What Will This Year’s Monarch Migration Bring?

Two years ago, I reported on an unusual convergence of migratory paths during the 2020 monarch fallout event here at the Arboretum. As we anticipate an abrupt change in weather and the official arrival of fall with tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, I encourage everyone to keep an eye out for similar monarch migration events in your natural areas.

(Original publication date: October 7, 2020)

Monarch Fallout

It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.

Monarchs in the Hedge Row at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Big Numbers

The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.

Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.

Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Fallout Location

With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.

I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).

Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.

Predator Story

The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.

Mississippi Kite Eating A Monarch at Dyck Arboretum, 9/22/2020 – Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.

Monarch Wings at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch Toxicity

This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.

A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.

“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)

There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomenon right here in Kansas.

Monarch butterflies observed at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Video by Beatrix Amstutz, February 7, 2020.

Plant Milkweed

To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

  • Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
  • Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
  • Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
  • Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
  • Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
  • Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.

Great Plains Skink

Great Plains Skink (adult form) from my urban garden in Newton, KS (May 28, 2009)

Increasingly, I find enjoyment in the wildlife attracted to my native plant gardens. One species I’ve especially loved seeing has been the Great Plains Skink (Plestiodon obsoletus). For at least 13 years (since I took the above photo), I have observed this species coming and going from under my garage or deck, around the foundation of my house, and to and from my native plant gardens. The combination of these habitats appears to provide suitable cover, food, and thermoregulation for this ectothermic (cold-blooded) reptile.

Identification

The adult Great Plains Skink averages 7-9 inches in length (as large as 13″) and is the largest, most common, and most widespread (nearly throughout the entire state) of the seven skink species in Kansas.

Great Plains Skink range map from the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas

Coloring ranges from tan with dark brown markings to light gray or olive. The following photos show some of the variations in colors and markings for this species from juvenile to adult.

Natural History

In addition to my urban gardens, it is referenced in the book Amphibians, Reptiles, and Turtles in Kansas (Collins, Collins, and Taggart, 2010) that the Great Plains Skink commonly inhabits open, rocky hillsides with low prairie vegetation. Their diet consists of spiders and a variety of insects such as grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.

Breeding occurs in May after which pregnant females dig deep burrows under rocks and lay 5-32 (average of 12) eggs. After a 1-2 month incubation period, hatched young skinks may take several years to reach sexual maturity.

Diversity in the Home Landscape

Landscaping with native plants leads to attraction of a variety of wildlife species. This bigger picture food chain or ecosystem connection between plants and the animals they support has become one of the most interesting and satisfying incentives of incorporating as much native plant diversity into my home landscape as possible. Whether these plant-animal or predator-prey interactions attract butterflies, monarchs or birds that eat them, birds in general, large beetles, fireflies, cicada killers, preying mantids, bats, or skinks, I’m intrigued with observing every single connection and the underlying story it tells.

I’ll leave you with the following observation…from just last night. We added a red fox to the list of species that has visited our urban home landscape. It spent about an hour in a tussle with a flexible plastic downspout tube in one of our gardens. This particular shade garden is where I have most recently seen a skink in recent weeks. Was “skink-in-a-tube” the cause for this entertainment? Will I see the skink again in this area? Whatever the case, I will enjoy continued observations and looking for answers.

Is there still a skink somewhere in this photo?

Wind-Pollinated Flowers

Social media is blowing up right now with photos of colorful bulb flowers including daffodils, crocuses, and dwarf irises. And why not? Who doesn’t love to see these splashes of color in a drab, brown landscape along sidewalks to stimulate our sights after a long winter?! Nobody, however, seems to be posting photos of the much greater masses of wind-pollinated flowers that have also been blooming and tickling our senses…our nasal passages, that is.

For weeks now, my eyes, nose, and throat have been growing increasingly runny and itchy. From a distance, I’ve been seeing swelling buds on trees, and last week I did some investigation. Sure enough, the first blooming trees (silver maples, red maples, and eastern red cedars) at Dyck Arboretum are in full bloom.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) flowers 3/16/22…do cause allergies

Insect-pollinated flowers have heavy pollen. They need to attract insects with colorful petals to carry pollen away on their hairy bodies to other flowers. Conversely, wind-pollinated flowers have light pollen that carries easily in the wind once released. They do not need to invest expensive energy on creating large, colorful petals and are thus more visibly obscure.

Airborne pollen also gets deposited in our noses, eyes, and throats. Enough said.

