Photo of the Week – August 15, 2014

Wasps are closely related to bees and ants, and some can be difficult to distinguish from their cousins.  In this case, the long body makes me pretty sure this is a wasp (though body length is not always a good cue), but I don’t know what kind of wasp it is.

A wasp on purple prairie clover.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A wasp on purple prairie clover. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Most wasps are parasitoids, which means they capture and paralyze prey with venom from their stinger and then feed that still living, but paralyzed, prey to their wasp larvae.  Usually, wasps specialize on a particular group of invertebrates (spiders, cicadas, grasshoppers, etc.).  As with most insect groups, wasps are more abundant than you might think, and if you really start looking for them, you’ll find them all over.  Most are not aggressive toward people and will sting only if you force them into it.

While the larvae of parasitoid wasps feed on paralyzed invertebrates, adults feed on pollen and nectar, and are pollinators for many plants.  The one in the above photo, for example, has pollen stuck all over its face and body.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Next Field Day – August 27, 2014

We put together a draft agenda for our next Platte River Prairies Field Day, which will take place on Wednesday August 27 at our site south of Wood River, Nebraska.  The agenda is a draft only because we may add additional sessions and topics between now and then.  I hope to see you there!

You can download a PDF of this agenda here.

DRAFT AGENDA

9am – 9:15am

Introduction of the day’s sessions and orientation to the site.

 

 9:15am – 10:30 Sessions

Seed harvesting techniques – Bill Whitney

Tree killing techniques – Nelson Winkel and Dillon Blankenship

Small mammal ecology – Jasmine Cutter

Reading the prairie – Chris Helzer

 

10:45am-Noon

Invertebrate predators and other little critters – Julie Peterson

Seed harvesting techniques – Bill Whitney

Plants for pollinators – Jennifer Hopwood and/or Pete Berthelsen

 

12pm – 12:45pm – Lunch (bring your own)

 

12:45-2pm

Tree killing techniques – Nelson Winkel and Dillon Blankenship

Plants for Pollinators – Jennifer Hopwood and/or Pete Berthelsen

Reading the prairie – Chris Helzer

 

2:15-3:30

Seed storage and cleaning – Nelson Winkel

Reading the prairie – Chris Helzer

Invertebrate predators and other little critters – Julie Peterson

 

Session Descriptions

Seed harvesting techniques.  Bill Whitney, co-founder and director of Prairie Plains Resource Institute will provide demonstrations of how to harvest seed for prairie restoration, including how to identify when seed is ripe enough to harvest, how to hand-harvest efficiently, and other tips from his more than 30 years of prairie restoration experience.

Tree killing techniques.  Nelson Winkel and Dillon Blankenship of The Nature Conservancy will share tips on and do live demonstrations of three methods of deciduous tree control: basal bark treatment, cut stump treatment, and hack-and-squirt.

Small mammal ecology.  Jasmine Cutter of The Nature Conservancy is live trapping small mammals in the area and will talk about her results (and hopefully have live mammals to look at).

Reading the prairie.  Chris Helzer of The Nature Conservancy will talk about how to evaluate the management needs of a prairie.  Questions addressed will include: What plants are most important to pay attention to?  What do they tell you?  What are the important types of habitat structure to look for and how much do you need of each?  Which invasive species are important and how do you know when/how to attack them?  How do you know whether an area could benefit from fire and/or grazing?  This hike/session will be in a different prairie each time, so can attend multiple sessions if you like.

Invertebrate predators and other little critters.  Julie Peterson, UNL Assistant Professor of Entomology and Extension Specialist will lead a hike to find, identify, and discuss the ecology of invertebrates of all kinds, but with a particular focus on predators.

Seed storage and cleaning.  Nelson Winkel of The Nature Conservancy will lead a tour of TNC’s seed barn and talk about/demonstrate how to dry and process seed after harvest and how to store it until it’s time to plant.

Plants for pollinators.  Jennifer Hopwood of the Xerces Society (tentative) and Pete Berthelsen of Pheasants Forever will talk about which plant species are most important to pollinators.

 

OTHER INFORMATION

The Derr House is located 2 miles south of the Wood River exit off of Interstate 80 (Exit 300).  Turn south immediately after the highway curves to the east and you’ll be there.

