An Adjusted Aesthetic and Reflections on Portraying Change

I have long admired the work of Stephen Packard.  His book  The Tallgrass Prairie Restoration Handbook (co-authored with Cornelia Mutel), for example, is a classic among restoration practitioners.   More importantly, he observes, reflects, and shares his thoughts in ways that influence the fields of prairie and savanna ecology in deeply meaningful ways.

In a recent blog post, Packard discusses a trip he and others took to Africa and shares thoughts about – among other things – the adjusted aesthetic required when visiting “real nature”.  The term adjusted aesthetic really resonated with me.  In his post, Stephen is referring to the way he and his fellow Illinois prairie ecologists had to get used to seeing grasslands and savannahs that were consistently and universally impacted by large numbers of grazing animals.

I often run into a similar situation when I talk to people about using grazing as a prairie management tool here in North America.  To many prairie enthusiasts, especially to the east of Nebraska, prairies and grazing don’t go together.  The idea of allowing big stompy animals to eat and crush plants just seems wrong, and the few pastures (mostly chronically overgrazed) they’ve seen bolster that opinion.  The prairie aesthetic in eastern tallgrass prairie is generally one of tall and abundant grass and blooming wildflowers.

On the flip side, ranchers I work with in the Great Plains tend to have a very different aesthetic.  To many of them, a grassland with tall plants that are producing seed is a waste.  That productivity should be put to USE!  We have a big world to feed, after all…  A pleasing-looking prairie to many Great Plains ranchers is one that is not too tall, not too short, and dominated by grasses, not “weeds”.  This is not a universally-held opinion among ranchers, of course, but common.

This photo is very aesthetically pleasing to me.  I like the patchiness of the habitat, the floristic diversity, and the presence of grazers showing that the prairie is changing at the moment the photo was taken.  However, some people will recoil at the site of cattle in a prairie, while others will see an undergrazed prairie full of weeds.

This photo is very aesthetically pleasing to me. I like the patchiness of the habitat, the floristic diversity, and the presence of grazers showing that the prairie is changing at the moment the photo was taken. However, some people will recoil at the site of cattle in a prairie, while others will see an undergrazed prairie full of weeds.

I spend a lot of time talking to both audiences (and many others) about prairies and the positive attributes of both grazing and rest.  I try to explain that plants can easily survive being stepped on and bitten off, and that there can be great value in adding large herbivores to the mix – at least in many prairies.  At the same time, I offer reminders that periodically allowing plants to produce seed heads is both good for habitat and builds vigor in those plants that can help provide stronger and more consistent productivity – especially under stressful conditions.

However, Packard’s post reminds me that it’s important to address the issues of prairie ecology and management from an aesthetic standpoint as well.  It’s one thing for us to agree on the principles of how a prairie should be managed, but if we stand and look at a prairie with very different visual desires and expectations, we’re going to have problems.

My personal prairie aesthetic is one of change and progression.  I like prairies that are DOING something, mainly because I think fits with what prairies are – dynamic ecological systems that are constantly in flux.  Prairie communities are constantly changing in response to fire, grazing, haying, rest, or weather.  Their resilience and ability to adapt to stresses both defines and preserves them.

Fire is one of several major factors that propels change in prairies.

Fire is one of several major factors that propels change in prairies.

Our Platte River Prairies change in appearance pretty drastically through both time and space.  As you walk through our prairies, you can find areas that are being intensively grazed by cattle, other areas recovering from a recent bout of that kind of grazing, and still other areas that are tall and rank.  Just about everyone would be able to find something aesthetically pleasing in our prairies if they walked far enough, but many people would also find areas they thought were jarring or ugly.  If they walked the same path a year later, they’d likely see a similar mix of habitats, but in different places and with different appearances than in the previous year.