Silver maple flowering 3/16/22
Red maple (Acer rubrum) flowering 3/16/22
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) flowering 3/16/15 (and the same tree was blooming 3/16/22 as well)

Tribute to Miner Seymour

Miner Seymour was a cheerful and creative soul. When he died in July of 2021, he left a huge legacy for the musical arts in South Central Kansas. He was an inspiration to me on a number of fronts and an important mentor for the Prairie Window Concert Series.

A Tinkerer Rooted in Sustainability

I first met Miner as a classmate at Bethel College in the early 1990s where he was a non-traditional student in a class called Appropriate Technology. Miner was interested in sustainable forms of architecture and construction. His main project for the class was to design and build a mud and tire hut on campus. I was interested in the same issues. It was a small, tight-knit class and I remember all of us helping a bit with hut construction.

I soon graduated with a degree in environmental studies and moved away for nine years, but reconnected with Miner after moving back to Kansas in 2001. He was into designing and building energy efficient homes and was passionate about sustainable land use. He grew apples in an organic orchard outside the front door of his rural Moundridge home, and grazed bison on restored prairie. I was intrigued by all of this and attracted to his enthusiasm for and practice in various forms of sustainability.

Old Settlers Inn is Born

OSI logo

I was also intrigued by what I thought was one of Miner’s coolest projects of all…creation of the Old Settlers Inn (OSI) music venue on Main Street of my hometown, Moundridge, KS. I actually learned of this project while helping Miner haul a fridge up the stairs during a chance encounter on Main Street while home for Christmas. Creating a music venue in a small town of 1,500 people? It sounded to me like a far out if not somewhat far-fetched idea at the time!

Valetta and Miner Seymour on stage at the Old Settler’s Inn

However, with an abundance of passion and creativity, Miner and his wife Valetta turned a beautiful dream into an epic reality. OSI shows came to be a hot ticket and a beloved tradition for Kansans with a hunger for live music. The OSI gained the support of radio station KMUW 89.1 in Wichita and the sound engineering services of Jon Cyphers. For 17 seasons from 1993 to 2009, Miner attracted OSI patrons from all over the state by booking professional artists that toured across the country. And many of those shows are still aired today on KMUW’s Saturday evening New Settlers Radio Hour.

OSI Photo Collage of 17 Years of Artists

The OSI Venue in Moundridge

I attended a number of OSI shows from 2001 to 2009 and seem to have distinct memories from each one. I came to love the great music and artistry of the OSI. And you always knew when Miner was feeling the groove of the music during a show when he would let out a loud “YO!” from the rear corner of the audience. The long, row house, 150-seat venue was buzzing when filled with a capacity crowd packed in like sardines. Until I eventually got season tickets, I always felt lucky to get one or two seats for what were often sold-out shows. OSI monogrammed foam seat cushions looked nice but did nothing to slow the numbing of rears on small wooden folding chairs.

Upstairs OSI venue from 1993 to 2001
Downstairs OSI venue from 2001 to 2009
Guy Davis performing on downstairs OSI stage

At intermission, crowds would snake through the line with great anticipation to pick up homemade soup, fresh bread, pie and hot coffee. Then, you had to figure out how to perform an acrobatic balancing act while stepping over dozens of knees to dine at reserved seats from whence you came. The shows ended with a raucous invitation for a curtain call. And Miner would flip on the disco ball to the audible delight of everybody in the room.

OSI to the PWCS

The last OSI show in Moundridge with the artist with Kelly Hunt was a 60th birthday party for Miner in February of 2009. Miner and Valetta were ready to pass along the logistical efforts of a concert series and saw the Dyck Arboretum with excellent facilities as a good suitor. Arboretum director at the time, Julie Irish Torseth, embraced the idea as well and the Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) at Dyck Arboretum was born.

Miner agreed to support the PWCS for a short time as artistic director booking artists while Julie took over ticket sales and marketing. But Miner and Julie were both heeding the call of retirement which left music at the Arb somewhat in question. I was developing a deeper interest in acoustic music shaped by years of going to Winfield and had gained some project management background through a previous job. Add in the opportunity to still work under the tutelage of Miner, and my decision to take on coordination of the PWCS was a fairly easy one. I was in the right place at the right time.

