October Richness

Life flies by for all of us and it is easy to miss or forget what happens in a given month. When reviewing recent photographs on my phone, I was pleasantly reminded of all the richness that happened over the last four weeks or so. October in Kansas is that great fall transition period between summer and winter, hot and cold, green and brown, and fast and slow when there is SO MUCH to see. For those that feel that they endure the extremes of Kansas to revel in the moderation that comes with fall, October is your time.

I was reminded from these photos of our Dyck Arboretum of the Plains mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land. Let’s review in the following photos the richness that can be found in that interface between the plants/wildlife of Kansas and the people that enjoy this place in October.

Monarch fallout.

October 1 brought a monarch “fallout” when their migration was interrupted by strong south winds. They momentarily took a break from their journey and sought shelter in our Osage orange hedge row.

Tagged monarchs.

Local monarch enthusiast, Karen Fulk, took advantage of the fallout to capture and tag monarchs with identification numbers that help other monarch observers in Mexico or elsewhere to better understand the speed and location of their migration.

Middle school students measuring tree height with the “rough estimate” method.

Santa Fe Middle School students from Newton were able to witness the end of the monarch fallout on October 2 and also enjoyed various activities on the Dyck Arboretum campus that included insect collecting, plant sampling and measuring tree height. The Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) Program curriculum has a lesson that teaches students how to measure tree height with five different methods including estimation, shadows, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

Measuring tree height.
Lorna Harder teaching a 5th Grader about plant identification.

On October 6, former and current Dyck Arboretum board members hosted tours of their homes and land near Hesston for Arboretum Prairie Partners. Lorna and Bob Harder gave a tour of their solar photovoltaic-powered home and surrounding prairie landscape and LeAnn and Stan Clark hosted everyone for dinner on their patio surrounded by extensive native plant landscaping.

Lorna Harder leading a tour of the native prairie she is helping steward.
Director, Scott Vogt, welcoming Arboretum Prairie Partners to a meal on LeAnn and Stan Clark’s patio.

Hesston Elementary students took a field trip to the Arboretum on October 10 to conduct a leaf scavenger hunt, learn about monarch migration, observe different seed dispersal mechanisms and study insect diversity in the prairie.

Hesston Elementary students search for insects in the Arboretum reconstructed prairie.
Finding seeds, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, spiders, true bugs, and more.
Insect sweeping.
Students found a female striped wolf spider carrying its newborn young on its abdomen.
Grasshoppers are plentiful in the prairie during October.
Initial insect skittishness turned to fondness during the field trip.
Beehives at Earhart.

Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary in Wichita, a Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools participating school, engages their students in environmental education with hands-on activities such as beekeeping. Students tend the bees, grow and maintain native plant gardens as nectar sources, and regularly camp on their grounds to learn more about the natural world around them.

Earhart students check a birdfeeder while searching for insects in one of their courtyard native plant gardens.
Earhart students found a preying mantis egg casing or ootheca.

On October 17, Walton Elementary (another Kansas EPS School) students came to the Arboretum to collect seed and study how seeds disperse. They each had a target plant they were searching for and from which they were aiming to collect seed. They did the same last year, germinated the seed in their greenhouse over the winter, and had a successful native plant sale in the Walton community.

College students observing a garter snake.

Bethel College environmental science classes visited the Arboretum on October 24 to learn about the native plants and wildlife of Kansas, natural resource management, and ecological restoration. When students become interested in and well-versed about the natural world around them, they will turn into more informed and better-educated environmental decision-makers of the future.

Bethel students found a Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar crossing an Arboretum sidewalk.
‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac from an Arboretum plant sale was in autumn splendor on October 26 at my house.

Part of establishing a rich sense of place for people in any one location involves not only natural history connection cultural enrichment through the arts. The Dyck Arboretum’s Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) features eight live music performances each season. Our 2019-20 season was kicked off with October bookend performances featuring Mark Erelli on September 29 and recently The Steel Wheels on October 26.

Mark Erelli – the first show of the 2019-20 PWCS.
The Steel Wheels – the second show of the 2019-20 PWCS.

On October 29, a stunning cold front rolled through Kansas and chilling temperatures caused delicately-held leaves on trees like ash, maple, Osage orange, and ginko to fall within hours. Social media posts were featuring leaves dropping quickly that day all over Kansas to make for a memorable fall day.

Ginko leaves and ‘iron butterfly’ ironweed.

The 2019 Eco-Meet Championships will be held at Dyck Arboretum in early November. In late October, organizers and high school teams from around the state were visiting the Arboretum to prepare for the big event. The competition will allow some of the brightest science students from around the state to showcase their knowledge on subjects including prairies, woodlands, entomology, and ornithology.

Students from Smoky Valley High visited the Arboretum on October 31 to prepare for Eco-Meet.

The cold nights and relatively warm days of late October have allowed the grass and tree leaves to show off their bright colors that have been hidden all growing season by the green pigments of chlorophyll. Seed heads are opening and dispersal mechanisms that catch the wind or lure animals are on full display. Good ground moisture and warm temperatures are still even allowing for a bit of late-season flowering from some species.

