural event. 

Western Wheatgrass exemplifies the natural progression of cool season grasses and
              later, the warm season species in the barren-looking uplands. But, those are coming             on thanks to some timely and life sustaining rains and are showing some green in a scorched landscape.

Bases of yucca plants, resilient to fire events, stand out like sedent sentries to
the backdrop of Clark State Fishing Lake.

Up to six inches of rain have blessed Clark County after the
horrendous wild fire that swept the land. It gave life back to
a parched country and replenished Clark State Fishing Lake 
as shown by a quite active spillway.

Prairie and fire are natural friends. The regrowth has begun
with marked indifference to other destruction to humans, livestock,
and man-made things.

Fire, whether from prescribed burns or a wild fire such as this one,
can provide some control of undesirable plants such as Prickly
Pear cacti. There are some good things realized for rangeland
as a result of such a horrible wild fire event.

Some old abandoned farm houses were destroyed with little significant
loss realized. Others were so much more unfortunate.

Some life is reappearing. Most reptiles had not emerged from
winter hibernation yet at the time of the fire. But some, such as
this Prairie Lizard, came out under less-than-ideal reptilian
conditions, finding little to eat.

Blooming of this Wild Violet reminds us of rebirth
and beauty following disaster in a blackened landscape.

While many desired hardwood trees died in this event, streams gain
water and grasses rejoice.

A heart-breaking loss from this wild fire was the
state/world record Little (Texas) Walnut tree.
In a land of many current contrasts, this
loss particularly stands out.

     It's a hard reality for so many residents of the Red Hills to have experienced so much grief in this horrendous wild fire. We work so hard to encourage prescribed burns to enhance rangeland for cattle and wildlife. But this fire was so contrary to sound management. The Anderson Creek Wildfire from 2016 burned through a lot of cedar-infested hills and did a lot to eventually help reclaim the land to better overall productivity. But the Starbuck Wildfire was essentially a grass fire and a solemn testament that sometimes, nature simply holds the upper hand. Few would have thought that a "grass fire" could have caused so much destruction. But the unfortunate combination of very low humidity, very high winds, a healthy fuel load from a couple of years of decent precipitation and an accidental ignition reminds us of the ultimate reality of some traumatic natural events.