Sunday, March 29, 2009

Feel the Burn!

Prairie Coreopsis and Phlox

Why is it I get excited when visiting a local tallgrass preserve and I see that part of it had been burned in the fall or spring? I'll admit being pretty excited when I hear some favorite site had some burn event the previous's not that a charred landscape is what I prefer - it's what comes afterward. Fire was a natural occurrence on the tallgrass prairie, it prevented incursion of trees and competition from other plants that may have been invasive or disruptive in some way. It also warmed the soil, contributed nutirients and removed heavy thatching and buildup of sunlight blocking debris. But the characteristic I look for "visually" is - it promotes heavy flowering.

We have a prairie remnant here at Prairie Hill Farm; it was what drew us here originally. With the property buffered by pasture land, we also encouraged the native plants that had once grown here in profussion by burning periodically. When there is an absence of burning for many years most areas like pastureland experience a noticeable degradation of "diversity" - a boring and devoid "monoculture" results. It's sad to see what was once a natural habitat of dozens of native grass species and hundreds of different flowering native forbs (wildflowers) turn into one color, with one or two grass species and scattered invasives (non-native plants).

It's not just the noticeable lack of color and form but the lack of wildlife diversity that results. All creatures require that chain of life we used to hear about...this plant requires this insect for pollination...this bird requires these insects or seed or pollen bearing plants to thrive...this amphibian requires these plants for habitat - and on and on. That's biodiversity plain and simple! That's also what we humans have changed so dratiscally...but I won't get so preachy here, I'm only saying I like it hot when it comes to prairie! Hot with color, form, contrast, insects, birds, frogs, reptiles and mammals!

Yesterday (Saturday) we had a window of opportunity to burn our pasture and prairie remnant. It's hot work, but for those results we enjoy the rest of the year through. The prairie is charred now, but oh what a beauty it'll be this spring summer and fall!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Phenology...of sorts

"False Gromwell Slope" Color Pencil
(Prints Available Here)

I've practiced phenology over the years and really didn't realize it until recently. Today it was brought back to mind when I said something about going down to Waterman Prairie to check on the Pasque Flowers. Georgie thought I was getting ahead of myself...that it was wishful thinking - "It's been too cold this week." was her thought on the first bloomers there.

I checked back in this blog to April 7th of last year, and there they were! Hmmm...April 7th is a bit later yet, sure hate to wait that long!

I also keep track of other things as they happen, and refer back to them when looking for photo or viewing opportunities. I do this in my journals (they go back to the 1980's), on calendars I file away, and in my "A Tallgrass Journal" (in publication since 2002), but this blog is another way to keep track. The artwork above is a good example...if I wanted to get back to the False Gromwell Slope (my name) and photograph the plants in peak bloom, I could check my notes or even the slide mounts for dates (ya it was a long time ago!). Now-a-days I could also check my digital files for the date of creation.

Phenology is defined in the gardener's dictionary as "The scientific study of periodic biological phenomena, such as the flowering of plants, in relation to climatic conditions." I suppose it could also relate to other non-plant events like the Monarch migration, or bird migration, or even when climactic events themselves happen (?).

Today (as I write - March 23rd) the ice on the famed Walden's Pond went out. It also went out on this date in see, Henry David Thoreau kept records of the natural occurrences around him too...sure its just a thing of curiosity but can be much more. The next year in 1854, Walden's ice didn't go out until April you see method to my madness yet? I figure if Walden's ice can go out on this date one year but April 7th another year, then I'd better check on the Pasque Flowers at Waterman Prairie pretty quick here!!! They may be up! Ha!

As you can see I use the science of phenology very loosely; more for my own reference to when to check on things I'm interested in. But these records can actually mean something is going on if looked at over a period of many years. Walden's Pond has been recorded for some time. During Thoreau's time the dates of ice-out averaged around April 2nd...during the recorded periods in the 20th and 21st century it averaged around "Today" March 23rd! Global warming? Climate change? Aw, I have no idea! But it's the trends that can indicate things scientifically.

But one thing I do know - I'd better get down there and check on those Pasque Flowers!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cloud Chasing

The Vernal Equinox is only about 36 hours away as I write...and I'm looking forward to it! A lot of work seems to crop up for me at this time of year, so I have to be thankful for the opportunities as they arise, but it makes getting in some painting time almost impossible. It is also a wonderful time for photography in the tallgrass environment...I love it, but it's mostly just getting out that I enjoy so much, especially after a winter of contemplating just that.

When I'm out doing freelance work for different projects, I try and take advantage of what's going on in the prairies and prairie potholes of our region. One thing that is always enjoyable for Georgie and I is "cloud chasing". No matter what time of the year it is we can always manage to find interesting skies in the tallgrass. I've always thought of the prairie as a sky dominated landscape, it usually is. The sky is to the prairie like the mountains are to the american west. The prairie has the advantage of an everchanging sky however, the landscape can change quickly and constantly with your tripod still firmly achored to the same spot all day long.

We've had days when the chase begins early in the day and we move with the sky...kind of like storm chasing but not with that kind of earnest flight...more with the light and the shapes and the vantage point. The image above is a good example of one of these days...this started at an event of a friend's spouse. As the event ended we saw the sky and spent the rest of the day following "it"! The cloud chase ended shortly before sunset when this thunderhead began to collapse, yet still leaving an "image worthy" offering to us before the light was gone.

Here's to a great Spring and some good chases to come!

Friday, March 13, 2009

They're On Their Way!