Sugar maple.
Little bluestem.
Seeds dispersing from a common milkweed pod.
The fall prairie is loaded with seeds this season which is good for seed-eating mammals and birds.
It has been a mast year for trees and the ground under this burr oak was covered with acorns.
Late season flowering by Leavenworth eryngo.
Aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’.

I’ll leave you with a video (sorry for the terrible camera work) of one of my favorite sights of every October – when the aromatic asters are in full bloom and late-season pollinators belly up to the nectar bar on a warm fall day. Enjoy.

Video of Pollinators nectaring on aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

Finding Value in the Undesirables

It is time to give some props to the plants that don’t always play nice in the urban landscape. Over the past month, I have enjoyed finding value in the undesirables.

In recent years, we have culled tall and aggressive native plant species from our plant sales because they become weedy and dominant in small manicured gardens. They out-compete shorter, slower-growing species for which we also find value. But even though some of these species may be landscape bullies, they still provide nectar for pollinators, food for seed eaters, vegetation for host-specific insect larvae, and beautiful flowers to please the human eye.

In some of the low-maintenance habitat areas here at the Arboretum, I’ve been recently admiring the profuse blooms and insect-attracting abilities of the following species:

  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis),
  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum),
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba),
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum),
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca),
  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  • Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
Canada goldenrod with a host of fly, beetle, and true bug pollinators.
Western ironweed with a beetle and a sweat bee.
Tall joe-pye weed with an Ailanthus webworm moth and a beetle.
Tall joe-pye weed with a wasp.
Tall joe-pye weed with a predatory wheel bug.
Brown-eyed susan with an ambush bug.
Brown-eyed susan with a checkered skipper.
Brown-eyed susan with a Horace’s duskywing.
Tall thistle with an eastern tiger swallowtail.
Common milkweed with large milkweed bugs.
Common milkweed with a milkweed longhorn beetle.

While I would not recommend these plants for the more manicured parts of your yard where you weed, mulch, and tend for a tidier look, consider these “undesirables” for more wild places around you. You will only find a couple of these species for purchase at our plant sales. But you can find all of them in the landscapes around our grounds and I will be happy to pick some seed for you to take home and disperse in your wild places. The insects and greater ecosystem around you will benefit!

Concentration of Blooms

When I recommend native plants for a particular landscape, I’ve learned to focus on the fact that people and the insects they are hoping to attract are conditioned to desire seeing a concentration of blooms with decent repetition. Some of the fascinating parts of landscaping with native plants are that they also have interesting features regarding their vegetation, seed pods, relationship to insects as host plants, and natural/cultural history stories that accompany them as Kansas native plants as well. But first and foremost, their flowers are what most intrigue the masses.

A profusion of purple is about to happen at Dyck Arboretum when the annual Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) hits its colorful stride in late August to early September.

A Long Growing Season in Kansas

The challenge when landscaping in Kansas is that our growing season is long, spanning 7 to 8 months, generally from March to October. A given landscape only has so much space for plant repetition and one has to choose which plant species will be planted in big numbers to have a concentration of color when desired. With a school planting, for example, I will mostly choose species that bloom in either April-May or August-September when students will see and enjoy them.

The angst I have in knowing that rigid sunflower (Helianthus rigidus) is having an increasingly dominating presence in our Arboretum prairie reconstruction is slightly soothed by the salve of its showy floral display in mid-September.

When you plant just a handful of species with big numbers of each for a few different times of focused colorful brilliance, you look like a genius during those times of flowering. Each perennial species, however, blooms for only a couple of weeks or so. When the plants are not blooming, critics of native plantings may label your garden as “too wild” or “dead-looking” when vegetation begins to senesce. These folks are not too forgiving of the fact that perennial plants must first build vegetation before they can flower. and then invest energy in building roots so they can come back again next year. So, one needs to find a reasonable balance between sufficient repetition of a given species and making sure there are enough species to provide blooming overlap throughout the growing season.

Prominent Prairie Grasses in July

This concept of concentrated flowering, or lack thereof, is on my mind every July when the Kansas temperatures are hottest and the well-adapted warm-season prairie grasses that are a significant part of the prairie matrix begin to shine. Grass flowers are wind-pollinated and understandably not investing in colorful flowers with a design to attract pollinators. It always seems to me that prairies in July are dominated by green, and that any blooming non-grass flowers stand out.

Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pychnostachya) looks great when it blooms around our pond edge in late July, especially because of its eye-catching repetition.

Inspiration of High Elevation Wildflowers

My family and I usually get away for vacation to Colorado or somewhere west of Kansas to enjoy different landscapes. These trips usually take us to areas with higher elevations, cooler air, and snow-melt streams. Above 5,000 feet in elevation, these areas have much shorter growing seasons, roughly half of that in Kansas. This phenomenon concentrates the flowering of available species into a tighter window of opportunity causing many blooming occurrences to overlap. Since late July is the center of that growing season, the wildflowers are often at their peak during our visits.

