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 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.

How to Add Native Plants to an Established Prairie

As we wind down the growing season, now is a great time to take stock of your new prairie garden or established prairie landscape.  Which plants have done well?  What has struggled?  What needs to be moved?  Which plants need to be added?  These questions will help guide your efforts this fall and especially next season. 

If you have an established prairie, it can be challenging to make some desired changes.  To add a few plants to a mature landscape takes some forethought and planning.  The deep rooted natives have a distinct advantage over the immature perennial you are trying to get started.  Here are a few simple steps to help give these new plants a fighting chance.

Choose spots

Maybe you want to add some wildflowers into a prairie setting dominated by native grasses.  Visualize where you want these new plants.  Remember, a prairie has subtle splashes of color.  Sprinkling in a handful of wildflowers will look more natural. 

This couple is slowly adding a few native wildflower into their meadow. Some have even started coming in on their own.

Prepare the soil

With your spots chosen, now it is time to make room for these additions to your prairie.  We flag the spots and then spray them with Roundup.  These spots are usually not more than one foot in diameter.  If you want to avoid spraying, cut the area down to the ground and cover it with heavy cardboard for several months or over winter.  Secure these one foot areas with several inches of mulch or stones. 

Two or three inches of mulch will hold down the cardboard and smother out the existing plants.

Choose the right plant

I keep circling back to this point because it is so important.  If plants have struggled in an area, it is usually because either the soil or the plant is out of balance. Typically, the soil is not to blame. It is more likely that the soil and plant have not been correctly matched. Observe soil, sun and drainage issues and match the proper plant to your area. It is good to have a sense of how some of these natives grow naturally in community.  The more you know, the more successful you will be.   

Establish your plants

After waiting several months or over winter, it is now time to plant.  Establish plants using this method in either spring (April/May) or late summer (August/September).  If you sprayed the small areas, you can simply plant right into the open weed free soil.  If you put down cardboard and covered it with mulch, you can pull back a little of the mulch and slice through the cardboard. Put the plants into the ground and water daily.  Leave the cardboard and mulch to decompose over the next few years, as this will give the new plants a little room to grow with less competition.  The cardboard and mulch will ultimately disappear.

Next Steps

Over the next few years, it will be necessary to monitor these new plants.  It generally takes two to three years for the root systems to get fully established.  Remember to:

  • Water deeply as needed.
  • Make sure they are not getting too crowded by other vegetation. 
  • You may need to cut back nearby grasses so these new plants get enough sunlight.  This will only be necessary during this establishment phase. 
Native grasses are wonderful but a few wildflowers in the prairie make it even more beautiful and dynamic.

This process is not guaranteed to succeed, but we have used it successfully to add some diversity to an established prairie.  This approach can also be used to transform a smaller intensively planted display bed. Either way, plan now so you are ready to plant next season. 

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)

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.

October Richness

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

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

Monarch fallout.

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

Tagged monarchs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

College students observing a garter snake.

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

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

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

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

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

Ginko leaves and ‘iron butterfly’ ironweed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Callery Pear: Cut Them Down

Several years ago, I noticed something disturbing was happening to our prairie reconstruction.  Small little trees were popping up throughout the original prairie planting.  I could not figure out where they were coming from, but they looked like pear tree saplings.  It wasn’t until I saw a large white blooming tree in the spring that it all came together. 

Callery Pear

Although the flower clusters are beginning to fade, Callery pear’s white blooms are most obvious in the spring.  We planted them for their explosion of spring blooms and nice fall color, but this ornamental tree has become highly invasive.  It threatens native wildlife habitat and has become a nuisance for private and public landowners.

This once favorite tree was planted extensively throughout the U.S.  The Callery pear – also referred to as Bradford pear – formed a nice pyramid to rounded shape.  The vertical limbs made it a nice median and street tree as well, ultimately reaching 30 to 40 feet tall and 20 -30 feet in spread.  This Chinese native was a harbinger of spring for decades with its prolific white blooms.  An added bonus was its reddish-purple fall color.

