Photo of the Week – May 21, 2015

We were working at our Rulo Bluffs Preserve this week.  While Nelson was shredding brush on the ridge tops, I was pulling garlic mustard and killing small trees.  I also found time to take a few photos.  Here is one of a small Symphoricarpus  plant (a small shrub – I’m not sure which species it is.  Probably coralberry).  I liked the way the light from the overcast sky brought out the subtle color and texture in the leaves.

The Nature Conservancy's Rulo Bluffs Preserve.  Nebraska.  Buckbrush (coralberry?) Symphoricarpus sp.

The Nature Conservancy’s Rulo Bluffs Preserve., Nebraska.

I also found a brown snake, a bright red bug nymph, a shiny metallic fly, and more.  I’ll share those photos next week, once I get time to work through them.


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Ants in the Sun

A couple weeks ago, I was broadcasting seeds across a prairie we’d recently burned.  The sun had just popped out after several days of cool rainy weather, and its warmth felt pretty good.  As I crisscrossed the burned area, I noticed several large ant mounds.  When I looked closely at those mounds, I was surprised at the large number of ants massed on top.

Formica obscuriventris  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A few ants found a perch above the mob of ants beneath them on top of a large ant mound.  Formica obscuriventris.   TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Because it didn’t appear most of the ants were doing anything other than milling about, I surmised they were probably just enjoying the heat of the sun as I was.  James Trager, who graciously identified the ants for me, supported my guess.  He added that this kind of thermoregulatory behavior is common, and not only warms the individual ants, but also the inside of the mound as those warmer ants go back into the tunnels.

Mound building ants trying to drag a piece of earthworm into the mound.

Mound building ants trying to drag a piece of earthworm into the mound.

Not all the ants were just enjoying the sunshine, however.  At least a few were returning from hunting trips with food for the colony.  The foragers were dragging the food items up the mound and toward multiple tunnel entrances.  Unfortunately, it looked like it was going to be very difficult to get the food past the mob of ants.  In particular, I watched as several ants pulling a piece of earthworm toward the tunnels gave up after trying for several minutes to drag it into the mob.  Other ants periodically tried to pick it up and move it as well, but they also gave up.  I assume the piece of worm made it inside at some point, but I can’t confirm that…


A spider being carried toward the mound.


More food.

More food.

I enjoyed watching the ants, but eventually had to get back to work.  I was trying to help increase the plant diversity of the degraded prairie the ants are living in.  That broader range of plant species should help the ants in several ways, including by attracting a wider selection of insects for the ants to feed on.  I hope so.

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Photo of the Week – May 15, 2015

Killdeer are really cute when they’re young.

Killdeer chick at the Helzer family prairie.

Killdeer chick at the Helzer family prairie.

Have a great weekend.

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Beaver Crossings

Karen Hamburger, a longtime volunteer with us, recently passed along another batch of trail camera video clips from our Derr Wetland Restoration.  You might remember seeing some of her video in an earlier post.

This time, much of her footage was centered around beaver dams.  There were quite a few video clips of beavers repairing dams or swimming past, along with otters, muskrats, ducks, and other wetland creatures.  However, Karen also captured some more terrestrial species using the beaver dams.

I often use beaver dams as a convenient bridge to cross a stream, and I know I’m not alone in that.  It makes sense that those same dams are important crossing locations for many wildlife species as well.  Karen’s trail cameras documented some of those crossings, including species such as bobcat, raccoon, coyote, and white-tailed deer.  See below.

In addition to wildlife, Karen’s camera also caught another creature crossing a beaver dam at our wetland.  Not once, but twice, she documented photographer Michael Forsberg working his way across the stream with camera in hand.

Mike has been photographing the wetland for many years, and has his own set of camera traps (trail cameras) at the site.  He has also been helping us capture timelapse imagery from the site through both the Platte Basin Timelapse Project and Moonshell Media.  This time, Mike got caught on the other end of the camera.

Beavers play important engineering roles in landscapes. Their dam construction activities change water flow patterns, flood low-lying areas, and create important habitat for many plant and animal species.  Karen’s videos are a good reminder that beaver activity not only affects wetland species, it also affects movement patterns of terrestrial species by providing stream crossings.  As beaver dam locations change, wildlife have to adjust their travel accordingly, and it’s fun to think about how those movement changes could ripple through ecosystems.  The location of a stream crossing for both predators and herbivores affects where those animals choose to forage, for example.  The fate of a plant or small mammal could well be decided by where a deer or coyote can cross a stream – which may be determined by where a beaver family decides to place a dam.  Fascinating!