Sunflower family plants wash this mountain-side in yellow with the punctuation of purple penstemon and red Indian paintbrush along Brush Creek Trail above Crested Butte, the so-called “Wildflower Capitol of Colorado.”

During our last two July vacations to Montana’s Glacier National Park (GNP) and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2018 and 2019, respectively, we witnessed especially lush displays of wildflowers that made hikes for me most enjoyable. The following photo collage includes species observed on mountain trails that made me pause and take note. They each have similar-looking close relatives in Kansas.

While I know that most mountain wildflowers won’t survive in Kansas, I am still inspired by them. I observe their site-specificity with regard to moisture/light, what wildlife they attract, and their growth form — often including many plants of one species creating a concentration of color. Our upcoming Fall 2019 FloraKansas Plant Festival will offer many native species that thrive in our Kansas climate and soils. Plan to peruse the options, see what catches your eye, plant them in repetition, and be inspired.

Creamy-colored beargrass (not a grass, but a lily) and pink subalpine spirea provide landscaping inspiration along the Iceberg Lake Trail in Glacier National Park.

The Prairie Window Concert Series Is Good for You

I usually like to have data and science to back up what I believe and claim. But today, I’m going to go with a gut feeling and make a bold statement. The Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) is good for you. It will make improvements to your physical, mental, spiritual well-being…yeah, all of it.

If you are anything like me, I would expect you to approach this claim with skepticism. Therefore, I’ll include a couple of references in this post to loosely back up its premise and make both of us feel better. (See obligatory reference #1 after this paragraph). But with this claim, I profess it mostly because it feels right.

The Goodness of Music

I’ll start with how music is seemingly ever-present during some of the most revered time with my family and friends throughout the year. Vacation and holiday playlists always are special and highly anticipated. The Walnut Valley Festival (aka, “Winfield”) playlist is extensive and was put together with great care. When it starts playing late summer in anticipation of September, it brings about tingling excitement in our family like no other time of the year. Music is essential to these experiences and these experiences are good for me, so there you have it.

The next generation making music at Winfield (Photo by Jenni Koontz).

Whether I’m happy, sad, excited, somber, exercising or being still, I know of music to fit that particular situation. Americana, bluegrass, classical, country, rock, jazz, rap, honky tonk, Irish, new age, Zydeco, hip hop, and alternative are all proper contributors. Portable devices, powerful small speakers, noise-canceling headphones, feather-light earbuds, digital music collections, and limitless streaming services make it easier than ever to allow music to accompany us and accentuate any occasion. (Obligatory reference #2, How Music Affects the Brain) Usually, that music listening happens while multi-tasking on something else.

The Prairie Window Concert Series

Thanks to the Old Settler’s Inn and the Prairie Window Concert Series, I’ve been able to regularly enjoy the music of blues legend, Guy Davis, up close and personal.

When you specifically focus on live music, uninterrupted in an intimate, listening room setting with friends and family, the music experience can be even better. With the PWCS at Dyck Arboretum, you can engage your senses further with a stroll through a diverse and thriving landscape teeming with colorful flowers and pollinators.

Late summer is a great time to visit the Arboretum when flowers and pollinators are showiest.

At intermission, you can indulge in delicious Crust & Crumb fare. The culmination of these layers at a PWCS show has to be good for you.

Crust & Crumb loves you and is good for you (Photo by Sharon Entz).

28 Years and Counting

Miner and Valetta Seymour designed this experience to perfection in 1991 at the Old Settler’s Inn in Moundridge. (See PWCS History) The overall structure of the series, including Sunday afternoon shows to hear quality artists of various genres and enjoy good food during intermission, still thrives 28 years later. Talented artists bring their passions to the PWCS stage on eight occasions each season. They share their finely honed craft, passions, and dreams while trying to make a living doing something they love.

Today, I am excited to introduce the 2019-2020 PWCS lineup. It is loaded with immense talent that includes a number of new artists and a few familiar ones. Visit our website, learn more about the artists and enjoy their music. Join the growing group of season ticket holders and take advantage of our early bird discount, and consider becoming an underwriter. You will not only support this unique live musical arts experience in South Central Kansas, but you will have fun while engaging regularly with familiar faces in a music-loving community.

Dare I say, your happiness and well-being depend on it.

Welcoming Insects

“If you build it, they will come.”

I often use this phrase to describe my home prairie garden which is a common misquote from a favorite 1989 baseball movie, Field of Dreams. The actual quote uses he, not they…multiple baseball players walk out of the cornfield when he builds the field…hence the likely confusion. Nevertheless, the premise of my misquote seems to be proven by my observations. Insects and a whole host of other wildlife species come to my yard, because of the plants I am adding to my landscape.

Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed

I haven’t done any quantitative sampling of insects in my yard to prove with statistical certainty that landscaping with native plants has increased the presence of fauna around my home. However, every year I do see what seem like increasingly more insects, as well as other animals that eat insects, around my yard. Therefore, I am deducing that Kevin Costner’s quote (or my made-up version) rings true for me.

Red milkweed beetle on common milkweed.

