LANDSCAPE EXPERIENCES MAJOR SHIFTS IN APPEARANCE OVER SHORT TIME SPAN

As I was preparing to post this blog, I received the latest installment of Ian Lunt’s blog, which gives very good advice to science bloggers about how to capture and hold an audience’s attention.  Ironically, I’d just been worrying that my new post wasn’t as pithy as it could be, and had even asked my kids to read it and tell me what they thought.  I didn’t actually change the post after reading Ian’s advice, but I did change the “headline” to make it more snappy.  I hope Ian approves…  (The fact remains, however, that the following post is really just a series of pictures I thought were nice, so feel free to skip it and find something more productive to do.  The only good news is that there’s very little text to slog through…  So, with that sales pitch – here you go!)

I’ve been going through more timelapse images from the Niobrara Valley Preserve recently.  There are numerous story lines from the cameras there, all of which tell a tale of recovery and resilience following the big wildfire in 2012.  In a smaller way, however, looking through the images also demonstrates how much the appearance of a site changes from day to day.

In this post, I’m showing seven images taken by the same camera, from the same perspective, but on different days and at different times through the 2014 season.  The camera that took the photos is mounted high atop a windmill at the south end of a 10,000 acre bison pasture.  These seven images of sandhill prairie span an eight month period.

January 8, 2014.  6pm.

January 8, 2014. 6pm.

February 5, 2014.  3pm.

February 5, 2014. 3pm.

April 5, 2014.  7pm.

April 5, 2014. 7pm.

May 17, 2014.  7:30pm.

May 17, 2014. 7:30pm.

July 24, 2014.  9pm.

July 24, 2014. 9pm.

 

August 15, 2014.  9:30am.

August 15, 2014. 9:30am.

August 15, 2014.  8pm.

August 15, 2014. 8pm.

All of us who visit someplace regularly recognize that it never looks exactly the same twice, but we usually compare what we see today with what we remember from an earlier time.  Timelapse photos allow us to record those variations and compare them side by side.

Ok, sure, the presence or absence of bison helps distinguish some of these photos from others, but bison are also a part of (and a driver of) the changing landscape at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  More to the point of this post, however, are the differences in the quality, direction, and intensity of light between photos; not to mention the varied appearances of the sky and the growth stage of the prairie vegetation.  The prairie can look starkly different even within the same day – as shown by the last two photos.

There are countless reasons a prairie changes in appearance from day to day, even from moment to moment.  More importantly, however, those changes should motivate us to get out and enjoy nature even more often.  After all, you never know what you’ll see!

As always, thanks to everyone at Moonshell Media for their help with this timelapse project.  

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

Photo of the Week – October 23, 2014

I needed a walk in the prairie the other evening.  There are times when I just need to change focus and think about something besides my own life, and hiking through a grassland is the perfect tonic.

Our family prairie was resplendent in golds and browns as the sun was going down.  As the last light hit the fuzzy seed heads of stiff goldenrod and other late season wildflowers, the plants seemed to glow – as did the numerous thin strands of spider silk strung between the plants.

Stiff goldenrod seeds caught on a stray strand of spider silk.

Stiff goldenrod seeds tenuously held by a stray strand of spider silk.

More stiff goldenrod seeds.

More stiff goldenrod seeds.

As the sun continued to sink, I kept climbing uphill – until I finally ran out of light completely.  Just as the sun was dropping below the horizon, I spotted a wild lettuce plant with its beautiful wispy seeds waving in the gentle breeze.  I had just enough time to capture one image before the sun disappeared.

Wild lettuce seeds at sundown.  Helzer Family Prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Wild lettuce seeds at sundown. Helzer Family Prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

I stood up, stretched, and enjoyed my long walk back to the truck.  The world looked pretty good…

 

Posted in Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Karen’s Wetland Videos

One of my favorite places within our Platte River Prairies is a restored wetland we usually call “the sandpit wetland” because it is a former sand and gravel mining pit.  We restored the site over about 10 years, a little at a time, and it now features a meandering stream and various side channel, backwater, and off-channel pockets.  You might remember the site from previous posts, including this one about sludge and this one (or this one) about timelapse imagery.

The Derr Sandpit wetland (2013 photo).  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The Derr Sandpit wetland (2013 photo). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I always enjoy walking around the wetland – even if I’m fighting off invasive species – because there’s so much to see.  I have a pretty good feel for the plant community at the site because it’s easy to find the plants and watch their slow movements around the wetland over time.  There are more invertebrate species than I’ll ever be able to count, of course, let alone see, but I can usually find quite a few of them if I look.  However, it’s harder to see and keep track of the larger animals – the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.  For some reason, they don’t usually show themselves when I’m there…  (Especially the otters…. don’t get me started.)

Our timelapse imagery over the last couple years has helped us keep track of some of the wildlife use at the site, but since those cameras only take photos at regular hourly intervals, catching animals in front of the camera is just a happy accident.  Now, however, one of our longest tenured volunteers, Karen Hamburger, has taken it upon herself to find out what’s really out there.  During the last year or so, she’s been setting a trail camera (actually more than one, since at least one was inundated in a flood) in various places around the wetland and capturing views of many wildlife species.