There was so much to learn. What people may not have realized while enjoying a great OSI show was all the effort and preparation that Miner and Valetta put into the production of each series and show. Their success was based on attention to so many levels of detail including…

  • selecting artists playing high quality music from from a diversity of genres,
  • the phone calls and emails with agents,
  • contract negotiations,
  • marketing,
  • ticket sales and reserved seating,
  • stage construction and tear down,
  • chair setup and take down,
  • coordination of volunteers,
  • coordination with catering,
  • sound and lighting details,
  • etc.

For 17 years, they repeated and perfected this routine over 250 shows.

The Legacy Lives on in the PWCS Today

The shift from Miner and Valetta’s OSI to Dyck Arboretum’s PWCS has instilled some upgrades. These include a prairie garden setting to explore before and after shows, a larger venue with windows and sliding doors, padded chairs, a bigger stage and a separate eating area, essential underwriting support, a website presence, electronic data management (spreadsheets!), email communication, a paperless ticketing system, social media promotion, and the oversight of full-time staff.

Barnaby Bright performing on the the PWCS stage

But for so many important reasons, the series has kept to its OSI roots. Miner and Valetta were gifted at shaping the beautiful brand of the OSI and doing so with flare. They took a big city idea and made it thrive in a small town. My mantra in coordinating the PWCS over the last 11 years has simply been…”don’t screw it up.” They perfected so many aspects of running a music series that stand the test of time. The success of the PWCS has largely been due to continuing their concert series features too brilliant not to continue. They include…

  • feature artists producing original music from a diversity of acoustic styles with strong instrumentals, vocals, and stage presence,
  • focus on attracting a strong season ticket base that guarantees a core crowd for every show,
  • scheduling Sundays at 4:00 – conducive to block booking with nearby venues that hold bigger shows and provide an artist with anchor fees on prime time nights,
  • delicious, easy-to-serve food at intermission (we are grateful for Crust & Crumb!),
  • maintaining connection with a great radio station (we love 89.1 KMUW!),
  • get a great sound engineer, lighting manager, and technology supervisor (the services of Adam Akers are priceless), and
  • lean on dedicated volunteers that are passionate about the cause.

Miner, thank you for all of your inspiring efforts to make the world a better place. May your bright spirit live on in all of us. YO!

“Miner was a playful, quirky, mischievous genius.”

Julie Irish Torseth

For a timeline of events and accompanying photos of the OSI and PWCS along with a complete list of all the shows and dates, go to https://dyckarboretum.org/prairie-window-concert-series-history/.

Ecological Resolutions

Down time over the holidays while turning the calendar to the new year always feels like a good time to set sights on things I want to do to make my life more enjoyable and feel more meaningful. Planning for and embarking on challenges can be a way of establishing new habits. This year, I would like to focus more on the Land (as defined in The Land Ethic) and my connection to it. I will call them ecological resolutions and delineate them into three categories.

Land Restoration

From the Dyck Arboretum grounds to a number of public and private lands in Harvey County, there are seemingly endless opportunities to practice ecological restoration on remnant or restored native plant communities. In a grassland ecosystem, those opportunities mostly involve reversing the progress of invading woody plants through wood cutting, prescribed burning, and mowing. Woody plant invasion is a real threat for prairies today that involves regular maintenance and effort.

Woody plant invasion of the Flint Hills prairie over a 29-year period. (Courtesy of Tony Capizzo, KS Chapter of The Nature Conservancy)

Luckily, the action of wood cutting means being outside, getting exercise, creating firewood, and having fun in the process. I have fond memories of firewood cutting outings as a kid with my siblings, parents, and grandparents. While I don’t currently heat my house with wood, I have friends that do and perhaps we’ll work out some sort of bartering arrangement.

Such efforts also liberate prairie. The subsequent vigorous flowering response of grasses and wildflowers once they are released from the stifling effects of shade is what we are ultimately trying to achieve. That is probably for me the most gratifying part (even if it takes a year or two) of the whole process.

A 2009 post-burn crew at Sand Prairie in Western Harvey County (photo by Max Voran)

Selective removal of invasive/exotic wildflowers or grasses, brush mowing, conducting prescribed burns, collecting seed, and planting seed are also very worthwhile land restoration activities. This would be one of my top resolutions and a realm in which I would like to spend considerably more time in the coming year.

Wildlife Education

In a native plant garden or seeded restoration plot, we have some idea of what plants to expect to see blooming and setting seed because of our own work and preparation. The wildlife attracted to these developing plant communities, however, is much more of an unknown occurrence. I am fascinated by and motivated to learn more about the wildlife species attracted to native plant communities.