A Diverse Food Web

It would make sense that an increase in insects in my yard would happen as plant diversity increases in our landscape. The principles of ecology and trophic levels of food webs tell us this will happen. In a previous blog post (In Awe of Insects), I discuss an Earth Partnership for Schools curriculum activity called “Sweeping Discoveries.” We do this activity at Dyck Arboretum on a regular basis with teachers and students to test whether insect diversity is higher in a fescue lawn or prairie garden. The prairie garden always produces greater numbers and greater diversity of insect species.

Ailanthus webworm moth – an introduced species that uses the invasive exotic tree-of-heaven for its host plant. Unfortunately, this tree is showing up all over our neighborhood and it makes sense that this little moth is around now too.

Plenty of Moisture

Another factor coming into play that is likely causing a bountiful number of insects in our yard has been an abundance of rainfall in the first half of 2019. Roughly half of the Newton, KS area’s 34 inches of average annual precipitation fell in record-breaking fashion during the month of May. Not only is this prairie garden mature, since I have been adding to it regularly for 15 years now, but the existing plants are reaching their maximum size and duration of flowering due to the abundant moisture. There is plenty of host plant material and nectar right now for insects.

15+ inches of rain in the last six weeks has made the garden quite lush.

Herbivores and Carnivores

I make daily morning/evening weeding and observation visits in our prairie garden. I have enjoyed watching butterflies, flies, moths, beetles, true bugs, ants, katydids, small bees, big bumblebees, and more in recent weeks. The especially intense blooming of common milkweed has really attracted plant-eating and nectar-sipping insect visitors lately.

Bumblebee on common milkweed.

As one would expect, species that eat insects should also be abundant. Insectivorous birds common around our urban yard include grackles, cardinals, brown thrashers, black-capped chickadees, Carolina wrens, bluejays, starlings, Baltimore orioles, chimney swifts, and American robins. Joining these birds in our yard are carnivores including assassin bugs, Great Plains skinks, big brown bats, preying mantis, spiders, cicada killers, eastern screech owls, and Cooper’s hawks that have made their presence known (somewhat regularly).

Our big brown bat population (up to 16 at last count) eats loads of insects around the yard.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

If you have any interest in learning more about the butterflies in Kansas and even if you are a butterfly novice, consider joining me and others this Saturday, June 22, 2019 at our 20th Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count. Spend either a half or full day looking for, identifying, and counting butterflies with experienced group leaders around the county. This citizen science data is logged through the North American Butterfly Association and helps track trends in butterfly populations. Send me an email if you are interested and I will get you involved.

With monarch populations on the decline, regular monitoring of this species is more important than ever.

Now, get out there and tune into the fascinating world of insects around you. Consider what you can do to add more plant diversity, and ultimately more insect and wildlife diversity to your landscape. Both you and the insects will benefit.

Woodland Phlox

Few plants are as visually striking to me in spring as woodland phlox with its showy lavender color, blooming mid to late April in Kansas. Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) is a woodland understory species with a vast native range that covers much of the Eastern U.S. (including the eastern third of Kansas) and Canada.

A Book About Phlox

Jim Locklear, a former director for Dyck Arboretum of the Plains, published in 2011 the book Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener’s Guide. In his description of woodland phlox (he calls it timber phlox), Jim highlights just how perfect this species is found to be: “It speaks volumes that horticulturists in eighteenth-century Europe just left timber phlox alone. While they started refining the other phloxes coming in from the American colonies as soon as they got their hands on them–making selections and breeding new hybrids–they found little reason to fiddle with timber phlox. What could be done to improve upon the earthy, cerulean mood it brought to the springtime garden? Today, timber phlox is an essential element of the shade and woodland garden on both sides of the Atlantic, valued for the bluish hues of its fragrant flowers and its early season of bloom.”

Growing Woodland Phlox

Growing woodland wildflowers in historically prairie-adapted Kansas can be a struggle. Even under the shade of city shade trees, the hot, windy summer conditions here still make it challenging to replicate a moist, cool woodland understory environment where these plants thrive. But among the spring woodland wildflowers I’ve inserted into the shady areas of my home landscape, woodland phlox seems to be one of the easier species to establish. It is even spreading specifically in the locations where I have planted it.

Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) provides the following for the best conditions in which to grow woodland phlox: “Best grown in humusy, medium moisture, well-drained soil in part shade to full shade. Prefers rich, moist, organic soils. Appreciates a light summer mulch which helps retain moisture and keep roots cool.” As with any new planting, be sure to give it regular water as needed for the first year, and since it is a woodland species, supplemental water after that during hot summer droughts.

MOBOT further describes that the genus name is derived from the Greek word phlox meaning flame in reference to the intense flower colors of some varieties. The species epithet divaricata means spreading. Woodland phlox attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Conveniently, woodland phlox is showing off its flare along the path to our Dyck Arboretum greenhouse to the delight of the throngs of people visiting during our spring FloraKansas Plant Festival happening this weekend. Consider adding woodland phlox to a shady location in your landscape and enjoy its “earthy, cerulean mood” for many springtimes to come.

