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.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Caving the Kansas Outback

     Few know the underground secrets of the Red Hills. As delicate as these resources are, that's a good thing. Fragile refuges in a world of dark, these caves harbor delicate wildlife, special cultural records and ancient art. But some dedicated spelunkers and wildlife biologists investigate these secrets. By better understanding the biological components as well as the structural elements, good conservation of this rare Kansas habitat and its features might endure. Of the state's 800 plus caves known, over half occur in the Red Hills. More accurately, they are in a portion of the Red Hills called the Gyp Hills. Named for the gypsum layer (Blaine Formation) the Gyp Hills are primarily identified with the western half of Barber County and the south-eastern portion of Comanche County. Composed of calcium sulfate, this layer dissolves and over time exposes many cracks, crevices and caves--some big enough for adventure. All of this is on private land. This has been beneficial in preserving these precious resources as they are hard to get to and require landowner permission. Landowners have been gracious in permitting researchers and students some access as they appreciate their special stewardship responsibilities as well as understanding the cool plants and animals occupying their ranches. Come along for a special trip and exposure to some of the best kept secret treasures of Kansas.

Note: Vids may not play on Iphones. They are supposed to take MP4 format but may not for some reason. There shouldn't be any issue playing on a PC or MAC.

No one knows more about the cave bats of the Red Hills than Stan Roth. Mr. Roth has educated
young and old for over four decades of the amazing plants and animals in and around these caves.
As he investigates Gentry Cave, hundreds of Cave Myotis Bats swirl about him.

Some students have had the privilege of visiting and
learning about Red Hills caves.

Big Gyp Cave boasts the largest opening of any Kansas cave as well as the only
known harbinger of ancient cave pictographs in the state.

Brazilian (Mexican) Free-tailed Bats flit about in the
deep space of Merihew Cave.


Many of these caves harbor bats. 
These spelunkers count some of them
in Lost Colony Cave.

One of the most interesting features of any
Red Hills caves is the "Devil's Backbone"
of Dancer's Cave.

These kids get a super exposure to not only a
cave but up close to a Giant Desert Centipede
found near the opening.

     Many thanks to the ranchers who practice stewardship of the unique caves of the Red Hills. Thanks also go to folks like Stan Roth and other teachers and scientists who have taught hundreds of kids as well as many adults of the values of these natural resources. Special thanks go to the Kansas Speleological Society whose members have spent many hours and resources in mapping many of these caves as well as providing valuable information contributing to their conservation.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Prairie Rebirth

   Much has been reported about the record Starbuck Wildfire that hit the Red Hills of Kansas on March 6. That day and the week that followed was a disastrous period for several wild fires in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Many people lost their homes, livestock, and some human lives. It's hard to not overstate the devastation this catastrophe brought to the affected areas. Losses are still being evaluated. While it's not hard to count lives, homes, livestock and miles of fences lost, it's more difficult to assess impacts on nature. The prairie does not suffer much from this event. After all, prairies evolved with fire so enjoy overall benefits in the long run. But, there are some immediate casualties. These include direct mortality of large and small animals as well as some desired trees. Losses of cedar trees which have encroached on the riparian zones as well as uplands of some of the area affected are generally not mourned. Windbreaks made up of cedar rows were lost and this is certainly regretted. But, the death of some of the large lowland hardwoods is very unfortunate. The most notable of these losses include the Kansas state (and world for that matter) record Little (Texas) Walnut tree in northern Clark County. This is the third state/world record of this species lost over the last year due to this fire and the Anderson Creek Wildfire of 2016. But the land and its people will recover. This post follows some of the initial recovery of nature from this natural event. 

Western Wheatgrass exemplifies the natural progression of cool season grasses and
              later, the warm season species in the barren-looking uplands. But, those are coming             on thanks to some timely and life sustaining rains and are showing some green in a scorched landscape.

Bases of yucca plants, resilient to fire events, stand out like sedent sentries to
the backdrop of Clark State Fishing Lake.

Up to six inches of rain have blessed Clark County after the
horrendous wild fire that swept the land. It gave life back to
a parched country and replenished Clark State Fishing Lake 
as shown by a quite active spillway.

Prairie and fire are natural friends. The regrowth has begun
with marked indifference to other destruction to humans, livestock,
and man-made things.

Fire, whether from prescribed burns or a wild fire such as this one,
can provide some control of undesirable plants such as Prickly
Pear cacti. There are some good things realized for rangeland
as a result of such a horrible wild fire event.

Some old abandoned farm houses were destroyed with little significant
loss realized. Others were so much more unfortunate.

Some life is reappearing. Most reptiles had not emerged from
winter hibernation yet at the time of the fire. But some, such as
this Prairie Lizard, came out under less-than-ideal reptilian
conditions, finding little to eat.

Blooming of this Wild Violet reminds us of rebirth
and beauty following disaster in a blackened landscape.

While many desired hardwood trees died in this event, streams gain
water and grasses rejoice.

A heart-breaking loss from this wild fire was the
state/world record Little (Texas) Walnut tree.
In a land of many current contrasts, this
loss particularly stands out.