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Photo of the Week – May 7, 2015

As I’ve said many times, the prairie is an ecosystem best seen up close.  You have to look carefully to see much of the beauty.  Dillon (one of our Hubbard Fellows) and I were poking around today and found this yellow wood sorrel flower.  It looked as if an artistic child had been playing with a hole punch.  There were a few scattered holes in nearby blossoms but this was the only one that looked as if it had been purposefully accented.  Any insect smarties out there know what might have made the holes?

Wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) with insect holes.  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) with insect holes. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This is the season of small statured wildflowers.  Puccoon, ragwort, locoweed, wood sorrel and many others are just starting to bloom.  Perhaps the most ostentatiously-colored of our spring flowers, however, is purple poppy mallow.  This one was just getting ready to open today.

Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata).  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata).  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Another look at the same flower.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain lately, which bodes well for a good wildflower season, at least for the next month or so.  We’ll see what kind of weather the El Nino brings after that.  We might get really wet or really dry.  For now, I’ll enjoy the colors.

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – A Watershed Reflection by Dillon

This post is by Dillon Blankenship, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  

Though I came into the Hubbard Fellowship to learn about restoration and conservation of prairies, I have had the good fortune to spend a fair amount of time in, associated with, or, at least, thinking about stream and river systems too. Most of these experiences have been of the Platte River – from surveying for mussels in a southern braid to visiting the various dams, diversions and other irrigation structures that utilize its mighty flow. Oh, and of course, how about the bazillion hours shared with roosting sandhill cranes and awestruck visitors in riverside blinds this spring!

The Central Platte River near Wood River, Nebraska.

The Central Platte River near Wood River, Nebraska.

Even when my work does not lead me there, the Platte is inescapable – I drive across it to go just about anywhere and often parallel it for miles on end (who is following who?) as I journey across the state. It is also a persisting reference point and a comforting explanation for some of the tree lines I see from Interstate 80. Its associated groundwater makes possible our impressively realized agricultural potential and supports a great diversity of plants and wildlife. Here is a good map of the extent of the Platte Watershed – – which I see in the embodiment of the Platte River itself, but is much more expansive than a single waterway.

Hubbard Fellows Dillon Blankenship (left) and Jasmine Cutter stand near an irrigation ditch during a tour of Platte River irrigation activities.

Hubbard Fellows Dillon Blankenship (left) and Jasmine Cutter stand near an irrigation ditch while on a tour to learn about irrigated agriculture and the Platte River.

I mention this on The Prairie Ecologist blog now because I am feeling particularly inspired to appreciate my watershed today. I’ve been doing an online course concerning water issues in the western United States that has had me thinking a lot about where my water comes from – which, thankfully, is plentiful enough from its origins in the Rockies to me and on to the Missouri that I don’t have to borrow from watersheds beyond my own. It has also illuminated the complexity of how we allocate water resources to satisfy interests across state boundaries (Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska for the Platte) and has altogether inspired a deeper appreciation for this vital fluid’s movement across the landscape.

Of course, The Prairie Ecologist blog community is a diverse crowd when it comes to geography, so I expect many of you to be intrinsically tied to rivers and watersheds beyond the Platte and that is great!

Some of your attachments must be physical – you live on them and in them and they, quite literally, are a part of you. However, I also suspect you have been affected by water systems in nonmaterial ways– the memory of a family canoeing trip (or “tanking” excursion if you are Nebraskan), the viewing of an inspiring water-related natural spectacle, or the comfort of a secret fishing spot for contemplation and big catfish.

Many people's strongest experience on the Platte River comes while watching sandhill cranes in the spring.

Many people’s strongest personal connection with the Platte River comes from watching migratory sandhill cranes in the spring.

Despite being a Platte River patron – and to some extent a lover of the Loup and a Niobrara nut – I also feel the pull of waters from previous, far-off stations (Oregon’s Willamette River, the Buffalo River of Arkansas…) and am excited to be shaped by whichever watersheds I call home in the future.

For the sake of this watershed reflection, I want YOU to get involved in these musings…

In a book*I have been reading I found this gem of a question, which is particularly relevant here:

After the author reminds us that the human body is nearly 2/3 composed of water, he asks, “What body of water makes up 2/3 of you?”

Well? [This would be a good time for you to utilize that comments section at the bottom of the page…]

And if, by chance, the Platte IS your river, I hope you will check out what our friends at the Platte Basin Timelapse project have been up to as they document and share “a watershed in motion.”


*Urrea, Luis Alberto. Wandering Time. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Print.