Regal fritillary butterfly nectaring on tall thistle flowers at a restored prairie near Hesston

It has been incredible to see cause and effect play out so clearly with regard to planting native plants and drawing in wildlife. These host plants and their flower nectar and seeds really do attract critters. From small gardens to larger restoration prairies, I’ve observed the influx of insects, small mammals, amphibians, birds, and reptiles, both plant-eaters and predators, in a relatively short timeline. Even when that short timeline is years in the making, the reward of seeing those wildlife species come in makes me want to install even more native plantings.

Just like anything else, building skills and knowledge in wildlife identification takes time and practice. But learning and appreciating the visual, auditory, ecological, and life cycle traits of wildlife species can be so interesting and rewarding. So then is the photography and story-telling of these species to try and inspire other people around you to plant native plants and try to attract wildlife to their landscapes as well.

I participate regularly in two events happening locally with regard to data collection of birds and butterflies. They are the Harvey County Christmas Bird Count and the Harvey County Butterfly Count. You can read more about each via the respective links and we are always welcoming new folks interested in participating. Experts lead the two counts that are great events for novice participants to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time. Organized by the National Audubon Society and North American Butterfly Association, respectively, bird and butterfly counts can be found abundantly in nearly all 50 states.

Harvey County Butterfly Count accessories

Not only do I want to commit more time to bird and butterfly citizen science, but I would like to invest more time studying insects in general. Heather Holm has published excellent books on pollinators, bees, and wasps that are educational and inspiring.

To be inspired by a great prairie ecologist that photographs and writes about wildlife regularly, I would highly encourage you to follow a blog produced by Chris Helzer of the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Urban Native Landscaping

Enhancing the urban landscapes in which we live, work, and worship with native plants can be perhaps one of the easiest and most rewarding of activities we promote here at Dyck Arboretum. I could always enjoy spending more time on this particular resolution. Adding a handful of native plants to even the smallest of areas can do wonders – both for increasing biological diversity in your landscape and for increasing your connection to the land.

Penstemon, spiderwort, prairie onion, and phlox blooming behind potted plants in my backyard in early June

Dabbling with native plant gardens in my home landscape is a labor of love in almost all months of the year. Of course, you have the popular processes of planting and watching for pretty flowers that everybody loves. But I also enjoy the time spent in these gardens weeding, mulching, picking flowers for bouquets, collecting seed or dividing plants for friends, chopping down the old vegetation, and building garden borders. It is time enhanced with the delights of observing all sorts of plant-animal interactions. I am outside and unplugged. This practice during the pandemic has been critical for helping me stay sane and grounded.

If you follow our Dyck Arboretum blog, you hear plenty on this particular ecological resolution, so I’ll keep this one brief. If you are new native landscaping, or are looking ways to enhance your native gardening process, consider following some of the best management practices suggested HERE.

Join Me!

Perhaps you would care to join me on any part or all of this quest? I’m always looking for prairie restoration and wildlife watching companions. Spending time with these ecological resolutions will add value to your life and may even enrich the natural environment around you in the process. You won’t regret it.

“Ecological restoration also involves restoring our relatedness to the wild.” ~Dwight Platt

Considering Caring for Common Ground

I am going to pull back the curtain for you regarding the potential development of some programming here at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. This fall we have begun considering an initiative called Caring for Common Ground. Although we already promote in general the concept of “Caring for Common Ground” through much of our programming at Dyck Arboretum, we want to make the process with our membership more intentional.

Oak savanna seed collecting at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Collecting seed is an important and meaningful ritual in ecological restoration

Formalizing a Concept

The thoughts of the land conservationist, Aldo Leopold, have long been very influential to me and my work. In answering the question “What is a Land Ethic?” the Aldo Leopold Foundation offers the following:


“Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect for the mutual benefit of all. A land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of these interconnected caring relationships.”


Three years ago, we formalized a new mission statement: Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land. The concept of and language surrounding Leopold’s Land Ethic was foundational to the development of this new mission statement.

Growing the Land Ethic plaque on the grounds at The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Retreat to Wisconsin

Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong helped conceive and for 30 years has run the Earth Partnership Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Subsequently, the Earth Partnership for Schools Program that Lorna Harder and I co-facilitate in Kansas comes from Cheryl and the Earth Partnership Program. So, when the revered Earth Partnership team of Cheryl, Claire Bjork, and Greg Armstrong, plus Amy Alstad at Holy Wisdom Monastery, invited us to a conference called Caring for Common Ground (CCG) that had been years in the making, we couldn’t resist attending.

