Monarch Fallout and A Predator Story

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 phenomena 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.

Pandemic Picks for the Prairie Landscape

Do you have an out-of-the-way plot of ground that needs to be vaccinated from the maladies of soil erosion or a lack of biological diversity? Is this planting area safely physically distanced from other more manicured areas of your landscape? Would you like 2020 to be remembered for something other than COVID-19? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I have a selection of very easy-to-grow native plant species that will establish your prairie landscape area faster than a coronavirus infects a church choir.

Brad’s PPE (Prairie Pandemic Elections)

Blooms May-June

  • Illinois bundle-flower (Desmanthus illinoensis) – a nitrogen-fixing legume with seed heads that are as attractive as its flowers
  • river oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) – the only shade-oriented species of the bunch that originates from stream corridors of Eastern Kansas
  • beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) – the flowers attract bumblebees and the vegetation can be used make mint tea
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) – this favorite host plant for the monarch butterfly also has very sweet aroma when flowering
  • gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – stunning splashes of yellow when this species blooms in mass

Blooms July-August

  • compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  • rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium)
  • cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  • prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

The genus Silphium offers four very hearty species that have so much to offer. Learn more about these species from a previous blog post.

Blooms August-September

  • western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) – this is the taller and more robust cousin of our plant sale favorite ‘iron butterflies’ ironweed
  • tall joe-pye weed (Eupatorium altissimum) – few species will attract more pollinators than this Eupatorium
  • brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) – so beautiful and so invasive
  • tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) – not all thistles are bad as I discuss in an earlier blog post
  • Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) – goldenrods are famous for their color and pollinator attraction in late summer and few are heartier than this species
  • Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) – learn more about this and other sunflower species that could be considered good pandemic picks in an earlier blog post

See an earlier post I wrote about these late summer blooming “undesirables” and all the loads of insects they attract to our Arboretum landscape.

Prairie Ecosystem vs Prairie Gardening

In a diverse and thriving prairie ecosystem where these native species typically reside, a dense matrix of competitive prairie grasses and grazing animals help keep them in check. You could say that the prairie plant community has a herd immunity against these aggressive, super-spreader species.

But when you plop these species into a nutrient-rich, urban prairie garden with mulch and plenty of moisture, they grow seemingly with reckless abandon. They don’t have the same competitive prairie environment or grazers regularly eating them back to keep them in check. They spread quickly with rapidly expanding root systems and prolific seed production. These pandemic picks are long-haulers that will quickly (within a five years) take over slower and lower growing species, and you won’t need contact tracing to know where they came from. Therefore, we’ve learned (the hard way from some of our thankfully forgiving members) that these pandemic picks with their tall, rank growth do not belong in a small, more manicured garden.

So, given this information, you may ask…why recommend these pandemic picks that would make one symptomatic of a foolish gardener? Or, to put it more bluntly, WHO in the world is this CDC (Center for Dumb Consultation) that is giving you this advice!? Dyck Arboretum, of course!

The species I’m recommending provide colorful, aesthetically-pleasing blooms, soil erosion control, interesting vegetation, host plant food for caterpillars, and loads of nectar for pollinators. These species are extremely drought tolerant and will survive fine without care from you. And as an added bonus, they provide hearty competition for and crowd out annual plants like giant ragweed, a pollen emitter that makes you want to don your N-95 mask this time of year!

The major disclaimer I will offer and the key to being happy with these pandemic picks in your landscape is choosing a remote place where they can all be quarantined together. The more physical distance you can give this cluster planting location, the less likely their seeds are to invade more manicured areas of your prairie landscape. The only care this planting needs is an annual mowing/cutting in winter or early spring. Add some flammable tall grasses to the mix like big bluestem, Indian grass, and switch grass, and you can burn it annually instead.

To learn more about these species, visit the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website. A handful of these species are available through our FloraKansas native plant sale. Zoom on over to Dyck Arboretum in the coming days of September 10 (for members) and September 11-13 (for general public). All of these species can be found on our grounds. Bring a paper bag, catch me at FloraKansas, and I’d be happy to show you where these species can be found and give you permission to collect seed.

Get in early on this pollinator-friendly planting trend now as it may soon go viral!

Landowner Prairie Restoration Spotlight – Carolyn and Terry Schwab

Terry and Carolyn Schwab live on 109 acres in Eastern Harvey County affectionately known by a former neighbor as the “Foothills to the Flint Hills.” While much of the county land has been converted to cropland over the last century, the Schwab property has remained in remnant prairie.