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Photo of the Week – May 1, 2015

Last year, I moved into a nice old house (100 years old this year) with a big lot and plenty of potential.  The kids have been enjoying the yard, the loft above the garage, and some of the new furniture and accessories (including a bison skull named Lefty hanging on the living room wall).  One of the unexpected perks of the new house is some junk wood along our neighbor’s fence.  I found the wood late last fall as I was trimming shrubs.  It was buried beneath what appeared to be several year’s worth of leaves.  My first thought upon seeing it was that it might be a good place to find snakes, but it was late enough in the year that they weren’t around then.  I left the wood in place, figuring we’d check it out again in the spring.



Now that spring has arrived, the wood has certainly met expectations.  The other day we found at least 10 snakes underneath it, and there might have been a few more (they kept moving…).  What would be a nightmare for many people has become almost a daily adventure for my son Daniel (“Dad!  Come look at the snakes now!”) and yesterday he took his older siblings out to join in the fun.

Counting snakes.

Counting snakes.

A big female plains garter waits patiently for us to put her wooden shelter back in place.

A big female plains garter waits patiently for us to put her wooden shelter back in place.

I’m not sure what the wood was used for (an old makeshift door of some kind?), or why it was left behind to rot beneath leaves, but I think it’ll stay where it is for a while longer.  We have a lot of work to do over the next few years to make the yard more friendly to pollinators, wildlife, and other creatures, but the old wood along the fence is a good start.

…I’m not sure I’ll tell the neighbors about it just yet.  That might be a conversation that should wait until I know them a little better.

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A Visual Illustration of Plant Diversity’s Importance

Last week, I took some photos that powerfully demonstrate the importance of plant diversity.


Research plots at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Several years ago, we created some research plots to help us learn more about how plant diversity interacts with ecosystem function.  As you can see above, the plots include a grid of squares (3/4 acre in size), each planted with one of three seed mixtures: monoculture (big bluestem), low diversity (grasses and a few forbs harvested in the fall), and high diversity (100 species).  Working with academic partners, we have several research projects underway, including a couple that demonstrate the influence plant diversity has on the spread of invasive plant species.

Other researchers have found similar relationships between plant diversity and resistance to invasive species, but that is only one of many benefits from having a wide variety of plants in a prairie.  Both herbivores and pollinators benefit from having a broad selection of food choices available to them.  During extreme weather conditions (hot, dry, wet, cold), high diversity prairies always have plants that flourish under those conditions and help provide habitat and food conditions for animals.  Most importantly, because of these and other reasons, prairies with high plant diversity also have high total biological diversity, including more species of microbes, insects, other invertebrates and vertebrates.  That overall diversity is important for its own sake, but also because of the role each species plays in the functioning of the ecosystem.

The aerial photo I took from our small drone last week illustrates another benefit of plant diversity; prairies with high plant diversity have green vegetation for more of the growing season.  Every plant species starts and ends their growth period at different times.  Some start early, bloom, and are done before summer even starts.  Others bide their time and don’t bloom until late in the fall.  When you mix all those species together in one prairie, you end up with consistent, but ever-changing, availability of nutritious vegetation and flowers throughout the growing season.


Labeled plots, showing the location of the various treatments.

Our monoculture research plots (big bluestem only) looked very different from our other plots last week because big bluestem was just starting to grow (on April 23).  Even after we burned all the plots this spring, allowing the soil to warm earlier than it otherwise would have, the most advanced big bluestem plants only had leaves of a few inches in length.  Our low diversity plots (mostly grasses) showed more green, but only due to the presence of one grass species, Canada wildrye (Elymus canadensis), a cool-season grass that begins its grown early in the year.  By contrast, the high-diversity plots had many plant species growing, with some close to blooming.

The monoculture plots were planted only with big bluestem,

The monoculture plots were planted only with big bluestem, which was just barely starting to grow last week.

Low diversity

The low diversity plots were slightly greener than the monoculture plots, mainly because Canada wildrye was growing quickly (most of the other grasses were just breaking dormancy).

high diversity

The high diversity plots had numerous species showing vigorous growth, even early in the season.

Although the visual differences between plots on April 23 are striking, they are ecologically significant as well.  Invertebrate and vertebrate herbivores (including cattle, if the plots were grazed) can find a variety of forage options in the high diversity plots right now – far more than in the low diversity or monoculture plots.  Within a week or so, the high diversity plots will also have several different kinds of wildflowers in bloom, providing resources for early-season bees and other pollinators.  The low diversity and monoculture plots will have far fewer resources for pollinators throughout the season.  Furthermore, invasive plants species trying to establish themselves within the high diversity plots face stiff competition from plants using wide range of growth strategies.  They will find a smaller amount of resistance in the other plots, where less diverse plant communities are not as efficient at taking up space and fully utilizing resources.

