Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test Kit

Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test KitKnowing the state of your garden soil is handy, but if your garden is for personal family use only, you probably don’t feel justified in ordering a professional lab analysis. Fortunately, inexpensive test kits are available online.

This kit by Luster Leaf seems to do a fair job. It tests:

  • pH.
  • Nitrogen.
  • Phosphorus.
  • Potassium.

As you can see, only the bare basics are included. The tests focus on NPK, not trace minerals. Fortunately, it is fairly easy to keep trace mineral levels in balance by regular applications of compost and organic matter.

Using the kit is easy. Complete instructions are included, but the basic procedure is:

  1. Prepare the soil sample.
  2. Dilute the soil sample according to the directions.
  3. Put the solution into the test container.
  4. Add the appropriate powder to the solution.
  5. Compare the color of the solution to the color chart on the container.

Did you detect a problem with your garden soil? The instructions offer advice on how to remedy the situation.

One word of advice: The powder may lose some of its efficiency over time. Keep the powder capsules stored in the included airtight bags in a cool, dry, dark place. Try to use the tests within about 18 months for the most reliable results.

Simple and inexpensive—perfect for the budget-conscious gardener.

Blue-Winged Teal

Blue-Winged TealThe blue-winged teal (Spatula discors) is one of the smallest dabbling ducks in America. The male’s pattern is unforgettable. His dark head is marked by a striking white crescent at the base of the bill. His body is spotted in an exotic leopard pattern. The spots end in a white patch, then a black undertail. In flight, notice the male’s dark belly.

When molting in late summer, the male blue-winged teal looks almost identical to the female.

The female blue-winged tail looks more or less like any other female duck—brown. But notice her subtle face pattern. A thin, dark line runs through the eye, standing out in sharper contrast than is seen in many other ducks. Another area of contrast is found where her light-colored face meets up with her dark bill.

The topside of the extended wing of both sexes presents unique field marks. The shoulder displays a particularly large patch of light blue, which may appear almost white depending on the lighting. The speculum is a long bar of metallic green, which may look dark in poor lighting. (Note that some females do not show a speculum.) The shoulder patch and the speculum are separated by a thin band of white. These ducks fly swiftly with steady wing beats.


Best Field Marks

  • White crescent on the face of the male.
  • Blue shoulder patch, best seen in flight.


Blue-Winged TealVoice

The male blue-winged teal gives a high-pitched peep or whistle, usually in flight. The female quacks monotonously.


Distribution & Occurrence

This teal is one of the most abundant ducks in Kansas, found across most of the state. It migrates through in April, heading to its breeding grounds to the north. While traveling, it will occupy nearly any body of water, no matter how small or stagnant—in fact, shallow, muddy ponds are its favorite habitats.

In favorably wet years, blue-winged teal stay to breed and nest in the state, particularly the Smoky Hills, the Arkansas River Lowlands, and the southern High Plains. While they frequently nest at large wetlands such as Cheyenne Bottoms, they will also use anything from irrigation ponds to flooded depressions in the ground.

The summer population of blue-winged teal typically leaves Kansas in two waves in October. They often spend the winter in northern South America, but the occasional duck will stay in eastern Kansas every few years.


Blue-Winged TealBehavior

The blue-winged teal is a tame and sociable duck. When not breeding, it congregates in large flocks, tending to keep toward the shoreline. These flocks are noted for their ability to take to the air rapidly and perform complex maneuvers in tight formation.

In keeping with its fondness for shorelines and muddy waters, the blue-winged teal prefers to forage in shallow waters or on mud flats. While it may tip up to eat, it generally pulls its food directly from the surface of the water or ground. A small portion of its diet is made up of insects, crustaceans, and mollusks, particularly snails. The rest is plant matter, including grain foraged from fields.

Blue-winged teal can be very feisty during the breeding season, many males aggressively courting the same female until she selects one as her mate. Courting activities include repeated head pumping and exaggerated feeding displays. These ducks form one pair per season, but the pair only remains together until incubation begins. The ducks will find new mates the following year.