We received a grant in 2004 to identify and study more than 100 prairie remnants in South Central Kansas and to collect seed for our 18-acre Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction project on-site at Dyck Arboretum. Until 2010, this work helped us develop a prairie landowner network through which we consulted with landowners and assisted them with their prairie management needs. It was during these years that I had the pleasure of first meeting the Schwabs. Ever since I have enjoyed observing the dedication they bring to being prairie restorationists and natural area enthusiasts.

Terry and Carolyn Schwab and the property they manage (2007)

Increasing Wildlife Diversity

The property was a moderately overgrazed cattle pasture when they acquired it in 1993. The Schwabs’ main goal as land stewards was to increase wildlife diversity through improved habitat and enhance their avid hobbies of bird-watching and fishing.

The remnant prairie and emergent wetland above and around the ponds on their land can consist of hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, and shrubs. High plant diversity translates to high wildlife diversity. Maintaining diverse herbaceous vegetation also serves as a good surface water filter that improves pond health. Terry and Carolyn knew that without grazing or other forms of grassland management, invasion of a handful of tree species (including nonnative species) would create a dense, and comparatively lifeless, forest canopy within decades. Plant species diversity would decrease and wildlife habitat would suffer. They needed to become prairie restoration land stewards.

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Vegetation Management

Controlling woody species and removing nonnative wildflowers became top priorities for the Schwabs in their quest to improve wildlife habitat on their property. Their initial efforts were extensive and laborious. They cut Osage orange and eastern red cedar trees and manually dug out musk thistle. To maintain water levels in the ponds, they repaired holes in the dams and removed trees whose roots can compromise dam life.

Numerous small trees invading in prescribed burning units A and B (2002 aerial photography)
Comparison with the previous photo shows that mechanical removal and prescribed burning have reduced tree cover over a six-year period, especially in units A and B (2008 aerial photography)

They were able to open up the upland areas where they had successfully removed mature trees and restore contiguous areas of grass and wildflower-dominated prairie. In these areas, the Schwabs implemented a regular rotation of mowing and prescribed burning to control any further invasion of woody plants. They networked with a local fire department to help them do this. They found mowing and burning to be much less labor-intensive than manual tree removal and effective tools for long term tree management.

Management Unit B, post-burn in 2009 (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn and Terry have made great improvements in restoring the prairie and emergent wetlands with tree management, but they know that they cannot rest on their laurels. Mature, seed-producing trees on their land and neighboring properties make keeping up with tree invasion a continual challenge. In addition to maintaining a routine of mowing and burning, they continue to cut and treat a number of invading tree species including honey locust, Bradford pear, Osage orange, Siberian elm, eastern red cedar, and the shrub Japanese honeysuckle. They are also on the lookout for the highly invasive, noxious weed sericea lespedeza which is becoming increasingly present in the area.

Conducting a prescribed burn on Unit C in 2010

Wildlife Monitoring

Carolyn invests a great deal of time monitoring and reporting on the biodiversity observed on their property. Daily walks to document bird populations, track phenology of flowering plants, and photograph butterflies are all part of what she sees as being an informed land steward.

Regal fritillary butterflies are dependent on habitat including diverse, large tracts of prairie. Even though the Schwabs have been improving the habitat of their prairie, regal fritillary numbers seem to be declining in recent years on a landscape scale. Carolyn has been planting nectar plants like butterfly milkweed and regal fritillary host plants (prairie violets) in the landscaping around her house to try and further support regal fritillary numbers.

This 2013 regal fritillary on butterfly milkweed (a yellow native landscaping variety near house) was the last one that Carolyn has seen on her property (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Carolyn is a top-notch birder. According to the Kansas Bird Listserv Database, a total of 329 species of birds have ever been documented as observed in Harvey County. Carolyn has seen more of these species (270) than anybody. And with easy access to 109 acres of prairie, wetland, woodland, and open water habitat, Carolyn has seen a whopping 232 of these species on her property!

A favorite experience of hers was witnessing a rare event on October 27, 2010. Eastern Harvey County is well east of the main sandhill crane migration flyway and seeing cranes there is not common. That night, however, the Schwabs observed 200+ sandhill cranes settle in for the night at their pond and enjoyed hearing their calls through the night. The cranes took off the next morning, but left behind a lasting memory for Carolyn.

Return of Butterfly Milkweed

The Schwab prairie restoration efforts are not only increasing the presence of grassland bird populations, but plant diversity as well. For years, they have not seen any butterfly milkweed on their property. But during the growing season of 2020, Carolyn reports that she has seen 20 plants.

Butterfly milkweed (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

Protection for the Future

The Schwabs are considering registering their property with the Kansas Land Trust to protect this native prairie in perpetuity. By establishing a conservation easement on the property, Terry and Carolyn would be establishing guidelines for future landowners to follow that would help protect the prairie, watershed, and the diversity of species therein.