For more directions to the site, go to: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/nebraska/placesweprotect/eastern-nebraska-platte-river-native-prairie-nature-trail.xml

Some snacks and cold drinks will be provided, but please bring your own lunch, sunscreen, bug spray, drinking water, and whatever else you need for a day in the field.

You are welcome to come for part or all of the day as your schedule allows.

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In Celebration of Black-Eyed Susans

Before I begin this post, let me say thank you to all of you who voted on the photo choices offered up in last Friday’s post.  This time, there was no difficulty in determining the winners.  About 90% of the voters chose A over B and C over D, and about 75% chose E over F.  I appreciate both the votes and the very thoughtful explanations many of you included along with your choices.  Thank you.

The black-eyed Susan may be the quintessential wildflower species.  If you asked a young student to draw a picture of a wildflower, chances are the result would look something like a black-eyed Susan – a ring of petals around a dark circular center.  As a photographer, I certainly appreciate the flower’s aesthetic appeal, and find myself drawn to photograph it frequently.  This July was no different, and I ended up with quite a few black-eyed Susan photos, some of which are included below.

What is more wildflowery than the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)?

What is more wildflowery than the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)?  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This inchworm is apparently attracted more by the forage value than the aesthetic value of this flower.

This inchworm is apparently attracted more by the forage value than the aesthetic value of this flower.

I don't think this plant hopper was feeding on black-eyed Susans - it flew in and landed while I was admiring the flower, so i photographed it.

I don’t think this plant hopper was feeding on black-eyed Susans – it flew in and landed while I was admiring the flower, so I photographed it.

As with the plant hopper, I think this grasshopper nymph simply used the flower as a landing pad when I flushed it as I walked up.

I think this grasshopper nymph simply used the flower as a landing pad after I flushed it as I walked up; I don’t think it was feeding on it.

This crab spider would be glad to have a meal while on the flower, but it's hoping for more protein than the flower can provide.  Flower visitors beware!

This crab spider was definitely looking for a meal on this flower, but it was hoping for more protein than the flower can provide.  I believe this is one of the crab spider species that can change color (white to yellow and vice versa) to match flower color.  Watch out pollinators!

Even before they bloom, black-eyed Susans are attractive.  (They're also very attractive when they're done blooming - especially in the early fall when their brown dried petals are still hanging on.

Black-eyed Susans are attractive even before they bloom.  (They’re also very attractive when they’re done blooming – especially in the early fall when their brown dried petals are still hanging on.)

As with many of our showiest wildflowers, black-eyed Susans are most abundant a year or two after an event that weakens competition from dominant grasses.  Drought and grazing are both good candidates for that kind of event, and many of the black-eyed Susans we’re seeing this summer benefited from the 2012 drought and the grazing we used as a management tool that year.  As short-lived perennials, they can germinate and bloom quickly when provided with a little open space, light, and moisture.  They are also an easy flower to grow in my yard, and they generally produce enough seed and new plants that I don’t ever have to replant them.

Most of the black-eyed susan flowers in our prairies will be done blooming within the next couple of weeks, though some stragglers will probably continue on through the end of the month.  When they’re done, we’ll venture out to harvest seed from them (wearing gloves to protect the thinner-skinned sides of our fingers from the sharp hairs on the stems) and spread them in some of our degraded prairies where we’ve weakened grasses with this year’s grazing.  Many species we overseed in that manner take a few years to bloom, but black-eyed Susans usually don’t make us wait very long.  I look forward to seeing an abundance of them next year!

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Photo of the Week – August 8, 2014

I usually shoot more than one composition of a scene or creature.  It’s fun to experiment, and hard to know what I’ll like best when I am reviewing images on my computer later.  Of course, having multiple choices is both a blessing and curse.  It’s nice to have a couple options to choose between, but sometimes I just can’t decide which I like best.  Last year, I asked for your help deciding between two bison images.  Many of you weighed in, but in the end, the vote was almost exactly split down the middle.  (Thanks for the help.)

Despite that, I’m going to ask for your input again.  This time, there are three pairs of recent photos I’m struggling with.  See what you think.  If you want to tell me which ones you like best, you can leave your vote in the comments section below.  (Click on the post’s title if you don’t see the comments section.)

This is a photo I used as part my "Photo of the Week" series back on July 24.  I like it very much, but also like the next photo (below).  We'll call this Photo A.