I finally had a chance to go through some of her favorite video clips the other day, and I made a short 3 minute video montage with some of them.  It includes several bird species, beavers, deer, raccoons, and even (sigh) otters.  We knew from tracks and other sign that most of these animals were around, but it’s one thing to see footprints and another to watch the critters themselves!  This video gives us a wonderful and unique perspective on what happens at our wetland when we noisy blundering people aren’t around.

I hope you enjoy it.

 

THANK YOU to Karen for all the work to capture these moments for us, along with all the other work she’s done over the years!

If the video doesn’t display correctly above, you can try clicking HERE instead.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 17, 2014

Who could be mad at these big beautiful brown eyes?

A differential grasshopper (that's its name, not its demeanor) on stiff goldenrod.

A differential grasshopper (that’s its name, not its demeanor) on stiff goldenrod.

As it turns out, lots of people can.

The differential grasshopper is one of a long list of native North American species, headlined by white-tailed deer and raccoons, that have adapted very well to today’s agricultural landscapes.  Whether you call these species adaptable generalists or pests probably depends upon whether or not they’re eating your sweet corn.  Regardless, you have to admire (or at least recognize) the traits that allowed them to thrive under changing habitat conditions that have pushed many other native species to the brink of extinction.

The olive-greenish color and the strong herringbone pattern on its back leg helps distinguish the differential grasshopper from other species.

The olive-greenish color and the strong herringbone pattern on its back leg helps distinguish the adult differential grasshopper from other species.

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!  Isn’t she cute?

Before Europeans took over the continent, differential grasshoppers lived mainly in low grasslands, feeding on a wide variety of grasses and wildflowers – but, purportedly, with a particular affinity for giant ragweed.  When the landscape began changing to one dominated by rowcrops, alfalfa, and short-grazed grasslands, it basically created heaven on earth for differential grasshoppers.  Today, they are abundant enough that they can be found almost anywhere across the landscape (at least in Nebraska).  Apparently, they can move as much as 10 miles a day to find food.

One of 108 grasshopper species recognized as native to Nebraska, the differential grasshopper is one of only a small handful that actually cause any economic damage to crops.  All of those grasshopper species – pests or not – are important food sources for birds and many other wildlife species.  In years when differential grasshopper populations are particularly high, they can cause more problems for farmers and gardeners, but also provide even more food for wildlife.

"Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

It’s ironic that many traits we admire in people (resilient, adaptable, successful) become indicators of pest-ness when we’re talking about wildlife.  Really, we should give differential grasshoppers some kind of award for their ability to take lemons and make lemonade (that’s just a metaphor, kids).  Hooray for differential grasshoppers!

Unless, of course, they’re eating your sweet corn.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

So Similar, Yet So Different

It’s wrong to assume that successful restoration or management tactics from one prairie will work in another.  Instead, every prairie has its own “personality” and responds accordingly.  The key to success is experimentation and adaptive management.

Bill Kleiman is one of my favorite people.  We have much in common: a love of prairies and restoration, a drive to learn from our mistakes and share what we learn with others, and a strong belief in the importance of conservation.  We’ve both worked for The Nature Conservancy for a long time (he’s got a couple years on me) and have been co-leading the Grassland Restoration Network for the last several years.  He’s also a great guy and a good friend.

Bill Kleiman (white hat) leads a tour of a restored prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grassland.

Bill Kleiman (light-colored hat) leads a tour of a restored prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands.  2014 Grassland Restoration Network workshop.

However, despite the fact that Bill and I are friends and have a lot in common, there are some big differences between us as well.  Bill is much more patient than I am, and better at the social niceties needed to build close relationships with neighbors and volunteers.  I tend to say what I think – sometimes inappropriately.  Bill is not shy about expressing his opinion, but does it less frequently, and usually with kindness and self-deprecation.

Bill and I both manage grasslands for The Nature Conservancy, but just as there are differences between us as people, there are also some stark differences between our sites and the approaches we take toward prairie restoration and management.  Bill’s site, TNC’s Nachusa Grasslands, is located in rolling hills about two hours west of Chicago, Illinois.  My Platte River Prairies are on mostly flat alluvial (river-formed) soils in south-central Nebraska.  As a result, the soils, topography and climate vary greatly between the two sites.  Moreover, our sites each have unique land use histories, invasive species legacies, and social and cultural contexts.

Bill again, talking to a tour group - with the Nachusa Grasslands in the background.

Bill again, talking to the same tour group, with Nachusa Grasslands’ undulating topography in the background.

I was thinking about all of this last month as our Platte River Prairies crew traveled to Nachusa Grasslands where Bill and his team were hosting this year’s annual Grassland Restoration Network workshop.  It was fascinating to compare the land management and restoration strategies we each use, especially knowing that both of us have diligently tested and refined our methods to meet the individual challenges of our respective sites.  Below are some of the similarities and differences between our approaches.