Thank you, Carolyn and Terry for your important prairie restoration land stewardship and for being willing to share your story.

A white-tailed deer doe and two fawns sheltering on one of the Schwab pond islands (Photo by Carolyn Schwab)

A Flint Hills Visit: Inspiration for Native Landscaping

The prairie and its Flint Hills environment at Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL) provide serious inspiration for native landscaping. The CSFL vegetation, wildlife, substrate below, and the sky above collectively compose for me the most beloved and iconic landscape of native Kansas.

During my many past visits to CSFL, I have usually had an agenda that involved leading a tour group, collecting seed, or gathering butterfly data. I have never taken the opportunity to climb the bluff, sit in the prairie, listen to the grassland birds, observe butterflies and other pollinators, and watch the clouds go by. But I did just that on a recent Saturday in late June.

American lady butterfly on purple coneflower at CSFL

Pure Enjoyment

In addition to providing inspiration for native landscaping, visits to CSFL bring me pure enjoyment. During this recent visit, the steady breeze – with not a tree to stop it – was a reliable Kansas air conditioner. It kept me from thinking about the sweat-inducing effects of the hot sun. The puffy clouds overhead kept changing the light patterns and offered ever-fresh visual perspectives. In the midst of a surreal pandemic experience, when home and work routines are turned upside down and inside out, sitting on that prairie bluff was like visiting an old friend.

Big sky and clean water make CSFL a great place to fish or swim on a hot summer day

Desirable Wildflowers

The prairie wildflowers were plentiful during my visit thanks to a wet spring. The prairie plants we promote for the home landscape are in their native ecosystem here, with root systems that extend 10 to 15 feet into a matrix of limestone/flint/chert.

Rich images of plants like narrow-leaved bluets (white flowers) and lead plant (purple flowers) growing through rock are common at CSFL

In addition to a stunning display of orange and red butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), other flowering species included tuberous Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla), smooth milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), serrate-leaf evening primrose (Calylophus serrulatus), white prairie-clover (Dalea candida), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoense), purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), narrow-leaf bluets (Hedyotis nigricans), catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis), and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). In your garden, these plants will attract monarch larvae (milkweeds) and other pollinators, fix nitrogen (legumes) and provide year-round visual interest.

Smooth milkweed at CSFL

Interesting Critters

The insects observed on flowers (including 17 butterfly species I noted) were plentiful. Spending time identifying and documenting insect diversity makes me want to see more of them in my landscape. Diversity of wildlife species is directly correlated to the diversity of plants in an ecosystem. Increase the diversity of flora and you will increase the diversity of fauna!

Wild indigo duskywings mating on lead plant at CSFL

In her last blog post, colleague Katie talks about the fun of identifying insects (The Mystery of the Orange Bug). I can certainly relate to the fun of trying to solve mystery insects.

The caterpillar pictured below is a new one to me. One of the identification tools and bio-networking platforms I’d like to use more is iNaturalist. Click HERE to see a couple of photos and help me with identification of this unknown (to me) caterpillar. One follower of this thread suggested the correct ID to be a salt marsh moth. I would have a hard time arguing otherwise.

Possibly a salt marsh moth on lead plant

Butterfly Milkweed

If nothing else, spending time at CSFL in late June will inspire you to fill your landscape with butterfly milkweed. It is harder to grow the same remarkable eye candy of this favorite prairie plant in richer and less well-drained soils. But in spite of my 50% success rate (at best), I keep trying. Never before have I heard somebody say that a prairie reconstruction or garden has too much butterfly milkweed!

Butterfly milkweed at CSFL

None of us will be able to completely recreate the open prairie of the Flint Hills in our urban landscapes. We can, however, take incremental steps in that direction with the plants we choose and the wildlife we attract. Visit Chase State Fishing Lake, absorb some if its good vibes, copy some of its elements with your plant selection choices, enjoy the wildlife viewing, and find new inspiration for native landscaping.

Click HERE for more of my thoughts about and photos from an earlier blog post about Chase State Fishing Lake.

Help Us Count Butterflies

Put Saturday, June 27, 2020 on your calendar and plan to help us count butterflies. The 21st Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count will consist of groups of butterfly enthusiasts dispersing to butterfly hot spots around the county to observe and count as many butterfly species as possible. Participant age or experience does not matter.

Whether you can immediately tell the difference between a pearl crescent and a gorgone checkerspot or you are unable to differentiate between a monarch and a moth, we encourage you to attend. The only requirement is a curious interest in finding and counting butterflies.