The Shack

Our Kansas team started by making a pilgrimage to The Shack, featured in the landmark book, A Sand County Almanac. This is the place where Aldo Leopold developed some of his thinking about The Land Ethic. We enjoyed visiting the place where many of his stories in the book took place. Walking prairie restored by the Leopold family and that is maintained today by staff at The Aldo Leopold Foundation. It felt like hallowed ground.

Our group (Kendra Flory, Lorna Harder, Karen McCabe-Juhnke, and John McCabe-Juhnke) taking in The Shack and Aldo Leopold’s restored prairie
John and Lorna birding along the Wisconsin River near The Shack
Kendra, Lorna, Karen, and Leopold Foundation Education Coordinator, McCale Carter (our tour guide for the day) taking turns reading the “The Good Oak” on the spot where that tree once existed

Conference at Holy Wisdom Monastery

We then drove 45 minutes south of The Shack to the Holy Wisdom Monastery where our conference would take place. The Benedictine sisters there are undertaking serious land stewardship on their grounds. Under the guidance of Greg Armstrong in past years and Amy Alstad in the present, volunteers are restoring many acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna. These restoration project areas were our learning grounds for the CCG conference.

Conference days started with gratitude, calm reflection, and hilltop views overlooking restored prairie and Lake Mendota
Karen and John McCabe-Juhnke collecting seed of bottlebrush grass
Planting seed in a degraded oak savanna
Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong (center) leads a post-planting sharing circle. The other CCG Conference leaders are from far left, Amy Alstad, Greg Armstrong, and Claire Bjork

Our conference activities involved observation and assessment of the present conditions related to soils, vegetation and wildlife. We acknowledged the past removal of Indigenous Peoples from these ancestral lands. A local Ho-Chunk tribal member served as an advisor for CCG and joined us for a session. There was discussion about the processes of land degradation that have been part of the site’s history. We reviewed ecological restoration techniques, conducted planning charrettes, and participated in seed collection and planting exercises.

Friends from Kansas and Wisconsin came together to practice ecological restoration techniques and develop a resolve for doing more land stewardship rituals going forward

Spirituality of Stewardship

Spirituality is an individual’s search for sacred meaning in life and recognition of a sense that there is something greater than oneself. Being a land steward restores ecosystem functions for the greater good through meaningful rituals. As a result, it can add value to one’s life, build a sense of place, and be a spiritual process.

Land restoration is inherently filled with ethical and spiritual dimensions. People from all religious and faith traditions certainly can bring value to this CCG process.

The writings of Leopold and Braiding Sweetgrass author, Robin Wall Kimmerer are influential to CCG. Kimmerer challenges us with the following question in our relationship to the earth. Should we be living in deep communion with the land, or looking to subdue and dominate it? Above all, this is an important question for land stewards to ask ourselves.

Pilot Study in 2022

We at Dyck Arboretum want to to do a pilot study of Kansas Caring for Common Ground (KCCG) in 2022. The first test cohort will be our small group that went to Madison. Arboretum staff, board members, and anybody that would like to help us Beta test this new program are welcome.

We envision that this will be a year-long study from January through December with one meeting per month. Homework could include individual reading, research, study and preparation for the next session. Monthly gatherings might include sharing, dialogue, and an interactive seasonal land stewardship practice. Such practices might include seed collection, prescribed burning, seed propagation, plant identification, chain saw work, planting, etc. An alternative to the monthly format for a larger group might include a one-time, whole-weekend KCCG retreat.

Regardless of format, a consistent framework for KCCG would include 1) A review of the site’s history (soils, hydrology, vegetation, wildlife, presence of Indigenous People, etc.), 2) An assessment of how conditions have changed over the last century or more, and 3) A land restoration plan for the future. Oh, and good food/drink would also be an important part of every gathering!

Going Forward with Intention

Finally, I’ll leave you with an image of the table that I sat around with friends after every evening of the conference. One adorned the table with interesting wood pieces collected from Wisconsin and Kansas that had been hand-cut, polished, stained and artistically crafted as candle holders. Another supplied delicious, slow food that came with thoughtful planning, preparation and cooking. Another provided spirited drinks with hand-harvested ingredients. It was a space filled with intention, meaning, adoration, and gratitude. May the coming year in study, conversation, and practice with Caring for Common Ground in Kansas be filled with similar such things for each other and with the land.

