Saturday, July 25, 2015

8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills--Big Basin Prairie Preserve and St. Jacob's Well

Photo by Jim Mason
     With this post I launch my selections of the 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills of Kansas. Perhaps you've heard of the 8 Wonders of Kansas at ? Any self-respecting Kansan should be aware of and have been to this wonderful site developed by the Kansas Sampler Foundation and a whole bunch of fine folks and led by Marci Penner. There are other 8 wonder sub-categories including such subjects as Architecture, Art, Cuisine, History and others. I'm expanding on this theme by presenting my own selections for the special place in Kansas I call the Kansas Outback. The Red Hills represents the proverbial counter to the claim of a flat Kansas. While all of Kansas offers so many interesting features in so many categories, the Red Hills is a particular land of enchantment and treasure trove of natural surprises. In this and subsequent posts, I present my selections of the best 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills in no particular order of rank.  First to be highlighted is Big Basin Preserve and St. Jacob's Well in western Clark County.
     St. Jacob's Well is a sink hole in a particular area of the Little Basin which is, itself, part of a larger land form called the Big Basin.  The vista from the parking lot at the well exhibits the beautiful prairie landscape.  A description is provided by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism website:

     The Big Basin Prairie Preserve is 1,818 acres of native mixed grass prairie managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. This area is in the Red Hills region of Kansas. The landscape can generally be described as rolling hills with both level uplands and small canyons. The preserve also includes an intermittent stream , Keiger Creek, which flows through the northeast corner of the preserve, and two non-draining basins that make the preserve topographically and geologically unique.
Big Basin:
     Big Basin is a large circular depression. It is about one mile in diameter and about 100 feet deep. The walls of the basin are nearly vertical. Scattered across the floor of Big Basin are a number of small ephemeral ponds that catch and temporarily hold the water that flows into the basin. U.S. Highway 283 bisects Big Basin, with approximately two-thirds of the basin lying east of the road and within the confines of the preserve. The remaining western third of the basin is privately owned.
Little Basin:
     The Little Basin is about 280 yards in diameter and 35 feet from rim to floor. Within Little Basin is a small permanent pond known as St. Jacob’s Well. St. Jacob’s Well is a pool of water about 84 feet in diameter that has never been known to go dry. The well has been the subject of many local legends, most associated with the idea that the well was bottomless and/or connected to an underground stream that was capable of washing away anything that fell in the well. The well was also reportedly inhabited by blind fish. Research has shown the well to be roughly funnel shaped and 58 feet deep. No evidence of any underground stream or blind fish has been found.
     Big Basin, Little Basin, and St. Jacob’s Well were formed in the recent geological past by a process known as solution-subsidence. This process occurs when surface water gains access and dissolves underground deposits of salt, gypsum, or limestone. The overlaying layers of rock and minerals subside to fill the volume vacated by the water soluble deposits. The process of solution - subsidence is thought to still be occurring, and small depressions have been noted forming within Little Basin.
A panoramic of the water hole in the ground known as St. Jacob's Well.
A close-up of the "bottomless" well stimulates an imagination of travel-wary and thirsty pioneers and cattle drivers gleefully diving into this refreshing water and savoring buckets of life-sustaining liquid for the next few days or weeks of hot, dusty prairie travel.
Wonderful flora and fauna greet visitors to Big Basin and St. Jacob's Well.

A small herd of Bison are kept in the Big Basin and can often be seen on the drive back to St. Jacob's Well.

      More information can be found about this unique area at the Natural Kansas website: .  

Monday, July 13, 2015

Nature Abundance Disorder

     Much is made of the problem of Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) with today's profuse electronic distractions as well as other activities dominating time away from the outdoors. This is bad news for conservation. More people with a poor understanding and direct experience with nature are less able to understand its relevance and importance.  
     I'm presenting this blog post to describe another affliction, Nature Abundance Disorder (NAD.) For a general naturalist, this affliction is quite oppressive. Its symptoms include frustrations with not being able to identify plants and animals across a broad spectrum of observations.  Its solution is a life-long quest to learn nature.  I admit to being afflicted with NAD. And I admit my enthusiasm infects others such as grandchildren. No apologies. In a recent visit, we spent a couple of fairly short field trips equipped with the simplest of gear:  snake hooks, dip net, seine, bug net, gloves, boots and camera. The secret is to just get out and do it! Find a public park, a private pond or stream you can access and get the kids out there. You may not know much of what you observe but the opportunities for identification and information have never been greater with all kinds of web sources and field guides available to assist. There are numerous bird field guides as well as others ranging from butterflies to snakes and lizards.   Search state wildlife agency websites, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or just spend time googling places such as "BugGuide" and "Kansas Herp Atlas."  
     The purpose of this post is to demonstrate how much nature you can pack into just a couple of hours and how easy it is. Look under rocks and logs. Seine and dip net the stream. Inspect the stream or pond bottom for the wide variety of aquatic critters that lurk there. Watch and listen to the birds. Notice the bugs on the flowers. Studying nature is as easy as simply following your curiosity. Trust me as someone who deals with the NAD affliction! Here's what's possible in just 3-4 short hours of "outside time."  
Adaira strains to hold the seine.
Pic by Katelin Hutto
    Many aquatic surprises await to be discovered in the dip net.
A beautiful Orange-throated Darter (fish) is the best treasure in this haul.

Pic by Katelin Hutto
A small Ringneck Snake lurked under
a stream-side log.
 Like some other snakes and mammals this one plays dead
 by rolling over on its back and showing a reddish tail.
Three year-old Sylvie shows how docile
and fun this little snake is.
 On the way home while stopped on a country road, we heard a
pretty bird song and look what it turned out to be--a Painted Bunting!

Paxon found a Prairie Skink under a rock.
Visit a nature place near you.  Its as easy as going outside!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Pretty Pollinators

     Pollinators are in big trouble.  And if they are in trouble, humans are in trouble!  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 75% of plants and 75% of our food supply depend on pollinators.  They include a lot of different animals including insects and even bats in some places in the world.  This is a presentation of some pretty flowers and pollinators as well as insects which like to feed on plants.  You've probably heard of the precipitous drop in Monarch Butterfly populations.  Perhaps you've heard of the same thing happening to honey bee populations.  There is reason to be concerned as many different causes are implicated including anything which is used to eradicate "weeds."  So many of these weeds are very important to pollinators.  Milkweed with Monarchs.  Pesticide free plants with honey bees.  GMO crops and herbicides are implicated as an issue.  More research is called for to find pollinator friendly herbicides but that's a tough challenge.  It's an obvious relationship that pollinators need weeds and weeds need pollinators.  And humans need both as well as a good food supply.  Challenges indeed!  But for now, enjoy some pretty pollinators and other plant loving insects.

A clear-wing moth slurps up nectar from Woolly Verbena.

Juvenile assassin bugs rest on Woolly Verbena.

A female Widow Skimmer visits the verbena.

A Red Admiral loves the verbena too.

A Sleepy Orange butterfly takes on nourishment on the verbena.

A bumblebee loves on Silktop Dalea.

Bumblebees spreading pollen on a Bull Thistle.