This is a photo I used as part my “Photo of the Week” series back on July 24. I like it very much, but also like the next photo too! (below). We’ll call this Photo A.

This photo was taken within just a few seconds of the one above.  Which do you like better?  This is Photo B.

This photo was taken within just a few seconds of the one above. Which do you like better? This is Photo B.

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This bee appeared in a post earlier this week.  This is Photo C.

This bee appeared in a post earlier this week. This is Photo C.

In this second version (Photo D), there is no anther blocking the view of the bee's face, but the bee's face is more in profile.  It seems like a tiny difference, but I think the Photo C has a pretty different feel from Photo D.  Thoughts?

In this second version (Photo D), there is no anther blocking the view of the bee’s face, but the bee’s face is more in profile. It might seem like a tiny difference, but I think Photo D has a less personal  feel than Photo C.

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This photo of Maximilian sunflower (from the "wrong" side) is a little off-center and includes a bit of leaf to the left.

This photo of Maximilian sunflower blossom (from the “wrong” side) feels a little off-balance and includes a stray bit of leaf to the left.  This is Photo E.

This (Photo F) is a more conventional way to shoot a flower (though still from the wrong side).  The composition is tighter on the flower and feels more balanced.  Despite that, I think I like Photo E better.

This (Photo F) is a more conventional way to shoot a flower (though still from the wrong side). The composition is tighter on the flower and feels more balanced. The flower is “looking” out the right side of the frame, but placed a little to the left to compensate for that.  Despite all that, I think I like Photo E better…  Am I crazy?

Let me know if you have opinions.  If not, feel free to just enjoy the photos!

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , | 31 Comments

How Do You Evaluate Your Prairie?

The most challenging aspect of prairie management may be evaluating what’s happening on the land and what to do about it.  What should you focus on as you walk around a prairie?  Which plant species can tell you the most about the current condition of the prairie community?  How do you know whether changes in the plant community are short term weather-related changes, versus an indication of a long term trend?  What characteristics of wildlife habitat are the most important to monitor?  It can all seem overwhelming.

Evaluating prairies and impacts of management is important but can seem overwhelming.  What should you look for as you walk through a prairie?  (Scott Moats at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa.)

Evaluating prairies and impacts of management is important but isn’t necessarily easy. What should you look for as you walk through a prairie? (Scott Moats at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa.)

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.  One of my main jobs is to help people restore and manage their prairies more effectively.  I try to share tips and techniques gleaned from our work on the Platte River Prairies, as well as from my experiences visiting and collaborating with other prairie managers across the country.  However, suggestions of management strategies are only useful if a prairie manager knows what challenges his/her prairie is facing.  Some managers are good at thinking about wildlife habitat needs but struggle to evaluate plant composition changes.  Others may focus so heavily on invasive species encroachment they ignore the needs of pollinators or grassland birds.  With so many things to think about, what are the most important?

As I walk through the prairies I work with, I pay close attention to (among other things) the abundance and vigor of particular plant species and note the distribution of certain habitat qualities.  My mental checklist is influenced by years of watching those sites respond to weather and management, as well as by the management objectives I’m evaluating.  However, I also enjoy having other ecologists and managers visit our sites because I can learn a great deal from their perspectives.  Because they have a different set of experiences than I do, they notice and evaluate different factors than I do.

This prairie was burned and grazed with a fairly light stocking rate last year.  It has not been grazed this year.  When I walked it this week, I was looking at the vigor of the dominant grasses (still low) and the wildflowers (high).  I also wanted to see if it had maintained the mixed-height habitat structure I was hoping for (it had).

This prairie was burned and grazed with a fairly light stocking rate last year. It has not been grazed this year. When I walked it this week, I was looking at the vigor of the dominant grasses (still low) and the wildflowers (high). I also wanted to see if it had maintained the mixed-height habitat structure I was hoping for (it had).

Because the process of evaluating prairies and their management needs is both important and potentially overwhelming, I want to try to develop some basic guidelines – a kind of checklist for evaluating prairies.  I need help, so I’m reaching out to others, including the readers of this blog, for their input.

What do you look at as you walk through the prairies you’re familiar with?  How do you know whether a prairie you’re managing is headed in the right or wrong direction?  Are there particular plant or animal species that you feel are good indicators of the larger prairie community?  Tell me about your mental checklist…

Please leave any suggestions and ideas you have in the comments section below (if you don’t see a comments section, click on the title of this post and then look again).  I’ll try to synthesize your thoughts and mine and see if we can come up with something useful.  Thank you very much for your help.

