Photo of the Week – November 26, 2015

The sky yesterday was mostly overcast and dark, but I looked out my window mid morning and noticed the clouds thinning a little.  I grabbed my camera and drove down to our family prairie for a walk.  It was a beautiful day, with temperatures in the 50’s (F) and light winds.

Sun coming through dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Sun coming through a dotted gayfeather seedhead in late autumn prairie. Helzer family prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

I rarely start these photo walks with a particular subject in mind, and yesterday was no exception.  I enjoyed looking at the bright red leaves on wild rose plants, and perused the tracks of various animals along the edge of the wetland.  However, I ended up spending most of my time photographing the seeds of dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) plants.

Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Dotted gayfeather seeds still hanging on.

While many plants with wind-blown seeds released the last of those seeds weeks or months ago, most gayfeather plants are still hanging on to most of theirs.  It’s hard to know if there is an evolutionary adaptation involved in that delay, but it sure is appreciated by photographers like me.  …Especially in late November, when wildflowers and insects have disappeared for the winter.

Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie..

Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

More seeds.

Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

A big ‘ol jumble of seeds.

On this official day of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for many things – including my job, which allows me to work in, study, photograph, and write about grasslands and prairie ecology.  More than that, I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to write this blog over the last five (!!) years.  Writing these posts forces me to explore more ideas and think more deeply than I otherwise would, and I learn a tremendous amount as a result.  Thank you for reading, following, and sharing your feedback.

Have a safe and enjoyable holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted in Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Ruminations While Disking

This post is written by Kim Tri, one of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Kim is an excellent artist, as well as an ecologist, writer, and land steward.  As you can see, her drawings of animals are exceptional.

A Swainson’s hawk takes wing not 30 feet from me, and I feel vindicated.  It rises from a patch of ground which I’ve just disked, and answers the idle question I had when I began disking that day.  I wondered whether the turning under of vegetation and hence the cover of the little critters living there would attract hawks in search of an easy-to-spot snack.  I’d seen it happen on a prescribed burn which I’d sat in on last year, in the property just across the creek.  Once the flames and smoke died down, we counted at least 20 hawks—most of them Swainson’s—soaring overhead.  They were attracted by the aftermath, the ground cleared of protected cover for the disoriented prey.  The black earth left in the wake of the disk plow reminded me of the fire, and got me wondering.


For those of you not familiar with the practice of disking, it involves plowing using a disk plot (pictured above) pulled behind a tractor.  Picture by Kim Tri

I should have kept a tally of how many voles, mice, rabbits, and lizards I saw clearly fleeing across the worked ground as I plowed.  Creatures visible to my weak human eyes would be easy pickings for a (much) sharper-eyed hawk.

Sure enough, a hawk showed up after an hour or so and answered my question.  The neighbor was haying in his field just across the fence, which I’m sure was turning up quite a bounty of prey as well.  I don’t have enough agricultural experience to know whether the hawks usually show up around haying time, but the intent circling of the hawks above the neighbor’s tractor made me think that they’ve cottoned on to it as well as they have to burning.

While disking later that week, also I kept (slowly) chasing groups of killdeer.  A contractor had come in with an excavator only a few weeks before to reconstruct wetlands on the property.  The killdeer scuttled around the newly excavated wetlands, where before they had not seemed to give this property much of their time.  They, too, appeared attracted to the open ground where they might find prey.  After all, the wetland excavation as well as the disk plowing had suddenly provided them with some quite preferable habitat.


A group of startled killdeer flee alongside the track left by an excavator.  Graphite drawing by Kim Tri

It got me thinking about the consequences of our actions as land stewards – the whole ecology of it all.  So often, during a day’s field work, we focus on the plant community.  This makes sense, since it’s really the only thing about our prairies that we can directly manage, and where the effects of our work are most easily observable.  The larger aim, though, is to create a diverse ecosystem with quality habitat for as many faunal species as possible.  We do this intentionally through a variety of practices, such as seeding, prescribed burning, invasive species control, and grazing.

