Friday, November 4, 2016

Landscape-Final selection for the 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

     Called the Gyp Hills towards the eastern portion and the Red Hills further west, this special landscape exhibits the antithesis to the common perception of a flat Kansas--not that there's anything bad about that though! But this two million acre area of southcentral-southwest Kansas portrays scenes of beauty rarely matched anywhere. Harboring the second largest intact prairie  in Kansas, the mixed-grass, this landscape harbors a corresponding complement of  unique plant and animal species. Natural resource experts have labeled the Red Hills as the second most important biological Kansas ecosystem as well, second only to the vast Tallgrass Prairie in the eastern part of the state and into northern Oklahoma. The Red Hills region boasts clear, spring-fed streams, bountiful white-tailed deer, cougars, Lesser prairie-chickens, spectacular wildflower displays, caves with bats, unique geological features, fossils of the Cretaceous seas of 100 million years ago and amazing scenery--all featured in earlier Natural Wonders of the Red Hills in this blog. Without further justification, let the pictures tell the story which presents the "landscape" as the 8th and perhaps the most definitive Natural Wonder feature of the Red Hills. Gyp Hills or Red Hills--my easy way to characterize the naming conundrum is that if gyp is showing, it's the Gyp Hills; otherwise "Red Hills" suffices well and is typically the name applied to the greater area typically known for the canyons, rolling hills, intact grasslands and special features of this Land of Enchantment.

Bear Creek Ridge greets the fortunate visitor just South
of Sun City, Barber County. In the fall, Sand Lily dresses up the prairie.

The most iconic feature of the Red Hills
is Flower Pot Mountain, here shrouded in morning fog.

Big Swartz Canyon in southeast Comanche County
ranks at the top of unique geologic and biologic features
in the Red Hills. Numerous caves are found here because
of the solubility of the whitish gypsum. This particular series
of gyp outcrops, ridges, caves and unique plants and animals
probably deserves special recognition by its own right as
a special natural wonder of not only the Red Hills but for
Kansas and this part of the Great Plains.

The mouth of Big Swartz Canyon features Swartz Mound (middle pointed
feature). Mr. Swartz supposedly had a trading post here in the late
19th century servicing local pioneers and settlers as well as an alternate
route from the Ft. Zarah to Ft. Supply trail. 

The incised canyons of southwest Barber County exhibit
the characteristic Blaine Formation layer of gypsum.

Livestock is an integral and very important aspect to
the Red Hills forming a critical relationship
between well-managed grazed range and a healthy landscape.

Big Round Cap is a treasured capstone on the eastern edge
of the Red (Gyp) Hills. Being closer to Medicine Lodge, one
must be careful to use the Gyp Hills moniker which is
the more common name used in these parts.

Cheyenne sandstone sports colorful lichens with a foreground
of Prairie Gaillardia in a beautiful area in  southeast Kiowa County.

After several years of drought, the Red Hills explode in
green beauty in this part of western Clark County. While
 called Gyp Hills further east, here they are
specifically called "Red Hills."
A butte on the eastern edge of the Red (Gyp) Hills reflects
through fog in one of the many ponds characteristic of this landscape.

A little bit of gyp, a splash of smooth sumac, with a backdrop of
rolling hills and the small town of Medicine Lodge adorn this image.
Morning fog shrouds the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River valley
in southwest Barber County.

The fall colors of sumac with still-green leaves against
the contrasting gypsum layer accent any images.

A landowner and resource specialist admire the
positive effects of the Anderson Creek Wildfire occurring
in March of 2016 and review benefits from prior cedar
cutting efforts performed by the rancher.

The escarpment from the eastern plateau of the
 Red (Gyp) Hills is one of the
most picturesque features of this Land of Enchantment.

The eight natural wonders of the Red Hills:
St. Jacob's Well, Caves, Wildflowers, Grasslands, Wildlife, Fossils, Streams, and the Landscape.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Streams--the seventh of a series of the eight Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

The Medicine River at Lake City in Barber County sports its fall wardrobe.
Photo by Lee Ann Brunson
     From the larger rivers of the Red Hills to the smallest of canyon rivulets, the wonderful stream resources of the Red Hills are the lifeblood of the region. The streams are the critical water avenues of human and wild commerce in The Kansas Outback. Often taken for granted, the larger streams are generally permanent flowing, especially in the upper reaches. The Salt Fork of the Arkansas, Crooked Creek, Cimarron River, Bluff Creek, Calvary Creek, and Medicine River represent the larger of these resources. North bank tributaries to the Medicine River, in particular, are fed by a permanent pleistocene-age water source, the Great Bend Prairie Aquifer. These notable streams include Thompson, Spring, Soldier, Turkey, and Elm creeks. Mule Creek and Amber Creek are other significant tributaries in the region. This aquifer also represents life-giving water to communities, industries and agriculture in counties north of the Red Hills. These surface drains to this buried reservoir have constant flow, nurturing tremendous aquatic and riparian plant and animal diversity. Southern red belly dace and Arkansas darters dance above the gravelly, sandy creek bottoms. Red-spotted toads depend on canyon creeks for breeding sites. Barred owls haunt the riparian forests. This land of enchantment is a natural quilt of exotic, wild inhabitants all tied together by the water network of life-giving aquatic threads--the streams of the Red Hills. 