1. Seed Mixtures and Seeding Rates

Both Nachusa Grasslands and the Platte River Prairies have been actively restoring cropland to high-diversity prairie habitats.  At both sites we broadcast our seed (as opposed to drilling it).  The seed is broadcast either by hand or with a drop spreader – a fertilizer spreader that drops seeds onto the ground.  In fact, broadcast seeding is the technique of choice for the vast majority of sites that participate in the Grassland Restoration Network.  (You can learn more about fairly universal strategies and tactics in the “Lessons from the Grassland Restoration Network” document several of us put together.)

However, while we both broadcast seeds, Bill has found that successful prairie plantings at Nachusa require much heavier seeding rates (around 50 bulk pounds of seed per acre) than we use along the Platte River (8-10 bulk pounds).  Bill’s seed mixes include lots of seed from wildflowers, sedges, and “subdominant” grasses such as little bluestem, prairie dropseed, and sideoats grama, but almost no seed from more dominant grasses such as big bluestem and indiangrass.  In our Platte River Prairies seed mixtures, dominant grasses make up about half of the weight of the mixture.

James Trager (Shaw Nature Reserve) and Nelson Winkel (TNC Platte River Prairies) look over a restored prairie at Nachusa Grasslands.  This prairie was relatively unique in that it had a fair amount of indiangrass in it.  Most of the seed mixtures have none, or very little, seed from big grasses such as indiangrass and big bluestem.

James Trager (Shaw Nature Reserve) and Nelson Winkel (TNC Platte River Prairies) look over a restored prairie at Nachusa Grasslands. This prairie was relatively unique in that it had a fair amount of indiangrass in it. Most of the seed mixtures have none, or very little, seed from big grasses such as indiangrass and big bluestem.

Both Bill and I have experimented with many variations of these seed mixtures and have settled on these broad recipes as appropriate for our respective sites.  Though we do things differently, we both end up with very diverse prairies that meet our objectives.  When Bill uses lighter seeding rates, his new prairies get swamped out by invasive species before native plants become well established.  He’s also found that adding dominant grasses to the initial seed mix leads to plant communities that become overly grassy and not very diverse.  In contrast, using lighter seeding rates on the Platte allows us to plant more acres per year with the same seed harvest effort, and while it takes longer for our plantings to establish, they still end up being very diverse.  As our plantings mature, fire and grazing management helps suppress the dominance of big bluestem and indiangrass and maintain high plant diversity.

2.  Weed Control in New Restored Prairies

Weed control strategies for new plantings also vary greatly between Nachusa Grasslands and the Platte River Prairies.  At Nachusa, Bill and his crew walk every inch of new plantings multiple times each year until the native plant community is well established.  They remove (by pulling or spraying) every invasive plant they find – focusing mostly on perennial legumes such as birds foot trefoil, crown vetch, and sweet clover.  Once the native community is established, they can relax a little, but they still watch each site very closely.  In some cases, they’ve not been able to keep up with the pressure from invasive plants and they’ve made the difficult decision to just give up and start over, rather than fighting a losing battle for years.

The soybean field on the left is a former restored prairie that just never established as Bill hoped, so he and his crew made the decision to start over.  After it is farmed for a few years, they'll try again.

The soybean field on the left is a former restored prairie at Nachusa Grasslands that never established as Bill hoped, so he and his crew made the decision to start over. After it is farmed for a few years, they’ll try again.  While it’s a lot of work to start over, it’s less work than many years of fighting weeds and never winning.

Our weed control on the Platte River Prairies looks much different.  We don’t really have problems with perennial legumes or other non-native forbs.  In fact, we pretty much ignore sweet clover, and most other “weeds” during the establishment phase of a new prairie are annuals such as foxtail, marestail, and annual sunflower that just fade away as perennial prairie plants take over.  Our major fears have to do with perennial invasive grasses, such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass, and we deal with those mainly by suppressing them with fire and grazing management.  We also worry about deciduous trees, such as Siberian elms, that we have to control with herbicides because fire and grazing don’t do the job.  However, during the first few years of establishment, while Bill and his crew are painstakingly patrolling their sites, we can mostly ignore our new plantings – except for an occasional prescribed burn to limit the buildup of thatch.

3. Overseeding

A third difference between our sites has to do with overseeding.  In both remnant (never plowed) and restored prairies, we occasionally want to add missing plant species.  At Nachusa, they just burn the prairie and throw the seed out on the bare ground – and it works!  In our drier Platte River Prairies, we’ve not had very much luck with that strategy.  Using grazing to weaken the dominant grasses seems to help us get better establishment of new plants because it suppresses competition for moisture and other resources.  Bill’s crew doesn’t seem to have to worry about that – even in sites with lots of grass.

Bill (left) oversees some "data collection" during this year's Grassland Restoration Network, which was done to help tour participants evaluate an overseeding project.  Becky and Hank Hartman (volunteer stewards) have used repeated overseeding to transform an area from exclusively grasses to one with very nice wildflower diversity.