Plant diversity is incredibly important in natural systems for a variety of reasons, only a few of which are mentioned here.  We still have a lot to learn about how plant communities function, and how plant diversity plays into that.  However, we already know enough to recognize the value of having numerous players in the game.  It was fun to see a visual demonstration of that value last week.


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Photo of the Week – April 24, 2015

The aesthetic values of prairie are more subtle than those in many other ecosystems.  There is much beauty to be found, but you sometimes have to look for it – it doesn’t often rise up and slap you in the face.  That’s especially true in the early spring as the first wildflowers are just starting to bloom.

If you had driven past the Platte River Prairies this week, you would have likely dismissed them as a lot of brown grass with a little green grass here and there.  Blah.  But if you’d gotten out of the car and taken a walk – and if you had been especially observant – you might (MIGHT) have spotted one of my favorite wildflowers.

Viola rafinesquii, a tiny and easy to miss wildflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Viola rafinesquii is a tiny, beautiful, and easy to miss wildflower. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Known variously as field pansy, Johnny Jump-up, and other names, Viola rafinesquii is an annual violet species that makes its appearance in the early spring, just before most better recognized flowers begin to bloom.  One a short hike yesterday, the Fellows and I spotted several hundred of these plants, but if we hadn’t been specifically looking for them, we probably would have missed them altogether.  The plants stand only a few inches tall, and the diameter of the flowers is about that of a dime.

It’s a gorgeous little plant, but you’ve got to get on your hands and knees to really appreciate it.  In that way, it’s a pretty good metaphor for prairies in general – if you don’t look closely, you’ll probably miss the beauty altogether.

…and that would be a shame.


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What’s the Best Time to Burn?

As I mentioned last week, prescribed fire can help meet many prairie management objectives.  It’s important, however, to match the timing of the burn to those objectives in order to avoid conducting a fire that is either unproductive or counterproductive.  For example, if you’re burning to set back trees or invasive plants, you’ll want to be sure to burn when the fire will suppress those species and encourage growth of competing plants.  Too many times, people burn to control smooth brome or another invasive cool-season grass but burn so early in the season that they end up helping the plants they’re trying to hurt.  Here are some examples of various management objectives for prescribed fire, along with examples of how to time those burns to meet those objectives successfully.


This early March burn (dormant season) will stimulate the growth of cool-season invasive grasses such as smooth brome or Kentucky bluegrass.  However, we brought in cattle to knock back the strong growth of those species.

In the Platte River Prairies, our biggest invasive species threat comes from smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, and other invasive grasses that grow early in the season.  They can monopolize space and moisture, reduce plant diversity and wreak havoc on habitat conditions.  When we target those species with fire, we try to burn when the targeted species is just about to bloom.  By doing so, we can knock the brome or bluegrass back after it has invested energy in growth but before it invests in reproduction.  At the same time, we create excellent conditions (lots of light and warm soil) for competing warm-season native species which are just getting ready to start their growing season.  Bluegrass blooms significantly earlier than brome, so we can’t get maximum impact on both species with one burn.  Instead, we have to decide which is the more dominant grass at the time.  Regardless, the timing of our burn is aimed at the growth stage of the plant, not a particular date, since plant growth rates vary by year.

One issue we’ve seen with using fire to control brome or bluegrass is that while we can suppress those cool-season grasses and facilitate growth of warm-season native grasses, we often just trade one dominant grass for another without encouraging overall plant diversity.  As a result, we often combine cattle grazing with fire to add a more selective defoliator (cattle) to the mix.  When we’re using grazing, the timing of the fire can be more flexible.  We can conduct a burn in the fall or early spring, and while that will stimulate strong growth of brome and bluegrass, we can use intensive spring cattle grazing to counter that strong growth and suppress those invasives.  Later in the summer, a fairly light stocking rate of cattle can help suppress major warm-season grasses and keep them from simply taking all the space left open by weakened invasive grasses.  This creates opportunities for wildflowers to flourish.  Since cattle prefer big bluestem and indiangrass over all other plant species in our summer prairies, that kind of grazing usually works pretty well.  There are too many potential combinations of fire and grazing to cover here, but suffice it to say we can burn at many times of the year when using cattle to complement the effects of those fires.


This fire was conducted at about the time Kentucky bluegrass was starting to bloom, so it should knock the vigor of that species back for a year or two.