     It's a hard reality for so many residents of the Red Hills to have experienced so much grief in this horrendous wild fire. We work so hard to encourage prescribed burns to enhance rangeland for cattle and wildlife. But this fire was so contrary to sound management. The Anderson Creek Wildfire from 2016 burned through a lot of cedar-infested hills and did a lot to eventually help reclaim the land to better overall productivity. But the Starbuck Wildfire was essentially a grass fire and a solemn testament that sometimes, nature simply holds the upper hand. Few would have thought that a "grass fire" could have caused so much destruction. But the unfortunate combination of very low humidity, very high winds, a healthy fuel load from a couple of years of decent precipitation and an accidental ignition reminds us of the ultimate reality of some traumatic natural events.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

March Madness

     Slightly over two weeks out from the disastrous Starbuck Wildfire sees the land sprouting back to life. The worst wildfire in Kansas recorded history scorched nearly 670,000 acres of Clark and Comanche county's finest ranch lands. Thousands of head of livestock, thousands of miles of fencing, homes, outbuildings, wildlife and human lives were lost in Oklahoma and Kansas. Some ranches may not recover. Yes, it is bad. But the green hope is sprouting from the ashes. I'll attempt to help convey that sense--a sense of hope, responding, rebuilding, replacing, recovering. The land has done this for eons. It's our challenge to see if our rural society can duplicate nature's tendency. There is little doubt in the Red Hills that the rural community will!
     The Ashland Cemetery overlooks a meadow of green hope springing up after the March lion blazed through this region on the 6th day of the month.

A parched land has suffered from lack of rain in the Red Hills then receives further insult
from this wildfire. Nature considers it natural. The human residents see it a bit differently.

Momma with a newborn calf awaits a hay delivery in a barren landscape.

American currant blooms provide assurances that spring is indeed here in spite of a stark, burned background.

New grass in a road ditch keeps uneasy company with encroaching sand from the neighboring field.
Wind is a huge worry while everyone and everything awaits some rain to stimulate regrowth
and protection from erosion.

The only thing more welcome than rain is green, and the red soil of the Red Hills complements it quite well.

This fire wind was so intense, it was able to jump Clark State Fishing Lake. 

Lizard tracks in wind-blown sand impart an optimism of nature
or rather a simple reality that life goes on.

The sand reveals some feathered friends who have survived the inferno--
Ring-necked pheasants in this case.  
Unfortunately, a fire like this denudes the land and exposes fragile soils
to wind erosion which can fill roadside ditches. A little rain would go a long ways right now!

The resiliency of the grassland is embodied in the new green shoots of yucca.
Some think the land is always beautiful, in any stage of year, weather, and recovery.

     Yes, March Madness has a certain meaning to most of us. But this year's madness in the Red Hills brought about a fiery lion bent on destruction. It accomplished its goal. Now the land, the wildlife, and the people are in a recovery mode. While March may leave like a lamb, hope is for a water-logged one that lingers for a few days and gives the land its desperately needed lifeblood.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Out of the Ashes

       This will not be a post of showy prairie and wildlife pictures with typical flowery accounts of amazing Red Hills attributes. In deference to the major recent disastrous wildfire, I feel compelled to offer some description and photo interpretation even as shock and grief still permeate the air as thick as the smoky haze still blanketing the land. With apologies to those whose nerves and emotions are yet frail, I think it important for people unaffected or unaware of this disaster to gain perspective of its magnitude on the life and lives of the Red Hills. 
        Recovery has started from what represents the largest wildfire in Kansas history, eclipsing the numbers of the huge Anderson Creek Wildfire from last March. This one was worse in ways beyond just size. Nearly 670,000 acres of prairie along with homes, shelterbelts, fences and other structures burned in the Starbuck Fire which started in Oklahoma and charred most of Clark County and a good portion of western Comanche County in Kansas. Two other concurrent but separate fires brought total affected acres to over 830,000. Sadly, the worst losses were in human lives in Oklahoma and in Kansas. This fact alone made this fire so much worse than last year's.This portrayal is in black and white to impart the somber reality of the disaster. There will be recovery of the land and its people which will receive the appropriate rejoicing when the time comes. If we are patient and enjoy the good graces of some timely precipitation and the incredible help from so many sources, nature and the land's people will recover. Current grief and fear of the future are being replaced by generosity and support of so many others wishing to help--help appreciated in so many ways.

This iconic store of Englewood still stands, guarding the intersection of tragedy, heroism, loss, and hope.
 Several families lost their homes here.
This land is fragile. The naked sandy soils will be very vulnerable to wind erosion.
Hope is for precipitation soon to help regrowth of the prairie and retaining the precious topsoil.
Ranchers are busily repairing and replacing thousands of miles of fence.
Gracious donations and government programs are helping immensely but it's going to take a long time!

With humidity levels in single digits and winds exceeding 50mph at times, everything in the blaze's path including shelterbelts were as vulnerable as the dry, dormant grasslands.

Sadly, many homes including new and old were burned to the ground.

The somber mood of the Englewood Cemetery evokes a sad time accurately.

Poor livestock caught in the inferno had little chance.
Hundreds of head of cattle were lost; some ranchers
lost their entire herds.

Some survivors were in such bad shape, the only
humane thing to do was put them down...quickly
if possible!
Wildlife such as this Bobwhite also suffered although this bird
was found days later from seemingly other unknown causes
but likely related to the fire. Residents report seeing pheasants,
deer, turkey and other wildlife lucky to have escaped the inferno.

One of several homes destroyed in Englewood. What if it was yours?

Ashland was spared through heroic efforts of firefighters.
The saloon survives for another round.

A small yucca offers yet some remaining green in the landscape.
A week later, a sheen of green can be seen from grasses
persisting on deeper soil moisture from earlier rains.
The flow of the Cimarron River is indifferent to the recent catastrophic
events on the landscape. The flow represents the resilient spirit of the people
and the wildlife of this beautiful country--and it will be beautiful again!

To help you can assist any landowners you may know who need help with various recovery efforts. A good place to donate is:
Ashland Community Foundation where contributions will go towards those who most need assistance in many forms. Go to: to find out how to donate.