Fire: A Link Between People and the Prairie

Over the last week, I have been helping conduct prescribed burns on the prairies at Dyck Arboretum as well as for some area landowners. This annual spring ritual for me is one of the most engaging examples of our mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.

A prescribed burn in process at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

For thousands of years since the last ice age, prairie has evolved with fire, an essential element of disturbance that maintains prairie as prairie. Without fire, readily available seeds of trees and shrubs will invade and turn prairie into forest within decades. Gone are the days when lightning or Native American-set fires regularly kept this element of maintenance in place every few years. Today, landowners, ranchers, and land managers must regularly be the starters of fire. A few years ago, I blogged more in depth about why we should Embrace Prairie Burning.

Conducting A Safe Burn

I cannot sufficiently instruct one to conduct a prescribed burn in a short blog post, but I will summarize the important elements to be considered when making fire go where you want it go. Conducting a safe prescribed burn is in actuality a simple process, but one MUST adhere to strict guidelines regarding 1) relative humidity, and 2) wind speed. When relative humidity (RH) is at 80%, fire is very difficult to start and when it is at 20%, fire is very difficult to put out. Making sure that the start and end time of the burn stay within those parameters is paramount, and sunlight and temperature have a profound effect on RH. With every 20-degree F increase, RH drops in half.

Wind speeds between 5-15 miles per hour (mph) are important too. Below 5 mph, winds can be shifty, unpredictable and dangerous when trying to control fire. And it probably goes without saying, but winds over 15 mph can easily carry flames where you don’t want them to go. A 911 dispatcher will not allow a burn to start if wind gusts are above 15 mph, anyway.

There are three types of fire we regularly refer to in prescribed burning. A back fire works directly against the wind, a flank fire works perpendicular to the wind, and a head fire is pushed with the wind.

A back fire working against the wind is the most easily controlled fire type.
A flank fire, is the second most controllable fire and it is only lit once a back fire has safely established the downwind portion of the burn unit.
A head fire that roars with the wind is only lit after the back and flank fires have safely secured all areas of the burn unit.

The intensity of these three fire types is from low to high, respectively, as is their ease of control. To most easily contain a fire within a particular burn unit, we start with downwind back fires until a sufficient black line is established, work around to flank fires until those flanks are made safe, and then finish with a head fire to most quickly finish the burn once all the boundaries have been sufficiently secured. The following diagram, shows the general progression of a prescribed burn, otherwise known as the ring fire technique.

Graphic from fact sheet on Planning and Conducting a Prescribed Burn, provided by Kansas State University Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Important tools in managing fire include those that help you quickly move fire and those that help you quickly put it out. In the past, I used a drip torch full of a diesel/gas mixture, but have more recently relied on the much simpler (and lighter) tool of a garden rake for dragging fire. My favorite water carrying device is a water backpack and hand pump with support of extra water in a larger water tank carried by our new Hustler MDV. The backpack with a 5-gallon capacity can get heavy and cumbersome, but it sprays a reliable 10-15′ stream of water and is easily the most mobile and useful tool I know for carrying water and putting out fire.

Prescribed burning water backpack with hand pump.

Strengthening A Human Connection to the Land

The act of burning a prairie brings together the four classical elements (earth, air, fire and water). The earth produces prairie vegetation, and in spring time, the prairie is renewed after it combusts when brought together with air and fire. We use water to bring this process to a conclusion. As I stated above, people are essential to keeping this positive feedback loop going today.

The people who are essential to this stewardship process of prescribed burning include my colleagues, volunteers willing to lend a hand, and the landowners themselves who initiate the process. All of these individuals make up an important community of people strengthening a connection to the land.

Dyck Arboretum staff, student interns, and faithful volunteers are prepared to conduct a prescribed burn on a parcel of our Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction.
Landowners Ryan (far right) and Audrey Magill (second from left) are the current stewards of a 17-acre parcel of prairie near Hesston and engaged their family, friends, and neighbors to conduct a burn last week.
Naomi Rutschman, the former land steward of the Magill property, came out to observe the prescribed burn. I was able to burn this same parcel with Naomi and her husband Orville 13 years earlier.
During a burn at Bethel College earlier this week, I was able to greet a friend and mentor who inspired me over 30 years ago to pursue a career in prairie management and education. Emeritus professor, Dwight Platt, in his late 80s still mows and hand rakes acres of prairie hay for mulch on his vegetable garden.

The identity of Kansas is built around the native landscape of the prairie and fire will always be a part of that identity. While the implementation of prescribed burns may be a laborious task that can make my body feel old, it is an important ritual that keeps my spirit young.

One of my favorite experiences of conducting a prescribed burn is often found in the final moments of such an event. Once the final head fire has been lit and the hard work is complete, there are a few moments to enjoy the sounds of crackling flames of moisture-laden grasses and the happy sounds of mating boreal chorus frogs in the background.

In the video below, I leave you with the magical sights and sounds of this experience.

Harbingers of Spring

You may be tired of scraping the frost off your windshield in the morning and perhaps you grumbled while shoveling snow from your sidewalk last week (we had 3″ on 2/20/19 at Dyck Arboretum). But don’t believe Punxsutawney Phil when he predicts six more weeks of winter or become dismayed by this year’s colder spring or higher number of cloudy days than usual. Warmer weather is coming and there are harbingers of spring out there if you pay attention.

