Monday, November 30, 2015

Icy Artwork in the Hills

     An ice storm hit the region to paint crystaline pictures on the landscape. While some suffered power outages and there was certainly additional stress on livestock and wildlife, the frozen artwork provided some special eye candy. Trees laden with excessive burdens strained to retain bowed branches. Stems, leaves and seed heads enjoyed a shiny, clear covering which enhanced their usually more mundane form. All the ice sculptures have now melted, yielding the land to a not-quite-so spectacular appearance. It was cool while it lasted, at least through the naturalist's photo-lens.

Green is still prevalent along the
                stream, even during an ice storm.               
Lemon Beebalm wears ice hats while
Indiangrass bows in respect.

Dog Creek, Barber County
A covering of ice presents a
new perspective of Cocklebur.

Nature's artwork achieves some its best work
when an ice-storm hits.

Melting ice creates a surreal but
beautiful earth moment.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Grasslands-4th in a series of the 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

     Grasslands are awarded the distinction as one of the 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills.  As the fourth selection (the first three are St. Jacob's Well, Caves, and Wildflowers), this expanse of mixed-grass prairie is the second largest intact grassland in Kansas.   Composed of  short, mid and tall grasses, the primary species include Indiangrass, side-oats grama, little bluestem, sand and big bluestem, blue grama, rough dropseed , sandlove, buffalo and many, many more.  This grassland is sprinkled with well over 500 different wildflower plants adding an amazing floral display throughout the growing season.  I shall honor this category with poetry which hopefully expresses the feelings of all those who make a living in, travel through, or otherwise appreciate the Kansas grasslands.
Grassland Man

I've been on rocky mountains high,
with sculpted peaks that pierce the sky,
slivered with their crystal streams,
filled with anglers' shimmering dreams;
I've walked in desert solitude,
scorned by cactus wren or two,
and heard its sedent, silent wind,
whispering to large saguaro men;

I've spent some time in eastern woods,
watched busy squirrels stash their goods,
and sniffed the essence spring rains awakens,
of leafy perfume to a naturalist beckons;
And of these treasures I chance to hold,
these wonderful pleasures to the soul,
none quite satisfy my quest,
like the Kansas grasslands I like best;

To watch golden rays of slow sunset,
paint serenity on a prairie grouse lek,
hearing chuckled calls as night encroaches,
this scene no other delight approaches;
A thousand diamonds fill the nights,
sprinkling precious jewels of sapphire starlight,
to dance in eyes of nocturnal beasts,
who stalk for voles to fill their feasts;

Sunrise stirs an anxious breeze,
to caress the grass in endless tease,
bluestem applauds in rhythmic waves,
to greet each fresh spectral display;
And hidden midst these blades of green,
a pinkish face of an anemone,
specially picked in such quaint way,
set in its niche of this grand bouquet;

Now rustled by some scampering there,
known by whistle this bobwhite lair,
quickly silencing all quail talk,
the threatening form of red tail hawk;
Whose curious glance acknowledges me,
quite easily in this grassland sea,
its spirit sent on shrieking voice,
to meld with mine and give rejoice;

You may wish to play in mountain halls,
or sing to desert canyon walls,
you may like the feel of ocean spray,
or walk the forestland some day;
But plead ye not to this deaf ear,
those sanctuaries you hold dear,
I'm rooted to my prairie home,
the land I love, the land I roam.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wildflowers--third in a series of the 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

     The floral display in the Red Hills in most years is good enough to deserve a spot on the top 8 list of Natural Wonders of the Red Hills. This year has been spectacular. From the earliest blooms of Easter Daisy in March to the last puffs of purple from gayfeathers in the fall, the chronological march of flowers paint the mixed-grass prairie with remarkable beauty. A wide variety of habitats from gypsum and sandy soils to loamy range sites set the table for a diverse floral component. It all translates to an amazing amount of eye-candy for anyone traveling the roads of the Red Hills during the growing season.
     Craig Freeman, Senior Curator for the R. L. McGregor Herbarium at the University of Kansas states there are about 630 plant species in the Red Hills. It would be impossible to present pictures of  all of just my own collection of images. I have chosen a selection here to hopefully delight the viewer and to perhaps demonstrate the legitimacy of this component of this ecosystem as one of the 8 Natural Wonders in this land of enchantment. This posie parade starts with the iconic, showy fall wildflower of the Red Hills, Ten-petal Mentzelia or "Candleflower."


       Indian Blanket Flower (AKA Cowboy Daisy--one of the most recognizable and
common long-season bloomers.  Also called Rosering Gaillardia.)

Blue Funnel-lily

Blue Wild Indigo

Buckeye and variegated butterflies on Black Sampson (AKA Snakeroot)

Butterfly Milkweed

Cardinal Flower--along streams

Cobea Beardtongue

Prairie Coneflower

Stout Scorpion-weed attracting a Digger Bee

Dotted Gayfeather

Butterflies on Echinacea (Black Sampson or Snakeroot)

 Rayless Gaillardia (tall ones) in with Norton Flax (blue), Stiff Stem Flax (yellow)
and Narrowleaf Yucca (Soapweed along the fence)

Purple Locoweed, AKA Lambert Crazyweed, with Plains Hymenoxis (yellow)

Scarlet Globe Mallow

Purple Poppy Mallow (AKA Prairie Winecup or Cowboy Rose)

A reddish version of the usually yellow flower of Prickly Pear cactus

Bush Morning-glory

Plains Gayfeather

Lemon Bee Balm

White Beardtongue (Penstemon)

Pincushion Cactus

Prairie Blanketflower (Gaillardia)

Purple Poppy Mallow (Prairie Winecup or Cowboy Rose)