To get you started, here are a few examples of items on my personal mental checklist:

How many species of pollinator plants are blooming right now, and how abundant are they?

Are the populations of our most dangerous invasive species increasing or decreasing?

Which plant species are being grazed by our cattle and which are they ignoring?

Are new plants germinating and establishing themselves or is the “canopy” of existing plants stifling new growth?

Are there patches of vegetation structure types present that represent the full spectrum of habitat types? (tall/rank, short/sparse, mixed-height, etc.)

 

if you were a bee, would you find a good selection of feeding options throughout the season?

If you were a bee, would you find a good selection of feeding options throughout the season?

 

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Emergence of Life in a Wetland

After many years of wanting to, we finally installed some solar-powered pumps and livestock water tanks in our family prairie.  (Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks for providing cost-share money!)  Those two water tanks give the cattle nice cool clean water to drink and allow us more flexibility in the way we design our grazing each year.  Most importantly, they allow us to exclude the pond/wetland from grazing so it can start to function as a wetland rather than as a big mud hole for cattle to stand around in.

Because we’ve had good rains this year, the wetland has been pretty full.  That’s nice, but it has also prevented much of the wetland-edge seed I planted from germinating and growing.  Despite that, the recovery of the wetland is well underway.  There is now grass growing right to the water’s edge and arrowhead and other emergent plants are starting to appear in shallow water.  I’ve been spraying the few reed canarygrass plants growing nearby in the hope of preventing that invasive species from taking over the margins of the wetland, and hopefully I can get some more diverse wetland plants to establish there instead.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

My daughter and I went for a walk at the prairie over the weekend and visited the wetland to see what was happening.  As I waded into the shallow water to take the above photo, leopard frogs scattered from my footsteps and red-winged blackbirds scolded me for encroaching upon their territories – very good signs of recovery.  However, looking more closely at the arrowhead plants poking through the water, I found even more evidence of new life.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Adult damselflies fluttered around everywhere, and many of them had apparently just appeared on the scene because the larval exoskeletons they’d just emerged from were stuck to leaves and stems all over the place.

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ENPO140802_D010

While I was too late to see the actual emergence of the damselflies, I did manage to find a green darner dragonfly that had just popped out of its larval skeleton and was fluttering its wings and waiting for its body to dry and harden.  I snapped a few pictures of it in place and then carried it over to Anna so she could get a good look at it.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

After we became a little better acquainted with the new dragonfly, we set it safely on a fence post so it could finish hardening up in the warm sun.  I took a few more quick photos of it on the post and then left it alone.  It was gratifying to see other dragonfly species zipping around nearby too – I’m hoping that’s a sign that a number of other aquatic invertebrates are also colonizing our recovering wetland.  It should be fun to watch the changes in the coming years.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.

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Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Photo of the Week – August 1, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I was walking around in my family’s prairie and spotted this tiny silhouette.  The morning sun was shining through the leaves of a stiff goldenrod plant and a fly was (apparently) warming itself in those rays.  Since I was on the opposite side of the leaf from the fly, I was able to sneak up, get my tripod set up, and take a couple photographs before it flew off.

The silhouette of a fly on a stiff goldenrod leaf.  Helzer Family Prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.

The silhouette of a fly on a stiff goldenrod leaf. Helzer Family Prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.

Have a great weekend!

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The Answer to Yesterday’s Plant Quiz

Buckbrush in bloom.

Another look at the flowers.

Many thanks to everyone who guessed at the identity of the plant species featured in yesterday’s post.  Here is another photo of the same plant species in bloom, from a little further away.  The species is commonly named “buckbrush”, which actually refers to a couple different species in the genus Symphoricarpos.  I believe this particular one is wolfberry, aka western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), though it can be difficult to tell without seeing the fruits.  Wolfberry has white or light-colored fruits, while its cousin coralberry has red fruits.  Both grow together in many of our Nebraska prairies.  I’ve included a photo of coralberry fruits below – I don’t have a good photo of wolfberry with white berries.

This is a photo of coralberry, a close relative of wolfberry.  The two species look very similar except that coralberry has red fruits and wolfberry fruits are white.