There are plenty of unintended beneficiaries to these.  I did not set out that day with the disk plow to provide a meal to the local Swainson’s hawks.  The objective was actually to clear the remaining vegetation of a low-quality “failed” restoration in order to create a blank canvas for seeding it into a high-quality prairie.  It had been recently sprayed completely to clear out the brome invasion that was its major fault, and since then I’d come to view the area as kind of a dead space.  While looking ahead to what the tract could be, I’d forgotten about all of the things that it still was.  It was still habitat for a wide variety of animal life, judging by the creatures I was seeing.  The cleared ground of the excavated wetlands showed trails of deer and coyote tracks, and even now, after the ground has been completely cleared, the deer and coyotes still keep leaving tracks.

I’ve noticed, too, while mowing fire breaks around our burn units, that there are creatures benefitting.  While making a third pass around with the tractor to widen the line, driving alongside the line I’d already mowed, I noticed many voles and mice scampering out of the clippings left behind.  They seemed drawn to the mowed line, and I felt that I’d just created dream foraging habitat for them.  As well as laying down a dense layer of cover to protect them, I’d just brought down to ground level a cornucopia of seedheads that had previously been out of reach for the little critters.

I acknowledge that there are also species negatively impacted by some of the things we do, but that is a thought for another time.  The mice were definitely not happy about the disking or the hawks, but I hope that we balance this out by working to improve their habitat.

We’ll reseed the disked tract with the seed we’ve collected this year, and in the spring a new prairie will grow, bringing with it an influx of creatures back to the property.  In another few years, it will be burned, and then likely the Swainson’s hawks will come again, drawn by the promise of bounty on the black earth.

A Swainson’s hawk takes flight from a disked field. (Yes, the ground does look that messy) Graphite drawing by Kim Tri

A Swainson’s hawk takes flight from a disked field. (Yes, the ground does look that messy) Graphite drawing by Kim Tri

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Animals, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 20, 2015

Early last week, a group of us spent a couple days enjoying the Nebraska Sandhills at Calamus Outfitters, a working ranch that also offers a number of outdoor recreation opportunities.  Here are a few photos from those days.

Sand bank on the Calamus River. Sandhills of Nebraska near Burwell.

A steep textured sandy bank on the Calamus River, a beautiful river that flows out of the Nebraska Sandhills.


Sharp tail grouse feather. Sandhills of Nebraska near Burwell.

Sharp-tailed grouse feathers on a hilltop often used as a lek (courtship area) in the spring.  Calamus Outfitters provides viewing opportunities for both sharpies and greater prairie chickens.

It’s great to see entrepreneurs like Calamus Outfitters provide people a chance to explore the Nebraska Sandhills – one of the great grasslands of the world.  Since the majority of the Sandhills is privately owned, it can be difficult to find places to hike, hunt, birdwatch, photograph, etc.  I don’t think hosting numerous outsiders on their land is an idea many ranchers find attractive ( most of those I know list solitude as a big reason they enjoy ranching) but I applaud Calamus Outfitters for doing so.  The most important role they play might be to put a face to ranching so that visitors from cities or out of state can see ranchers as thoughtful, caring land stewards.  It doesn’t take much talking to Bruce, Sue Ann, Sarah, and Adam for that to become clear.

TNC Nebraska staff at Calamus Outfitters. Sandhills of Nebraska near Burwell.

A jeep trail ride across the Sandhills was one of the high points of the trip.  Even in November, the landscape was beautiful.


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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Vanishing Sparrow

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog.

A small brown bird that sounds like it doesn’t even want to be singing; what could possibly be interesting enough about this to justify a blog post? As is often the case in nature, there’s a lot more than meets the eye (and ear). In my ten years of birdwatching I had only seen this species once before, six years ago. Central Nebraska is on the far western edge of its range, so I was thrilled to document it attempting to breed in one of our prairies. It turns out, this brown speck is an elusive and declining species that epitomizes why we need to manage our prairie so that the full range of habitat structure is present.


A Henslow’s Sparrow, not normally found in the Platte River Prairies, made an appearance last June.

