Wednesday, October 3, 2018

In Honor of Horny Toads

     The Texas Horned Lizard, known humorously as the Horny Toad, is not a toad but a lizard. Nor is it a frog as is characterized by the Texas Christian University mascot, the Horned Frogs. Its scientific name is Phrynosoma cornutum. It looks like a little dinosaur with the spikes on its head and short barbs on its back but is a harmless and interesting animal. Unlike some of the other lizards of the Red Hills, this one does not lose its tail under attack. However, an interesting and unique defensive behavior is its ability to squirt blood from its eyes although this is rarely experienced by herpetologists. Another more commonly seen behavior is that when caught, the animal will puff up so as to appear larger in an effort to dissuade predators which may be convinced it is too large to try to force down a gullet. 
     This cold-blooded animal is one of the most enjoyable, wild hand pets for kids and adults. However, they are hard to keep for long periods since their wild diet consists mostly of ants. Many Kansas kids can enjoy these creatures as they occur in many areas of the state, particularly in the Smoky Hills, Flint Hills and our own Red Hills. Horny Toad populations have declined greatly in some parts of its range south of Kansas and it is on the Species In Need of Information list in this state. This simply means that it receives added attention for those studying its populations. We hope that this fascinating lizard will always be a part of the Kansas Outback and the other wild lands of this state. This post is not only about this lizard's general nature but also a report on a particular nesting success this summer near my home.

The Texas Horned Lizard is a common resident of the Red Hills as well as much of Kansas. 

This female lizard was observed
excavating a nest on June 26 of this year by my wife.
This offered a great opportunity for observation of the
success and number of eggs in this clutch.

Observed through about a 36 hour period, this mother
laid her eggs in the nest hole then covered it with sand
and gravel which can be seen immediately in front of her.

While this species is not known for nest guarding after laying eggs,
this female did hang around for about a day and a half. This pose

seems to suggest some added attention being given to the site for a
while after egg laying.

She was quite gaunt after her egg laying.

We decided to cage the area
to determine how many young would hatch. Clutch
sizes can vary from less than 10 to over 30. An average
is a couple dozen. Our nest was below average as
only 6 known young were known to emerge from
this nest over a period of about a week. After waiting

for over a week to give time for any more hatchlings,
the nest site was excavated to determine total number
of eggs and if any eggs or egg part remained. There 
was no more sign of any eggs.

The first nestling emerged from the dime-sized exit on August 24,
60 days following egg laying which is normal. Five more young
emerged over the following five days. These six nestlings were
well below the average of about 20 for this species. The day-
old nestlings were observed both staying very still as well as
running as fast as little legs could work once they were observed. 
This follows behavior of the adults as well.

Here are the tiny day-old lizards
compared to an older individual of probably
about a 1-2 months.

Exhibited is the normal behavior of
these lizards playing dead once turned
onto their back. Even the babies do it.

Another interesting first observation was
the ability of these lizards to swim. While
not that surprising, it is not a very common
opportunity to get to see these animals in a
situation where they may need to swim.

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.