This is a photo of coralberry, a close relative of wolfberry. The two species look very similar except that coralberry has red fruits and wolfberry fruits are white.

Taken together as buckbrush, coralberry and snowberry are seen as “weeds” by many ranchers and range scientists.  I suppose there is some degree of competition for resources with grass, but buckbrush is a low-growing shrub (often two feet tall or less) and I usually see it in loose colonies with plenty of grass still growing between plants.  At least in the prairies I’m familiar with, cattle graze right through the buckbrush colonies and get the grass they’re looking for.  In my family prairie, my grandpa and other relatives spent years spraying patches of buckbrush, trying – unsuccessfully – to eliminate them.  In the nearly 15 years that I’ve been helping to manage the site, we’ve not sprayed the patches, and I don’t think they’ve grown any bigger during that time.

On the positive side buckbrush berries are apparently highly sought as a food source by wildlife species.  In addition, because it’s a short-statured woody plant, it doesn’t significantly change the habitat structure of a grassland in ways that would negatively impact most grassland wildlife.  It’s also very pretty…

When I teach our staff and visitors how to identify buckbrush, I adapt the mnemonic device “MAD Buck”, which was intended to remind people of the common eastern North American trees that have opposite branching – Maple, Ash, Dogwood, and Buckeye.  In this case, since we don’t have Buckeye in the Platte River Prairies, I just substitute Buckbrush.  Most other woody species have alternate branching.  (Opposite branching means that each branch is paired with another one right across the stem from it, rather than staggered.)

Thanks again to all who submitted guesses yesterday.  The first to jump in with the correct answer was Quinn Long (who ought to know since he’s a professional botanist) so, as promised, he is awarded 400 points.  Quinn, you can redeem those points at any retailer you can talk into it.

Good luck with that.

Oh, and several people guessed “milkweed”, which is understandable based on the appearance of the leaves in that particular photo.  However, the flowers of milkweed have a very distinctive shape – see below – that is pretty different from that of buckbrush.  It’s okay, though, you don’t lose any points for guessing incorrectly!

Swamp milkweed, displaying the distinctive flowers of milkweed.  Notice the conspicuous absence of visible anthers (the little appendages that hold pollen).

Swamp milkweed, displaying the distinctive flowers of milkweed. Notice the conspicuous absence of visible anthers (the little appendages that hold pollen).

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

What’s This Flower?

It’s been a while since we’ve done a plant identification quiz, so let’s see how you do.  Can you identify this common prairie flower?  It is found throughout the eastern half of the United States.  While it has a beautiful flower, this plant is rarely recognized for that trait.  Many ranchers in Nebraska would love to get rid of it because they think it reduces the amount of livestock forage in native pastures.  I’m skeptical that its impact is significant in most cases.  Regardless, it’s been mowed and sprayed for years but still persists, which is fortunate since its fruits/seeds are highly sought after by wildlife.

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What do you think?  Put your answers in the comments section below (if you can’t see the comments section, click on the title of this post and then try again).  400 points to the first person to correctly identify it.

I’ll post the answer tomorrow, along with some more information on the species.

 

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , | 16 Comments

New Date! – Next Platte River Prairies Field Day is August 27, 2014

Our next Field Day will be on August 27 – – NOT August 29, 2014.  It was pointed out to me by several people that it might be a bad idea to schedule a field day on the Friday of Labor Day weekend.  My only excuse is that on my paper calendar (yes, I still use paper) I couldn’t see ahead to the next week to see that Monday was Labor Day.  Plus, I just didn’t think about it.

So, please consider joining us in the Platte River Prairies on Wednesday AUGUST 27 for a day of hiking, natural history, and prairie management and restoration discussion!

Late August is a great time to visit the Platte River Prairies - the grasslands are loaded with yellows and golds, accented with pinks and whites, and rich with texture.

Late August is a great time to visit the Platte River Prairies – the grasslands are loaded with yellows and golds, accented with pinks and whites, and rich with texture.

The agenda is under construction, but I’ll post it soon.  In the meantime, please make sure you the put the right date (AUGUST 27) on your calendar – paper or digital.  We’ll have a full day of events and activities, and you can stop by for some or all of them.

See you then!

(Did I mention that the date has changed to August 27?  That’s a Wednesday, not a Friday)

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