Predator Profile: Eastern Screech Owl

The wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees at Dyck Arboretum have mostly slipped into dormancy here in mid November and the activity of insects they support has greatly diminished. As a result, I often turn my attention this time of the year to wildlife. This week I am focused on the eastern screech owl (Megascops asio).

The attention to this species started when colleague Katie Schmidt recently alerted me to a head poking out of a wood duck box installed along our west border this spring by member Woody Miller.

Eastern screech owl in a wood duck box at Dyck Arboretum last week, photo by Gerald Leinbach

Species Description

According to Kansas birding experts Bob Gress and Pete Janzen from their book The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots, this small species (8″ tall and with a wingspan of 20″) is typically found in wooded habitat and is common in urban areas throughout Kansas.

Eastern screech owl, photo by Bob Gress. Check out all the great images of eastern screech owls at Birds in Focus by Bob Gress, Judd Patterson, and David Seibel
Eastern screech owl range map from TheCornellLab All About Birds species profile page

Trees are essential habitat for eastern screech owls where they roost/nest in cavities and cache extra food when plentiful. Woodpecker holes, spaces of wood rot, abandoned squirrel cavities, and boxes built for purple martins or wood ducks all make for suitable abodes for the eastern screech owl. They prefer an open understory and will also make use of open parkland, farms, and suburban areas as hunting grounds.

Behavior

Eastern screech owls will nest once each year and lay two to six 1.3-1.4″ long white eggs. In Kansas, they nest in spring. The incubation period takes 26 days with the female sitting on the nest while the male hunts and the young will fledge roughly a month after hatching. The young depend on their parents for food and learning hunting tactics for roughly 8-10 weeks after fledging.

Preferred Diet

Their diet includes just about any small animal including rodents, birds, frogs, lizards and even smaller prey such as insects, earthworms, crayfish and tadpoles. I even spotted one early on a summer night in my backyard waiting on a tree branch and intently watching my bat house 10 feet away, which was squeaky with big brown bat activity before a night of hunting.

Eastern screech owl just outside my parent in-laws’ back door (red morph). According to Gress and Janzen, only about 10% of the eastern screech owls in Kansas are red

Attracting Eastern Screech Owls to Your Landscape

As with any segment of wildlife, you will greatly increase your chances of attracting eastern screech owls to live near you if you provide food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. Having trees with cavities will certainly help your case and putting up a nesting box certainly won’t hurt either. Then, as we promote with so many of our posts, create as much diverse native plant habitat as possible. This habitat will attract the insects, small mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles that owls love to eat.

With these kinds of conditions as attractive habitat, you may very soon hear the shrill, descending whinny call of the eastern screech owl.

References: The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots by Bob Gress and Pete Janzen and the Eastern Screech Owl species page, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds.

Dyck Arboretum is Turning 40!

The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is turning 40 this Sunday, October 10, 2021. Join us from 4:00- 6:00 p.m. as we celebrate the past, present, and future. Many of our staff, board members, and even some of Harold and Evie’s children and grand children will be there to greet and welcome you!

Evie and Harold Dyck, founders of Dyck Arboretum of the Plains
WHAT TO DO ON 10/10/21:
  • Enjoy a burger/hot dog, beans, chips and water/tea (4:30-5:30 pm) 
  • Celebrate with the traditional Dyck family banana birthday cake, ice cream & pretzels
  • Participate in a scavenger hunt and decorate the path with sidewalk chalk
  • Enjoy a slide show showcasing many historic slides of Dyck Arboretum development
  • Listen to live music from The Flannelbacks
  • Get a family portrait by Amy Sharp Photography
  • Take home an oak tree to plant

WHAT TO BRING: Your mask (for inside), your people, and any picnic items (blanket, lawn chair, extra food) to help you spread out and enjoy the Arboretum.

Scavenger Hunt

Bring a child to our celebration, take a little trip down memory lane, and catch glimpses of how much has changed on our grounds at 177 W. Hickory in Hesston as you observe the past and present. Review the following questions and find the corresponding laminated photos on placards at their respective locations on our grounds where you will find the answers.

What is the location of the first tree planted at the Arboretum? Hint: You’ll see it on the right as you exit the parking lot (watch for cars as you look!).

At 40+ years old now, this bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is turning into a stately tree.

Where do kids like to go to feed the turtles?