Bill (left) oversees some “data collection” during this year’s Grassland Restoration Network, which was done to help tour participants evaluate an overseeding project. Becky and Hank Hartman (volunteer stewards) have used repeated overseeding to transform an area from exclusively grasses to one with very nice wildflower diversity.

 

Mike Konen (in orange) from Northern Illinois University talks about soils during this year's workshop at Nachusa.  He is standing in prairie that is going to be grazed by the newly introduced herd of bison.  Grazing will give Bill and I one more thing to compare notes on...

Mike Konen (in orange) from Northern Illinois University talks about soils during this year’s workshop at Nachusa. He is standing in prairie that is going to be grazed by a newly-introduced herd of bison (the bison should knock the height of that indiangrass down some…) Now that Nachusa is using grazing  as a management too, Bill and I will have one more thing to compare notes on…

Bill and I have done extensive experimentation to come up with effective prairie restoration and management strategies at our respective sites, and we continue to adapt as we go along.  We can learn from each others’ experiences, but there is also much that doesn’t translate well between sites.  Some of that is due to the distance between Nachusa and the Platte, and the corresponding differences in climate and soils.  However, even prairies that are much closer together can respond very differently to management and restoration tactics.  Soil types, seed banks, topography, management history, landscape context, and many other factors combine to give every prairie it’s own “personality”.

It might seem overwhelming to learn that every prairie requires a unique set of restoration and management strategies, but it’s really not that bad.  There are a still a lot of commonalities between prairies – just like there are many similarities between Bill and me.  However, just as you would need to consider differences between Bill’s personality and mine in terms if you wanted a positive response from us, the same holds with prairies.  (If you want a favor from Bill, you might want to invite him to a little gathering and serve good beer.  On the flip side, if you want something from me, pizza would make a better bribe, and while I’m not against parties, the less small talk needed, the better…)

Above all, beware of anyone who tells you’ve they’ve figured out the magic formula for how to manage or restore prairies.  It’s just not possible.  Instead, take a look at what others do, learn from their experiences, and then experiment with a variety of techniques at your own site.  It won’t take long to figure out what moves your prairie in the direction you want.   Fortunately, unlike Bill (I’m kidding!) prairies are pretty forgiving, so if you try something and it doesn’t work, they aren’t likely to hold a grudge.

P.S. Bill will be appalled that I’m giving him so much credit for the work at Nachusa.  Clearly, both Bill and I have crews of staff and volunteers that do most of the work and much of the thinking.  For this post, however, I was trying to build an illustration of personalities in people and personalities in prairies.  It was a lot easier to do that by focusing just on Bill and me.  Please understand that the ideas and work of Nelson, Cody, Mardell, Hank, Becky, Karen, Al, Bernie, Jay, Susan, Leah, and many others are represented here as well.  (There, does that make you happier Bill?)

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 10, 2014

For the second time in two weeks, I got to travel west into drier, shorter prairie.  This week, our crew attended the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference in Gering, Nebraska – at the far western end of the state.  While there, we explored both Scotts Bluff National Monument and the other parts of the Wildcat Hills.  A significant portion of this beautiful rocky landscape has been conserved and opened to public access by a partnership called Wildcat Hills Wildlands, a partnership between Platte River Basin Environment, The Nature Conservancy, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  It is a spectactular and under-visited part of the world.

I caught the sunrise at Scotts Bluff National Monument yesterday, and then joined a tour of the Bead Mountain Ranch in the afternoon.  Here are some photos from those two places.

As the sun turned the sky pink to the east, the moon was dropping in the west.  Scotts Bluff National Monument.

As the sun turned the sky pink in the east, the moon was dropping in the west. Scotts Bluff National Monument.

A closer look at the moon just before it dropped behind the bluffs.

A closer look at the moon just before it dropped behind the bluffs.

After the sun finally rose, it mostly stayed behind filmy clouds, providing beautifully warm and soft light on the rocky landscape.  Scotts Bluff National Monument.

After the sun finally rose, it mostly stayed behind filmy clouds, providing beautifully warm and soft light on the rocky landscape. Scotts Bluff National Monument.

A hiker enjoys the paved trail and gorgeous weather at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

A hiker enjoys the paved trail and gorgeous weather at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

More from Scotts Bluff National Monument.

More from Scotts Bluff National Monument.

When I photographed this, I thought it might be a prickly poppy (Argemone sp.) but now I don't think so.  Anyone know it?  It was pretty common, and I should know it...

Ten-petal mentzelia (Mentzelia decapetala) on a dry slope.

A multi-image panorama at Scotts Bluff National Monument.  The famous Mitchell Pass is on the far left.

A multi-image panorama at Scotts Bluff National Monument. The noted landmark Mitchell Pass is on the far left.

A large group from the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference tours Bead Mountain Ranch - part of the lands owned and managed by the Wildcat Hills Wildlands.