If cattle aren’t an option but you find that fire alone just encourages dominant grasses of one kind or another (a more common result in the Great Plains than in the Midwest), one option could be a summer fire.  If you’ve never seen a summer prescribed fire, you might find it hard to believe that green prairie can burn, but as long as there is sufficient old growth from previous seasons that dead vegetation will carry a fire, regardless of how green this year’s vegetation is.  (That green vegetation does make summer fires extra smoky, however.)  If big bluestem is the dominant species you want to suppress, the best time to burn is when it’s just ready to bloom.  Remember that there are many other factors to consider with summer fires, including the various animals that are active in the prairie at that time of year.  It’s usually best to burn only a small portion of a prairie in the summer to avoid excess impacts on wildlife and invertebrates.  However, summer fires can be very good for encouraging wildflower growth, and the habitat benefits from added plant diversity help counteract short-term impacts of the fire on animals.  Another caution with summer fires is that if cool-season invasive grasses are a problem at a site, they will likely benefit from a summer fire, and could thrive during the following fall and spring without some other treatment.

Controlling trees with fire is a common objective for prairie managers, but timing is also important for that objective – and appropriate timing varies by the species of tree being targeted.  We’ve had some very good late spring burns that suppressed brome wonderfully but failed to kill small eastern red cedar trees.  I think the trees failed to die because there was insufficient heat created to make up for the increased moisture in the stems at that time of year.  The trees turned yellow-orange after the fire but then greened up again.  We’ve found dormant season fires to be far more successful when we’re targeting cedars.  On the flip side, it seems like we’ve had the best luck suppressing (but not killing) dogwoods and other deciduous trees and shrubs when we burn as those species are just leafing out later in the spring.  However, our success with deciduous plants has been inconsistent enough that I hate to make recommendations – and deciduous tree control with fire is usually temporary at best.  Dirac Twidwell, range ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has experimented with intense summer fires during drought conditions in the southern plains and has found that the combination of high temperatures and drought stress can be deadly on trees not ordinarily considered to be susceptible to fire.  Unfortunately, burning under those conditions takes much more training and preparation (and more trusting fire chiefs) than most of us can muster.


This cedar will probably survive this growing season burn.  It turned yellow but will likely turn green again and continue its growth.

Dormant season burns include any fires conducted after the prairie turns brown in the fall and before it greens again in the spring.  Impacts from late fall and early spring burns are pretty similar to each other, with the caveat that fall burned prairies have bare ground all winter long, which can dry out the soil somewhat and – obviously – provide very different winter habitat than prairies with standing vegetation for species that need that.  Drier soil and bare ground are not necessarily bad things, especially if there is other prairie habitat nearby.  In fact, some managers in northern parts of the United States have found that bare soil over the winter can help winter kill Kentucky bluegrass during particularly cold winters.  Fall or winter burning can also help extend the window needed to find the right weather to conduct a dormant season burn.  Depending upon your objectives, those fall burns could be just as effective as an early spring burn and you can relax all winter, knowing that your burn is already done.  One additional consideration with fall burns is that the day length (at least in North America) is considerably shorter in November than in March, giving you less time to conduct a fire during daylight hours.

There are many other possible objectives for prescribed fire, and examples of how to achieve them.  Those of us who harvest seed for restoration work, for example, use fire to stimulate seed production in some species (especially big bluestem).  In addition, because time since the last fire is linked to the amount of thatch and litter present in a prairie, burning can help manipulate habitat conditions for many wildlife species.  Speaking of wildlife, it’s critically important to remember how vulnerable some invertebrates and animals are to fire and to keep that in mind when setting burn objectives.  Burning an entire prairie (especially one that is isolated from others by roads or other obstacles) can completely eliminate some species of invertebrates that are aboveground during the fire – including many that overwinter in standing dead vegetation.  Depending upon your other objectives, you might consider not going into a burn unit to light all the patches of vegetation that didn’t burn initially – leaving those unburned areas can provide important refuges for vulnerable insects and other critters.  In addition to invertebrates, nesting birds, recently emerged reptiles in the spring, and other less mobile animals are all species to consider as you plan growing season burns.  There will always be negative impacts of any fire, but they should not be reasons to avoid burning.  Instead, they are examples of why it’s so important to have clear objectives so that you make sure you get the desired benefits from the fire and minimize the undesirable outcomes.


This growing season burn left behind numerous unburned patches, providing refuges for invertebrates and other small animals.

Fire is a powerful but dangerous tool for prairie management.  While it can be very useful for a wide range of objectives, there are too many risks (to people, property, and wildlife) to use it in a cavalier manner.  Setting specific goals for a fire and being thoughtful about the timing and tactics for that fire will help ensure that it is as productive as possible.

Be safe out there.

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