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101 A Tallgrass Summer Solstice Thoughts of late June in the Flint Hills call to mind the gentle arc of prairie coneflowers with their drooping red and yellow petals. By the time these flowers fade, the prairie will have slipped into the golden season of deep summer, a time when sunflowers predominate and grasses take on the subtle shades of approaching maturity. The time of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, is no longer celebrated as it was by forgotten people we now dismiss as uncivilized. Instead, the season’s comings and goings are taken for granted by societies wedded to technology, people who find their seasonal comfort level through the convenience of air conditioners and furnaces burning fossil fuels. Still, here in the tallgrass country, the pace of daily activity seems celebration enough as every living thing, from birds to reptiles to cowboys cutting hay,looks upon the solstice as a period of great energy and fecundity. Not far from the headwaters of Hominy Creek, the whistling calls of upland sandpipers circling overhead mingle with the worried chatter of mother sandpipers on the ground. Each agitated female strives to keep her young safe, at a time when it seems so many predators are obligated to eat them. To the casual observer, it might appear that spring’s crop of spindly-legged butterscotch and brown upland 102 A Tallgrass Summer Solstice sandpiper chicks would be depleted in a matter of hours. They seem so vulnerable. Yet the young birds are surprisingly quick to flee, seek shelter, and blend into background vegetation. Even so, mother sandpipers continue to fret both on the wing and while pacing the prairie. After all, they’ve migrated from South America to rear their young in these grasslands, and for upland sandpipers, rearing young is the task they were designed to accomplish. The thick heat and humidity of the season do little to deter the incessant territorial chatter of male indigo buntings, sparrow-size birds that shine like polished blue chrome when the sun strikes them. The nondescript brown females are easily overlooked, but the little males make up for their diminutive size by perching proudly on a tree branch, tossing their heads back, gaping wide, and belting the broad sky with a repertoire comprised mostly of couplets. These rapidly repeated phrases tend to blend into a pleasing warble,broadcast to any competitor within hearing by a shining prairie jewel decked out in iridescent feathers. Mixed among the lush June grasses, now several feet tall, are the purples and pinks of prairie clover and sabatia, one of the prairie’s most visually stunning flowers. Sabatia, a member of the gentian family , displays a simple yet beautiful inflorescence that’s a true hot pink. It’s also radiantly at its peak around the time of the solstice. The glaring , sensual color contrasts with the bluish green of rapidly maturing Indiangrass and bluestems. Harder to see but certainly worth searching for are the pale lavender trumpet-shaped blossoms of ruellia.This beautiful flower comes along when the prairie grasses are getting taller, generally about knee high if not overgrazed. Sometimes you almost have to part the bluestem tussocks with your hands to find the tallgrass prairie’s wild petunia. But once discovered, this member of the acanthus family proves to be not only photogenic but also worthy of the many cultivars commonly grown for landscape plantings. Normally a southern Flint Hills June is a rainy month, allowing for lotsofhumidityanddaytimehighsthataverageinthelowtomid-nineties around the solstice. Warm, humid days blessed with ample rainfall enrich the growing season, providing a lushness that’s responsible for the region’s reputation for fattening cattle at an accelerated rate. 103 A Tallgrass Summer Solstice By late June, wild turkey hens are off the nest and gleaning insects, usually with an observant procession of poults in tow. Young turkeys learn much about the world and their successful role in it by watching their mother. She’s a bird that does an admirable job, albeit a nervous one,of feeding while at the same time watching out for the many predators that would relish a turkey dinner, even a lightweight one. Today a hen and her young are searching for grasshoppers in the tall grass bordering Hominy Creek. Prairie streams can be exceptionally pretty in June, and some like Hominy Creek rise as mere trickles amid the flowers of open grassland,then quickly set to work carving streambeds that flow over nearly solid stone...


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