Kids feeding the turtles

Evie Dyck had a favorite location to gaze out over the Arboretum. Can you find Evie’s overlook?

Evie’s Overlook

Where do you find bald cypress “knees” in the Arboretum? (Hint: you will be standing on a bridge when you see them…and not the bridge to the island)

Cypress knees

Then, see if you can find the nearby two oldest bald cypress trees near the pond.

First two bald cypress trees at the Dyck Arboretum as seen some time in the 1980s. Wait till you see how big they are now!

Where is the tallgrass prairie reconstruction area? Take a picture of yourself in the prairie grass!

As you follow the path, this starred location is likely where you will first encounter our ~10 acres of restored prairie
First seeded prairie planting on the Dyck Arboretum Prairie Window Project in January 2005
That same prairie restoration today…it will make great photo backdrop!

What is the newest building at the Arboretum? (Hint: it is near the greenhouse.)

Our newest building – the Horticulture and Utility Building (HUB)

I won’t physically be at the celebration on Sunday as I will be attending a workshop in Wisconsin entitled Caring for Common Ground. It is being put on by the UW-Madison Arboretum authors of our Earth Partnership for Schools Program and Curriculum that we have been teaching to K-12 teachers and students in Kansas for the last 14 years. While you are celebrating the past and the present of Dyck Arboretum, not only will I be thinking of you, but I will also be dreaming about how future educational programming can continue to carry on Harold and Evie’s legacy for another 40 years to come.

Insects – Motivation for Native Landscaping

Early September blooming plants are attracting loads of nectar-sipping insects right now. Host plants are green and thriving from timely rains and providing food for munching larvae. All this insect activity has led to great enjoyment for me in exploring the Dyck Arboretum grounds and my home landscape. It has prompted me to think more about my real motivation for landscaping with native plants.

Gulf fritillary nectaring on prairie dock

Plants or Insects?

For many years, I’ve claimed that my enjoyment of native landscaping was motivated by my love of plants. Indeed, their flowers, seed pods, seeds, seed dispersal mechanisms, and roots are all interesting traits and worthy of appeal. Getting to know their growth habits, moisture and light preferences all translate to the level of success I will have (or not) in establishing these plants in a given landscape. And early in their establishment, my focus is geared toward making sure they stay alive with my watering, mulching, and weeding efforts.

Common milkweed wind-blown seed dispersal mechanisms are cool to observe. But I am increasingly interested by the insects this plant attracts too (like the milkweed bug)

But as these long-lived perennials develop substantial root systems, become established, and begin to flower, I worry less about their survival. My perspective changes, turns towards what they can do for the local ecosystem. New questions arise. What insects are attracted to their flower nectar? Which insects are pollinating them and leading to seed production? What insect larvae are eating their leaves or other parts of the plant? What predators are in turn feeding on those insects?

Simple image of a prairie food pyramid (Credit: Mariana Ruiz Villarreal (LadyofHats) for CK-12 Foundation)

Plants, being at the base of the food pyramid, dictate the level of diversity that exists further up the pyramid of consumption. Small bases lead to small pyramids and bigger bases lead to bigger pyramids. So in theory, the more different species of plants I install in my landscape, the more species of insects I will host. I can specifically predict what insects I will attract to a landscape based on the larval host plants I establish. For example, milkweed species will draw in monarch butterflies. Golden alexander or other species in the parsley family will draw in black swallowtail butterflies. Willow species will draw in viceroy butterflies, and so on. HERE is a list of butterfly larval host plants.

The Insects Have It

When I stop and think about it, the most interesting parts of tours at the Arboretum are when insects are visible and busy doing their thing. Stopping with a group to watch a hatch of caterpillars devour a plant leaf and dream of what those caterpillars will turn into is pretty cool. Observing a huddle of school kids dump out a sweep net and squeal with delight at finding the baby praying mantis, massive grasshopper, or whatever other interesting insect they are not used to seeing, simply makes my day.

Milkweed tussock moth larvae feeding on common milkweed
Tour participants observing monarch caterpillars and milkweed longhorn beetles on common milkweed
3rd Graders investigating the contents of an insect sweep net

Many of the species blooming now around the Visitor Center at Dyck Arboretum are sometimes considered invasive and perhaps even uninteresting because they are common. But as I highlight in another blog post Finding Value in the Undesirables, they attract a load of insects which makes them interesting to me. Here is a collection of photos of insects taken just outside my office last week:

One particular plant, Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii), is stunning due to its vibrant color and interestingly shaped features. It’s often noticed by visitors walking to the greenhouse during FloraKansas: Fall Native Plant Days. However, what most people say when they see it is “did you see the swarms of insects on that plant?!” Customers are eager to recreate such insect habitat at their homes. For this reason, I keep a bag of seed for this annual species collected from the previous year to give away.