The female builds the nest, just a shallow depression lined with plants and down. She may lay anywhere from 6 to 15 eggs. The eggs range from white to pale olive in color. In Kansas, laying takes place between mid-May and mid-July. Incubation lasts about three to four weeks. Once the ducklings hatch, they are able to follow the female around almost immediately. They are old enough to fly at 35 to 49 days.


Blue-Winged TealAttracting

If you have a small, shallow, somewhat murky body of water on your property, you may be fortunate enough to see blue-winged teal on occasion. Building a duck pond is sufficient to attract any that are passing through during the migration season.

Hunters find that these ducks decoy very readily. Small teal decoys are typically used, but decoys resembling female mallards work, as well. While calling is frequently unnecessary, an airborne flock of teal will respond to a quiet, lisping call.


Similar Species

Female Green-Winged Teal
Female teal can be extremely difficult to tell apart. The most reliable field mark is the shoulder patch, visible in flight. The green-winged teal’s shoulder patch is green, just as its name suggests. Other helpful clues are the green-winged teal’s bulkier build and slower, more deliberate flight.

Female Cinnamon Teal
Up to another teal challenge? This one is trickier, because both teal have blue shoulder patches. Pay attention to the duck’s face. The female cinnamon teal’s bill looks almost absurdly long for her face, while her pattern is much less distinct than that of the blue-winged teal. The eye line is much less visible in the cinnamon teal. Also, her body has a reddish (cinnamon) cast.

Female Northern Shoveler
Some birdwatchers confuse female teal with female shovelers. One look at the bill will settle the matter. The teal’s bill is dark, while the shoveler’s bill is mottled orange. The giveaway, however, is the distinctive shovel shape of the shoveler’s bill.


Helpful Resources

Birdwatching Glossary
Definitions for the technical terms in this post.

Blue-Winged Teal
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.


Complete Series

Ducks of KansasDucks of Kansas


Understanding Musical Keys: Identifying and Using

Understanding Musical Keys: Identifying & UsingIdentifying Keys

There are two ways to identify a key:

  • Look at the key signature.
  • Analyze the chords of the song.

If you happen to be playing from music written in standard notation, such as a songbook or hymnal, the easiest way to identify the key is to look at the key signature—the number of sharps or flats written at the beginning of the staff between the clef symbol and the time signature.

Understanidng Musical Keys
G major scale

Identifying a major key from the key signature is actually easy:

  1. Look for sharps or flats in the key signature.
  2. If there are no sharps or flats, the key is C. If there is one flat (B flat), the key is F.
  3. If there is at least one sharp or more than one flat, observe the position of the last sharp or flat. In the example above, the sharp symbol is marking an F sharp.
  4. If the last note is sharp, count one half-step up to find the key. In the example above, one half-step up from F sharp is G. Therefore, the key is G major.
  5. If there is more than one flat, the second to last identifies the key. In the example below, the second-to-last note in the key signature is D flat. Therefore, the key is D flat major.

Understanding Musical Keys
D flat major scale

But what if the song is in a minor key? The answer is still simple:

  1. Identify what the key would be if it were major. For example, if you see a key signature with no sharps or flats, the key is C.
  2. Count backwards three half-steps to find the name of the minor key. For example, three half-steps down from C is the note A. Therefore, a minor key with no sharps or flats in the key signature is A minor.

If you are playing music by ear or from a piece of tablature, finding the key is even easier. Find out what chord ends the song. The name of the ending chord is almost always the name of the key. If a song ends on a G chord, the key is G major. If a song ends on an A minor chord, the key is A minor.


Using Keys

Different instruments lend themselves well to different keys. Songs in the keys of C and G are generally very easy to play on guitar, while fiddlers typically prefer songs in the keys of A and D. For an extra twist, a harmonica is tuned to one key only, so a harmonica player must have a new instrument for every major key!

In a group setting, instrumentalists must compromise with each other and with the vocalists, who probably have certain keys they are most comfortable with. For this reason, it is best to become comfortable with the scales and chords of many different keys. Making scale and chord studies a regular part of your practice session will pay off, both when you are playing with others and when you just feel like doing something a little different in your arrangements.