A large group from the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference tours Bead Mountain Ranch – part of the lands owned and managed by Wildcat Hills Wildlands.

This little jumping spider was hunting on the sandstone face of the rocky bluffs.

This little jumping spider was hunting on the sandstone face of the rocky bluffs.

The European mantis (Mantis religiosa).  We saw several of these at Bead Mountain, along with other fun critters including a bull snake, glass lizard (I didn't get to see either of those), a rock wren nest, and lots of black beetles.

The European mantis (Mantis religiosa). We saw several of these at Bead Mountain, along with other fun critters including a bull snake, glass lizard (I didn’t get to see either of those), a rock wren nest, and lots of black beetles.

The red fall foliage of skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata) provided bright highlights across the Wildcat Hills this week.

The red fall foliage of skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata) provided bright highlights across the Wildcat Hills this week.

More of Bead Mountain Ranch.

More of Bead Mountain Ranch, showing the ponderosa pines on the high rocky slopes.  Much of the dominant vegetation at the site is blackroot sedge, aka threadleaf sedge (Carex filifolia).

The Wildcat Hills features an incredible diversity of life because of the wide range of habitats from high rocky outcrops to flowing springs.  The prairies are dominated by short and mid-height grasses and sedges such as blackroot sedge, needle-and-thread, western wheatgrass, blue grama, and side-oats grama, but also include taller species such as prairie sandreed and sand bluestem – along with many many wildflowers.  Ponderosa pine and rocky mountain juniper trees are native to the bluffs, and are now joined by eastern redcedar, which is not considered native to the landscape, but is now hybridizing with rocky mountain juniper.  Cheatgrass has invaded most prairies to one extent or another, but many still maintain very high plant diversity.

Wildlife is abundant in the landscape, including myriad bird species as well as some larger animals such as mountain lions and bighorn sheep.  The only thing that keeps the landscape from being overrun with hikers and nature enthusiasts is its distance from large population centers.  That’s not such a bad thing – especially for those hardy souls who do make the trip to visit.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Color, Movement and Noise

A couple months ago, I wrote a post asking you how you evaluate your prairies as you walk around them.  I appreciated the thoughtful responses you shared.  This week, I’ll be facilitating a discussion on the same topic at the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference.  As I’ve been preparing for that discussion, my mind keeps returning to a brief conversation I had at the end of this year’s Patch-Burn Grazing Workshop.

The annual workshop is hosted at different sites each year.  This summer, we hosted it at our Platte River Prairies.  As we were finishing the last tour of our site and walking back to the vehicles, Wayne Copp, of the Tall Grass Bison Ranch in Auburn, Kansas, caught up with me.  He told me how much he had enjoyed the tours and that he thought our prairies looked great.  I thanked him, of course – it’s always nice to hear that.  But then he went on…

“A lot of prairies I visit,” he said, “look pretty dead – there’s not much going on. But your prairies are really alive, and they’ve got the three things I always look for in grasslands.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“Color, movement and noise.”

And there you go.  I’ve not heard a more concise, all-encompassing description of a good prairie.  Even better, you don’t have to be a botanist or ecologist to recognize color, movement and noise.  Anyone, regardless of age or background, can walk through a prairie and judge whether or not that prairie has those qualities.

Color is easy to find in many prairies.  Wildflowers are an obvious source of color, but not the only one.

Color is easy to find in many prairies. Wildflowers are an obvious source of color, but not the only one.

ENPO090913_D007

A closer look at most wildflowers reveals abundant movement – much of it by visiting insects, such as these pollinators on a native thistle.

Birds such as this dickcissel can provide color, movement and noise all by themselves...

Birds such as this dickcissel can provide color, movement and noise all by themselves, but a site needs more than just birds to be a prairie.

Of course, some of you are already asking, “How MUCH color, movement and noise should there be?”

But Wayne’s criteria for judging prairies (at least as I understand them) are not meant to be quantitative.  Sure, more is better, but that’s not really the point.  I think he’s just saying that a prairie without color, movement and noise is deficient.  Clean and simple.

Much of the "noise" in prairies is created by insects, though they are far from the only sources, which can include birds, mammals, wind, and many others.

Much of the “noise” in prairies is created by insects, though they are far from the only sources, which can include birds, mammals, wind, and many others.

ENPO100913_D010

A great deal of the movement, color and noise in prairies can be hidden from those who just drive past at 65 miles per hour.  However, anyone who takes the time to walk out into the prairie will have no trouble finding it.

Sure, we still need other indicators and measures that can help us identify trends in plant diversity or species’ population viability.  We still need to figure out what to look for as we evaluate past management actions and plan the next ones.   And we still need to better understand what factors can indicate whether a prairie is ecologically resilient.

Unfortunately, only those of us who spend the majority of our time working in prairies can get much good out of those highfalutin indicators, measures, and factors.  They are important, but only to a small subset of people.  For everyone else – and us prairie wonks too – Wayne has already figured out the three essential qualities every prairie should have.

