Friday, November 6, 2009

And the river she rolls...

There's an old song that goes, "And the river, she rolls on around the bend, on down to Denver where she meets a friend. They sail together 'till they meet the sea. Wish I was a river, Lord, and the river was me."

Can't recall exactly where I first heard it nor who sang it, but I wove it into a medley of folksy, mournful tunes back when my first wife became my first ex-wife, and that little ditty has carried me through more life changes than I care to recount for better than three decades now. Yet again, just today seems that old river and I have turned another bend.

I don't believe change ever comes without some sort of signs preparing the way for it. That's certainly true enough in nature. A change in the weather or even a change in the seasons always is forecast by signs in the world all about us if we but open ourselves to them and pay attention. Same holds true, I believe, in just about every other aspect of our lives.

Signs that it was time for me to move on from River Bend Nature Center have been presenting themselves for at least the past several weeks if not months. Oh, I saw and heard them clearly enough. Something of a storm has been a-brewing for months, and I've seen more than one friend and colleague leave to escape the wind. I just wasn't ready to acknowledge the signs and let go.

I handed in my notice that I was gone this morning, and driving away from the center was like driving away from a much loved and loving friend. I do not pretend to know all the whys and wherefores of change. Such is not always given for us to know. I remain firmly convinced that in time River Bend Nature Center is going to be all right, and so shall I. And you never know. We may just get back together someday.

But for today, it was time to take a lesson from my old buddies down at the AA meeting house. It was time to let go and let God. And the river she rolls....

Thursday, June 25, 2009

When pillbugs come marching in

The heat is on across the Rolling Plains, and we two-legged critters are not the only creatures affected by these triple-digit days. If you live with domestic animals, dear reader, please insure that they have access to shade, to whatever breeze may blow and to fresh water!

Critters of the wild suffer as well through the dog days of summer. Most of us who feed wild birds also put out fresh water, typically several times a day, for the birds. In fact, if you want to attract birds to your yard, water attracts far more birds than food, no matter what time of year.

And then there are
Armadillidium vulgare, a.k.a. pillbugs, sowbugs, roly polies, woodlice and even Armadillo bugs. Our entire 15 acres down at the nature center are crawling with them, and just this past week or so since the outside temperatures have been cranking up, these little isopods have been invading our air-conditioned buildings in impressive numbers.

Yes, I said "isopods", for the common pillbug is not a bug at all. Like I tell the kids, put one in your hand on its back, and wait for it to open up from its tight ball posture. Look close and you will see seven pairs of legs! By my 3rd-grade arithmetic that's 14 legs in all; and the last time I checked, insects still have but six.

In fact, the lowly pillbug as a group is the most successful of all land-dwelling crustaceans, numbering some 5,000 species. As crustaceans they are kin to shrimp, crawfish, lobsters and the like, and therein lies a connection as to why these guys come marching into all manner of man-made structures each summer. They, too, are looking for water!

Isopods go back at least 300 million years to the primordial seas of the Pennsylvanian epoch. Today their breathing organs remain more like gills than lungs, so they must have a moist habitat in order to survive. Therefore, these little guys are not invading your house to get to your house plants! They just need a cool, damp place to breathe.

Okay, IF they happen to find your house plants, they are not above snacking on them. But for the most part pillbugs and other kinds of woodlice dine on organic debris, helping to breakdown plant material into soil. As such they pose positively no threat to people nor any other animals, with the possible exception of nature center field guides.

You see, once a kid on a field tour discovers the roly polies, it's nigh on to impossible for the guide to get the groups' attention focused anywhere else!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Red ants never say die

Back in the day, what's now called Gordon Lake over at Iowa Park had no name. What it did have was shrub mesquite, grass burs, yellowjackets, huge red ants and some of the best fishing in this part of the country. To hear my folks tell it at the time, the fishing more than compensated for the stickers, stabbers, scratchers, stingers and little red bastards bent on feasting on five-year-old human flesh.

That first encounter with Pogonomyrmex barbatus, or, red harvester ant, on the banks of Lake Gordon gave me a healthy respect for the breed. From that day forward I always gave a red ant bed a wide berth.

Fast forward some 55 years and the familiar ant beds of yesteryear are few and far between. Widespread application of agricultural and residential pesticides have all but wiped out the red ant and with it the Texas horned lizard.

Last year I was heartened to discover no less than three red ant colonies thriving on the grounds of River Bend Nature Center. Having established ant colonies meant that one day we might be able to have horned lizards, long a dream of mine for the nature center.

Unfortunately, our red ants were living where new parking lots were to be constructed around our new learning center. Anyone who has tried to relocate a colony of ants knows that the project is doomed to failure. Anyone who has tried to forestall "progress" for the sake of an ant has about the same dismal chance for success. I tried the latter and my appeal never even made it as far as the board of directors.

All three ant colonies were buried beneath rebar and concrete. I figured that was that.

Earlier this spring as I was walking across the new parking lot, a scurrying movement at the curb caught my attention. After some fairly decent warm days, the weather had returned to cold and miserable, yet there at my feet a red harvester ant scout snooped along the concrete gutter. I stood motionless for several minutes, scanning the pavement. Only a few were out and about, but there were enough to track them back to their colony in the southeast corner of the lot.