Also, depending on what instrument you play, you will definitely want to invest in a capo. This device makes switching keys simple. If you are used to playing a guitar in the key of C, for instance, you can easily play the same song with the same fingering in the key of D by just putting a capo at the second fret (D is two half-steps up from C).

Stockdog Savvy

Stockdog SavvyMany a dog lover has watched a good Border Collie at work and gone home with a passion for herding. But if you haven’t grown up with working stockdogs, training one for the first time can seem daunting.

While no book can replace experience as a way to master the nuances of handling livestock, with or without a dog, Stockdog Savvy by husband-and-wife team Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor and Ty Taylor offers an excellent introduction.

The book proceeds logically, starting right at the beginning with choosing a breed and continuing with training techniques that build on each other:

  • Preparing a puppy to respond to commands without livestock.
  • Laying a solid foundation of obedience.
  • Starting a dog on stock.
  • Teaching the dog how to make use of his natural talent.
  • Developing a dog that can be useful in basic livestock handling.
  • Training the correct approach to the stock.
  • Training the dog how to drive a herd.
  • Training the dog to pen livestock.
  • Training the dog to sort livestock.
  • Teaching boundaries to a tending dog.
  • Learning how to work large flocks and herds.
  • Introducing your dog to the real world of daily ranch work.
  • Getting ready for a herding trial.

Each chapter on training includes suggestions for dealing with specific problems that may arise, from lack of interest to aggression toward livestock.

Along the way, you as a handler will progressively build expertise with new insights on reading both your dog and your livestock. Chapters on basic dog and livestock care are included, as are chapters on different livestock breeds:

To round out the book, an excellent appendix is provided that condenses the key characteristics of many herding breeds, common and uncommon:

  • Nicknames.
  • Origin.
  • Character.
  • Working style.
  • Summary.

A must for all beginning stockdog trainers!

Mottled Duck

Mottled DuckThe male and female mottled duck (Anas fulvigula) look about the same—unremarkable. Either one of them could easily be dismissed as just another female mallard, when in reality they are rare finds inland. So note the details.

The mottled duck has a buffy tan head and throat, contrasting with the mottled brown body that gives the species its name. Other than this, there is little contrast to be seen in the plumage when the duck is resting on the water. The mottled duck’s bill is solid yellow, with no mottling. However, it does have a black spot at the corner of its mouth, giving it a slightly smiling expression.

In flight, you may see a little more contrast. This duck displays a greenish blue to purple speculum bordered in black. The underwings are lighter than the rest of the body. Also note the mottled duck’s direct, powerful flight with rapid wing beats.


Best Field Marks

  • Solid yellow bill.
  • Greenish speculum bordered in black.



The mottled duck has a raspy voice. The male’s call sounds something like kreeb, kreeb, while the female quacks much like a female mallard.


Distribution & Occurrence

The mottled duck calls the Gulf Coast home, normally only migrating 20 miles inland or less. However, it may show up as far as Cheyenne Bottoms from time to time. While this is most likely to occur during spring and fall migration, mottled ducks have been seen nesting at this birding hot spot in summer, as well.

Elsewhere in Kansas, the mottled duck seems to appear on a strictly accidental basis.



The mottled duck is surprisingly tame for a wild duck. It prefers to spend its time in pairs or in small groups. It eats more insects, mollusks, and crustaceans than many duck species, but it still rounds out its diet with seeds and aquatic plants.

Mottled ducks pair off in late fall or early winter and remain together until they molt. Nesting usually takes place in June at Cheyenne Bottoms. The nest is a simple plant-lined depression, embellished with down from the female and always well hidden. Marshes and fields are the preferred nesting habitats. The female lays an average of eight creamy to greenish-white eggs. The young are ready to leave the nest soon after hatching and are typically seen at Cheyenne Bottoms throughout much of the summer.



Most birdwatchers are not likely to have opportunities to attract mottled ducks.

Hunters may have some difficulties finding decoys to use on mottled ducks. Special mottled duck decoys do exist, but are not common and can be expensive. Therefore, many hunters buy mallard or American black duck decoys and repaint them. Because mottled ducks are less social than some species, hunters should place mottled duck decoys in pairs away from a larger spread.


