Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mulberry Ghosts

Photo by Andi Brunson-Williams
Whose woods these are I think I know,
he lives just south a mile or so;
he’ll not be aware we’re stopping here,
to see these spooky ghosts appear.

Perhaps they saw us passing by,
and could not resist a glaring eye;
with somewhat a suspicious stare,
are we of inimical business there?

This stately stand of mulberry trees,
spent many years in making leaves;
and bearing tasty fruits for feasts,
by hungry furred and feathered beasts.

The resident of this riparian lot,
once sat concealed among the copse;
observing well all those who passed,
finally taking one nice buck at last.

These trees have watched geese V’s above,
and provided perch for loving doves;
in summer offering welcome shade,
to songbirds, mice and grateful quail.

Towards end of life, large limbs do yield,
to thankful sawyer with sharpened steel;
reducing some of mulberry grove
to desired lengths for home wood stove.

Do the spirits of these arborous brutes,
now inquire of guests now walking through;
and taunt with their auspicious stare,
these humans now trespassing there?

These simple woods are dark and deep,
they give us pause before we sleep;
with wonderful treasures they bestow,

we thank them through our shadows now.
by Ken Brunson with apologies to Robert Frost

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Winter Buck

A quiet November eve came by,
painted by an azure sky,
upon a fresh new canvas white,
a wonderful treat to these hidden eyes.

Stepping to this water hole,
majestic buck stares into my soul,
what does he see I do not know,
for now I'm content to let him go.

Days ahead may find him harm,
hunting season will give alarm,
his senses honed quite sharp,
will be tested from its start.

Does his glance imply distrust,
that I'm of tasty venison lust,
for as I admire him as I must,
reduced to table will be just.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Pocket Guide to Kansas Red Hills Wildflowers

Its here...finally!  Yes, the brand new pocket guide of the beautiful Red Hills wildflowers is now available. The Red Hills of Kansas exists in all or some of about 8 counties of south-central Kansas.  A land of rolling prairies and red dirt from the iron content, it boasts many scenic vistas accentuated by outcrops of gypsum rock therefore exemplifying its alternative name, the Gyp Hills.  The 60 species selected for this guide were considered excellent representatives for the area and, with some, it is about the only place in the state where they occur.  
Species are arranged by color and then general blooming months. Descriptions are in lay terms for easy understanding.   Interesting facts and anecdotes are included about special characteristics of each plant.  Here's a sampling:

The booklet was authored by Phyllis Scherich, Chris Berens and Carl Jarboe as well as myself. All experts in the flora of the Red Hills, these dedicated folks not only put their heart and soul into the effort but their experience and personal insights.  A number of editors offered invaluable services and most notably, Bob Gress.  As retired Director of the Great Plains Nature Center, Bob graciously offered his editorial and production expertise since he had been involved in 10 previous pocket guides as well as countless other publications, posters, articles and events.  Thanks to all who made this possible including Lorrie Beck of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversaw the whole effort.  A primary purpose of the guide is to elevate the interest in this enchanted land called the Red Hills. 

Ten-petal Mentzelia (Chalk Lily) is a great, showy representative of the Red Hills.
Published by Friends of the Great Plains Nature Center, the guide is available free at the nature center at 6232 E. 29th Street North, Wichita, Kansas 67220.  For $3, one can be mailed to you.  The guide was produced through the financial contributions of the Chickadee Checkoff of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, The Nature Conservancy in Kansas, Westar Energy Green Team, and the Comanche Pool Prairie Resource Foundation.  Additional contributors to the project through editing or photography include Larry Miller, Kyle Gerstner, Scott Sharp, Craig Freeman, and Jim Mason.  Thanks to all and the Kansas Native Plant Society for your assistance.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Road Less Traveled

The first portion of the Gyp Hills Scenic Drive winds through the eastern edge of the Red Hills west of Medicine Lodge.
Two roads diverge in an enchanted land,
and sorry I cannot travel both,
I go down one as far as I can,
to where it bends on reddish road.

This red road leads to fascinating country south from Lake City, Barber County.

Evening sun paints amazing colors on this Red Hills canvas overseen by Flower Pot Mountain in the center.

The famous "Wagon Hill" a few miles into the Gyp Hills Scenic Drive.

Cottonwoods hanging on to their hard earned "chlorophyll cash."