Medicine River at Sun City--named for its natural salts and used for
its known healing powers by Native Americans
Bear Creek out of its banks (Barber County)

Overhanging bank on Little Bear Creek, Barber County
Cimarron River, Comanche County

North Branch Elm Creek, Barber County
A small rivulet on a Barber County ranch showing flow
after the Anderson Creek Wildfire of March, 2016

A winter scene on Elm Creek, near Elm Mills
The uppermost reach of Nescatunga Creek, Comanche County

Salt Fork of the Arkansas River coated by morning fog,
Zbar Ranch, Barber County

Turkey Creek, Barber County

Icy time at North Branch Elm Creek, Barber County

A small, un-named rivulet showing flow recovery
following the eradication of eastern
red cedar trees from the Anderson Creek
Wildfire from March, 2016

Earlier recognized natural wonders of the Red Hills:
St. Jacob's Well, Caves, Wildflowers, Grasslands, Wildlife, and Fossils. Stay tuned for the eighth and final natural wonder soon!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Fossils--sixth in a series of the eight natural wonders of the Red Hills

     "The work of a lifetime lies within the hills surrounding the valley...Fortunate will he be who in this region devotes himself to the task of learning nature's secrets." C. N. Gould.  Thus was the pronouncement of  Gould in an article published in the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science in 1898 about the area of the Red Hills in southeast Kiowa County. Yes, well over a hundred years ago, paleontologists were well aware of and deeply entrenched in prospecting for fossils in the Red Hills. While the Niobrara Chalk of western Kansas is much better known for its rich and more famous fossils brought to the world stage by members of the Sternberg family, the older geologic layers in portions of the Red Hills yield great paleontological bounty. 
     A hundred million years ago, this area of the central Great Plains was covered by the Western Interior Sea. Areas which show the dark Kiowa shale at the lower portion of these Cretaceous age deposits were part of the relatively shallow part of this ocean. Thus, the layers of rocks and shale are rich in invertebrate fossils indicative of shallower waters. This testimony is presented by many clam, snail and oyster species found encased or loose in various formations. However, occasionally some vertebrates such as turtles, alligators, sharks and plesiosaurs show up. Plant and insect impressions have also been noted for the region. (During intermediate times when dry land existed between oceans.) While this rich natural history is ancient, it is significant enough to garner a spot among the Red Hills top eight natural wonders. Some of the amazing fascinations of this land of enchantment are revealed in subtle ways, hidden in the rocks and sediments from eons of time gone by to be discovered by current day naturalists.
A vertebrae once sported by a plesiousaur in the Western Interior Sea
was preserved only to be found by a very lucky amateur geologist
around a hundred million years after the animal suffered its demise.

Plesiosaurs similar to this depiction roamed the Western Interior Sea
throughout the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic. They are among

a number of reptilian sea monsters of the day.
Dr. Reese Barrick, Director of the Sternberg Museum, Hays, Kansas
along with Mike Everhart, Adjunct Paleontologist and Curator
for the Sternberg Museum, poke around the Kiowa Shale of the Red Hills.

Ammonites are extinct mollusks which were very prominent in the
Mesozoic seas. See the picture below but think modern day Nautilus.

Similar to our modern day Nautilus, ammonites
were varied and very numerous in ancient times.

Typically, only impressions of the ammonite shells
are found either embedded in rock or sometimes unassociated.

Occasionally, fish fossils such as the vertebrae in the upper part of
this conglomerate are found.

Fossil wood such as this ancient tree stump are
seen in some spots. Other plant parts, such as leaves
have been noted in some of these older Cretaceous layers.

This specimen perhaps was from an older time, the Permian.

    An occasional shark's tooth (see inset) can be found
either loosely but
  also often embedded in a conglomerate of
rock with fossil invertebrates.

Oysters were common in the ancient sea of the Red Hills.
This one is known as the "Devils Toe."

Clams, also a bivalve similar to oysters, are found
in the fossilized muds from the ancient sea.

Locals call this "Shell Rock" for obvious reasons. Some layers in Kiowa Shale
are made up of solid masses of shells of oysters, clams and snails. This conveys
clear evidence of the tremendous populations of these animals in the shallows
of these old waters.