Despite all those positives, these trees have become problematic. This non-native, flowering tree was assumed to be sterile, but it is not.  It now cross-pollinates with other cultivars of Callery pear to produce hybrid offspring.  The fruit is ingested by wildlife and birds that spread the seeds across the countryside and into your yards.  It is aggressively displacing native vegetation, causing economic and environmental damage. 

Escaped Callery Pears*

The message to property owners is to remove the trees now while you can easily identify them in bloom.  We need to keep them from spreading to native areas.  It doesn’t hurt my feelings to see them go, because they are a weak-wooded, thorny mess. 

Native alternatives to Callery Pear:

  • Eastern Rudbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier ‘Robin Hill’)
  • American Plum (Prunus americana)
  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
  • Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
  • Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)
Blackhaw Viburnum in spring
Blackhaw Viburnum fruit and fall color

We have cut down the culprit, but still have a bunch more saplings to remove this summer. There is one more larger tree to cut down near the Visitor Center. We will continue to eradicate these unwanted invaders in our prairies.  It will take time but I believe we can get the upper hand.  I would encourage you to remove them in your landscape as well and replace them with native trees.  Callery pear has no place in the landscape anymore. 

*Image Source

Fire: A Link Between People and the Prairie

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

A prescribed burn in process at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

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

Conducting A Safe Burn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prescribed burning water backpack with hand pump.

Strengthening A Human Connection to the Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Cedar Tree, O Cedar Tree

Here is a repost from last year about using local cedar trees for your Christmas decoration this year, for the ecological benefits and the fun folksy style! Enjoy —- 

This past weekend I cut down a red cedar to use as my Christmas tree; just the right shape and size and with the right amount of character. I feel great about cutting one of these trees out of the wild (an Arboretum staffer condoning tree felling? Yes!). Red cedars are beautiful, strung with lights and tinsel, but they have become a real pest in the Great Plains ecosystem. Here are a few reasons to skip the plastic tree or spruce farm and simply cut yourself a cedar!

Any Christmas tree, cedar or artificial, can benefit from some ecologically conscious decorations. Dried grass and seed heads of prairie plants look magical amongst warm white lights, but are biodegradable.

Cedars have become invasive

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Kansas and much of central and eastern North America. Native though they are, the USDA labels cedars as invasive, and rightfully so. Too many pastures and meadows are overgrown with cedars, choking out native grasses and wildflowers. Without natural wildfires and regular controlled burns, cedars have been allowed to flourish in places that historically would not have been suitable. The tallgrass prairie is one of the most rare and endangered ecosystems in the world, and the invasion of cedars upon open grasslands decreases species richness, changes soil composition and even threatens indigenous wildlife. If you are a landowner looking to do maintenance of your grassland or clear it of cedar trees, Dyck Arboretum can provide helpful information.

Trees and shrubs are overpopulating grassy landscapes. Randy Rodgers has a wonderful essay here on the impacts of trees encroaching on the prairie.

Cedars degrade the prairie ecosystem

Grassland dependent birds, insects and small mammals become displaced or outcompeted when red cedars populate formerly open land. The University of Nebraska has compiled a lot of data on this subject at The Eastern Red Cedar Science Literacy Project, where you can find informative and alarming tidbits like:

“Grassland birds are the most rapidly declining avian guild in North America (Fuhlendorf et al. 2012) and are rarely observed once juniper exceeds 10% of land cover (Chapman et al. 2004).” (Twidwell et al. 2013)

and…

“An increase in overstory cover from 0% to 30% red cedar can change a species-rich prairie community to a depauperate community dominated by 1 (small mammal) species, Peromyscus leucopus.” (Horncastle et al. 2005)

Endangered and vulnerable species like the American burying beetle and the greater prairie chicken are only further threatened by the turnover of grassland to cedar forests. Cedars do have redeeming qualities – winter shelter and forage for birds, drought tolerance and erosion control. Red cedars certainly have their place in a hedgerow or small grove, but should be carefully limited from spreading.

Cedar trees make prescribed burning  tricky and often exacerbate already dangerous wildfires by sending up massive flames. Overgrown cedar pastures are a serious fire risk, and may have been a factor in the 2015 Anderson Creek wildfire.

My coworker Brad has some great bumper stickers that encourage regular prescribed burns to prevent cedar overgrowth.

Cedars are a ‘green’ choice

For all the aforementioned reasons, cutting a cedar for a Christmas tree is already a very ecologically conscious decision. But there is more! Unlike plastic trees, cedars are biodegradable and can be used for firewood or garden mulch. Also note that conventional Christmas tree farms providing spruce or firs require lots of resources:

  • clearing/agricultural development of land
  • years of regular water input
  • pesticides to keep needles bug free
  • shipping and fuel costs to get the trees to distributors around the country

Why don’t we skip all that frivolous resource usage and cut down some of these pesky cedars instead? You can feel good about a tree that’s low on carbon waste but high in old-fashioned, folksy quality.

Get permission from a farmer, landowner or your county land management officials before you start cutting. They will likely be happy to get rid of one, and you may get it for free (more money for gifts, yippee!) and enjoy a lovely, cedar-scented home this holiday.






Be an Advocate for the Prairie

At Dyck Arboretum, we focus a lot of our energy on spreading knowledge and appreciation for the prairie. We love Kansas’s natural landscape and we are alarmed by how little native prairie is left intact. The prairie needs more advocates – people who will stand up for its preservation and defend its value to native wildlife and community health. Most of our direct efforts target land owners – people who can plant native prairie gardens and landscapes at their home or school. But these are not the only people who can make a difference! Here are a few ways you can be a prairie advocate even if you aren’t able to plant a prairie of your own:

Community Involvement

I enjoy attending my local city council meetings to keep tabs on what is happening in the community, especially in regards to environmental issues. Most city council meetings have a citizen comment session at the beginning or end of every meeting. This is the perfect platform to express your thoughts on community green spaces, roadside prairie preservation and responsible neighborhood development. Letting your local government know you want to see more natural prairie in and around the city could inspire big changes!

Encouraging your city to adopt sustainable land management policies can create pollinator habitat, help clean stormwater run off, absorb carbon pollution from the air, and much more! Carpenter Bee on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea)

Volunteerism

We say it all the time, but it deserves repeating — Dyck Arboretum couldn’t do what we do without volunteers. If you are passionate about prairie preservation and live in the area, consider volunteering for us! Here at the Arb, volunteers do everything from mow lawns and pull weeds to answer phones and process memberships. When you give your time to an organization, you free up the staff to focus on the heart of its mission and widen its impact. Search VolunteerKansas.org to find a place near you to volunteer your time and advocate for native landscaping, environmental education or sustainable agriculture.

Volunteers often help out on the grounds, planting new flower beds and maintaining old ones. They keep the Arboretum looking beautifully managed!

Membership

Lastly, if you don’t have lots of time in your schedule to attend community meetings or volunteer somewhere, don’t fret. The simple purchase of a membership to an organization you support can make a big difference. The Dyck Arboretum, and other non-profit organizations like us, depend on memberships as a large portion of our budget. Membership gifts also support our programming and events. We use membership numbers to gauge whether our message resonates with the public. It is always so encouraging to see that number grow, one membership at a time! Becoming a member tells us that you support the work we are doing and that you want us to keep it going. If that is how you feel about Dyck Arboretum, become a member and a prairie advocate here.

Staff and members get to know each other at the annual Summer Soiree, an evening of fine food and entertainment.






10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows

Katie Kingery-Page

I heard a great presentation this last Saturday entitled “10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows” by Katie Kingery-Page, Kansas State University (KSU) faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning. Ms. Kingery-Page was the keynote speaker at the Kansas Native Plant Society’s Annual Wildflower Weekend and her message fit perfectly with the weekend’s theme of “Native Plants in City Settings”.

I find Katie’s background of fine art, landscape design, and ecology intriguing. When she introduced herself as someone who sees landscape architecture as the design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place, I knew that her presentation was going to speak to me.

Katie’s insights in this presentation were based on her experiences with “The Meadow” Project in front of the Beach Museum of Art on the KSU campus. From 2013-16, Katie and her team of volunteers converted a half acre of neglected turf into a native plant meadow. Her 10 lessons learned from this process were as follows:

 

1. Build A Coalition for the Life of the Project

It takes all kinds of people to complete a big project, and she showed a diagram of a “volunteer tree” she created.

Flow chart of people critical to the project.

2. Know the Place

Their planting list started with an extensive Flint Hills species template of the plants found at nearby Konza Prairie and was carved down to the resulting planting mix. Hackberry trees removed from the planting site were milled into everything from benches to mushroom-growing media.

Schematic diagram of prairie and forest-based planting mixes. (Image by Katie Kingery-Page, 2013)

3. Let the Team Guide the Values

Their team developed a mission statement and goals including that the site would integrate art and science and be a living laboratory that would minimize the usage of water and chemicals. An outcome of this plan was to forego the conventional use of killing existing vegetation with glyphosate and instead turned to compost smothering and mechanical scraping.

 

4. Develop A Thick Skin…Use Your Tricks

Have patience and don’t expect an instant landscape. Using flashy, early successional flowering plants such as the annual species Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) – the “bacon of plants” – helps distract onlookers that might otherwise see the weedy nature of the early stages of a planting.

Early successional, flowering “bacon” or “eye candy” plants Plains coreopsis (yellow) and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa). (Image by Katie Kingery-Page)

5. Tell the Project Story

Stories of these projects need to be told and can be done so through various media. Photos, drawings, and interactive touch tables at the Beach Museum were all used to tell The Meadow Project story.

Root development and above ground biomass increase over time, which also leads to increased soil porosity.

6. Connect to Volunteers’ Joy

Volunteer efforts were critical to the success of the project and instead of “work days”, they had “convene with monarch days” where learning experiences were an attractive part of the labor-filled get-togethers.

 

7. Put A Price on Labor

Weeding is skilled labor amounting to “surgical plant removal” and it should be rewarded. However, if money can’t be given, then at least try to find ways to acknowledge the people helping.

 

8. Embrace Imperfection

Native landscaping is perfectly imperfect and the inevitable weeds can be seen as beautiful too. Learning strategies that aid perception of such projects include maintaining a mowed edge that is critical to the perceived success of otherwise “messy” native landscapes.

All ages are welcome to weed. (Image by Richard Dean Prudenti)

9. Make Your Project for the Message of Conservation

Such projects are multi-faceted in their environmental benefits, and assessment measures should broadly include plants, soils, stormwater, wildlife, and more.

Restoration vs. Conservation – Katie used to use the word “restoration”, but there is a danger in implying that this process can fix all impacts to a diverse remnant plant community. Perhaps “conservation” is better with a focus on ecosystem functions such as soil structure, stormwater infiltration, etc.

10. Be A Champion…Stay All In

Katie learned early on from school gardening projects that such endeavors need project champions to carry the project through.

“The Meadow” Project. Long view toward the Beach Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of K-State Communications and Marketing)

____________________

The 10 lessons in this presentation were familiar to me in a variety of ways. From 2003 to 2008 at Dyck Arboretum, our staff and an extensive team of volunteers and college student interns collected seed from local prairie remnants and planted the 13-acre Prairie Window Project. Distinct examples come to mind of our project that relate to each of these lessons and I’ve blogged about various interpretations of that project over the years. It would be fun to come up with our own 10 lessons as well. I can tell you that, similar to The Meadow Project, it included the “design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place.”