A rainy day imparts a soft mood to a beautiful landscape recently.  Yay for good precipitation in the Red Hills!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Summer at Smoky Valley

Summer is over.  But, memories carry on.  This is a short collage of a summer's excursion to a western part of the Kansas Outback--the Smoky Valley Ranch of The Nature Conservancy in Kansas.  Leading the way is a feisty female Eastern Collared Lizard.  Highlighted are exposures of cool stuff in Scott and Logan counties.  Natural beauty of Kansas is where you find it.  All you have to do is look.  
Eastern Collared Lizard

Puffy clouds above a hill at Scott State Park and Lake
The Bertrand homestead on west side of Smoky Valley Ranch

Chalk Lily at Scott State Park

Matt Bain, Smoky Valley Ranch Manager, a TNC MVP

Sunday, October 27, 2013

First Fire

     A recent pilgrimage to the Aldo Leopold "shack" near Baraboo, Wisconsin revived the environmental spirit in my own soul.  I find a number of elements about the Leopold farm and shack draw me nearer to the very pragmatic and conservation-based "land ethic" he professed in such an eloquent manner--both in written word and through practical application.  None of the features of his humble "chicken coop-altered shack" is perhaps more directly related to my own life meaning than respective fires we built for warmth.  Thusly--the picture of Aldo's fireplace and my own simple ode to the first fire of the fall.  One must listen to the fire crackle while reading the humble verse.

Ode to the Wood Fire

A magical light consumes this lair,
the fall’s first fire of the year,
a frosted evening approaches here,
greeted with radiant heat so near.

The aged wood so deftly cleaved,
is raging hot now where it seethes,
confined within this iron sheath,
flickering flames of chill relief.

The season’s come to give rejoice,
and southbound birds give approving voice,
to garden’s bountiful foods of choice,
now fading fast the fate they face.

Many pleasures we revere,
small and large, we hold all dear,
but most anticipated its quite clear,
the first fall fire of the year. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Rockin' in the Red Hills

     Kids love lookin under rocks.  You never know what they might find.  Paxon was on a quest for scorpions and we found some.  We also found a couple of snakes on the road.  Adaira loves the creepy crawleys too! 

 A juvenile Eastern Racer (AKA Blue Racer and Yellow-bellied Racer)
      Paxon talks about the Racer.  He knows to look at the tail first to make sure it doesn't have any rattles on it before picking it up.   Its a young-of-the year but probably a few weeks old.  

Its a little windy but Adaira wanted to talk about the Racer too!

Paxon describes the scorpion he kept.  We have one species in Kansas and its a relatively small one and not very poisonous.  Won't kill ya!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pollinator Party

    Ever seen a swarm of bees?  Its a pretty exciting natural phenomenon.  When a hive gets to a certain large population, the queen decides its time to split (literally) and take about half the worker bees (all female) with her to a new place.  So when you see a huge bunch of bees as shown in the first pic below, somewhere in the middle of all that buzzing is a queen bee who is intent on finding a new home with her "split" of bees.   

As is typical for swarms of honey bees, this mass of bees is only temporary, usually less than a day.

The bee keeper will climb the ladder and clip the limb with the swarm.  Then gently place the swarm with the queen in a hive body.  Hopefully, the queen will like the new surroundings and stay there.
Swarming bees are actually quite docile and take handling very well.  While their attending their queen, they don't get too upset being placed in a hive body with frames to make their new digs attractive.

When bees first swarm, thousands will be seen in a giant swirling mass.  This is just before they congregate where the queen landed as seen in the first picture.  If you ever have the opportunity to see this natural spectacle, watch and enjoy it.  See where the mass of bees end up.  Then call your area bee keeper as they will likely want to get the bees for a new hive.  Keeping bees is becoming even more important as pollinators such as honey bees are experiencing serious declines.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fun Fungi

Its been a quite unusual August in the Kansas Outback for sure.  Record rainfall after over two years of sweltering drought has the prairie celebrating.  And some of the first to celebrate the welcome precipitation are the fungi.  All kinds of mushrooms are popping up in the grassland as well as woodland.  Most notable are the giant puffballs of the genus Calvatia.  Very noticeable by their large appearance, what you see is actually the fruiting body, the part that produces spores.  If you can find these fresh when they are pure white, they are very edible and quite good (an excellent recipe can be found below.)  