Packard’s post has stimulated me to think about how I can more effectively portray the dynamism of prairies.  Photography is obviously a major communication tool for me, but individual photographs provide only a quick snapshot (literally) of what something looks like at the time the picture was taken.  To show change, I need to use series of photos that cover long periods of time.  The timelapse cameras at our Niobrara Valley Preserve and the restored wetland in our Platte River Prairies both help with that, but I should also be taking more photos of other places through time to show how they change from season to season and year to year.

When I see this photo, I see a prairie that has responded to drought and wildfire from a year ago, and is also being affected by bison grazing.  However, to people who aren't familiar with the site and its recent history, the photo is less instructive.

When I see this photo, I see a prairie that is responding to drought and wildfire from a year ago, and is also being affected by bison grazing. However, to people who aren’t familiar with the site and its recent history, the photo is less instructive. A series of photos over several years would help me share the change I see much more effectively. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

What’s your personal prairie aesthetic?  Does it include change or is it a static image of what a prairie should look like?

 Please consider visiting Stephen Packard’s blog at: http://woodsandprairie.blogspot.com/

 

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

Photo of the Week – April 18, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I posted a few photos from the timelapse cameras at a restored wetland on our Platte River Prairies.  One of those showed the first documented use by sandhill cranes of that site, which was pretty exciting.  I downloaded those cameras again this week and found a few more interesting photos, so I’m presenting them today.  All three are panoramas stitched together from two photos – which were shot simultaneously by twin cameras mounted side by side.

Of course, the biggest value of timelapse imagery comes from the ability to build sequences of photos that show change over time.  I will certainly be doing that with the images from this site, but in the mean time, we’re also getting our money’s worth out of the simple fact that the cameras are recording interesting and beautiful scenes that would have otherwise gone unrecorded.

We documented another occurrence of overnight roosting by a flock of sandhill cranes on March 20 of this year.  Interestingly, they roosted in a different part of the wetland this time than they did the previous time...

We documented another occurrence of overnight roosting by a flock of sandhill cranes on March 20 of this year. Interestingly, they roosted in a different part of the wetland this time than they did the previous time… Also, there were more of them than on the previous roost night of March 11.

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This photo shows a beautiful April sunset and a small group of deer stopping by the wetland.  Can you find all seven deer in the photo?  (You can click on the photo to get a closer look)

This photo shows a beautiful April sunset and a small group of deer stopping by the wetland. Can you find all seven deer in the photo? (You can click on the photo to get a closer look)

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This is my favorite photo of the batch, but that could be because we've had so little rain this year. Any sign of moisture from the sky is pretty attractive...

This is my favorite photo of the batch, but that could be because we’ve had so little rain this year that any sign of moisture from the sky is pretty attractive…

Thanks again to Moonshell Media for their help setting up these (and other) timelapse camera systems.

 

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Patches of Fire and Habitat

It’s been a difficult year for conducting prescribed fires so far – the wind seems to be blowing even harder and more consistently than in recent memory.  And that’s saying something, living in the Great Plains.

A couple of weeks ago, we were able to pull off one prairie management burn here in the Platte River Prairies.  The fire went well, and this week I took a quick walk through the burned area to see how the regrowth of vegetation was coming along.  It’s been a cold and dry spring, following a dry fall and winter, so plant growth has been slow, but things are finally starting to kick in.  Within the burned area, many plant species are a little behind their compatriots growing outside the burned area, but others are ahead.  Those that are behind are the species that were already starting to grow when the fire came through – those species had to start again, so are behind schedule.  The species that are further ahead in the burned area are those that are taking advantage of the warmer soil and have either germinated or emerged faster than those in the cooler soil of unburned areas.

Regrowth in sand prairie burned a couple weeks ago.  The wildflower in the foreground is shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandflorus).

Regrowth in sand prairie burned a couple weeks ago. The wildflower in the foreground is shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandflorus).