Often described as “mouselike,” Henslow’s Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground and prefer to run rather than fly when threatened. The only time they emerge from the grass is to whisper their two-note song, described by Roger Tory Peterson as “one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird.” While this makes them an exciting challenge to find, it has also made them a difficult species to conserve. Due to their secretive lifestyle, scientists have had a very hard time studying basic facts about their lives, including how many of them there are and what habitat they actually prefer. While most sources say that Henslow’s require large grasslands free of trees and shrubs, there are some shrubby prairies that actually have high Henslow’s populations, such as in Missouri. What is certain is that many of the pastures and hayfields that Henslow’s once nested in have been converted to row crops over the last forty years. Lack of fire and grazing in the remaining grasslands have let trees and shrubs establish, which seem to deter nesting in most cases. As a result, Henslow’s are thought to have declined even more than other grassland birds, although it’s difficult to tell for sure.

The prairie where I found the Henslow's Sparrow, photographed later in the year.

This is the prairie where I found the Henslow’s Sparrow, photographed a month later. To breed, Henslow’s Sparrows seem to prefer large, treeless prairies with tall, dense vegetation. This habitat is becoming scarce in many areas.

Fortunately, land managers and owners can provide suitable habitat for this species by conducting prescribed burns; removing fencelines, hedgerows, and trees; and allowing the grass in some areas to grow tall and rank. The management strategy that The Nature Conservancy practices here on the Platte River Prairies, called patch burn grazing, helps create this habitat. Additionally, Henslow’s have shown signs of adapting to grasslands created by the Conservation Reserve Program. But convincing people to care about species like Henslow’s might be more difficult. How do we raise appreciation for tiny species that require binoculars, excellent hearing, and lots of patience to see well? It’s tough, but I think an important part of enjoying a Henslow’s is understanding how lucky you are to find one. If you do, it probably means that you’re in a scarce type of grassland, a great observer, and a bit lucky. Drab as they may be, Henslow’s are a special species to find. In many ways, Henslow’s Sparrows epitomize the challenges facing all grassland species. For them to survive, we must preserve large tracts of grassland, manage them for specific conditions, and learn to appreciate prairies slowly and thoughtfully.

Sadly, after two weeks of singing, our Henslow’s Sparrow vanished for the rest of the year. Perhaps the prairie wasn’t big enough, or the grass thick enough, but I wish him luck, and I hope it’s not six more years until I find another.

For more information about Henslow’s Sparrows:

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Animals, Prairie Management | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Much Maligned Coyote

Here in Nebraska, we’ve lost most of our largest predators.  Bears and wolves are gone (excepting rare long-distance wanderers).  Mountain lions are making a slow comeback in the northern and western parts of Nebraska, but the agricultural character and fragmented nature of our state makes it difficult to imagine a much stronger presence of large predators than we have right now.  That’s not a critique – it’s just reality.  It’s difficult to know what effect the absence of those predators has on our wildlife and natural landscapes, but based on what we know from research elsewhere, it’s surely significant.  Throughout the world, and across a wide range of habitat types, major predators stimulate complex cascades of impacts far beyond simply suppressing the populations of their favored prey species.  In fact, the diversity and abundance of many plant, invertebrate, and wildlife species have been shown to decline dramatically when dominant predators disappear.

Illustration by Kim Tri

Coyote illustration by Kim Tri, one of our Hubbard Fellows and, obviously, a talented artist.

Today, in the absence of wolves and bears, coyotes have stepped into the role of top mammalian predator across much of Nebraska.  It’s hard to know if they are as effective as their larger counterparts at maintaining ecosystem function, but there is strong scientific evidence for the strong and positive impacts coyotes have on a number of other grassland species.  Much of the research on this topic was published 15-20 years ago, but few people seem to be familiar with it.  In fact, rather than being celebrated for their importance, coyotes are widely reviled, and often shot on sight, by many (most?) rural citizens across much of prairie regions of North America.

There is much unfortunate irony in the vilification of coyotes.  One common coyote narrative is that coyotes are hard on nesting birds, especially game species like pheasants, quail, turkeys, grouse, and ducks.  In reality, coyotes feed mainly on rodents, and the major predators of birds and their nests tend to be smaller animals, including foxes, raccoons, and cats (especially feral house cats).  Coyotes are large and aggressive enough to intimidate or kill those “mesopredators”, keeping their numbers low and driving them into areas where coyotes spend the least time, such as wooded draws, farmsteads, and even surburbia.  In fact, numerous studies have documented detrimental impacts to bird populations ranging from songbirds to ducks and grouse when coyote numbers are suppressed and mesopredator populations swell.

One of the most dramatic studies of coyote impacts on the structure and function of ecological communities took place on 20,000 hectares of west Texas land back in the 1990’s.  Researchers halved the number of coyotes in one portion of the study area and left the population alone elsewhere.  Within a year of coyote control, the area with fewer coyotes experienced higher populations of bobcats, badgers, and gray foxes.  Perhaps as a result, 11 of the 12 rodent species in that area disappeared, leaving only a skyrocketing population of kangaroo rats.  Jackrabbits also tripled their numbers in the coyote control area, much to the chagrin of ranchers, since jackrabbits compete with livestock for forage.

Another great coyote illustration by Kim Tri.

Another great coyote illustration by Kim Tri.

Speaking of ranchers, many tend not to be coyote fans, in large part because coyotes are sometimes hard on livestock.  Sheep ranchers can suffer big losses to coyotes if they don’t actively protect sheep with dogs, overnight enclosures, and other strategies.  Cattle ranchers can also have trouble with coyotes killing livestock, especially just-born calves.  Coyotes are very good at killing young deer fawns – a great reason for prairie enthusiasts to be coyote fans, by the way – but some transfer that skill to calves as well.  While any self-respecting cow can protect her calf from coyotes under most circumstances, even the toughest mother is weakened enough by the process of giving birth that she is vulnerable to a quick sneak attack.

Unfortunately, the response to livestock losses is often the indiscriminate killing of whatever coyotes ranchers can find.  Research has shown that kind of “coyote control” to be largely ineffective, in part because it usually fails to kill the individuals actually causing problems.  For example, a fourteen year study showed that almost every sheep killed by coyotes was taken by the “alpha pair” in the pack’s social structure.  Those alpha animals are also the wiliest and most difficult to kill.  Furthermore, of course, in the unlikely event that coyote control efforts succeed at suppressing the population in an area, the results might not turn out in favor of the rancher.  Higher numbers of raccoons and foxes, not to mention jackrabbits, along with fewer ducks, grouse, and quail, might take the thrill out of the temporary victory.

Even if coyotes gain wider recognition for their positive effects on natural systems, however, the relationship between coyote and human is bound to be complicated.  As we continue to alter their habitat, coyotes will continue to adapt and survive as best they can.  At times, that will bring them into conflict with us.  It is understandable, for example, that a rancher needs to address livestock losses, and sometimes that could mean tracking down and killing the individual coyote(s) responsible.  However, that kind of careful, targeted response is much different (and more effective) than current broad, indiscriminate campaigns against an animal whose bad reputation is largely based on innuendo and misinformation.

Ideally, seeing coyote tracks on their property would be a positive experience for landowners.

Ideally, seeing coyote tracks on a property would be a positive experience for landowners.

Coyotes and other predators play critically important roles in grassland ecosystems.  It’s easy to understand how they directly suppress populations of their primary prey species.  However, as we continue to study predators, we find more and more of the kind of indirect impacts that ripple through ecological systems in ways that are difficult to predict.  While it seems unlikely that wolves and bears will ever return to prominence in Nebraska or most other prairie regions of North America, coyotes may be able to cover at least some of the ecological roles those larger predators once played.

But only if we let them.


Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 12, 2015

Most prairie plants have now traded their summer colors for the browns and golds of fall.  The low angle of the sun this time of year shines rich warm light across the grassland.  As a special bonus, crisp fall mornings often provide a beautiful frosty glaze that perfectly accents the texture and colors of autumn prairie plants .  Last weekend, I enjoyed the combination of all those factors during a brief but pleasant morning outing.

Stiff sunflower with frost. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and frost. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Roundheaded bushclover (Lespedeza capitata)

Roundheaded bushclover (Lespedeza capitata).

Canada milkvetch with frost. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

When everything else is brown, any remaining green – including these Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) leaves – really stands out …especially when edged in frost.


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From Plant ID to Small Engine Repair – The Complex Life of a Land Steward

It’s been almost 19 years since I started my career with The Nature Conservancy as a land steward.  My job was simple: restore and manage several thousand acres of prairie, wetland, and woodland habitat.  When I started, I felt like I was the luckiest guy on earth.  I was also scared to death.  What if I messed up?  These were extraordinarily complex ecological sites and I was a 25-year old kid with only a college education and a sliver of real world experience.  I had lots of ideas but it was daunting to think about trying those ideas out without knowing they’d work.  Fortunately, Al Steuter, the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska gave me some advice that helped me tremendously.  In essence, he told me to remember that prairies were incredibly resilient, and that nothing I did in one year (aside from tillage or broadcast herbicides) could ruin them.  That advice was incredibly liberating, and allowed me to start enjoying my work.

I was a very young-looking 25-year-old when I started as a TNC land steward. They weren't sure I should have an actual ATV...

I was a very young-looking 25-year-old when I started as a TNC land steward. They weren’t sure I should have an actual ATV…

Over time, my responsibilities have changed and now, among other things, I serve as advisor to our statewide land management team.  I really like what I do, but land steward was my dream job and I can’t imagine I’ll ever find a better one.  However, as I think about the stewards I know and work with, I’m pretty sure I don’t measure up to today’s standards.

The job description for most land stewards in The Nature Conservancy – at least in the Great Plains – has expanded to the point of almost unattainable proportions.  As a result, it is no exaggeration to say that I am no longer qualified to be a land steward for this organization.  Most land stewards I know work by themselves or with a very small team – often consisting mostly of seasonal employees – and manage thousands of acres of land for biological diversity and wildlife habitat.  As a result, they have to be able to handle whatever challenge presents itself, from plant identification to small engine repair, and everything in between.  To give you an idea of the scope of that work, here is a partial list of what we expect of Nelson Winkel and Evan Suhr, land stewards who work for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

Evan Suhr, Bison roundup at TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

Evan Suhr during this fall’s bison roundup at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

Ecologist/Natural History Biologist

Evan and Nelson are expected to be able to identify most of the plant and animal species living in the prairies they manage and understand how they interact.  They also have to understand how all those species and interactions respond to various combinations of weather patterns and management treatments.  Obtaining just those skills could easily consume a career.

Research Scientist

Good land stewards always look for ways to test the effectiveness of management strategies so they can keep improving their work – and provide guidance to neighbors and partners facing the same challenges.  Sometimes, that means collaborating with academic scientists on research projects.  More often, it just means setting up an invasive species control or grazing treatment in a way that provides a fair and impartial test of two or more methods.  The results of those tests don’t usually get published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, but in order for the results to be trusted, the tests have to be set up in a scientifically-rigorous way.

Nelson Winkel works to identify a bee during a pollinator workshop with Mike Arduser at TNC's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Nelson Winkel works to identify a bee during a pollinator workshop.  It’s important to understand the biology and ecology of the natural systems you manage.

Ranch Hand

Building and fixing fences, and repairing windmills and solar-powered pumps are frequent tasks for Evan and Nelson.  Even more frequent tasks include manual labor associated with invasive plants – chopping thistles, cutting trees, etc.  Some of those tasks require mainly hard work, but others require specialized knowledge (how to take apart, clean, and reassemble a pump, for example).  In addition, stewards have to stay current on agricultural topics from grazing lease rates to animal husbandry techniques so they can work effectively with Conservancy bison herds or the cattle (and their owners) grazing Conservancy land.


The number of engines involved in land stewardship is astonishing, including those found in trucks, tractors, skidsteer, ATVs, chainsaws, fire equipment, and more.  Land stewards have to be able to maintain all those engines, but also perform at least basic diagnostics and repairs.  When major repairs are needed, they can haul equipment to a professional mechanic, but if they needed professional help for every little mechanical malady, stewards would spend all their time hauling equipment to and from repair shops.  As someone who has never figured out how to correctly adjust a carburetor or do whatever it is you have to do to make a chainsaw actually start correctly when just pulling the cord doesn’t work, I have great admiration for those who have the skill, knowledge base, and intuition to fix engines.

2014 Spring burn at TNC Rulo Bluffs Preserve. Nelson Winkel.

Nelson can operate, maintain, and repair chainsaws.  If a saw goes down during the mop-up operation of a woodland prescribed fire, it’s pretty important that he be able to get it running again.


Since most land stewardship operations include buildings with plumbing and electrical systems (not to mention electric fences and livestock watering systems), and contracting for repairs in remote areas is usually infeasible because of cost, timeliness, or both, those repairs often fall to land stewards.  Replacing a broken light fixture, finding and repairing a leaky pipe in a house crawlspace, or troubleshooting a short in an electric fence are all tasks that could fall to land steward on any given day.


Much invasive plant control requires the application of herbicide.  The variety of brands and formulations of herbicides can be as overwhelming as the diversity of invasive plant species they help suppress.  Just reading and understanding an herbicide label can be a daunting task, let alone trying to understand how various chemical formulations might affect plants in a way that will kill the ones you want and not the ones you don’t.  Then, once you’ve figured out – for example – whether you should use the amine or ester formulation of a particular chemical (it’s related to risks associated with volatilization on hot days), you still have to calculate the correct amount of each ingredient and calibrate your sprayer.

Nelson Winkel sprays reed canarygrass at TNC Nebraska's Platte River Prairies.

Nelson Winkel sprays reed canarygrass at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.


I am in awe of Nelson’s ability to make specialized tools and equipment for land management work.  Simple welding tasks seem overwhelming to me, let alone building herbicide sprayers, slip-on fire pumper units, and hydraulically-powered augers to dig holes for large fence posts.  Sometimes he builds his own equipment because it’s cheaper than buying it, but other times he does it because it’s not possible to buy something that does what he needs it to do.

Burn Boss

Despite the fact that The Nature Conservancy is a private non-profit organization, becoming qualified to lead a prescribed fire for TNC now requires stewards to work through the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) system used by federal agencies that fight wildfires.  Under a best case scenario, it takes several years to take all the courses and get signed off on all the required tasks (including some that necessitate fighting wildfires) to qualify as someone who can lead prescribed fires.  Accomplishing that means spending weeks at a time away from home.  Regardless, prescribed fire is a critically-important component of The Nature Conservancy’s work, so land stewards work through those requirements as best they can.

Nelson Winkel, TNC land manager for Platte River Prairies during a prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire is a big part of prairie management, but becoming qualified as a burn boss takes years worth of training and experience.


Land stewardship doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  All of our properties are nested within land owned by farmers and ranchers.  To be successful, land stewards have to get along with, learn from, and share ideas with those neighbors and other partners.  Often that leads to interesting situations in which a land steward is negotiating a grazing lease with a neighbor who also happens to be on the local fire board and can influence whether or not a burn permit is issued.  Gaining the respect of neighbors and other local conservation partners means taking the time to get to know them, their families, and their personal philosophies on life, conservation, hunting, and football.  Much of that relationship building happens outside of a regular work schedule, but it’s essential – we couldn’t do our work without the support of our neighbors and local communities.  More importantly, building credibility with neighbors and partners is critical because sharing lessons learned from our land management work with others is how we influence conservation beyond the borders of our relatively small land holdings.


Perhaps the greatest challenge for land stewards is that despite the amount of work to be done, there are still only 24 hours in a day.  Working as a land steward for The Nature Conservancy is incredibly rewarding but also impossibly complex and difficult – as is working as a land manager for any conservation organization or farm/ranch operation.  I still can’t believe I ever got hired as a land steward, or that I managed a fair amount of success in spite of my shortcomings, especially in terms of mechanical prowess.  It is my privilege to work with stewards like Nelson, Evan, and many others, and I am in awe of the breadth of their knowledge and the extent of their energy.  Not only are they caretakers of their particular natural areas, they are developing, testing, and sharing the techniques the rest of us need in order to conserve the rest of the natural world.


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

Photo of the Week – November 5, 2015

As I was looking at some of my recent photos from our Niobrara Valley Preserve, I realized that I have a series of photos from approximately the same vantage point that illustrates the site’s recovery from the major wildfire back in 2012.  If you’ve followed this blog for several years, you’re probably aware that we have a significant timelapse project going on at the Niobrara Valley Preserve that is documenting that recovery as well.  Those images will provide a very comprehensive look at change over time, but those cameras weren’t installed until after the fire.  The three photos below are interesting because they represent shots taken before, immediately after the fire, and a few years later.

October 1, 2011

October 1, 2011

The above photo was taken in the fall before the big 2012 wildfire.  The big pine tree on the right is a good landmark to watch as you compare this photo to the next two.  The following photo was taken just a few days after the wildfire.

July 25, 2012

July 25, 2012

The last photo (below) was taken just a few weeks ago.  The grass and other vegetation has clearly recovered nicely from the fire.  That’s not really a surprise to any of us who are familiar with grassland fires.  Even a very hot summer fire in the midst of severe drought is not typically fatal to most prairie plants.  In fact, the drought was harder on prairie plants than the fire was, but even so, those plant species are well adapted to both.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

October 23, 2015

More interesting than the recovery of grasses and wildflowers is the recovery of woody plants.  The two small pine trees on the left side of the image look happy and healthy, despite the fact that young ponderosa pines tend to be vulnerable to fire.  If you look closely at the image taken immediately after the fire, you can see both of those trees.  The one on the right, especially, had the majority of its needles burned by the fire, but both appear to have come out of that stressful period just fine.  Why were those two trees able to survive (along with the big tree) here when just across the river, almost every single pine on the south-facing slope died?  Most likely, there are multiple reasons, including slope, fire intensity, and the fact that these trees were surrounded mostly by grasses instead of lots of other pine trees (and eastern red cedars).  The point of showing these photos isn’t to answer these kinds of questions as much as it is to stimulate them.

It’s also interesting to note that most of the oaks and other big deciduous trees seem to have survived.  That is the case across most of the Preserve, although many of the bur oak trees that were growing close to pine and eastern red cedar trees were top-killed by the fire and are now regrowing from the base.  A few oaks and other deciduous trees (especially cottonwoods) did die from the fire, but most didn’t.

I’m hoping to put together some timelapse sequences this winter that will help tell the story of recovery from multiple locations across the Preserve.  For the most part, those stories will show that the natural communities along the Niobrara River are well-adapted to major disturbances such as the drought and fire that occurred in 2012.  The big exception is the pine woodland that was nearly completely wiped out across big swaths of the landscape. The density of pine and cedar trees led to fire intensity that caused 100% mortality in many stands, and while those areas will recover, they will be grassland and/or shrubland for a very long time, and their long-range future as pine woodlands is far from assured.

Aside from those pine woodlands, however, the natural communities across the Preserve did what natural communities usually do in response to fire, drought, and other major events – they continued to thrive.

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Hubbard Fellowship Post – Mother Owl

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog.

Warning: This post contains images of fluffy, baby animals.

Along the edge of one of our prairies there is a road lined with mature cottonwood trees. Although I appreciate the wide-open prairie environment, I like to take a walk once a week in the shady security of this miniature forest. The rustling leaves are soothing, shade is a novelty, and the trees bring back memories of hiking in New York’s forests. I also happen to see a lot of interesting wildlife behavior when I go here. One morning in July I was jogging down this road when I spotted an Eastern Screech-Owl being mobbed by Baltimore Orioles and American Robins. I sprinted back to my house, grabbed my video equipment, and hurried back before the action was over.

For several minutes I filmed as the orioles and robins viciously pelted the seemingly harmless owl (click here for a previous post I wrote about this behavior). It amazed me that the owl could withstand such harassment so patiently. Despite several painful-looking beak-jabs to the back of the head, the brave little owl outlasted the assault and was finally left in peace. Only then did I realize why she had refused to leave; she had babies to look after!