Clavatia species can be quite large, often appearing skull-like.  They are popping up all over with all the wet weather.
These giant puffballs can get even larger than this impressive one!

These giant puffballs prefer a shelterbelt to spew their spores.
Several species of mushrooms create "fairy rings."  These rings expand over years because of the underground parts of the mushroom moving from a central location to outward areas of new food sources.   Some can be quite large.  This is a fairly small one of only about 3 ft. diameter.

  The Meadow Mushroom, Agaricus campestris, is a very common "room" during this current wet late summer.  These are also very edible and quite good but one should be very careful on identification.  The very poisonous Amanitas (Destroying Angel) can destroy your liver.  They also have the evident collar on the stem but have some very evident differences in the cap and gills.  

A close-up of this handsome specimen of Meadow Mushroom.

So what to do when mushrooms attack?  You EAT THEM.  Well, once you are sure of what you have, wild mushrooms are quite tasty.  Below, cooked up with an accompanying dish of garden vegetables, the Giant Puffballs can be sliced and fried in olive oil with garlic, onions and tomatoes.  Ummmmmmmmm, its soooooo gooooood!

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Day in the Red Hills

     I call the Red Hills the "Kansas Outback" for a good reason.  Its features have that wildness factor which can be associated with such interesting natural areas as the very recognizable and known outback of Australia.  Of course, North America has all of its incredible natural areas, parks and badlands, many of which might be characterized as having an "outback" flavor.  But for here, the Red Hills region seems to lend itself to this special appropriate moniker.  Here's a sampling of the special features one can experience in this special Kansas landscape--a day's adventure a week ago.

The gypsum formation of the Red Hills is soluble and therefore allows for many caves to develop.  Fun to explore!

The Ground Snake is a very pretty resident.

A few hundred Cave Myotis bats welcomed the spelunkers.  Several Red Hills caves offer habitats for maternity colonies and roosting.  This is one reason The Nature Conservancy of Kansas has targeted the Red Hills for conservation efforts.

The Giant Desert Centepede was guarding the entrance to the cave.  It was 8 inches long!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Messin with Sasquatch

     Sasquatch is our resident Screech Owl.  While we hear him often at dusk and into the night, we also occasionally call him in up close with a Screech Owl call recording.  Here, he poses while we "mess" with him.  He's wondering:  "Where is that other owl anyway?"  

     I shoot a little video of Sasquatch as a friend uses his own whistling to keep his interest.  Listen closely as Mike's whistling stimulates the soft but audible response from Sasquatch.  The Screech Owl call is commonly used by birders to call in other, smaller birds which come to mob the potential predator similar to kingbirds and blackbirds who like to dive at hawks.  The call brings in many species of small birds but it also attracts Screech Owls--surprise surprise.  And it's so much fun to mess with Sasquatch!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Brilliant Bunting

     Of all the birds found in the Red Hills, and in North America for that matter, none are as colorful as the Painted Bunting. While this species has been seen in many parts of the state this year, it has been a constant summer resident of the Red Hills.  Replete with nearly all the colors of nature's palette, this male's glamorous appearance is sure to attract a mate.  But wait.  There's competition with other males who are just as brilliant.  So it takes some serious singing to "get the girl."  (watch video below)
Seeing Painted Buntings - spectacular;
seeing Painted Buntings in the Red Hills -- priceless!

This Painted Bunting demonstrated wing fluttering hoping to attract a mate
--as if his incredible appearance wasn't enough!

This Painted Bunting male sings its heart out for a mate.

Ok, now its just showing off!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Happy Herpers

The Kansas Herpetological Society sponsored a summer field trip to the Red Hills recently.  Headquartered at Coldwater City Lake, the group collected and observed amphibians and reptiles in about a three county area over last weekend.  It's a funny thing about all these kids (and adults) involved in these activities; they are so enthralled with nature's wonders and being in the outdoors that video games, TV, and Iphones etc. are rarely seen.  I think there's an excellent solution to Nature Deficit Disorder and it starts with kids' fascinations with these animals!  Yay for herps.  Thanks to Travis Taggart and the Kansas Herpetological Society for leading this great event!
A Racer expresses his feelings about being the object of favor.

