Shawnee News-Star Weekender Sept 22nd 2018   Becky Emerson Carlberg Early in the morning I blundered through an enormous spider web.   Both the very large spider and myself were surprised.   The wolf spider hopped off my head and scurried away while I brushed at the cob webs full of tiny bugs, dead and alive tangled […]

Shawnee News-Star Weekender Sept 22nd 2018

 

Indian Grass

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Early in the morning I blundered through an enormous spider web.   Both the very large spider and myself were surprised.   The wolf spider hopped off my head and scurried away while I brushed at the cob webs full of tiny bugs, dead and alive tangled in my hair. An auspicious start to a hot and humid day.

My night's sleep had been disturbed by a singing cricket under the window.   The insect had a mighty loud chirp the small window fan could not drown out. The fall field crickets are now in their prime.   The males will sing and mate until the weather chills their passionate love songs.   Next night (crickets are nocturnal) another cricket began revving up from outside the utility room.   Standing in the room, I realized the cricket was not outside but inside the room. behind the hot water tank.   I told him to pipe down.   He did for about four minutes.    The past three nights the sun sets and, like clockwork, this cricket warms up his little muscles by vigorously rubbing his wings together, hoping a wayward female will hear his plea and come visit him in his cozy warm lair.

Evidence that autumn has arrived is everywhere.   The angle of sunlight is changing.   The bird populations are beginning to shift. The turkeys have taken to the woods.   Smart birds.   The Scissor-tailed flycatchers are chittering and chatting in greater numbers.   In October the acrobats migrate at night and rest during the day.   They form gigantic flocks on their way to Texas, Mexico or Central America, and prefer their winter getaway homes to be at or below 5,000 feet.

Ruby-throated hummingbird males have already begun their migration to basically the same areas. Unlike the Scissortails, the hummers do not fly in mass and buzz much lower to locate food sources throughout their journey.

Switchgrass

Monarchs have started their migration.   One sign is they have begun forming roosts or bivouacs.   Overnight roosts of Monarchs were seen mid-August in six northern states and one province.   A roost may only have a handful of butterflies, but at three sites over 1,000 butterflies were counted.   This is a very good sign. Monarchs may roost together for one night or stay up to two weeks in one place.   They fly solo with the winds during the day.   At dusk, if a migrant gets close to a cluster, those butterflies flash their wings to invite the traveler to join them.

Little is actually known about the whys and how comes of Monarch roosts, other than it seems to be a very important component of their journey as they travel to the Oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) forests in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Thirteen protected areas and other places will be the roosting homes for millions of Monarchs set to arrive by November 2nd.     The cloud forests live on mountains that rise to 13,000 feet. Do the butterflies feel light-headed after being in our altitude of 1060 feet?

“Waiting” My scratchboard rendition of a porch spider

The spiders know their days are numbered.   Most hatched in the spring, stayed out of sight until they reached a respectable size and are now spinning magnificent webs to trap food for energy and laying eggs.   The females tend to have larger abdomens while males are sleeker.   I have seen a few condo units of webs side-by-side with big spiders anchored in the center of each.   Most of the porch spiders take in their webs (eat) during the day and spin (recycle) new ones at night.   Some have created reinforced runways close to the porch ceiling they repair from time to time.   Spiders send out fresh liquid protein webbing from their abdomens and wherever the web attaches will be the basis for their intricate web designs.   Morning dews highlight the unexplained beauty created by simple arachnids.

Another fantastic sign of autumn"which began in the northern hemisphere today"are the native grasses in all their glory. The earliest, my favorite, is Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans).   The leaves are bluish green and roots may reach 10 feet.   The flowerhead with abundant yellow stamens is the reason some call this yellow Indian Grass.   The floral/seed heads form striking fluffy soft plumes the shape of arrowheads that gently wave in the breeze. This native prairie grass lives in communities of Little and Big Bluestem and Switchgrass. These major grasses are known as the 'Big Four' in tallgrass prairies.

Big Blue Stem

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is the shortest of the lot and may top three feet.   It grows in clumps maintained by a fibrous root system that can penetrate down 5 to 8 feet.   During the fall the stems with tiny leaves support small white plumes.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) may barely surpass Little Bluestem in height in dry soils, but give this plant some moisture and it can reach over eight feet.   The roots often go beyond 12 feet deep.   The floral/seed heads actually look like 3-toed turkey feet.   Big Blue is the most numerous of the tallgrasses and helped form the sod of the prairies.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a bunchgrass with tiny seeds whose size varies with location.   Upland the grass stays shorter but it can grow ten feet or as tall as Big Bluestem in lowland sites.   This grass has been utilized in erosion control, straw and animal bedding, base for growing mushrooms, forage and grazing and bioenergy.   As an energy source this grass is long-lived, requires little nutrients, tolerates drought and poor soil conditions and can adapt to climate swings.   It helps to have a dense fibrous root system 10 feet deep.

Actually, the wild prairie grasses are well-equipped to deal with hostile situations. According to the National Geographic article 'Digging Deep Reveals the Intricate World of Roots' (October 2015) these unseen enormous root masses not only store carbon, they provide nutrients, positively influence plant and animal populations, operate on less water and stabilize the soil.   Only protected remnants of the Tallgrass prairie remain on earth.   It's time we restore that valuable prairie yard by yard, don't you think?

Interested in Monarchs?   Join the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation at Hackberry Flat Center near Frederick during their annual Monarch watch activities.   Morning tagging is Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2 and Oct 6th.   The Evening Roost Watch is Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2 and Oct 5th.