Become An Insect Promoter

This subtitle may make many traditional gardeners cringe. I have recently followed social media groups of gardeners where the anti-insect sentiment is rabid. Pesticides are commonly recommended to get rid of insect hatches in home landscapes and the recoil response related to spiders in general can be disturbing. Even many of our dedicated members that love to buy native plants for their landscapes don’t like to see the plants they come to love devoured by caterpillars. I am on a mission to change that.

So, if you are not already an entomology enthusiast and in awe of insects, I encourage you to take on a popular motivation for landscaping with native plants. Become more open to welcoming insects. Choose native plants or native cultivars not only because you think they will be pretty, but for how they will eventually host insects, enhance the food web they support, and increase the wildlife diversity in your landscape.

Seeded Prairie Checkup

I recently did a seeded prairie checkup to see how our December 2020 sidewalk planting described in the earlier blog post “Seeding After Disturbance” is doing. I’ve been informally monitoring it regularly since spring and have been encouraged by the progress I’ve seen.

Sidewalk edge seeded planting site this week on 8/10/21
The same planting site on the day it was planted 12/28/20 w/ planters Janelle and Kendra

Good Germination

We’ve been lucky with the weather since this planting. Conditions to promote good seed germination have been excellent. Remember the deep freeze we had in February? While it tested our human resiliency and strained our heating bills, it was good for this seeded prairie. Adequate precipitation and freeze/thaw action commenced throughout February and March. These conditions helped work the seed down into the soil while also breaking down their seed coats to help prepare them for germination.

Warmer temperatures along with rains in April and May promoted good germination. Identifiable prairie seedlings from the planted species list identified in the earlier blog post were evident amidst the expected seedlings of annuals like ragweed, sunflower, and foxtail.

Annual sunflower, giant ragweed, and foxtail grass serve as a shading nurse crop for tender, young perennial prairie plants

Thanks to the planting areas’ proximity to a water spigot, I was able to do some supplemental irrigation during the hot, dry weeks of late June and early July to keep the new seedlings from burning up while the seedling roots were small. But periodic rains in July and early August along with mottled shade from the nurse crop of sunflowers and annual grasses provided the conditions needed to help the prairie seedlings get well established as we head into fall.

Species Identified

A brief perusal of seedlings during this week’s seeded prairie checkup helped me find and photograph 14 of the 43 species that were part of the Prairie Moon Nursery seed mix. My prairie seedling identification skills are rusty, but I was able to identify the following seedlings to at least genus and some to species.

Seedlings of these identified species are thick throughout the planting and I’m confident that a good number of the rest of the 43 species in the mix will also show up eventually.

Weed Management

Typical management for a less-manicured seeded planting is simply to mow it a couple of times during the growing season to keep annuals from going to seed. Since such an approach for a higher profile area near the visitor center may look a bit scalped and perhaps not as appealing, we are taking the approach of cutting or pulling stems of the annuals. It is more labor intensive than mowing but not an unmanageable approach for small sidewalk edge planting, and regular volunteer, Gerry Selzer, has cheerfully embraced this task.

This weedy sidewalk edge vegetation is shading and hosting a variety of prairie seedlings underneath
The rare and coveted Gerrius selzeranii

Attracting Insects

One of the main reasons for planting this diverse wildflower seed mix in addition to adding pretty splashes of flower colors, is to attract insects and biological diversity to our sidewalk edge prairie beds. In two or three years, these planted species will be flowering and attracting insects with their flower nectar and host plant vegetation. I look forward to engaging school kids and teachers with regular investigations of these sidewalk edges to learn more about relationship between prairie plants and insects.

A new black-eyed susan is already playing host to caterpillars, possibly of species of checkerspot butterfly

Overall, I’m pleased with the progress of this planting as seen during this seeded prairie checkup. Days are getting shorter and we are almost to the cooler months of this planting’s first year when I can be pretty sure that these young prairie seedlings will have deep enough roots to survive about any weather conditions. Stay tuned for future updates about the development of this planting and consider how you too might add a seeded planting somewhere in your landscape.