Adaira shows off her Texas Horned Lizard (Horny Toad).

Paxon shares his Prairie Kingsnake to new friends.  

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Wild Turkey Delight

A mother hen wild turkey came visiting this morning.

 She was very thirsty and drank from the frog pond.

Then gave great delight by showing off her brood of six young poults of just a few days old.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Prime Time on the Prairie

   For those with a fascination with weather, and sometimes violent weather, this year has had its share of offerings on the prairie.  Thunderstorms are of the highest natural theater on the prairie.  Few will take the time to watch a storm develop from its infancy as a small cumulus cloud and advancing to an anvil-headed monster ready to wreak havoc with lightning, hail and sometimes violent winds.  But joy is to the storm watcher who is at a safe distance, in sufficient shelter, to observe the greatest of nature's wonders.  I was so fortunate as a kid to have a dad who instilled in me the fascination of thunderstorms in all their glory.  While they have been quite rare the last couple of years while we suffer through drought, we have been blessed with some of this weather joy this year in the Red Hills.  Here's a sampling of yesterday's natural theater.
For weather buffs, the weather apps for smart phones are simply the best you could hope for in finding and following storms.  How cool to watch them develop and see where they are going--maybe to your place!

Watch this short vid for a beautiful display above our grasslands last evening.  Simply beautiful!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Front Line on the Cedar War

     Rancher friends, Ted and Brian Alexander show how its done down in the Red Hills.  While Eastern Red Cedar is native to this area, the trees were originally confined to the deeper canyons where natural fire could not reach them.  Since the arrival of non-native Americans, fire has been suppressed.  So, cedars are having a heyday, encroaching on rangeland, depleting water supplies to streams and creating incredible wildfire hazards.  When they get this big, there's just one solution, cut, slash and either grind or burn.  Its a huge war being waged by a collaboration between several agencies, organizations and landowners.  The Nature Conservancy of Kansas is contributing as it can to help out in the battles.  But folks like Ted and Brian have helped lead the way...on the frontline of this War on Cedars!  While the video is fun, Ted and Brian will be quick to admit this is hard and long work!

(vid and production due to Brian Alexander with help from "Pop")

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Red Hills Regalia

Can't make it down to the Red Hills right now?  Then let me take you on a little tour of the incredible wildflower display.  First, relax a bit as butterflies flit among the Purple Coneflowers.

Echinacea blankets a Red Hills hillside.  

A beautiful color variation of prickly pear cactus.  Yellow is the normal.
Serrate-leaved evening primrose and purple poppy mallow join forces to compete in the grand floral display.

St. John's Wort enjoys being guarded by stalwart Yucca and its alert flower stalks.

                     A Clouded Sulfur enjoys the nectar of Purple Coneflower--a symbiotic symphony of nature.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Big Gyp Big Time

     Big Gyp Cave is the largest cave in Kansas as far as size of entrances.  And it is in the Red Hills--gypsum country.  The Kansas Association of Biology Teachers had their summer field trip there this weekend and boy did they have a good time.  Led by the state's premier naturalist, Stan Roth, the group got to experience a special feature of the Kansas Outback that few have enjoyed.  Replete with legends about the James Gang, treasures, romance and wildlife, Big Gyp offers big adventure.  I've included some choice short video clips to give you a glimpse of this beautiful cave and its attributes.

Here's your first virtual glimpse of the size of Big Gyp

You could drive a semi truck into the entrance of Big Gyp

Stan Roth gives instructions to young and older as he has for nearly a half century.  These kids of all ages had a blast at Big Gyp.  
Pictographs such as the bison and eagle drawn on the ceiling of Big Gyp by some earlier century Kansan Native American are very rare in Kansas.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Doting Doe

    Traveling in the Kansas Outback today revealed brand new twin white-tailed fawns--and their doting mother.  These little ones were probably less than an hour old when we discovered them.  As the doe licked them and encouraged them to follow her, she soon became agitated and we watched as she started chasing something away from hew newborn fawns.  Although I was unable to get decent video, we watched her try to kick a raccoon with her front legs and ended up chasing the coon to a tree where it climbed for safety.  The coon, which would be a threat to the little fawns, finally jumped from the tree and took off lickety split!
You just don't want to mess with a Doe White-tailed Deer when she has newborn!