Color, movement and noise.

Brilliant.

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 3, 2014

I made my first ever visit to The Nature Conservancy’s Smoky Valley Ranch in western Kansas this week.  It won’t be my last.  Situated along the boundary between mixed-grass and shortgrass prairie, the Smoky Valley Ranch contains 16,800 acres of grassland – including a wide variety of prairie types – along with bison, lesser prairie chickens, prairie dogs, and even black-footed ferrets.  It’s quite a place…

A rock outcrop above an oxbow.  The Nature Conservancy's Smoky Valley Ranch - western Kansas.

Exposed rock above an oxbow. The Nature Conservancy’s Smoky Valley Ranch – western Kansas.

I was at the ranch as part of a small group invited to help the Conservancy’s Kansas staff think about their conservation strategies at the ranch, including fire and grazing management, restoration work, neighbor relations, and their research and monitoring approach.  The peer review team included Conservancy staff from Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, as well as several local landowners and partners from the local area.

Matt Bain of the Conservancy, discusses grazing strategies with other biologists and neighbors.

Matt Bain (left) of the Conservancy, discusses grazing strategies with other biologists and neighbors.

The thoughtful work being done by the staff at the ranch was really impressive.  They have been reconsidering their objectives and making some significant adjustments to their management approach.  Our job was to give them some feedback on the changes they’re already making and help them think about some additional possibilities.  It was two days of thought-provoking and stimulating conversation – mostly while standing in the middle of impressive grassland scenery.

A very colorful grasshopper.

A very colorful grasshopper.  (Pictured Grasshopper – Dactylotum bicolor)

.

Sandsage prairie.

Sandsage prairie – one of several different prairie types found at the Smoky Valley Ranch.

.

A giant ant hill.

A giant ant hill, made by harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex sp.)

I need to learn more about shortgrass prairie and the drier end of mixed-grass prairie.  Plant and animal communities respond very differently to management and restoration treatments with less annual rainfall and under more frequent/longer droughts.  However, I don’t feel like I have a good grasp of those differences.  Looks like I’ll have to start making some trips to western Kansas….

Oh darn.

Prickly pear cactus.

Prickly pear cactus.

 

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Post – S’Mammals with Jasmine

This is a post written by Jasmine Cutter, one of our 2014-15 Hubbard Fellows.  All photos are by Jasmine.

Howdy, Prairie Ecologist friends!
I remember how much I looked forward to the Fellows’ posts before coming to the Platte River Prairies, so I apologize for the glacial pace of my updates.  A considerable amount of my time and brainspace over the last two months has been occupied by small mammals (or s’mammals, as I prefer to call them). There are definite challenges to undertaking a project during the growing season (namely balancing project time and stewardship time), and throughout the process of the project and the summer there have been some unexpected surprises (mostly good), and a lot, a lot of learning.

Mike Schrad, Nebraska Master Naturalist and my small mammal project mentor.

Mike Schrad (left), Nebraska Master Naturalist and my small mammal project mentor.

In the briefest of terms, I’ve been tromping through our Derr sandhills (a unit which includes both restored and remnant prairie on the edge of the Platte River Valley), battling cows, thunderstorms, and a lack of sleep in the pursuit of learning more about the small mammal community in this unit. I was initially drawn to this site because the Derr sandhills contain pocket mice (Perognathus flavescens) and Northern grasshopper mice (Onychomys leucogaster). The pocket mice are minute, streamline and silky, whereas the grasshopper mice are beefy and aggressive (and probably also soft, but getting your finger near enough to find out is tricky), yet, despite their differences, they’re both endemic to sandy soils. As these critters are relatively unusual, my study will give us a chance to learn more about their habitat preferences, and hopefully enable us to manage the site in a way that ensures the continuation of healthy populations. Although these two species have remained the most endearing through out my study, my affection has also expanded to include shrews (they have venomous saliva and black-tipped teeth!), voles (ferocious teddy bears) and harvest mice (very agile and keep a neat nest). Deer mice tend to have a heavy parasite load and botfly sores (not to mention the possibility of hantavirus and carrying lyme disease), and therefore are often pretty icky. At this point, I am done with trapping for the most part. Soon, I will be collecting vegetation and site data for each trap site (that’s ~370 sampling points!), and this winter, I will be seeing if there are any relationships between the presence of certain species and site characteristics.

IMG_3171

Beefy lil grasshopper mouse, so-called due to their carnivorous diet. At night, they sing to defend their territories.

Pocket mouse. The clip on its tail is what is attached to the scale used to weigh them. While it is undoubtedly a little uncomfortable, there is no permanent damage. The clip is a helpful way to hold onto animals so I can take a photo. It’s essential to my study that I am able to document how the pelage (fur) color varies between individuals.

Pocket mouse. The clip on its tail is what is attached to the scale used to weigh them. While it is undoubtedly a little uncomfortable, there is no permanent damage. The clip is also a helpful way to hold onto animals so I can take a photo. It’s essential to my study that I am able to document how the pelage (fur) color varies between individuals.