Increased Photoperiod

We are gaining roughly two minutes of sunlight every day since the December 21 solstice. The weather may have been unpredictable and cloud cover variable the last couple of months, but we can rely on the daily incremental increase of daylight like clockwork as the sun gets higher in the sky. More light means more warmth and plants/animals respond to these changes in photoperiod.

Bird Behavior

Changes in bird behavior help mark the changing of the seasons. Bird songs seem to be more prevalent in the morning recently. I heard House Finches and Northern Cardinals here at the Arboretum both singing on a morning last week (2/20/19). I would suspect that means something with regard to territory and mating. The courtship ritual of the American Woodcock is a sign of spring around dusk to twilight in early- to mid-March. Hearing their nasal “peent” while faintly seeing them circle skyward before tumbling to the ground is an interesting and memorable experience.

American Woodcocks are mostly nocturnal and difficult to see during the day where they reside in brushy wet meadows. A good time to see or at least hear them is during the early evening hours of the early spring mating season. (Photo Credit: David Seibel, Birds In Focus)

Harris’s Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos for me are signs of winter and their migration north signals spring. They are still around here in late February, but their numbers are dwindling and their presence will soon be scarce. American Robins do overwinter here, but their behavior of eating fruit will soon turn to poking around in the soil for food as soil temperature and earthworm activity increases. One can track the spring movements of wildlife, and particularly Robins, including those sighted, getting earthworms, nesting and moving in waves at Journey North.


A change in the foraging habits of American Robins from eating fruit to worms is a subtle sign of spring. (Photo Credit: Judd Patterson, Birds In Focus)

To become more in tune with birds around you, learn more about common to rare birds, their migration patterns, behaviors, songs, food preferences and more, consider joining Kansas Ornithological Society. Be sure to sign up for emails from their Kansas Bird Listserv through which you will get regular reports from experienced birders around the state.

And if you ever wonder what migrating birds are doing when they are not in Kansas, check out this very cool story about the migration of Grasshopper Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers.

Insect Activity

On warm days I look forward to seeing insects beginning to fly and move about. That means host plants and flowers are coming out or will soon be found as well. The presence of insects as food means that birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fish and predatory insects will have something to eat. Insects are an important basis for the food chain of wildlife around us.

But perhaps the most recognizable and celebrated insect out there is the monarch butterfly. Journey North again is a good place to track monarch movements as well as the emergence of their ever-important host plant, milkweed and when/where monarchs are laying eggs on milkweed. The first monarch adults were observed along the Gulf Coast this weekend (2/23 and 2/24) and I expect that we will start seeing our first monarchs in Kansas by early April.

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed at Dyck Arboretum, April 10, 2017.

Flowering Plants

Then, there are the emerging plants. The first I know to bloom here at Dyck Arboretum every year is witch hazel. As the warm sun came out one afternoon last week (2/20/19) and above-freezing temperatures melted that morning’s snow, this early-blooming shrub burst with flowers.

Hamamelis vernalis – vernal or Ozark witch hazel, Feb. 20 at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

As its two common names suggest, vernal or Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is a spring-blooming shrub that originates from the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

You have to look closely because vernal witch hazel is not an extravagant bloomer.

During warm winters, vernal witch hazel starts blooming here at the Arboretum as early as mid-January and during cold winters as late as early March. Over the last few cold weeks of February, I’ve watched seemingly struggling flowers wait partially open for their time to shine. And last week this harbinger of spring did not disappoint.

On warmer days to come, flies and bees will be attracted to the nectar of these tiny, dime-sized vernal witch hazel flowers.

The flowers of Prairie Gold® aspen (Populus tremuloides) ‘NE Arb’ are starting to emerge outside the doors of our Visitor Center. Soon the fuzzy catkins of this fast-growing tree with origins in Nebraska will emerge so the wind can disperse its pollen.

Prairie Gold® aspen
(Populus tremuloides) ‘NE Arb’ fuzzy catkins emerging Feb. 22, 2019.

And finally, the common urban tree, silver maple (Acer saccharinum), is one of the spring harbinger flowers you will probably not see, but many of us will know when it starts blooming. The airborne pollen of these not very showy wind-pollinated flowers will soon fill the air and activate itchy and watery eyes and noses (Click HERE if you want to delve a bit more into the differences between wind- and insect-pollinated flowers). I have learned that these unappealing sensations caused by wind-pollinated maples and elms early in spring are harbingers too. Locate your anti-histamine medications and roll out a welcome for spring.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) flower buds (Feb. 22, 2019) about to burst.

Winter Storytelling

We have below zero wind-chill temperatures today, making it not very conducive to being outside as a polar vortex grips the Great Plains and Midwest. But we are fortunate at Dyck Arboretum to have warm, comfortable facilities in which to share our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

At least a few examples of storytelling come to mind through which we are able to engage our membership in winter – stories about cultural history, musical arts, and the natural world, which help us continually seek a sense of place here in Kansas.