E. tiger swallowtail butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

The Harvey County Butterfly Count typically takes place on a single day in late June throughout a 16-mile diameter circle that includes Newton, Halstead, and Hesston. Emeritus biology professor, Dwight Platt, organized the first Harvey County Butterfly Count in 2000. Dwight has long been a champion of citizen science in South Central Kansas. As a Bethel College freshman in 1948, he helped organize the first Harvey County area Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count. As my major professor in the early 1990s at Bethel, Dwight inspired me to get active in citizen science, and many years later (in 2016) passed along to me oversight of the Harvey County Butterfly Count. Dwight plans to participate all day in this 21st Harvey County count at the age of 89.

Dwight Platt, conducting a butterfly survey at Sand Prairie in W. Harvey County in 2008.

Citizen Science

Guidance for the Harvey County Butterfly Count protocol is provided by North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Their efforts to build and organize a robust data set is important to monitor trends in butterfly populations. Comparisons of the results across years can be used to monitor changes in populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change on North American butterflies.

By participating in such counts, you are contributing to research through citizen science. In the process, you are also increasing your scientific understanding, learning about environmental issues, gaining an appreciation for the natural world, and becoming a more engaged citizen. Thanks to Dwight, family members, and friends who encouraged me to do such things at a young age, citizen science shaped my choice of vocation and was personally transformative. I am hooked now and consider citizen science a fun hobby.

Delaware skipper butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Common Butterflies Observed

In addition to sending all the data to NABA from each year’s one-day count, I have 20 years of Harvey County Butterfly Count data in a spreadsheet that can be organized in a variety of ways. Here are a few summary numbers:

  • Over the last 20 years, 85 butterfly species have been observed during the one-day Harvey County counts.
  • The average number of butterfly species seen over the last 20 counts is 50.8.
  • 25 butterfly species have been observed nearly every year of the count (19 out of 20 counts).

Those 25 commonly observed Harvey County butterfly species are featured here for easy visual reference (photo credits). I lumped some of the similar-looking species together to help you more easily discern some of the subtle differences. Review them a few times and you will already start to develop a familiarity with the majority of butterflies seen on a typical count!

While the above 25 species are mostly what you will see and be counting, the real fun comes in finding the other 25 or so more rare species throughout the day. Searching for different types of habitat and flowers usually helps expand the diversity of species observed. Looking for certain host plants to find rare species is also part of the strategy.

What to Bring

The most important mode of preparation for a summer butterfly count is adjusting to the elements. Once you protect yourself from the sun with a hat and light cotton clothing and apply insect repellent around your ankles to repel ticks and chiggers, you can more easily turn your focus to the fun of looking for flowers and the butterflies they attract. If you simply plan to sweat and stay well-hydrated (bring plenty of water), you will find yourself enjoying a breezy summer day in Kansas.

Additionally, consider bringing binoculars (I also have close-range butterfly binoculars to lend you) and/or a camera with a zoom lens, but neither are mandatory. Each group will have a leader with an expertise in identification and a plan for sites to visit.

Let me know at brad.guhr@hesston.edu if you would like to attend for a half (3-4 hours) or full day (6-8 hours) and I will send you an email with more details.

Plan to enjoy part or all of a summer day counting butterflies and help make an important contribution to citizen science.

Rare regal fritillary butterflies nectaring on butterfly milkweed.

Visit Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park

I would highly recommend that you visit Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, a new gem in the crown of great destination places to visit in Kansas. The High Plains and western Smoky Hills landscapes of Western Kansas are too often overlooked as a flyover region or burden of windshield time to endure as Kansans head west to the mountains. But if you take the time, I am sure you will become enamored as I have by the geologic history, wide-open viewshed, and various biological elements of the short to mixed grass prairie ecosystem. There are various intriguing features for a visit to Little Jerusalem.

Little Jerusalem, looking north from the 1.2-mile overlook

A Look Back in Time

You will immediately notice the layer cake geology in the Niobrara Chalk spires and unique standing features carved by the Smoky Hill River at Little Jerusalem over. Layers of shells, shark teeth and bone fragments were deposited at the bottom of an ancient Cretaceous era inland sea covering this area from 145 to 66 million years ago. These are favorite areas for paleontologists to find skeletal fossils of swimming reptiles such as mosasaurs and plesiosaurs.

Carl Buell’s Tylosaurus painting used in Mike Everhart’s short story “A Day in the Life of a Mosasaur. http://oceansofkansas.com/mosa-sty.html

Recreation in Wide-Open Spaces

Treeless plains make for stunning landscape views and Western Kansas has no shortage of them. Wide-open spaces, few people to see, and a typically windy environment also make this an excellent place to socially distance yourself during a pandemic outdoors while exercising your body and mind.

Little Jerusalem, looking west from the 0.25-mile overlook

After arriving at the new parking lot and paying your $5 car fee at the self-pay station, you can set out on hikes to great views either a 1/2 mile or a little over 2-miles total in length. I took in the views at all three of the overlooks which were all impressive. But I would have to say that the views from the overlook furthest in distance (1.2 miles) from the parking lot were most spectacular. Most of the trails consist of packed gravel that are easy to walk on.

Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park trails

Rare Plants and Animals

There is so much to see at Little Jerusalem in the short and mixed grass prairie all around. You can simply take in the beauty of the colors and textures as part of the surrounding landscape. Or you can investigate closer to see an array of interesting examples of flora and fauna unique to the area. Great Plains wild buckwheat (Eriogonum helichrysoides) is found around the chalk bluffs of Western Kansas (with the largest population found in this park) and nowhere else in the world. Ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) are open-country birds that breed in grasslands and the most nests in Kansas are found along the bluffs of the Smoky River.

Ferruginous hawk, photo by Bob Gress (BirdsInFocus.com)

Close to Other Worthy Features

While planning your visit to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park, consider visiting a few other worthy public and private features in the area in or near the Smoky River valley and watershed.

Locations of recommended destinations

Smoky Valley Ranch in Logan County has been protected and is currently being managed by Kansas Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It is an expansive example of short and mixed-grass prairie managed as a working ranch that features dramatic chalk bluffs, grazing cattle and bison, black-tailed prairie dogs, and the federally endangered black-footed ferret.

Monument Rocks National Landmark and Castle Rock, combined in consideration for one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas, are both impressive examples of Niobrara Chalk towers on either side of Gove County. Both features are on private land where visitors are allowed to get close to the features. Be respectful of the rules including no climbing, fossil hunting, camping, littering or bonfires.

Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark in Gove County

During your Western Kansas visit, consider renting a cabin or camping at beautiful Lake Scott State Park. It is considered by National Geographic as one of the country’s 50 must-see state parks. Extensive hiking trails, a state fishing lake, and various features of cultural history from Pueblo Native Americans to early European settlers can all be found here.

Sunset at Lake Scott State Park in Scott County

I’ll leave you with a poem (Prairie Wind by Fred D. Atchison, Sr.) featured on one of the signs at Little Jerusalem where one is invited to “Have A Seat, Fill Your Lungs”:

I am thinking of you, prairie wind

running free across Kansas plains

and see the evidence of your presence

billowing seas of golden grain.

You etch your mark on sandstone cliffs

sculptures carved by a timeless hand

and move soft brushes of prairie grass

drawing circles across the sand.

It is humbling when I realize

these soft breezes reaching me now

whispered lullabies to the Indian child

before the prairie was put to the plow.

I have witnessed your destructive force

throughout the reaches of your domain

and felt the comfort of your caress

when you become gentle again.

You are an adversary to work against

and you break those who will not bend

an ally to all who work with you

when finally we learn to walk with the wind.

Celebrating Earth Day Through Native Plants

Today is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. For a half century, April 22 has been a day when we celebrate a connection with our planet and pause to think about how we can be better earth stewards. I would like to state the case for having native plants be central to this stewardship focus.

Earth Day in 1970 mobilized 20 million Americans to unify in support of environmental protection. The energy of this movement led to a greater awareness of and protection for natural elements important to humans, including clean air (Clean Air Act of 1970), clean water (Clean Water Act of 1972) and biological diversity (Endangered Species Act of 1973).

My 50th Anniversary Earth Day Flag – an adapted version of John McConnell’s Earth Day flag adorned with the spring blooming native plants (clockwise from upper left-golden alexander, vernal witch hazel, Missouri evening primrose, and rose verbena).

Native plants and their ecosystems are closely connected to the health of air, water, and biological diversity. Native plants photosynthesize, produce oxygen and sink atmospheric carbon. Native plants buffer streams, hold soil, and filter moving water. Native plants provide food and habitat for wildlife of all kinds. For the more than one billion people that will recognize Earth Day around the world today, celebrating native plants could easily be central to this celebration.

So, to celebrate the 50th Earth Day, I would like to recognize some of the spring-blooming native plants that are hitting their stride in my home landscape right now.

A favorite garden corner with bloomers from left to right including Major Wheeler honeysuckle, roundleaf ragwort, ‘Pink Lanterns’ columbine, shortstem spiderwort, and golden alexander.

Spring blooming wildflowers offer the first signs of hope after a long winter. In late winter/early spring, they bait us with anticipation, even when nighttime temperatures regularly dip below freezing and cold winds are not yet inviting us to be outside. Their root systems receive messages from increasing hours of daylight and higher average temperatures. Their green shoots break dormancy and emerge as if they are responding to cheerful invitations of the robins, repeatedly calling “cheer-up, cheer-a-lee, cheer-ee-o”.

That was the scene in my yard in early March. Fast forward now to mid April through more than a month of pandemic isolation. While I’m captive at home, the need for hope and beauty seems ever greater and the following spring blooming wildflowers are answering the call.

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Wild ginger.

Wild ginger is a creeping wildflower that creates growing ground cover colonies. The roots of the plant smell like ginger. Their heart-shaped close-to-the-ground leaves may be less than striking, but the hidden flowers of wild ginger (pollinated by beetles, flies and ants) are worth the search.

Wild ginger flower.

Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Woodland phlox.

The Greek meaning of the word phlox refers to the intense floral color which is evident once you see woodland phlox in bloom. The plant will form a spreading colony. It does surprisingly well in Kansas if you can find a protected place for it. The fragrant and showy flowers attract butterflies, hummingbird moths, and hummingbirds.

Roundleaf Ragwort (Packera obovata)

Roundleaf ragwort.

Once established, roundleaf ragwort establishes a creeping colony and is one of the earliest bloomers in the spring. Roundleaf ragwort flowers attract butterflies, bees, and bumblebees. With an evergreen leaf throughout all seasons, this species offers year-round interest without being invasive to the detriment of surrounding plants.

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica)

Pennsylvania sedge.

Pennsylvania sedge is commonly found in the dry to dry-mesic understory of oak-hickory woodlands. It is a nice landscaping choice for a dry, shady yard location in Kansas. While they certainly do resemble grasses in their appearance, sedges, characterized by their triangular stem (“sedges have edges”) are in a family all their own.

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’ (Aquilegia canadensis)

Columbine ‘Pink Lanterns’.

Columbine is easy to establish in partial sun to full shade conditions and its flowers attract hummingbirds and bumblebees. The name is in reference to a couple of birds. The genus name Aquilegia is derived from a combination of the Latin word “aquila” (meaning eagle for the five spurs resembling an eagle claw) and the Latin word for “columba” (meaning dove, for five doves nestled together). This pink version of Aquilegia canadensis was actually discovered in Marion County, Kansas by Dyck Arboretum of the Plains!

Spring Bloomers in Your Landscape

Many spring blooming wildflowers are native to woodland understories. Such woodland understories historically would have only been native to Eastern Kansas. Today, urban tree canopies and the north side of fences, garages, and houses all provide great shady habitat to plant spring woodland bloomers like those featured in our FloraKansas plant sale Spring Woodland Kit.

But you certainly don’t need to stop with the species in this kit. See a previous blog post (Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants) featuring additional spring bloomers that you might consider for shady or sunny areas.

Celebrate Earth Day with me. Consider participating in the rewarding ritual of native plant gardening and make every day Earth Day.

A Unified Chorus

If you come to the Dyck Arboretum during these wet spring days, you will be greeted by a unified chorus. I’m not referring to the sound of people with spring fever, singing the praises of nature while walking the paths and enjoying the prairie gardens and native plant communities. You will hear the mating call of the boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata).

This up to 1.5-inches in length amphibian exhibits various shades of brown, gray or green with three dark brown stripes running down its back and an especially noticeable one running the length of its side through the eye from nose to hind leg. If you are patient and observant, you will see one at our greenhouse rain garden.

Photo Source: A Pocket Guide to Kansas Amphibians, Turtles and Lizards. Check out this resource for great information about Kansas wildlife.

Location and Diet

The boreal chorus frog is one of the most widespread frogs in Kansas with distribution nearly throughout the state. They are commonly found in the daytime during the breeding season from late February through May. Outside of this time, they are seeking refuge under cover of wetland vegetation or soil. After rains or during humid nights, they emerge to forage for small invertebrates. According to the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas, in a 1906 article by F.A. Hartman, he reported finding algae and ants in the stomachs of young specimens and spiders in the stomachs of adults.

Boreal chorus frog range map from the Kansas Herpetofaunal Atlas. The symbols denote the locations of literature records (squares), observations (triangles), and museum voucher specimens (circles).

Find Them at Dyck Arboretum

Follow our paths to the rain garden/small pond by our greenhouse or simply walk toward the unmistakable high-pitched shrill sound to find these critters. When you approach the pond edge, their calls will stop. If you stay quiet and still, one-by-one their clicking trill (like the sound of running a fingernail along the teeth of a comb for two to fives seconds with a slight rise in inflection) will return. At full strength, the volume of their collective chorus may make you want to hold your ears.

A boreal chorus frog on a pot in our plant nursery (photo by Dyck Arboretum grounds manager, Katie Schmidt)

As we humans avoid physical contact from each other during these anxious times of a worldwide pandemic, I find some comfort in knowing that cycles of the natural world are still carrying on around us. Amphibians may be facing other challenges as my colleague Katie Schmidt recently wrote about. But I’m glad these Arboretum chorus frogs are not practicing social distancing at the moment. Their mating call signals that their population will be alive and well here in the future.

Creating Frog Habitat

Rain Garden
This interpretive signage next to our rain garden is located between buildings at Dyck Arboretum. The line drawings artwork is by Lorna Habegger Harder.

If you would like to create habitat for frogs, consider restoring wetland habitat in a low place on your property that collects water. I am in the process of holding a virtual rain gardening class through which I will send you a link to a presentation and then set up consultation time to discuss your project and the logistics of making it happen. At our upcoming spring FloraKansas event, you can get the plants that like their feet wet to make habitat for chorus frogs and all other sorts of water-loving creatures.

I’ll leave you with one more serenade from our local population of boreal chorus frogs.

Our Maturing Reconstructed Prairie

Six years ago I wrote my first ever Dyck Arboretum blog post about our “Teenage Prairie” Prairie Window Project (PWP) reconstructed prairie. The birth and development of this project was the focus of my early years here at the Arboretum from 2004 to 2010 and at times it indeed felt like developing progeny. Sticking with that maturing prairie/human metaphor, I’d say this prairie today would be in the young adult stage. While it is still maturing, it relies much less on the parental influence of Arboretum staff and its changes from year to year are more subtle.

Prairie Window Project in September 2017
Prairie Window Project in August and October of 2010

I recently gave a 40-minute webinar presentation about the story of developing this PWP prairie. I enjoyed remembering all the educational and community building opportunities this project intensively afforded over a 7-year period and how it still serves us today. From that presentation, I will summarize through images and interpretation the stages this reconstructed prairie has been through.

Conceptual Stage

This reconstructed prairie was a gleam in the eye of Harold and Evie when they started the Dyck Arboretum in 1981. With native gardens already established here, they also wanted visitors to experience the feeling of visiting a larger prairie ecosystem. I was tasked with oversight of this project when I started working here in 2004. Preparations began in 2005 to turn 18 acres of agricultural ground south of our hedge row to a prairie.

The conceptual plan showing our existing grounds (in green) and the proposed PWP to be developed.
The red 1.3-acre rectangle was planted in 2005 and 2007 and the blue 5-acre oval was planted in 2009 and 2010 after earth moving added some topographical relief

Collecting Seed

We wanted this prairie reconstruction to be developed with local ecotype seed collected with in a 60-mile radius, knowing that the plants would be best suited to local fauna, soils, and climate. No other prairie in Kansas had been restored with local seed, and we knew this site could be a unique future seed source for creation of other prairies. We set out to visit more than 100 nearby blueprint prairies to collect data on their plant composition, study the butterfly and bird populations they supported, and scope out where we would best be able to hand-collect seed. Visits to these prairies on a regular basis helped us secure the grass, wildflower, shrub and sedge seed needed to plant a diverse prairie at Dyck Arboretum.

A graduate student collecting seed from a nearby remnant prairie
Volunteers collecting seed from a nearby remnant prairie
Harvesting large volumes of grass seed with the aid of a nearby KSU Ag Extension plot combine
Seed collection outings sometimes involved the collection of insects, rocks, sticks and more

Seed Mix

To best mimic the species composition of the blueprint remnant prairies we were observing, prairie restoration literature suggested that we should be aiming for a wildflower:grass ratio of no less than 50:50 and perhaps even has high as 80:20. Other target planting parameters included at least 50 lbs of seed per acre, a minimum of 50 seeds per square foot, and as much species diversity as possible. Five different plantings between 2005 and 2010 met these parameters and more than 120 local ecotype prairie species were planted into the PWP during that time.

Volunteers cleaning seed, removing chaff, and helping us best estimate seed weight that would insure the most accurate species mix calculations as possible
An example of the level of detail that went into planning the seed mix
2005 seed mix ready for planting

Planting Seed

Planting our seed mix with a seed drill or mechanical planter wasn’t realistic given the unique shape of our planting areas and diverse shapes/weight/textures of the seed mix. An alternative plan was to establish a planting grid that would allow for even distribution of seed using 5-gallon buckets. We assigned two buckets and a volunteer per planting unit, distributed seed (sand added for bulk) evenly to all buckets, and instructed volunteers to evenly cover their flag-marked planting unit.

Establishment of planting plots to best insure an even distribution of our seed mix
Volunteers walking to their assigned planting plots in January 2005
A graduate student distributing seed in January 2007

Prairie Management

Prairies require regular disturbance management of grazing and fire to maintain healthy ecosystems and prevent the invasion of woody plants and non-native cool-season grasses. Selective pulling of certain invasive, non-native species was key early in the PWP planting’s development. Once the desired prairie vegetation built sufficient roots after about three years and became well-established, a rotation of mowing (to best simulate grazing), burning and leaving residual has been implemented ever since.

Earth Partnership for Schools teachers pulling invasive non-native yellow sweet clover in June 2010
Volunteers helping conduct a prescribed burn in April 2018

Research

More than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students have been invaluable in collecting data to monitor populations of plant and wildlife species. Their efforts have helped us understand changes in groupings and species as the planting matures and management continues.

Graduate students conducting vegetation sampling July 2008
Vegetation guild importance value changes over 12 years
Small mammal trapping and population monitoring on the PWP

Education into the Future

Our PWP reconstructed prairie is regularly used by preschool, K-12, and college students to learn about the plants and wildlife important to the natural history of Kansas. Community bird and butterfly enthusiasts regularly monitor the species that are found within. And visitors seeking recreation on our paths enjoy the prairie backdrop that enhances their Arboretum stroll.

Elementary school students collecting seed for a plant-growing project
Students conducting sweep netting to temporary collect and learn about insect populations
High school students collecting specific leaves as part of a scavenger hunt test during the finals of the Kansas EcoMeet

The Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction on the southern part of our grounds has been a valuable tool to promote prairie conservation, education, and community building with our membership. This project has been at the heart of our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land. Pay this prairie a visit sometime and let us know if and how it may hold value for you.

Plug(in) for Citizen Science

Opportunities to conduct citizen science are all around us and doing so can add great value to our lives. You can refer to an earlier blog post (Get Rich and Happy with Phenology) to see how much I enjoy scientific pursuits in my spare time. These activities include various elements of plant conservation, and looking for/identifying butterflies and birds.

My data collection tools for the Harvey Count Butterfly Count

I discussed in this past post that phenology is the observance of cyclical and seasonal natural events. Citizen science is a method of observing and documenting phenology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines citizen science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.”

Field data sheet from a past Harvey County Christmas Bird Count

Kansas is flush with great people and resources when it comes to conducting skillful citizen science. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in the Kansas birding community. I know a number of committed folks who will spend entire weekends and even vacations focused on the pursuit of observing and identifying as many birds as possible. The especially skilled and driven birders identify more species in a day than most people will recognize in a lifetime. Some may consider these folks a bit wack-a-doodle-doo, but I consider them inspiring contributors to citizen science. I will strive to be more like them in my empty nest years (yes, pun intended), which are coming soon.

The drive for many birders to scientifically document nature around them then extends to the follow-up data sharing. This is where personal enjoyment in bird watching becomes important citizen science. And this is also where I get to the reference in my title for this blog about “plugging in”.

Electronic Reporting

With mobile devices making the Internet available almost anywhere and with ever more nature-based reporting platforms coming available, sharing findings about animals and plants has never been easier. Here are some online reporting options for you to check out:

A popular reporting platform is eBird, created by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002. Through this platform, birders can report their findings and track data according to their life lists, county/state/country lists, etc. Ornithologists world-wide are using eBird data to better understand population ranges, changes in this data related to climate change, and so much more.

Birds are probably the most abundantly reported subject when it comes to citizen science of the natural world. Other Cornell Lab popular platforms and outlets for collecting bird data close to home include Project FeederWatch, NestWatch, and Great Backyard Bird Count. Breeding Bird Surveys, and Christmas Bird Counts (see a previous blog on this topic HERE) offer birding outlets for more adventurous birding in the region where you live.

Butterfly Tracking

Butterfly tracking is also gaining popularity. A good platform for reporting findings about monarch butterflies is through Monarch Watch. With their trending decline over the last couple of decades, monarchs are a popular focus for butterfly monitoring. Through Monarch Watch, citizen science data inputs for the public can include host plant emergence in the spring, and larvae and adult monarch sightings. They even detail how to tag monarchs for further tracking. Developing habitat for monarchs and improving available native nectar sources is also good for all butterfly species.

Check out a recent edition of On T.R.A.C.K.S. (V25:1), a publication produced by the good folks at Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism for more ideas about citizen science reporting. This information-packed issue provided the topic idea for this post. Tt goes into much greater depth on many of the resources I refer to. This issue also highlights and further describes additional electronic platforms related to documenting biodiversity in general, plant flowering and seeding, climate change, precipitation, frogs, ladybugs, and even litter.

Our first lecture of our 2020 Winter Lecture Series with Chuck Otte will focus on Kansas Bird Populations and Distributions. Chuck is a fantastic resource, a great advocate for citizen science, and an interesting speaker. Put it in your calendar Tuesday, February 11 at 6:30 and come join us.

Happy Kansas Day! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to spend more time studying and reporting on the natural world of Kansas. Now, get out there, plug-in for citizen science, and have fun in the process!