Scary shrew teeth. Unlike the rest of the similarly-sized critters I caught, shrews are not rodents. They are in the order Soricomorpha. They are mostly carnivorous and have saliva that paralyzes their prey.

Scary shrew teeth. Unlike the rest of the similarly-sized critters I caught, shrews are not rodents. They are in the order Soricomorpha. They are mostly carnivorous and have saliva that paralyzes their prey.

There have been a few surprises during this project. For example, I have discovered that cows don’t like science. They have eaten my flags, licked my traps several feet off my transect, and squashed a few for good measure. If only their curiosity could be used more constructively!

One of the best surprises was opening one of my traps and finding a least weasel inside! I was waaayyy more intimidated by this critter than it was by me. Despite its ferocity, it was impressively lightweight. This littlest weasel was longer than the thirteen-lined ground squirrels that I also caught that day, but considerably lighter. The ground squirrels maxed out my 100 gram scale, whereas the weasel was only 70 grams! The weasel was also impressively smelly, living up to the family name of mustelidae.  I was a little worried that no other small mammals would go into that trap the next night because it smelled of predator, even after I sprayed it with Lysol. However, the harvest mouse I caught the next night was undeterred. No wonder s’mammals have such a short lifespan. Another surprising find on a different transect was an embarrassed-looking leopard frog. My bait seems to attract a lot of crickets, so I imagine that’s what lured the frog. And the cutest capture was these two baby voles that managed to wander into one trap.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus). When I open a trap, I gently plop the critter into a bag in order to minimize handling exposure. I can weigh, identify and sex the critter while it’s in the bag. It’s safer for me, and the animal is only in there for a few seconds to a minute.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus). When I open a trap, I gently plop the critter into a bag in order to minimize handling exposure. I can weigh, identify and sex the critter while it’s in the bag. It’s safer for me, and the animal is only in there for a few seconds to a minute.

Weasel tryptic. Although none of these manage to capture the full length of the weasel (Mustela nivalis), they do manage to capture what you’d be likely to see - a reddish blur.

Weasel tryptic. Although none of these manage to capture the full length of the weasel (Mustela nivalis), they do manage to capture what you’d be likely to see – a reddish blur.

Baby voles!

Baby voles!

In addition to the excitement of peeking into every closed trap, there have been other perks to the project. I’ve gotten to see way more sunrises and sunsets than I would have otherwise. I love the freshness of the mornings, how the grass glows orange, and the spiderwebs glisten, and how much my mood (and finger mobility) improves once the sun crests the sandhills. I’ve gotten to hear the weird robotic chirpings of the swallows at sunset. The light at these times is able to make pretty much any photo look amazing, so it’s a little less discouraging to compare some of my photos to Chris’. I have also really enjoyed the slower pace of sampling, of covering my transect by foot. I spend a lot of time in the prairies, but infrequently do I have time to slow down and appreciate how the prairie community changes meter by meter. I have gotten to know my transects well, and I look forward to seeing if/how the patterns I’ve noticed play out in the data.

I’ve taken thinking like a s’mammal maybe a little too much to heart. Whenever we visit a new prairie, I think, ‘this looks like good pocket mouse habitat, I wonder if they have any? I wish I had my traps…’. I am also really grateful that so many mammalogists have been willing to donate their time and resources. I’ve learned a lot about species identification from them, and it’s exciting to make new connections with other institutions.

Sunrise!

Sunrise!

My pile of science. Traps generously lent out by Montana State University and Kansas State.

My pile of science. Traps generously lent out by Montana State University and Kansas State.

Pocket mouse pockets. They store seeds in there to bring back to their nest cache.

Pocket mouse pockets. They use external fur-lined cheek pouches to store seeds until they can bring them back to their nest cache.

This is not to say that this project has not had its challenges. I would say the main struggles have been setting reasonable goals (never a strong suit), keeping track of all the moving pieces (Do I have all my equipment? Am I recording all the right info? When do these traps need to be mailed back to Montana?), not losing things (Luckily the two mice than ran off with my scale clips were recaptured the next day!), and figuring out how to do the majority of the sampling by myself. It has been a long, time-intensive process for just five sampling transects. And, the project has not been without its dangers. The most dangerous part of the study has definitely been cacti. You wouldn’t believe the number of cacti I’ve accidentally kneeled on, or kicked into myself! I don’t recommend it. But, when these aspects of fieldwork start to get me down, I remind myself that I caught a weasel, and that’s pretty freaking cool.

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Continuing Wildfire Recovery at the Niobrara Valley Preserve

When I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve a couple weeks ago, I spent some time exploring the area north of the river where the 2012 wildfire ripped through oak savanna and ponderosa pine woodland.  As discussed in earlier posts, the density of trees, especially eastern redcedar, fueled a fire that killed nearly every pine and cedar in the 3000 acres of Preserve land on the north side of the river.  Most oaks and other decidous trees were topkilled, but many resprouted within a few weeks of the fire.  I have been following the regrowth and recovery of this part of the Preserve with great interest, and trying to help the Preserve staff as they think about how to manage the area in the future.