For some more amazing pictures, accounts and information about Cretaceous fossils in Kansas, see Mike Everhart's incredible website:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beautiful Rebound

     This is a continuing series of the fabulous prairie recovery from the big fire. Recovery is not really the best terminology since fire is an integral part of prairie existence. Without fire, prairies become something else, choked with invasive trees and much less rangeland forage for cattle. In this case, the Anderson Creek Fire was so unfortunate for ranchers and people who suffered various losses; but, it was the best thing that could have happened for the prairie. The succession of joyous praise expressed by the native forbs and grasses is hereby further exhibited. All pics are from the burn zone of the big fire and show the amazing, natural regrowth.
Like for most of the Red Hills plants, the fire with the subsequent moisture has stimulated
  incredible flowering. Butterfly milkweed is prominent and provides quite a contrast to the dead cedars in the background. The grass regrowth has been tremendous!

Plains Spiderwort complements a lone Old Plainsman plant.
Like many plants, spiderwort has rarely been so prominent.

Hartweg's Evening Primrose is one of the showiest of
Red Hills wildflowers right now.

Leadplant is blooming profusely in good rangeland right now.
It is also seen in some of the unmowed road ditches.
It is an indicator of land that has not been over-grazed.

A red slope is covered in Cobea Penstamon.
Cobea Penstamon is perhaps the prettiest of Red Hills
wildflowers but that's so subjective isn't it?

Phyllis Scherich, current President of the Kansas Native Plant Society,
is not only an expert photographer but is the go-to expert on Red Hills
plants. As long-time rancher residents in the Red Hills, she and her husband
Dee have biological backgrounds besides first-hand experience at producing 
beef along with their sound land conservation ethic. She practices her skills
on an evening primrose in front of Creamy Milk-vetch.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Anderson Creek Wildlife Losses

     All involved with or affected by the Anderson Creek fire are humbled by the catastrophic event. There is little to diminish the negative human impacts except for the wonderful exception that there were no human physical casualties. Talking with some Red Hills ranchers may, however, reveal hidden emotional scars with some hints of aftermath akin to post traumatic stress syndrome. Better known are the numerous homes and structures, fences, and livestock losses. However, not much is known of wildlife losses other than some observations by those involved directly with fighting the fire and from landowner accounts after the event. It was impossible to try to do an inventory over such a huge area in order to estimate numbers of wildlife carcasses before scavengers and decomposition took their toll. However, common sense and knowledge of some of the biology and behaviors of animals would imply that generally birds fared better than less mobile animals. 
      Reappearance of wild turkey, deer, and even bobwhite quail are noted by many ranchers. Time will tell just how much the populations of these animals were impacted. A reasonable assumption is that it may take a couple or more breeding seasons and immigration from surrounding unaffected areas to regain population levels. However, since rangeland will ultimately be much more productive without cedars, bobwhite in particular should thrive to even better levels then pre-fire. It will logically take more time for other wildlife. Most of the scorched eastern redcedars will not be missed. But, it was unfortunate to lose so many of the desirable hardwoods--the big cottonwoods, burr oaks, and walnuts. Insects, the animal base of the food chain, undoubtedly took a beating which means further delays in the comeback of the whole ecosystem. Mid-sized mammals which could not outrun the fire or find refuges from it were probably most impacted of the larger inhabitants. Coons, opossums, porcupines, squirrels and other critters which would normally find refuge in trees were out of luck. Lizards, snakes, turtles and small mammals not able to find enough under ground refuge were toast. Visiting many areas within the burn reveals an eerie silence. Even though most migrant birds were not back in the area at the time of the fire, the fire still affected them by drastically reducing their food base. There is an obvious lack of insects and therefore birds in the fire zone compared to nearby, unburned prairie. But the plant recovery has been incredible! This post is not about the beautiful recovery. It's about some of the wildlife losses and, particularly, some of the magnificent big hardwoods lost to the flames. While the amazing lush regrowth will hasten recovery of all, let us take a moment to consider some of the wildlife casualties.

Ted Alexander and Heidi stand next to what was recognized as the world record Little (Texas) Walnut, Juglans microcarpa.  Ted and son Brian had taken great measures to clear cedars around this giant in order to protect it from fire. 

 Sadly, the TLC that Ted and Brian had performed was to no avail in the face of this monster fire.
  Another former world champion Little Walnut on the Gentry Ranch got toasted as well, even with the same attempts of clearing of cedars around it. Under less severe fire conditions or a prescribed burn, these big trees would have been fine with the measures taken to protect them.

It doesn't look like much but this was the state record Honey Mesquite tree on the Merrill Ranch.

A fried porcupine. Photo by Roy Beeley
What appears to once have been a bobcat provides stark evidence of no escape
for some. Photo by Brian Alexander

Many snakes, turtles and lizards, such as this
Great Plains Skink, certainly died in the inferno.
Photo by Brian Alexander.
Early reports are that box turtles suffered high mortalities which
is not too surprising considering the swiftness of the fire.
This coyote probably was a victim of the fire. It seemed fitting
to portray the skeleton in black and white.
     The reality is that a LOT of wildlife was obviously killed by this disaster. However, some species and groups of animals will come back more quickly. Some were hardly affected except for the decline in the basic elements in the food chain. Subsequent posts will continue to dwell on the fascinating and positive recovery of the land, its people and the wildlife.