Regardless, plants are growing well in the burned area.  That’s good, because cattle will arrive within the next week or so, and we want the burned area to be particularly attractive to those grazers.  One of the major objectives of our fire was to concentrate grazing in one portion (the burned patch) of the prairie this season, leaving the remainder of the pasture with much less intensive grazing.  Hopefully, the result will support our efforts to create a variety of habitat patches across our prairies, and to shift the location of those patches from place to place each year.

The patch we burned this spring has had no fire and very little grazing over the last couple of years.  Last year, it had tall vegetation and abundant thatch – conditions that favor a certain set of plants and animals, but not others.  This year, it will have very little thatch and the vegetation will be short in stature because of season-long intensive grazing.  Next year, it will begin a multiple season recovery period from that fire and grazing until it is burned again sometime down the road.  (You can read more about patch-burn grazing here.)

Burning a different patch of prairie each year helps ensure that a mixture of habitat types is always available and most or all wildlife and invertebrate species can find the habitat they need.  Our prairies usually have a patch of very short habitat, several patches in some stage of recovery from intensive grazing, and some areas that are tall and very lightly grazed – or ungrazed.  Some animals will follow those habitat patches across the landscape.  Others will go through boom and bust periods within one portion of a prairie, depending upon what conditions they thrive best under.

Because we’re always changing the location of habitat patches, plant species also experience changing conditions from year to year.  This means that some species flourish one year, but may have to wait a few years before those favored conditions return.  In the meantime, other plant species will find success.  Constantly changing conditions help ensure that no group of species becomes too dominant, but that all species can survive and maintain a place in the plant community.  Our long-term data has shown the our plant communities have stable to increasing plant diversity under this kind of management, and we’re not seeing any plant species disappear.

This burned patch makes up between a third and a fourth of a 110 acre management unit in our Platte River Prairies.  Burning only a portion of each unit each year helps ensure good wildlife habitat and changing growth conditions for plants, but also helps avoid catastrophic impacts on species vulnerable to fire.

This burned patch makes up between a third and a fourth of a 110 acre management unit in our Platte River Prairies. Burning only a portion of each unit each year helps ensure good wildlife habitat and changing growth conditions for plants, but also helps avoid catastrophic impacts on species vulnerable to fire.

Another benefit of burning only a portion of our prairies each year is that it helps us avoid catastrophic impacts on plant and animal species that are negatively impacted by fire.  Invertebrates that overwinter above ground, for example, can be destroyed by an early season fire.  Growing season fires can kill animals (invertebrates and vertebrates) that are unable to escape by leaving the area or retreating underground.  These kinds of impacts are somewhat unavoidable, regardless of the season of fire, but by burning only a portion of our prairies, we can try to restrict impacts to a relatively small proportion of the population of each species, allowing the majority of individuals to survive and recolonize the burned patch over time.  Burning an entire prairie, especially in highly fragmented landscapes in which recolonization is unlikely, can result in completely and permanently obliterating vulnerable species from a site.

Hopefully, the wind will pause a few times during the remainder of the spring, and we’ll create a few more burned patches in our prairies.  If not, we’ll try to create patches of short habitat by haying or by temporarily fencing cattle into an area to knock vegetation height down.  We’ve found that all three methods (burning, haying, temporary enclosures) can create a patch that attracts livestock grazing afterward - and therefore pulls that grazing off of other portions of prairie.  There are lots of ways to create patchy habitats, and none are necessarily best.  As long as there is always a mixture of habitat types across our sites, we feel pretty good about our management.

Hopefully, the species living in our prairies feel pretty good about that management too.

 

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Management, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Darn Gophers…

People who live in the country tend to view “gophers” in much the same way city people view rats. Suffice it to say, neither animal is particularly popular.

Much of the time, when farmers, gardeners, or groundskeepers are complaining about “gophers”, the animal in question is actually a ground squirrel – and around here it’s usually a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Although they are beautiful little animals, thirteen-lined ground squirrels have run afowl of humans because their preferred natural habitat of short-cropped grassland is very similar to that found in many yards, baseball diamonds, gardens, and crop fields. When ground squirrels move into those human-built habitats, their burrowing and feeding behavior tends to get them in trouble.

 

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are very attractive animals - unless they're eating your garden plants or digging holes in your landscaping.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are very attractive animals – unless they’re eating your garden plants or digging holes in your landscaping. There are actually two ground squirrels in this photo – can you find the second one? Click on the photo to see a larger and sharper version of it.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus – formerly Spermophilus tridecemlineatus) are found throughout much of central North America. They are 5-7 inches in length, not counting their 4-6 inch tail. Their name comes from the combination of light and dark stripes that run lengthwise along their body. The lines of spots within the darker stripes are particularly striking.

Thirteen-liners have a high-pitched call – among others – that sounds much like a bird. In fact, it took me several years to figure that out. I know my grassland bird calls very well, but couldn’t for the life of me figure out what bird species kept calling but never flushing as I moved in to investigate. I finally realized it wasn’t a bird at all, which made me feel both embarrassed for being so badly wrong and satisfied that I wasn’t woefully ignorant of some common bird call.

There are several kinds of burrows made by thirteen-lined ground squirrels, each with its own purpose. Nesting burrows can be 15-20 feet long, with multiple entrances. Hiding burrows are usually scattered around nearby to provide a quick escape, but those burrows are typically very short and have only one entrance. During the winter, the ground squirrels hibernate in burrows that extend below the frost line and the entrance is plugged up until the ground thaws enough in the spring that the hungry inhabitant can burrow back out again. In all cases, thirteen-lined ground squirrels disguise the entrances of their burrows by scattering the excavated soil away from the hole itself.

Ground squirrels are themselves well camouflaged, and help disguise their burrows as well, by spreading soil out away from entrances.

Ground squirrels are themselves well camouflaged, and help disguise their burrows as well, by spreading soil out away from entrances.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels eat seeds throughout the year, but favor them most in the fall as they prepare for hibernation. During the spring and summer, they consume green leaves, fruits, and flowers from many plants, but are also fairly significant predators, feeding on worms and insects (especially caterpillars, beetle larvae, and grasshoppers) as well as small vertebrates. In fact, grassland bird studies have shown thirteen-lined ground squirrels to be a very significant predator of both eggs and young birds in some prairie landscapes.

In my part of the world (east-central Nebraska), there are two species of ground squirrels, which are differentiated by both habitat preference and coloration. While thirteen-lined ground squirrels have distinctive striping and prefer to live in very short vegetation, Franklin’s ground squirrels are found in tall grass and are unstriped.  Franklin’s ground squirrels are rarely seen, but we spot enough of them in our Platte River Prairies to assume they must be fairly common here. I’d like to know much more about their habits and needs because they are a species of conservation concern – especially in more eastern tallgrass prairie regions.

While Franklin’s ground squirrels are fairly uncommon in many places and difficult to find when they do occur, thirteen-lined ground squirrels are very common and abundant – much to the chagrin of those people who find themselves at odds with them. Thirteen-liners enjoy the more intensively grazed portions of our prairies, and seem able to find new patches of grazed prairie as we change the location of that habitat type through time.  I’ve often wondered whether an individual ground squirrel actually relocates each year to keep up with those shifting patches of short-cropped prairie, or if populations just increase (and/or become more visible!) where our grazing is most intensive each year.

Ground squirrels are important prey for many of the larger predators in our prairies, including hawks, coyotes, snakes, and badgers. In fact, their popularity as badger food can compound the hassles associated with having thirteen-lined ground squirrels living in cultivated or landscaped places. In our own prairie seed nursery, ground squirrels enjoy living and running around in the plots and mowed trails between them – and we can (mostly) live with whatever damage they cause. However, the giant holes created by badgers digging ground squirrels out of their little burrows are a lot harder to ignore.

Darn gophers…

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Photo of the Week – April 10, 2014

I’m a terrible birder.  I used to be pretty good, but I’ve kind of lost my motivation – there are too many other things to look at when I’m out in the field.

Last Friday, I was at the annual Prairie Chicken Festival, near Burwell, Nebraska, hosted by Calamus Outfitters.  It was a great event, with lots of fun people and a fantastic setting.  In the early afternoon, I hopped on a bus full of people to go look at birds around the edges of Calamus reservoir.  I think the group saw several kinds of ducks and maybe some, uh, other things…

I, on the other hand, spent most of the time wandering through the sandhills looking down at the ground for signs of life in the prairie.  (It’s hard to see many birds while looking down…)  My biggest contribution to the birding portion of the trip was that I pointed out a couple owl pellets (on the ground, of course) to the group.  Apart from that, I was pretty useless.

Well, useless from a birding standpoint.  From a botanical standpoint, I actually found three different wildflower species blooming!  That was a surprise, given how cold it’s been this spring, and how little green there is across the landscape.  All three wildflowers were very short little annuals, and were near parking lots at the reservoir where they were exposed to full sun but sheltered from cool winds by nearby trees.

I have no idea what any of them are, so if any of you can identify them, I’d appreciate input…

A tiny wildflower at Calamus reservoir, near Burwell, Nebraska.  April 4, 2014

A tiny wildflower at Calamus reservoir, near Burwell, Nebraska. April 4, 2014

 

Another tiny flower.

Another tiny flower.

 

The third wildflower of the day.

The third wildflower of the day.

 

 

…Ok, I wasn’t completely unaware of the birds around me…  I actually did stop to take this photo of some pelicans late Friday morning, before heading over to the ranch to meet up with everyone else.

White pelicans at Calamus Reservoir.

White pelicans at Calamus Reservoir.

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Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – First Burn of the Season

It’s burn season on the Platte and our team is foaming at the mouth to get some fire on the ground. Prescribed fire is completely dependent on suitable weather conditions, so almost every day we wake up hopeful to burn, and every day has been a disappointment – until one day last week!

Here’s a play-by-play of what happens on burn day, for those who have never participated in a prescribed fire (like myself, ten months ago).

 

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Photo by Eliza Perry

 

We are in Go Mode the morning we hope to burn. Many preparations still needed to be made the day of the fire last week. We charged the batteries of each ATV, topped off all the equipment with fuel (water pump engines, drip torches, ATVs), loaded chainsaw gear into the truck, gathered personal protective equipment, and obtained a burn permit from the local fire department. We had freezing temperatures in the morning, so we waited to fill all of our water tanks until it warmed up. We used 2 ATV trailer units with 120 gal, 2 slip-on units with 300 gal, 2 ATV sprayers with 25 gal, and 2 bladder bags with 3 gal, which are used as a back-up water source in the event a hose stops working on the fireline, or as a mop up water source once ignition is complete. Here, Nelson and Anne are filling up our various implements.

 

Photo by Eliza Perry

Photo by Eliza Perry

We do weather checks several times before and during the burn. Nelson calls the National Weather Service basically when he wakes up on a potential burn day to get the most accurate, up-to-date and local weather information possible. Here, Mardell Jasnowski is checking the current conditions with a kestrel, a handheld weather kit calibrated to take weather measurements. She’s looking primarily at wind speed and direction, relative humidity, and temperature.

Before every fire, all participants meet for an overview of the burn plan (which area is to be burned and how the burn will proceed), potential hazards at the site, our objectives for the day, participant introductions, and other logistical information, all led by the day’s burn boss. (Quick side note: I remember when I first started, my fourth day on the job coincided with a burn, which was where I first heard the term “burn boss” and to this day I can’t think of a cooler sounding title).

On last week’s burn, we were lucky to have help from the Crane Trust, and pictured here (from right to left) are Jon Westerby, Brice Krohn from the Trust, along with TNC burn boss Chris Helzer. Later in the day, the Trust’s Mark Morten and Bruce Winter came around to offer even more help so we had a big jolly team. We actually burned three units in one day: the Derr House garden (a solid square meter burn!), the Derr House lawn (probably half an acre) and our Derr Pivot property (a 60-acre burn). In this photo, we were going over the first two burns.

Photo by Eliza

I don’t have any pictures from these first two burns, but they really allowed Anne and I to get some experience in a low pressure setting on the more advanced role of ATV fire suppression.

 

Photo by Eliza Perry

Photo by Eliza Perry

After we burned around the Derr House and relocated all of the vehicles and equipment to the big burn unit of the day, we met in the field to go over every participant’s role, changing weather or equipment failure scenarios, and the burn plan. Chris is holding a map illustrating the burn unit to orient everyone and go through each step of the burn and the contingency plans. The first step is always a weather check and then a small test burn to ascertain the fire’s behavior in the current conditions before we proceed with the burn.

 

Laying down a wetline during a prescribed fire.

Everyone always asks me, “how do you control a fire?” Well, we first mow and rake lines around the whole unit, creating “firebreaks” that have little fuel in them and thus help stop or slow a fire creeping outside the unit.  Then, we “blacken,” or burn the downwind boundary lines of our burn unit, using water to help keep the fire inside the firebreaks – which is what Jon is doing on the ATV at the forefront of this picture.  Those blackened areas provide a blockade to keep the fire contained inside the burn unit.  And we have people patrolling along these lines at all times, spraying or raking up any fire that creeps into the firebreak, which is what crew boss Nelson Winkel is doing on the ATV behind Jon.  On foot in the grass is Anne Stine, working as the igniter for this side of the unit. Everyone at a prescribed burn keeps an eye on blackened areas along with areas that are actively burning because tall flames can throw embers and “jump” outside of the black.

Fires are far more complicated than I’m able to describe in a short blog post, but I hope you can kind of imagine how trained personnel can control them.

ENPO140301_D006

Both Anne and I were assigned as igniters for the first time. We were each supervised by the crew boss of our respective sides of the fire – the person who follows behind the igniter to catch any creeping fire and dictates the pace of ignition. My crew boss, Brice, walked me through all of his instructions and explained the fire behavior as it evolved, which was very helpful because it’s one thing to read about convection columns and another to witness their effects on the rate of spread and direction of the fire and smoke. He also taught me how to “read the fuels” to identify where to ignite. Being the igniter takes a level of intuition and experience lighting fuels to achieve the desired effect. For beginners like me, it was just about listening to instructions, but the more experience I get the better I’ll be able to judge for myself how to best accomplish our burn objectives.

ENPO140301_D002

Anne using a drip torch for the first time! Drip torches dispense (“drip”) a mix of regular gas and diesel, allowing for a controlled application of flammable fuel. You can see she is igniting the tall grass adjacent to the burn break and she is probably walking right on top of the wetline. Crew boss Nelson follows behind with 120 gallons of water. Anne is also holding a hand tool. In the event nearby water resources need to locate elsewhere temporarily, it’s nice to know the igniter is not completely defenseless should a fire creep somewhere unwanted, which is what that hand tool is for.

Dust (ash?) devil during a prescribed fire.

A dust whirl! I can’t explain why these happen. Though they are super cool looking, they can be indicative of changing weather conditions.

 

Photo by Eliza Perry

Photo by Eliza Perry

After ignition is completed, the burn boss calls for a meeting to debrief the day. Each participant says a little about their experience, what went well, and what could use some improvement. From left to right, firefighters Bruce, Mark, Jon and Chris.

 

Photo by Mardell Jasnowski

Photo by Mardell Jasnowski

Hubbard Fellows Anne Stine (left) and Eliza Perry (right) after a fun day of burning!

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Photo of the Week – April 3, 2014

This week, I present four photographs from one of the timelapse cameras along a restored wetland in our Platte River Prairies.  All four photographs were taken automatically by the camera, and none are particularly striking images, artistically speaking.

Nice sales job, eh?