Here is a series of photos from an uphill hike I took on September 18.  The photos are roughly in order of elevation, starting at the river road (just above the floodplain) and proceeding upslope to the ridgetop at the north edge of the valley.

Hemp and marestail

On the first slopes above the river road, hemp (Cannabis) and marestail (Conyza) dominate the understory of a woodland that now consists mainly of skeletons of eastern redcedar and oak trees.  Most of the oaks have resprouts from their bases, however, and a few still have live branches up high.

.

Marestail and cedar skeletons

The abundance of marestail (a native pioneering species) is especially interesting to me because it’s the same species that usually dominates two-year-old prairie plantings.  This is the role it plays in ecosystems, and it plays it well.  It’s difficult to see very much below the marestail, but when I looked closely, I found scattered grasses, sedges, and wildflowers – a good sign of future recovery.

.

ragweed

As I walked higher and got into the prairie-covered slopes, ragweed (Ambrosia) replaced marestail as the visually dominant plant in the formerly shaded areas beneath cedar trees.  The ragweed is playing the same role as the marestail – quickly filling in the open space until a more permanent plant community establishes.  That community should move in pretty quickly in cases like that shown in this photo, in which a cedar tree is surrounded by prairie.

.

prairie

Higher up the slope, large areas of prairie had not been encroached upon by cedars, and recovery after the fire was just as predicted – quick and easy.  The vegetation was still a little thin, but that was more of an aftereffect of the 2012 drought than of the fire.  In this image you can see the scattered cedars further downslope (such as the one featured in the previous photo).

.

Oaks

Almost every bur oak tree I saw was vigorously resprouting from the base.  Those numerous stems should thin themselves down to three or four major trunks over the next decade or so.  Some of the branches were already 6-8 feet high, so recovery is proceeding quickly.  These oaks were growing along the edge of one of many steep draws scattered along the north side of the river.  As I was wading through 3-4 foot tall marestail, I couldn’t help but wonder if that dense growth and the presence of mountain lions in the area explained the near absence of deer browsing on the oak sprouts (Ecology of Fear).   I don’t know if the deer felt it, but I sure had moments of discomfort, knowing that if a lion was hiding in the weeds nearby, the steep slopes and thick vegetation would make escape nearly impossible.  It made my hike a little more exciting, but I didn’t stay down in those draws very long…

.

Sedges

I was surprised and pleased to see numerous examples of large sedge patches growing under the marestail forest, especially on the steeper portions of draws.  I don’t remember seeing many sedges last year, so either I missed them or they are expanding rapidly.  Either way, they will sure help stabilize those slopes as other plants move in to join them, and they’ll also help carry fire when we restart fire management of the area.

.

Pine woodland

High on the slopes, where ponderosa pine and eastern redcedar had dominated just a few years ago, the scenery was every bit as spectacular as it had been before the fire – just different.  Marestail was abundant here too, but there was quite a bit of grass and wildflower cover as well, and several shrub species were flourishing, including smooth and skunkbush sumac, chokecherry, snowberry and others.  Despite the density of scorched tree trunks, the overall feel of the slopes was not one of death and destruction, but rather of abundant life.

.

Ridge top

Even the very steep erodible slopes at the very edge of the ridge top were full of previously established perennial wildflowers and shrubs, as well as colonizing annuals.

I came down the slope after my walk with a great feeling of optimism.  My greatest worries about this area of the preserve had been that

1) Invasive plants would fill the slopes before the native vegetation could recover, and we’d be faced with the difficult challenge of attacking those invasives in difficult terrain.

2) Numerous eastern redcedar trees would colonize the slopes before there was enough vegetation to carry prescribed fires to knock those cedars back.

3) Soil erosion would be so severe that the seed bank needed to reestablish the native plant community would wash down the slope, along with the topsoil those plants needed to grow.

None of those three have occurred – or at least to the extent I feared they might.  There has been some erosion, but much less than I anticipated, and it doesn’t seem to be affecting vegetation recovery much.  I haven’t seen any truly invasive plants yet – which doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but they sure aren’t roaring in.  Finally, the recovery of the vegetation has been fast enough that we should be able to start running prescribed fires up the slopes within the next few years.  I didn’t see any little cedar trees on my walk, and while I’m sure there are a few around, the abundance is much less than I feared, and our ability to use prescribed fire should make it fairly easy to control them, except on the steepest slopes.

Most of all, the beauty of the Niobrara Valley has survived the wildfire.  The pines are gone from some parts of the valley, but are still doing well in other areas nearby, including other parts of the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Whether or not (or when) they’ll return to the site of the 2012 fire is still an open question.  Regardless, there is abundant life on the slopes north of the river.  Just because those slopes will be dominated by different species than before doesn’t change the scenic or ecological value of the site.  It’s still one of my favorite places on earth.

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments