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39 Night of the Banshees On an evening in mid-April, the moisture-laden air lay heavy upon the land. Winds grew calm, and weather forecasters urged viewers to be prepared for what could become tornadic outbreaks. Strong thunderstorms were poised to sweep over the southern Flint Hills, with particularly heavy storms occurring along a line paralleling the Kansas -Oklahoma border. Prior to the severe weather warning, afternoon temperatures had climbed into the eighties, while a strong south wind pulled moisture north from the Gulf of Mexico. The impending storms would develop along a frontal boundary pushing down from the north. Cold air clashed with a mountain of atmospheric warmth and humidity , and the skies erupted. In the hours prior to the storms, moody calls of mourning doves swirled on a breeze rising above new green shoots of Indiangrass, switchgrass, and bluestems. Killdeer scurried through the early spring growth, the adult birds nagging at chicks that seemed little more than cotton balls perched on piano wire legs. One of the chicks, scampering on spindly appendages, caught its bill on a grass stem, somersaulted, bounced back up, and raced away unhurt, showing the resiliency of youth and provoking a fretting, keening cry from the mother bird. 40 Night of the Banshees Late that evening, a glowering eyebrow of sunlight painted a low line of clouds fiery orange. Ominous, towering clouds were building, and shortly after midnight lightning lit up the sky just as a burst of wind made nearby cottonwood trees tremble. Three inches of rain fell before daybreak, with intermittent storms continuing in the form of brief heavy showers. By late afternoon ditches and fields stood in water, and the first major frog and toad chorus of spring rent the air. The epicenter of this amphibian orgy was an old field not far from the Arkansas River. It had been farmed for a few years, then allowed to stand idle for decades. Some of the native grasses had returned, along with the annual forbs that prosper following disruption. Old cropland terraces, grown up in grass, now served as levees for the mini-lakes that filled the depressions. Through bursts of amphibian squalling announcing another pending cloudburst, I watched as Great Plains toads moved across county roads like ancient mariners summoned to a siren’s song. Eventually the sun sank into a night that promised to remain warm, wet, and windy, perfect for an anuran bacchanal. Male toads settled into the shallow pools trapped in the abandoned farm field, where they regaled the darkness with long highpitched trills. Joining the chorus were much smaller Great Plains narrow-mouthed toads and some tiny spotted chorus frogs, the latter adding their sheeplike bleats and brassy, hiccuping quacks to the overall repertoire. A great horned owl hooted from riverside cottonwoods during the lulls among lightning flashes, thunder, and brief downpours. A chuck-will’s-widow repeated its namesake call while dark and moody skies rumbled with thunder. It was a wild night, devoid of mercury vapor lights and automobile sounds, the only human disturbance the occasional beam from my flashlight. A century and a half ago,similarly swirling wind and rain most likely did little to drown out the grunts of thousands of buffalo made nervous by a storm. Countless buffalo wallows would have glistened beneath each lightning strike, the shallow depressions filled to overflowing like saucers under a faucet, each ready to serve as a predator-free frog and toad nursery. Today’s breeding pools are likely to result from human impact on the land rather than wallowing buffalo, but standing water is standing water whether it’s in the form of a buffalo wallow or a borrow ditch. A shallow rain-drenched pool still tugs like a magnet at 41 Night of the Banshees these subterranean-dwelling prairie choristers, urging toads and tiny frogs by the thousands to answer an undeniable biological call. Sometimes here in the tallgrass country, these perfect storms may skip a year or more before the precise combination of temperature and rainfall is sufficient to fill the temporary breeding pools and summon the singers. A warm night is best, generally in April or May well past the average annual date of the final freeze.It will be a night when thunderstorms drench the grasslands with the potential for more to come, leaving ample water in the pools until the tadpoles metamorphose. Permanent standing water is avoided because permanent water has permanent residents with appetites, some eager to dine...


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MARC Record
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