Similar Species

American Black Duck
This is an identification challenge that can baffle many birdwatchers. Use the species names as a clue. The American black duck is much blacker and less mottled than the mottled duck. If you have time to check for subtler details, look at the bill and the speculum. The black duck lacks the spot at the corner of the mouth, and in good lighting its speculum is purplish instead of greenish.

Female Mallard
One field mark that will never let you down when trying to tell a mallard from any other duck species is the speculum. The mallard is the only duck with a blue to purple speculum bordered in white. In this case, the bill is also a good diagnostic. The female mallard’s bill is a mottled orange, unlike the solid yellow bill of the mottled duck.


Helpful Resource

Mottled Duck
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.


Complete Series

Ducks of KansasDucks of Kansas


Understanding Musical Keys: Characteristics

Understanding Musical KeysEarly on in your musical practice, you will be introduced to the concept of musical keys.

Keys are important to understand because every key has a distinct sound created by a hallmark set of notes. Every key is based on a scale. If you play a C major scale on any instrument, you have just played the seven notes that define the key of C. The root note of the scale gives the key its name.


Characteristics of Keys

Keys come in two flavors:

  • Major.
  • Minor.

A major key has the happy sound that we associate with a major chord, while a minor key has the dark sound that we associate with a minor chord.

A song in any given key will mostly consist of notes taken from that key’s scale. Thus, a song in the key of G will primarily rely on notes in the G major scale. (Of course, this is a generalization; progressive musicians love to bend this rule.)

Understanding Musical Keys
C major scale

Every key has three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord, each chord based on a note of the scale. The first, fourth, and fifth chords in a major key are major; the second, third, and sixth are minor; and the seventh is diminished. For example, the chords in the key of C are:

  1. C major.
  2. D minor.
  3. E minor.
  4. F major.
  5. G major.
  6. A minor.
  7. B diminished.

Every major key has a relative minor key that relies on the same notes and chords, but in a different order. Thus in the key of A minor, the relative minor of C, the chords are:

  1. A minor.
  2. B diminished.
  3. C major.
  4. D minor.
  5. E minor.
  6. F major.
  7. G major.


Next Week: Using and identifying musical keys

Murray McMurray Chick Selector

Murray McMurray Chick SelectorThinking about getting some chicks this spring? It’s not too early to start considering what kind you’d like to keep—you may even be able to reserve some at your hatchery.

For those of you who still haven’t quite decided on the right breeds to keep, this chick selector tool from Murray McMurray Hatchery can be a big help.

Using the chick selector is easy. Just choose important characteristics from the drop-down menus on the left side of the screen. Filter breeds by:

  • Chick type.
  • Egg color.
  • Egg size.
  • Egg production.
  • Meat production.
  • Availability.
  • Heat tolerance.
  • Cold tolerance.
  • Disposition.
  • Approximate weeks to maturity.
  • Free-range suitability.
  • Skin color.
  • Comb type.
  • Likelihood of sitting on eggs.
  • Bird size.
  • Exotic classification.
  • Leg style.
  • Head style.

Once you have narrowed down the list, check off the breeds that you are interested in and click on “Show only selected breeds” to compare your favorites side by side.

Whether your interest is eggs, meat, or just great-looking chickens, you’re covered! Great resource from a great hatchery.


MallardThe mallard (Anas platrhynchos) is a duck that most will recognize readily. The yellow bill, green head, white neck ring, chestnut breast, gray sides, orange legs, and black tail curls of the male are familiar sights across the country. In flight, notice his white belly.

The female is less conspicuous. She is mottled brown overall. She shares orange legs in common with her mate, but note that her bill is orange with darker mottling.

When molting, male and female mallards look very similar. The mallard may retain some of his typical characteristics, however, such as his yellow bill and chestnut breast.

In flight, notice that all mallards have a white tail and blue speculum bordered with white on both front and back. They fly directly and with impressive speed for a duck.


Best Field Marks

  • Yellow bill (male only).
  • Green head (male only).
  • White neck ring (male only).
  • Blue speculum bordered in white.
  • White tail.



Mallards are very vocal ducks. The ubiquitous noisy quack associated with ducks is the sound of the female, most common when nesting. The male makes rasping calls that can be described as kwek. He primarily vocalizes when fighting or courting.


Distribution & Occurrence

The mallard is a permanent resident of most of Kansas. It will inhabit just about any body of water, no matter how large or small, whether it is a generous reservoir or merely a flooded field. It is most common in the winter, when large flocks arrive from further north to take advantage of any open water available. These migrating ducks tend to arrive in the second half of December and depart in late February or early March.

Mallards frequently remain in Kansas over the summer to nest. They prefer to nest in the western two-thirds of the state, thanks to numerous irrigation ponds with suitable vegetation nearby. The wetlands of Cheyenne Bottoms are also a favorite. Nesting becomes more difficult from the Flint Hills eastward, as aquatic habitats in this part of Kansas are frequently disturbed by grazing or mowing.



The mallard is quite social, frequently associating with many other duck species. When disturbed, a flock of mallards jumps directly into the air, usually calling loudly. They continue in tight groups or V- or U-shaped flocks, depending on the number of ducks present.

Mallards generally feed twice a day—at dawn and again in the late afternoon. Their diet varies considerably throughout the year. During the breeding season, they mostly eat insects, snails, and worms. The rest of the year, they search the water for aquatic plants and seeds by skimming or dabbling, and they forage in fields for grain.

The male mallard is an aggressive breeder. He courts his mate all winter long, grunting, pumping his head, and making a noisy preening display to attract attention. While he only bonds with and defends one mate per breeding season, he will meanwhile pursue and breed with other female ducks, as well. He frequently even breeds with ducks of other species, accounting for the increasing number of hybrid ducks found in the wild.

The female selects a nesting site on her mate’s territory, usually near a body of water, but sometimes in a pasture or field as much as a mile distant. The nest itself is a shallow bowl of plants lined with down. The female lays an average of 8 to 12 buffy eggs, usually between mid-May and early June in Kansas. If predators disturb her nest, she will make a second attempt of about 6 to 8 eggs. Once she starts incubating the eggs, her mate goes into hiding to molt. Incubation lasts 26 to 30 days.

The young ducklings are ready to leave the nest within about 12 hours, tended by their mother. They mostly eat insects, mosquito larvae being a particular favorite, but they will eat crustaceans and some parts of plants. They follow their mother during the much of the summer, growing their adult feathers by the time they are about two months old. Once the ducklings are fledged, the female leaves them to find a safe place to molt herself.



Eclipse male

Mallards frequently get more than their fair share of attention from humans, even those who are not avid birdwatchers. Bread handouts are a popular choice, but many wildlife experts feel that this leads to ducks getting hooked on simple starches (think waterfowl fast food). Dried corn kernels, however, are always an acceptable choice.

Hunters find that mallards are fairly easy to decoy. They respond readily to calls.


Similar Species

Female Ducks
The problem with the female mallard is that it looks just about like any other female duck. Look at the wing patch. The female mallard has a distinctive blue speculum bordered in white, unique among ducks.

Male Northern Shoveler
With its green head, the northern shoveler may fool a casual observer into thinking he is seeing a male mallard. One look at the bill should resolve any confusion. The shoveler’s bill is dark and oddly shaped. Also note that its breast is white and its sides are chestnut, the reverse of the male mallard’s pattern.

Male Red-Breasted Merganser
The male red-breasted merganser sports some features of the male mallard—green head, white neck ring, chestnut breast. But there the similarity ends. Again, the bill is a good field mark. A merganser’s bill is red and very thin. Also note the merganser’s unkempt hairstyle.

Male Common Merganser
This toned-down version of a merganser looks a little bit like a mallard in some ways, particularly the head shape. But check the bill. The common merganser displays a long, thin, red bill. Also, his breast is white instead of chestnut.


Helpful Resource

Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.


Complete Series

Ducks of KansasDucks of Kansas