We may not ever get a resident population of horned lizards here at the nature center. But I am proud to report all three ant colonies survived and are thriving today. Maybe that will have to be good enough, I don't know.

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Gran'pa, tell me about when there were butterflies."

Down at the nature center we try to keep plugged in with Chip Taylor up at the University of Kansas. For some 16 years now Chip and his gang in Lawrence have been running an educational outreach program called Monarch Watch focusing on everything relating to monarch butterflies. Seems now there is serious doubt Monarch Watch will survive for a 17th year.

So what? I mean, what's all the hoopla with some butterfly? Imagine some day down the road when a grandchild crawls up on your lap and says, "Gran'pa, tell me about when there were butterflies." Our young Texans have all but lost contact with horny toads, officially registered as a "threatened" species in spite of being our official state reptile. Will the monarch butterfly be the next wild creature to vanish from our yards and gardens?

Not if Chip and other dedicated professional scientists and citizen scientists can help it. Through Monarch Watch, thousands of school kids have learned and continue to learn about the life cycle and the astonishing migrations of the monarch. Thousands of students, their teachers and parents diligently plant and care for Monarch Waystations filled with host plants and nectar plants essential to the butterflies in an effort to replace habitat lost to human development. And something over 100,000 of these amateur scientists and naturalists tag monarch butterflies each fall during the migration to the wintering grounds in Mexico.

This annual tagging program provides Chip and other researchers invaluable data on the monarchs. More importantly, though, the several projects under Monarch Watch get our kids excited about participating in hands-on science. The get to experience science first hand, not as something done only by white-coated nerds locked away in ivory towers and only read about by real people in boring textbooks. These kids get to go outside and make a difference.

Now Chip needs our help if this invaluable program is to continue. See for yourself what Monarch Watch is all about and what it is accomplishing at And while you're there, stop by the store and pick up a book or two. Before you leave, pull out the plastic and tell Chip and the gang "Thank you!" with a donation. Large or small, every little bit helps.

Your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be glad you did.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Don't call a prairie dog a groundhog!

Legendary local farm reporter and curmudgeon Joe Brown is adamant on the subject. Prairie dogs and groundhogs are not the same critter! Often, it is not easy to agree with old "Do It Up" Brown, but in this particular instance, Joe is right on.

The common groundhog (
Marmota monaxor) or woodchuck is a marmot, a member of the squirrel family (sciuridae), that inhabits lowland areas of east-central Alaska and British Columbia south to Idaho, east through most of southern Canada, and south to eastern Kansas, northern Alabama, and Virginia. Woodchuck comes from a Cree Indian word, wuchak, identifying several different animals of similar size and color, including other marmots. The groundhogs' home range does not reach into the southern Rolling Plains.

Our local prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), the black-tailed prairie dog, also belong to the family sciuridae but bear only slight family resemblance to their northeastern cousins. Considerably smaller and lighter colored than groundhogs, prairie dogs prefer the short grass prairies from Eastern Montana and Southwest North Dakota south to extreme Southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, and Northwest Texas.

Prairie dogs are more active during the warmer times of the year, but they do not hibernate as groundhogs typically do. The groundhog's legendary emergence from its den in early February has more to do with love than checking out the weather. Males emerge briefly to scout out an appropriately receptive female and locate her home den address. Once he's found her, the courtship is put on hold for a later date as the male returns to his own hole to finish his nap.

Farmers and ranchers in the plains states tend to view prairie dogs as pests to be permanently evicted from the human's landholding by whatever means necessary. Consequently, the prairie dogs' days are numbered unless attitudes change.

Truth is prairie dogs are essential to the health of a grassland ecosystem. Their underground homes contribute to the vitality of the soil and plant cover as well as provide shelter for a whole host of other prairie creatures like burrowing owls and the endangered black-footed ferrets. Prairie dogs also feed, quite literally, a whole host of prairie predators from the aforementioned ferrets to eagles and other birds of prey.

Besides all that, the little critters are just flat fun to watch!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

They say change is coming

They say change is coming. Down at the nature center, the Japanese honeysuckle continues to invade the 12-acre woods, and cattails are threatening to fill the north pond. They say change is coming, and spooky old Annie has begun--again--to speak pointedly about time to clean up the hummer feeders and boil up some sugar water. Why it seems I am the only one qualified to do these chores the tail end of every winter escapes me, but there it is.

Change is in the wind, but what we really need here on the Rolling Plains is a slow, soaking rain. Not much, I suspect, a new fledgling President can do about that.

In a few short hours Barack Obama will place his hand on the late President Abraham Lincoln's Bible to become the 44th President of the United States. In so doing the United States of America takes one step closer to the realization of the magnificent dream expressed by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. God speed and good luck, Mr. Obama. You are going to need both.

With a little luck perhaps I can manage to be looking busy somewhere near a radio when our new President gives his inaugural address. No, he was not my first choice. But when it came down to the count, Barack Obama was the best choice.

After the speech, well...there's nothing for it but to pull on the waders and head down to the pond. Those cattails surely will not muck out themselves.