Wichita Nation Civilization of Etzanoa

Nearly 200 people (the most ever to attend our Winter Lecture Series) were riveted to a fascinating lecture last night from Wichita State University archaeologist, Dr. Donald Blakeslee. With more than 43 years of experience, no living archeologist has spent more time studying the Plains Indians. He reported on his cultural anthropology detective work in uncovering the roughly 400 year-old stories of a former thriving city of Etzanoa, which was likely populated by 20,000 Wichita Indians and was located at what we know today as Arkansas City.

A capacity crowd listening to Dr. Donald Blakeslee’s Etzanoa presentation.

Dr. Blakeslee showed photos of original maps, Spanish explorer journal entries, artifacts of hunting points, hide scrapers, bison hide hole-making tools, and more. He exhibited aerial maps of encampment sites they have located and where they still plan to explore. Donald showed photos documenting the tools they use from primitive shovel-testing methods to high tech, expensive 3-D modeling laser devices. Drawings of artistic renderings of what the Wichita Nation lodges and agricultural gardens probably looked like only enhanced Dr. Blakeslee’s storytelling.

Wichita Nation point artifacts used for hunting bison. Dr. Blakeslee’s multiple tracings of point outlines (in red) show the consistency used in their production.
Drawing depicting the lodges and fields of a Wichita Nation settlement.

Music of Moors & McCumber

Personal stories of family life, travels, history of places, and the culture of our times are all part of a Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) experience. The duo of James Moors and Kort McCumber expertly told these stories a few nights ago for a capacity crowd of 210 music enthusiasts. With a guitar, mandolin, fiddle, cello, accordion, bouzouki, ukulele, banjo, tight harmony vocals, and engaging stage presence, James and Kort made an hour and half of musical storytelling seemingly go by in an instant.

Moors & McCumber at Dyck Arboretum.

The Prairie Window Concert Series experience of “gourmet music and food in a prairie garden setting” is about more than just great live music. It is further enhanced by the delightful intermission faire of Crust & Crumb, a chance to stroll around the Arboretum for a bit of exercise, glimpses of Dyck Arboretum native plant landscaping changes through fall/winter/spring, and mini-reunions with familiar faces that have been enjoying this concert series for decades (PWCS History).

The setting sun streamed into the Prairie Pavilion and illuminated the PWCS crowd.

Native Plant Landscaping

Starting tomorrow evening, our staff will be telling stories through our native plant school, which offers six different classes related to native plant basics, garden design, landscape maintenance, propagation, composting, and attracting wildlife.

The Flint Hills prairie species butterfly milkweed can also thrive in home landscapes.

Native plant landscaping provides so much more than visual beauty. One of the most rewarding aspects of landscaping with native plants is learning the complex stories that accompany these plants.

For each of the hundreds of species of native Kansas wildflowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs, and trees we promote for landscaping, there are numerous stories to learn related to biology, ecology, environmental sustainability, ecosystem function, culture, and natural history.

A clear wing moth seeking nectar from common milkweed.

Native landscaping enhances ecosystem function in urban areas. Every Kansas plant has value to one or more wildlife species as a larval food source, nectar source, or protection from the elements or predators. For this reason, native plant landscaping can add biological diversity to the places we live. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing more butterflies and birds around their landscape?

Native landscaping also has low environmental impact because native plants are adapted to our climate, require no chemical inputs, and reduce our need to irrigate with valuable, clean drinking water. Additionally, native plant gardens act as landscape sponges and can help municipalities slow the erosion-causing migration of storm water.

Native plantings attract wildlife diversity while acting as a stormwater sponge.

Prairie plants also help establish a sense of place by connecting us to previous cultures that have lived here before us. The plants of the prairie have provided sustenance of food, medicine, and goods for people as well as an ecosystem for bison that helped Indian tribes make their home on the Plains. For European immigrants, the prairie provided sod homes and wonderful soil fertility for growing crops created by the presence of thousands of years of prairie roots.

Using multiple species of native plants compounds the rich stories to be told through an urban landscape.

Today, the prairie has been foundational to the Kansas economy that is built on agriculture, from the prairie soils that make us the “breadbasket of the world” and existing grasslands that make Kansas a top cattle ranching state.

Compass plant provides nectar for a variety of insects, seeds for birds and small mammals, it is a favorite food for cattle, its sap can be turned to chewing gum, and its leaves can orient your directions. It is the ultimate storytelling plant!

Blackbird Ribbons

The last story I will tell is about the time-relevant phenomenon of blackbird ribbons. A consistent observation of mine the last few mornings during my 5-mile drive from Newton to Hesston a little before 8:00 a.m. is seeing 2-3 long and thick ribbons of blackbirds. At that time of the day, they fly from west to east barely over the ground as LONG flowing ribbons that undulate over hedgerows and highway traffic with numbers surely in the millions. The timing is consistent with what I have seen around January and February in past years and you may have been noticing them too. I’ll leave you with more information on this topic from a previous blog post.

Thank you for sharing in our stories at Dyck Arboretum.


An Outing for the Birds

When considering attracting wildlife to a landscape, native plants matter. More diversity of native plant species and greater area of that native vegetation coverage both translate to a higher diversity of wildlife species attracted. Add water into the habitat offerings and your wildlife species attracted will go up even more. We probably all learned these pretty simple ecological concepts in high school. I enjoyed seeing these concepts on display this last Saturday while participating in the annual ritual of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

CBC History

Frank M. Chapman

It was the 70th annual CBC for the Halstead-Newton area, and the 118th national CBC for the Audubon Society. The national Christmas Bird Count has a long history. The first CBC was initiated as a response to unfettered sport shooting of the mid to late 1800s. A Christmas Day bird hunting competition to see who could bring back the most birds was a common pastime. Following a concern for declining bird populations amidst a new conservation trend, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition. The “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them was born (see History of the Christmas Bird Count for more). The citizen science data collected by Christmas Bird Counts allow for the study of long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Halstead-Newton 70th Annual Count

Dr. Dwight Platt

Dwight Platt was a freshman at Bethel College when he helped start the Halstead-Newton CBC. He has organized/participated in nearly all of the 70 Halstead-Newton CBCs. This Wichita Eagle article tells more about the count history. The 16-mile diameter circle Newton-Halstead CBC sampling area stretches from Harvey Co. West Park to the eastern limits of Newton. Count organizer Lorna Harder gave us our CBC assignments. My group of six, led by master birder Gregg Friesen, observed the sunrise as we set out to our designated count area of western Harvey County.

I took the job of recorder and quickly realized that I would be kept busy. The remainder of our group included experienced birders Harv Hiebert, Fred Bartel, Greta Hiebert, and Kyle Miller Hesed, who rarely had to refer to a field guide. With five pairs of eyes scanning the skies, the bird sightings came rapidly. Good bird identification utilizes perception of visual silhouette shape, flight pattern, colors/marking patterns, habitat association, and the audible patterns of calls. Even subtle variations in little “chip” and “pish” sounds can help discern species differences. My group mates incorporated all of these identification skills in ways that were quick, accurate, and impressive.

Bird silhouettes – from https://www.teacuprex.com

We started by counting what we saw from the van along roadsides, in fields, and farmyards. When we came to an area that included more adjacent habitat than farm fields, we would park roadside and spend a bit more time watching and listening. We eventually walked the roads and trails of the 310-acre Harvey County West Park, which included both sides of the Little Arkansas River and a nature trail around the 10-acre lake. Nearby “Sand Prairie,” an 80-acre parcel of sand prairie, ephemeral wetlands, shrubby areas, and woodlands co-owned by Bethel College and The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, also provides valuable bird habitat. Click on this summary of the habitat of Harvey County if you would like to know about its birding hotspots.

Data collection sheet for Sections 3 and 4 of the 2018 Halstead-Newton CBC

The above data sheet is a compilation of the 48 species we observed throughout the day and generally where we saw them. Red-winged blackbirds were most common and seen and heard by the thousands as their flying blackbird ribbons passed overhead. We estimated seeing 25,000 blackbirds and our estimates were probably low. Some highlight birds for me included a pair of spotted towhees, a pair of pileated woodpeckers, and a marsh wren. The spotted towhee is a pretty bird I don’t see often. A pileated woodpecker is the largest of our woodpeckers that used to be rare in Kansas. With fire suppression allowing more growth of woodlands, pileated woodpeckers are becoming more common. Gregg turned to technology to confirm the recluse marsh wren for which we only had a brief glimpse that was not adequate for identification. A quick playing of the marsh wren song from his iPhone initiated a replica response from the bird hidden in the brush.

Spotted towhee – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Most of the birds we saw are habitat specific – they can be predictably spotted looking for food in their preferred habitats. Kingfishers and great blue herons are found around the river where they catch fish. Grassland sparrows are found in the prairies. Woodpeckers are found exploring dead limbs of trees. The spotted towhee hangs out in tangled thickets and the tufted titmouse frequents woodlands. Northern harriers or “marsh hawks” are seen flying over wetlands, and red-tailed hawks perch in the tops of trees looking for prey.

Pileated woodpecker – Photograph by David Turgeon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Changes in Habitat

Bird populations are affected by changes in the quality or acreage of their specific habitats. The area certainly has more trees, shrubs and woody vines today than it did 70 years ago. This change has shifted composition of bird species observed during the CBC. Management tools, including grazing, herbicide application, and prescribed burning, are needed to maintain grassland integrity in certain areas. But regardless of where you find yourself in the grassland to woodland spectrum, Kansas native vegetation still provides essential habitat of food and shelter for various bird species.

Greta Hiebert, Gregg Friesen, and Kyle Miller Hesed birding Sand Prairie

We finished the count day with listening ears for the calls of owls. Standing roadside while overlooking a marshy prairie, we watched the sunset and enjoyed a rare windless Kansas stillness. It was a perfect end to an enjoyable day of citizen science. Then, a far-off pair of great horned owls bid us a faint goodnight.