They're on their way! Whoot, whoot! Monarchs were passing through Mission Texas a few days ago on their way out of Mexico!

I've been watching the winter roosting, the "stirring", and now the beginning of the Monarch migration back to Prairie Hill Farm and beyond, on the "Journey North" site at for most of the winter. I'm always interested in what my friends are up to when they're away from home...well, their summer home anyway, and I like to keep in touch with what's going on down south of the border. If you go to this link you can see mapped sighting of the Monarchs moving out of Mexico and California, and movement in Florida...also there's a map showing Asclepias sightings.

Asclepias is the milkweed family that Monarchs depend on for feeding - particularly in their larval stage...they lay their eggs on milkweed plants and after the caterpillar hatches, it feeds on the host plant.

It's important how the migration is timed. If the migration starts too soon, the milkweeds will not be up in large enough numbers to support the egg link broken in this fragile chain and it's all over for the species. Milkweeds are also an important nectar source for adult Monarchs but they don't need milkweed as much as adults since they feed on any source of nectar (flower). You won't find too many milkweeds in bloom early in the season, but the plant itself is what's the most important for the species early on their trip back north.

I like to photograph Monarchs in both stages of their life cycle but must admit the adult butterfly stage is the most mesmerizing; such large beautiful creatures!

I wanted to incorporate a Monarch in a painting I did for an area orchestra fund raiser a couple years back...I put it on the "front" of a violin (I'll show the "back" at another time), the painting was done on mounted canvas, on the violin itself, and the medium was Casein.

The scene was taken from Prairie Hill Farm itself and one of our very own "friends" enjoying some time on Heliopsis helianthoides (False Sunflower), a very common native here and one of several favorites for butterflies of all knds.

We may very well get lucky and see one or two other types of early butterflies here in the next 2-3 weeks if the weather cooperates, but our Monarch friends will be a bit later; maybe we'll get lucky in early May?! One can only hope!

They're on their way!!

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Big Thaw

The specter of Spring is looming ever closer, yet we have the "Big Thaw" to work through first - and it is in progress as we speak!

Now, by "Big Thaw" I'm not just thinking of the ice breaking loose on Waterman Creek down in our valley...that's taken place twice already in the past 3 weeks. It's also the great migration process "starting", it's the long absence of some "neighbors" now showing up during the day and night, it's the lawn actually showing up and giving the newly arrived Robins a place to dine through, and maybe it's finally the last throws of white stuff???

We had another blanket of snow came after a couple hours of freezing rain and sleet, but by mid afternoon half of it was gone already. In the midst of the afternoon a neighbor paid us a visit...Mudd, our original farm cat sat outside watching the "neighbor" from a safe distance ignoring calls for her to come in the house. Once Georgie saw Mudd's reason for not venturing toward the house, she alerted me and I decided to give a friendly greeting to the visitor.

I try to be nice to "touchy" neighbors and watch from behind trees!

By "friendly visit", I just mean "careful"! I took my small camera with me and thought I'd get a picture or two. Using the big camera and lenses would require a big tripod and I thought I needed to remain more "mobile" in case someone was in a cranky mood.

The Skunk was the first we'd had in the yard in some time and the first in the neighborhood this winter that wasn't roadkill. It was what I presumed to be a small female...this is the time of year we see skunks moving about unconcerned in the daylight...usually seeking mates and denning sites for future broods. Our visitor was under the fenceline bird feeder station enjoying some black oil sunflower seeds.

Opossums don't usually act that smart but this one wasn't taking chances!

Later our visitor came back and the traffic got a tad busier, one of our haybarn 'possums came for supper too. We watched this from inside because it could have been messy (smelly). The skunk raised her tail as the Opossum approached but she didn't turn her business end, she just kept the "guns" cocked. Eventually the 'possum noticed what was "up" and turned 90 degrees toward it's favorite tree.

The Opossums (Grinners as Georgie likes to call them) are our favorite yard critter...they don't bother Mudd at all, in fact she's only slightly curious about them and they walk right past one another all the time and barely exchange a "hello". What concerned us was the skunk letting one of our friends have it - right in front of the house with the wind coming our way to boot! Once the yard or house gets nailed, it's heck to live with the smell for a week or so! We were thankful for the lack of an itchy trigger finger!

During the day we'd had two or three Bald Eagle flyovers...we're just under the east crest of a hill on the west side of the valley. When an eagle flys over it passes over us at or slightly below tree top level and it is a great sight! The yard's also filling with newly arrived flocks of Red-wing can get real noisy when five hundred to a couple thousand (seriously!) birds land in the trees around the building here! In past years we've witnessed deer get up out of the back grove and walk down through the yard in broad daylight just to get away from the noise!

Once nightfall hit last night the 'yotes cut loose in the valley out front. I'm always trying to record the audio of these events but they seem to stop as soon as I step outside. Georgie cracked a window in the living room to see if that'd help but Mudd set to growling...she's one wised-up kitty and has been around the section enough times in her life to know what that noise could mean to her! (She also growls at Bald Eagles when they pass through the yard!)

(This isn't the night raider I mention below, but I didn't get a shot of it, these were "guests" from a few years ago!)

As I was checking out the night scene in the yard after the Coyote commotion, I noticed a big blob on the fence bird feeder tray. I knew what that meant...put a big flashlight on it an there was our first winter Coon since last year...the "Big Thaw" was truly in progress. This is when the bird seed costs begin to spiral too...wait until the Orioles and Catbirds arrive and we put out the grape jelly! Old mister Raccoon will really be in hog heaven...

But I like the Big Thaw...don't you?!