In a nearby branch I finally noticed three owl fledglings trying to sleep. In addition, there was a second adult screech-owl who seemed equally intent upon sleeping unnoticed. I don’t know which adult was which gender, but I like to imagine that it was the mother who bravely endured blows from the angry songbirds in order to let her family sleep in peace while the lazy dad took a nap. Either way, I always find it touching when I see animals put such great effort into protecting their young.


On another subject, all three birds in this post are species that used to be much less common in Nebraska. Before Europeans arrived, trees were hard to come by in central Nebraska. Over the last century, however, trees from the East have spread into the state as people have planted them around their crops for windbreaks and around their homes for shade. With trees leading the way, many forest species from the East, such as Eastern Screech-Owls, have ventured into Nebraska and the Great Plains. The ecological effects of this tree march are more complex than I’ll go into here, but overall they’re detrimental to grassland plant and wildlife populations. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Trees provide perches for aerial predators (such as owls and hawks), which increases predation rates of prairie grouse and mammals.
  2. Tree corridors provide safehavens for woodland nest predators (such as skunks and opossums) as well as brood parasites (i.e. Brown-headed Cowbirds), who venture into the prairies for prey/hosts. Thus, wildlife in small prairies bordered by trees experience abnormally high rates of nest depredation and parasitism.
  3. If uncontrolled, trees form dense canopies that shade out prairie plants, which are adapted to full sun. This makes it harder for prairie fauna that rely on prairie plants for food and shelter to survive. The result is a positive feedback loop: the presence of trees encourages more trees to grow.
Doom on the horizon? The trees bordering this prairie are the same ones that love walking through.

Trouble on the horizon? The trees bordering this prairie are the same ones that I love walking through.

So what’s the takeaway? Our relationship to nature is complicated. Nothing is simply good or evil. On one hand, trees may seem like a existential threat to prairies, but on the other, I value them for their soothing shelter and the species they harbor. I think the key to this dilemma is diversity. Although I appreciate woodlands, I also appreciate prairies. But healthy prairies are so much more scarce in eastern Nebraska than wooded roadsides, and grassland species are generally in decline, while most woodland species are stable or even increasing.* Therefore, I would choose to cut down trees that are encroaching upon prairies. This does not mean that I think all trees in Nebraska are evil and must be destroyed, just that we need to keep them in check in order to maintain a balance between the two habitats.

*To make things even more complicated, while tree invasion is a real problem, cottonwoods are actually failing to reproduce in Nebraska. To germinate, cottonwoods need floods to scour vegetation and deposit sediment. Now that Nebraska’s rivers are regulated by dams, these floods happen much less often. As a result, we’re seeing very few young cottonwoods taking their parents’ place.

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Photo of the Week – October 29, 2015

As I mentioned in my last two posts, I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week, helping with a bison roundup.  As I mentioned in my last post, I helped with the roundup, but I also took photos – both of people and bison (and leaves, and crickets, and…).  I shared one of the bison photos last week.  Here are a few more shots of these beautiful animals.

Bison roundup at TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

A bison cow looks into the camera.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska

The sky was overcast all day, but now and then the sky brightened enough to make “portrait” photography work.  As long as I kept still while standing outside the pens, the bison didn’t seem overly bothered by my presence.

Bison roundup at TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

A young-of-the-year calf.

Getting up close to these animals is a great reminder of their athletic abilities.  For the most part, the animals are relatively calm as they move through the pens and alleyways, but now and then there is a flurry of activity.  A bison will spin on a dime and head in the other direction much faster than you’d expect.  One animal will shove another out of its path, showing off the incredible strength in its neck and upper body.  It’s never a good idea to underestimate these animals.

Bison roundup at TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

This shaggy old bull barely fit through the final alleyway.  We made sure to make his passage as quick as possible, and he went through without incident.

Bison roundup at TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

A closer look at the same big bull.

Design of bison corrals is continually improving.  Construction of a new corral for our east herd (these photos are from the west herd) is just wrapping up.  It incorporates the most up-to-date design components available, including lessons learned from other bison herds around the country and from experts like Temple Grandin.  Each improvement is aimed at decreasing stress on the animals and increasing the speed and efficiency of the whole operation.  I’m excited to see the new corral in operation when we test it out early next year.

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