Insectopia

With all the beautiful blooms around the Arboretum these days, the bugs are on a feeding frenzy! I have been having a blast snapping photos of all the active insects with my new camera gadget – a clip-on macro lens that attaches to a phone camera. My iphone can now get incredibly close and detailed shots of the tiniest insects. This handy tool is inexpensive and invaluable for bug-crazy individuals like me. I got mine courtesy of a Xerces Society pollinator workshop back in April.

Can you identify these Kansas insects? (without reading the captions first!)

Grey Hairstreak on Wild Quinine flowers (Strymon melinus on Parthenium integrifolium) with outstretched proboscis!

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) dipping his head into the flower cup of Indian Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Notice the long segmented antennae and claws on the feet for climbing.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea) with pollen on his hairy legs.

Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on the underside of a fuzzy Common Milkweed leaf (Asclepias syriaca)

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) resting on limestone near the greenhouse, probably on his way back to the pond.

 

The lens even allows me to take videos –
watch as a paper wasp forages on horsetail milkweed flowers and the pollen-covered bee in the picture above enjoys a snack on some purple prairie clover.

If you want to bee an insect expert, get one of of these lenses for yourself and snap away! They are useful as educational tools or for taking detailed pictures to help you and your extension agent identify particular garden friends or pests. When you visit our grounds to see these beauties for yourself, be sure to check the gift shop for a wide selection of children’s books and as well as adult field guides that focus on insects found in Kansas.
Find more goregous shots of Dyck Arboretum flora and fauna on our Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/255013257/dyck-arboretum-of-the-plains/

Sharing the Simple Beauty of Kansas

I will be travelling this week to the annual conference of the American Public Gardens Association, this year located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which is very far from my Kansas home. Representatives from public gardens across North America will gather to share information about their respective gardens and regions.

Kansas has a simple fundamental beauty that is unique to this state. The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains tries to capture that beauty in the development of our grounds, using plants that are native to the prairie. Contrary to popular belief, Kansas is a special place to live.  The vast open views, unobstructed for miles in every direction, are a hallmark of this state.  Amazing sunsets happen almost every night.  Dynamic thunderstorms and bright white clouds fill the afternoon skies.  Kansas has a beauty all it’s own.

I look forward to sharing with my colleagues why I love living in Kansas, and why the Arboretum’s mission of connecting people with the prairie is so important to our organization and to our community.

Thunderstorm at Chase Co. State Fishing Lake

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills.

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Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

Russell Springs-Logan County-Photo Courtesy of Craig Freeman

Rocktown Natural Area-Russell County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Ft. Riley near Manhattan-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Chalk Formations-Gove County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Cimarron National Grassland, Morton County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

Shortgrass Prairie near Holcomb, Finney County-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

Be A Good Host for Insects

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed (April 9, 2017).

There are many positive things that can be said about insects. They are important to healthy ecosystems. If you have any appreciation for wildlife of any kind in Kansas, you have insects to thank. Aside from a handful of pests they are beneficial to humans as well. Click HERE to see an earlier blog post on why I am in awe of insects.

Many insect species require a specific host plant or group of plants to feed their young. Therefore, it should be no surprise that greater plant diversity leads to greater insect diversity and ultimately a greater abundance of wildlife. I like to see more biological diversity in urban landscapes and this is why my landscaping tendencies trend towards more plant diversity rather than less.

Butterfly enthusiast and master gardener Lenora Larson gave us this similar message last month at our March winter lecture. She highlighted more than two dozen species of butterflies and moths that folks can easily attract to their landscape with specific host plants. A summary of her presentation, host plant and butterfly species lists, and helpful references can be found HERE.

Monarch egg on common milkweed (April 10, 2017).

Monarch Update

A little over a week ago on April 9, I saw my first couple of northerly migrating monarchs of the season. There were many other reports of first of season monarchs reported that weekend as well. In the week since, newly emerged milkweed shoots more often than not are found hosting one to six monarch eggs each. Yesterday on April 18, nine days after the first monarch siting, I observed the first two hatched caterpillars. More on the plight of the monarch and why we are so carefully observing this progress can be found HERE in an earlier blog post.

Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (April 18).

We’ll be touting at our spring plant sale the many benefits of gardening with Kansas native plants. Attracting insects and biological diversity to your landscape is one of those many benefits.

A Land Ethic is Alive and Well in Kansas

On Saturday, March 18, we held our 11th annual spring education symposium entitled Living the Land Ethic in Kansas, and learned how much we have to celebrate in Kansas. This symposium was many months in the making and it went smoothly thanks to our four staff, help from a number of board members, the assistance of many volunteers, and underwriting support from Kansas Humanities Council.

The speakers were top-notch and their messages were filled with immense knowledge and passion. Those among the 85 registered attendees were literate, engaged, and full of great questions. The homemade baked goods for breakfast, Lorna Harder’s venison stew for lunch, and nice day outside to enjoy during breaks all helped round out a perfect day.

Rolfe Mandel

Craig Freeman

Michael Pearce

Jason Schmidt

Pete Ferrell

Brian Obermeyer

Erin Dowell

Wes Jackson

I gave a brief introduction of how this symposium developed as part of our year-long Dyck Arboretum 35th anniversary celebration with a focus on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic chapter in his famous book A Sand County Almanac. We then heard presentations about the essential Kansas natural elements of “The Land” from educators and writers, Rolfe Mandel (soils), Craig Freeman (vegetation), and Michael Pearce (wildlife) and how these elements are foundational to our Kansas natural history, agriculture/ranching-based economy, food systems, and land-based enjoyment and recreation. Land stewards Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, and Brian Obermeyer told their stories of how being a land caretaker is not only a way to make a living but that it is part of a cherished way of life through which one strives to sustainably pass along stewardship responsibilities to future generations. Elementary school teacher, Erin Dowell explained how critical it is to instill a land ethic in our children that will be our future land stewards. And visionary, Wes Jackson, rounded out the day with a presentation about how we as agricultural agents must steward the land as part of a living ecosphere.

The day was filled with dialog and rich with a variety of science as well as humanities topics about the important interplay between the land and people. Thank you to all participants!

Blackbird Ribbons

I’ve been fascinated if not mesmerized recently with this phenomenon of blackbird “ribbons” flying across the sky. While they’ve become familiar to me during the winter in recent years, I’ve noticed them with much greater regularity this year. While the photos and video taken with my iPhone don’t do the phenomenon justice, they will at least give you some idea of what these ribbons look like.

Since early January I’ve seen good examples of this phenomenon perhaps 15-20 times. When I’ve seen them, they have either been flying east around 8:00 a.m. or flying west around 5:00 p.m. They range in density, usually stay within 100 feet of the ground, and stretch for miles. I’ve tried to do some sampling counts while watching them, often for a duration of 5-10 minutes, and figure they number easily in the tens to hundreds of thousands of birds – if not more – in these formations.

Whenever I’ve see them, I have not had binoculars with me and have been unable to get any positive species IDs. They seem to all be red-winged blackbirds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if grackles and/or starlings were in the mix. Local birding expert from Newton, Gregg Friesen, has spent time identifying species in blackbird flocks and says they commonly consist of 90 percent red-winged blackbirds, 5 percent brown-headed cowbirds and a mixture of starlings and the occasional Brewer’s blackbird.

Look closely to see the tens of thousands of birds in this photo.

Some plausible reasons for flying en masse like this might include protection from predators, higher probability of finding food, aerodynamic efficiencies in flight and more. But why the consistency of “punching the clock” with regard to time of day and direction? Does it have something to do with photoperiod? Perhaps they do it throughout the day and I’m only seeing them during my commute.

Some searching for information via the Web, the Kansas Bird Listserv, and my bird books, has turned up very little on this phenomenon besides that red-winged blackbirds like to flock in winter. I posted my inquiry to the Kansas Bird Listserv (a very knowledge-rich resource of birding enthusiasts from around the state) and got some insightful responses.

There is some interesting footage and information on the Web regarding starling murmurations that resemble these blackbird ribbons. Here is one such article made available by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. University of Kansas science educator, Brad Williamson, describes that the behavior and spacing of birds in these formations can be explained by simple rules in mathematical models that most likely relate to competitive advantages in finding food and protection from predators.

Educator Eugene A. Young from Northern Oklahoma College responded to my inquiry with the following: “Certainly there is strength in numbers, aerodynamics helps, but it appears the birds are usually flying from the roost to forage areas.  Once they get to these areas, they disperse into smaller flocks (100-10,000).  These flocks, as the crow flies, can travel 50 miles.  Once they are done foraging, they begin to gather in larger concentrations, and eventually make their way back to the roost.  And different lineages begin to accumulate along the route, eventually forming these long meandering lines of birds.  I suspect they use visual cues to find their way back and forth, thus the low flights.  But upon reaching the roosting area, they accumulate in staging areas before they go to roost.  Often this is wires, trees, bushes or on the ground, and huge congregations form.”

Eugene also confirmed that the timing of movement from roost to forage and back happens right around the time I was seeing this happen and that it relates to photoperiod. A related and informative article (Young, E. A.  2002.  Blackbirds Singing.  Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Magazine, 59(2):2-6) can be found here.

This year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains we are trying to be more in tune with phenology as we study the writings of Aldo Leopold. Observing this pretty amazing phenomenon has been just one of many ways I’ve been enjoying a connection with the natural world around me using phenology.

I’ll leave you with a fitting quote from the end of Eugene Young’s article…

“To appreciate the beauty of large blackbird roosts in Kansas is to recognize that large spectacles of animal life are becoming rare. Rather than to be deplored for their droppings and contentious odor, they should be applauded for their mere presence. Imagine what it would have been like to cross the Plains with the large bison herds, or never being out of sight of prairie dogs. What about the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that once flew across the Midwestern sky, with millions of pigeons from horizon to horizon? These moments are gone, lost forever, except for the thoughts and accounts left behind by those fortunate enough to bear them witness. Where can you see such phenomona today? Here in the Plains, but a few short months of the year!”

Symposium: Living the Land Ethic in Kansas

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

When I think about what Kansas means to me, I think about the land. I think about the Kansas prairie; the soils that support it and the wildlife it supports. I think about the water that flows through it and I think about the sky above it. I think about the food it produces. You and I are important parts of this community too.

 

On Saturday, March 18, we will celebrate and learn more about these rich Kansas connections of the land including its soil, prairie, wildlife, and people, and how they all interact. An all-star cast of interpreters and stewards of Kansas (Rolfe Mandel, Craig Freeman, Michael Pearce, Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, Brian Obermeyer, Erin Dowell, and Wes Jackson) will be assembled for our 11th annual spring education symposium.

 

 

 

We have an early bird discounted fee if you sign up by March 9. See the following link for more details. Come join us!

 

Symposium: Living the Land Ethic in Kansas

Observing Natural Cycles Around Us

We observed the winter solstice yesterday on December 21st. I shared my thoughts on this beloved time in a winter solstice blog post last year. Whether it is the rotation of distant planets, stars and moons around one another or the episodes of weather, plants and animals closer to home, observable natural cycles are abundant around us.

Phenology wheel – a collaborative nature journal

We will be focusing on the closer to home cycles for the coming calendar year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. Earlier this year I introduced the importance of “phenology” in a blog post. Now we are now ready to practice and enjoy this ritual in earnest over the coming year here on our grounds. We will be observing and documenting events related to weather, plants, and animals at Dyck Arboretum. With the help of visitors, we will record precipitation amounts, presence/absence of migrating bird species, notable events with other forms of wildlife, flowering and seeding of plants, and more.

We invite you to help us document these phenological events by recording your observations on a sheet in our Visitor Center entryway. At regular intervals, we will compile these observations and record them onto a large wall-mounted “phenology wheel”. The phenology wheel concept was created by Partners in Place, LLC. The idea has been promoted to teachers and students through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program here at Dyck Arboretum, and through the Earth Partnership Program founders at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. An example of what we have in mind was recently exhibited at the nature center for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Phenology wheel observations recorded at Miller Woods, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Become a citizen scientist

So, help us fill up our very own phenology wheel in 2017 by activating your observational skills and recording your findings at Dyck Arboretum. Be observant, take photographs and share them with us, write descriptive notes, make drawings, bring in a leaf or flower if you’d like help with identification, note dates and weather conditions, and educate yourself by engaging with the natural world around you. Through your citizen science observations in 2017 and the display of this Dyck Arboretum phenology wheel, we will all benefit from your findings.

Burr oak through the seasons phenology wheel.

Why Do Plants Go Dormant in the Winter?

Winter is coming.  Trees, shrubs and other plants are slipping into hibernation, allowing them to survive the cold weather.  They have gone dormant as they wait to be renewed in the spring.  As cold temperatures set in, I have been wondering why plants go dormant.  Why is this period of waiting for spring so important for plant survival?

GerryEpp7

What is the process of dormancy?

During the active months of growth (April-August), each plant is using the photosynthetic process to change carbon dioxide, water, and certain inorganic salts into carbohydrates. These are used by the plant or stored for use during the winter.  At the end of the season, plants begin to move these sugars and carbohydrates from the leaves down in the roots to nourish the plant for the winter months.  Plants are no longer growing.  In trees, the green chlorophyll is removed from the leaves often leaving beautiful pigments of red, orange and yellow that give them brilliant fall color.  Each plant is transformed differently in the fall, but ultimately dormancy is the way plants conserve energy by using the stored sugars and carbohydrates they produced during the growing season to survive the winter.

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What signals dormancy?

As plants grow, they are affected by temperature and sunlight.  These two forces act as signals to plants that winter is coming.  As the day length shortens, plants begin to slow growth and the dormancy process begins in each plant.  In spring, shorter nights encourage plants to actively grow. However, in autumn, longer periods of darkness (August-October) and typically cooler temperatures are obvious indicators to plants that winter is around the corner.

What would happen if plants didn’t go dormant?

Just like we struggle with cold weather, plants are the same.  If plants were actively growing during the winter, the water in the trunk, stems and leaves would freeze, causing tremendous damage to these structures.  We have seen the result of this on trees when there has been an early freeze before the trees are fully prepared for cold temperatures. The bark is damaged because water in the outer layers freezes and expands damaging the trunk of the tree.  Winter also has less sunlight for trees and plants to use.  Water becomes scarce with the ground frozen, making it difficult for plants to collect enough water to endure the cold weather months.  Dormancy is a mechanism vital to plant survival.

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Until we meet again…

Plants know that winter is coming.  The days get shorter and the nights get colder.  The beautiful colors of the grasses, shrubs and trees are slowly muted to browns, tans and grays.  The stark landscape is ready for a winter slumber.  Dormancy is waiting for next year, waiting for renewal, waiting for a fresh start. Plants are waiting for warmer days and waiting for the chance to come to life, adding beauty once again to our world.

With a Voice of Thanksgiving

For each new morning with its light, for rest and shelter of the night, for health and food, for love and friends, for everything Thy goodness sends, for flowers that bloom about our feet; for tender grass, so fresh, so sweet; for song of bird, and hum of bee; for all the things fair we hear or see, Father in heaven, we thank Thee! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Little Bluestem

Indian Grass

Indian Grass

Cheyenne Sky

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

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Monarch on New England Aster

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Arkansas Bluestar Fall Color

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple

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Native Blackhaw Viburnum

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Luminary Walk – Photo by Tom Sawin

 

May you all be blessed throughout this holiday season.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

 

Dogs at the Arboretum

Getting to be out and about on the Arboretum grounds every day is the best part of my job. I get to truly experience the weather and the change of seasons and to fellowship with our squirrels, turtles, spiders, and snakes (and this week, a opossum!). But best of all I get to greet our regular visitors as they make laps. We have quit a few hardy citizens who can be seen daily on our walking path, getting their dose of exercise at the Arboretum. I admire the fortitude of these walkers, joggers and scooters – but some of our most enthusiastic visitors are, of course, dogs.

Marty can always be spotted because of her bright pink harness

Marty can always be spotted because of her bright pink harness.

It’s a Dog-Sniff-Dog World

I am wholeheartedly a “dog person”. Big slobbery ones, little timid ones … I love ’em all! And it seems they love the Arboretum. We have a surprising amount of every-day dogs with very dedicated owners; on a good day at work I might get to pet 5 or 6 dogs before noon. Bugs to chase and hundreds of trees to sniff, it must be a dog paradise.

Sadie

Sadie

Gomez and DeeDee

Gomez and DeeDee, our favorite dachshunds

Safer than walking them along the street, the Arb is a walking oasis away from traffic. The cement paths help file their nails while they get their exercise, and they may even get to spot some geese landing in the pond or bunnies in the hedgerow.

Honey, sticking her tongue out at the camera

Honey, sticking her tongue out at the camera

The Rules

If you are walking your dog at the Arboretum, please be courteous to others who may not be as fond of dogs as I am and follow our doggie policies – Dogs MUST be on a leash at all times and kept under control. If your dog needs a place to run free, then we suggest a visit to the Hesston Dog Park or the Newton Dog Park. Also, you MUST clean up after your dog. We do not provide waste bags here, so be sure to bring one from home when you visit.

If you don’t pick it up, I will have to, and that diminishes my love for other people’s dogs just a little bit…

Missy the Shih Tzu

Missy the shih tzu

There are many more of my favorite Arboretum pooches that I couldn’t catch on camera – Comet the dalamation, Misty the schnauzer and Goldie the King Charles spaniel. I love that our doggie community is active and thriving and that these pups get to experience a bit of nature here at the Arboretum. If you plan to walk here regularly, consider getting a membership that helps fund our efforts to keep this place up-to-sniff for you and your dog. Admission is free with an annual membership (otherwise $2 per visit, which you can deposit at the donation pole along the path), and with it your pooch gets unlimited tummy scratches from the dog-crazy grounds manager.