Cat-claw Sensitive Brier

Golden Prairie Clover (Silk-top Dalea)

Prairie Spiderwort (Cow Slobbers)

Smooth Twist Flower (foreground), Spotted Bee Balm(background)

Want to see more?  Here's a handy guide to Red Hills wildflowers.  Contact me if you'd like one. Also, one of the best sources on-line is Michael Haddock's website called Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses.  Google it for plants of the Red Hills and the rest of Kansas.  Also, just out this year is a fantastic book called "Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds" by Michael Haddock, Craig Freeman and Janet Bare.  It is available through the University Press of Kansas.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Galapagos/Red Hills Similarities

     A recent trip to the Galapagos archipelago certainly highlighted the uniqueness of these islands and their natural resources. One might think a prairie traveler would be hard pressed to find similarities between the rolling mixed-grass prairie and these amazing habitats and their inhabitants. Surprisingly, some of the same species occur in both places.The seemingly ubiquitous Yellow Warbler is common to many of the islands of the Galapagos just as it is here on the plains.  And so it is with the Great Blue Heron as well. Even the Magnificent Frigatebird has been observed in Kansas and likely at least in the air space over the Red Hills. The most evident commonality though rests with the somewhat natural element of humans. Humans began occupying the Galapagos by early in the 1800's. Whaling ships had visited them much earlier. Humans have been in the Red Hills for much longer then when Sperm Whales were being slaughtered off the coast of South America. 
     The problem has been that the European humans which invaded both the Galapagos and the middle of this continent brought huge problems with them. Perhaps the biggest problem for the Galapagos Islands were the European rats-the Norway and the Black rats. They decimated native rodents as well as many species of birds and other wildlife. As is the case for so many exotic animals, when placed in a new environment, they have a major advantage and out-compete, out-populate, and eradicate native species.The Yellow Warbler and the Great Blue Heron are native species of both the Galapagos and the Red Hills and have adapted with the other native species. The Magnificent Frigatebird is just a very occasional visitor to Kansas and poses no threat. The European rats continue to be a huge threat to the Galapagos biota but not as prevalent in the grasslands of the Red Hills. However, humans are still introducing exotic species to the Red Hills. Old World Bluestem is the latest, greatest threat. We will deal more with that in a later blog post but for now, enjoy some of the critters that call both the Red Hills and the Galapagos home.
(All photos except the rat and Quito are from the Galapagos Islands.)

This Yellow Warbler was photographed in the Galapagos Islands but is common to Kansas as well.
Another species photographed on the Galapagos Islands but very common in our prairie world as well is the Great Blue Heron.

A young Magnificent Frigatebird such as this has been documented in Kansas skies as well as the Galapagos Islands where it is common.

Probably the biggest threat to the Galapagos Islands are humans.  As evidenced by this concentration of humans in Quito on the mainland of Ecuador, there is a growing population in three main communities in the islands.  New residency as well as tourism is tightly controlled although it could change drastically in the future.  The new demands for space and resources for additional residents and tourism infrastructure could "love" the islands to death.  

The Norway Rat was brought to the Galapagos Islands even before settlement as stowaways on whaling ships before 1800.  It and its relative, the Black Rat, have decimated native wildlife and plant populations.  However, in recent decades, there has been some success in eradication programs for these species on some of the islands.  (Photo courtesy of Kansas Mammals Atlas, Sternberg Museum and Fort Hays State University.) 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Caves--second in the series of 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

      Over half of the estimated 700 or so caves in Kansas occur in the Red Hills. Ranging from openings big enough to drive a truck through to crevices so tight it would make an earthworm claustrophobic, they harbor adventures and fascinations beyond belief. The many caves of the Red Hills occur in that portion of primarily Barber and Comanche counties where the Blaine Formation of gypsum is exposed. Water dissolves this mineral which is made up of calcium sulfate in various forms. Besides the amazing bats and other animals which make these holes their home, there are beautiful crystalline ceilings and walls in some of the caves. The Kansas Speleological Society has mapped many of these caves and is a dedicated group of spelunkers who take pride in not only enjoying these treasures but taking great measures to protect them and their wildlife. 
     All of these caverns and crevices are on private ground. They are not readily accessible to the public and this is probably a key reason they have not been significantly impacted in bad ways. However, increased energy and mining development in this portion of the Red Hills could definitely affect them. These are fragile and unique ecosystems for Kansas and deserve our collective conservation attention. They also deserve recognition as one of the 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills. 

Paxon admires the sun shining through an opening and onto a reflecting pool in
 Triple Arches Cave.

       No one knows more about the cave bats of the Red Hills than Stan Roth, retired instructor from Lawrence. Stan spent over four decades taking students to caves in the Red Hills and studying all the interesting features in this Kansas Outback! Stan still devotes time and trips to the Red Hills, and continues to educate more students of all ages. Here, Stan enjoys a maternity colony of Cave Myotis bats in Gentry Cave.

Adaira wiggles her way through Double Entrance S Cave.

Lance Hedges was an incredible friend and colleague. Here, he spends some quality time in Havard Cave along with local rancher, Nate Harts, who is checking out the Registry.  Registries, where cavers record their names and visit dates, are maintained in a number of Red Hills caves by the Kansas Speleological Society.
The author sits next to the head of a distiller tank once used to make "spirits" in Still Cave.   Intriguing stories such as this abound in this land of enchantment and mystique. 

Townsend's Big-eared Bats hang out in many of the caves of the Red Hills.

A classic scene in the Red Hills is where gypsum outcrops are seen. This is known locally as the "Gypsum Hills," because, well, that's where we are able to observe the gypsum.