Despite their quality as images, or lack thereof, they are very meaningful photographs to me.  In fact, the two photos of least photographic quality are actually the two I like best because they tell a story I’ve been hoping for since we first started the wetland restoration project more than 10 years ago.

Canada geese, some wigeon, and a few other ducks sit on the restored wetland in March of this year.  This is a common sight, and a good one, but I was always hoping for more than just ducks and geese to use the wetland.

Canada geese, some wigeon, and a few other ducks sit on the restored wetland in March of this year. This is a common sight, and a good one, but I was always hoping for more than just ducks and geese to use the wetland.

When we first started talking about converting a long sand pit lake (left over after sand and gravel mining operations from early last century) into something different, we had several objectives.  Those included:

- removing the trees around the edge of the site to improve habitat for open-grassland and wetland wildlife species.

-  providing shallow stream and wetland habitat for fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates (including mussels), and other species.

- restoring diverse plant communities including emergent wetland, wet meadow, wet-mesic, and upland sand prairie communities.

- providing habitat for migratory whooping and sandhill cranes and many other waterbird species with similar habitat requirements.

The first three objectives were pretty easy, and we’ve seen abundant evidence of success.  In terms of bird habitat, we’ve always had great utilization of the site by ducks, geese, herons, snipe and other birds during both migration and breeding season.  But no cranes.

Until this spring.

The chance that one of (approximately) 260 whooping cranes will ever land in this particular wetland is very remote, but I have been expecting to see sandhill cranes using the site; if not for overnight roosting habitat, at least as a place to feed and loaf during the day.  After all, there are hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes here each spring – surely some of them should see this as an attractive place to hang out now and then.  And if we see sandhill cranes using the site, we can reasonably assume that it’s suitable for whooping cranes too (though that’s not universally true).

However, during the 10 years since we started the restoration work, I’ve been looking in vain for a crane of any sort, or even tracks that would indicate they’d been there.  Nothing.  Last year, we had timelapse cameras up during the spring crane migration season but they malfunctioned and didn’t give me any evidence one way or the other.  But this year, I finally got what I wanted.

Three sandhill cranes stand in the middle of the wetland on March 8 of this year.

Three sandhill cranes stand in the middle of the wetland on March 8 of this year.  You can click on the photo to see a larger version of it.

I downloaded images from the cameras in mid-March and immediately scanned through them in the truck, hoping to see some evidence of crane use and – there they were!  Three sandhill cranes showed up in multiple photos over the period of a couple weeks.  Most of the photos were daytime photos, but it also appears they roosted overnight at least a few times, standing in the shallow water.  Three cranes is certainly not evidence that we’ve added significantly to bird conservation, but it is evidence that our wetland isn’t completely abhorrent to cranes – and that’s a good start.

Then, as I kept looking through the images, I got an even better surprise. Late in the evening on March 11, there was a whole flock of cranes standing in the shallow wetland, apparently preparing to roost.  Even better, the camera picked them up again early the next morning – pretty solid evidence that they roosted overnight.  It only happened once (through mid-March) but I’ll take it!

A flock of 70-80 sandhill cranes stands in shallow water at 7pm on March 11.

A flock of 70-80 sandhill cranes stands in shallow water at 7pm on March 11.

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At 7am the next morning, the cranes are still there - maybe more of them, in fact.  Our first real crane roost, that we know of.

At 7am the next morning, the cranes are still there – maybe more of them, in fact. Our first real crane roost… that we know of.

The pictures aren’t of terrific quality.  They were taken by a camera set to fire every hour on the hour (during daylight hours) and low light and wind combined to the images a little blurry.  Nevertheless, I think they’re pretty great photos.

Of course, now that I’ve gotten my evidence of crane use, my scientist brain is kicking in and asking questions.  Why did the cranes only roost one night?  Why that particular night?  Why did they pick that particular part of the wetland?

And, there’s one more question my brain is asking, which I’m trying to ignore because I don’t think it’ll ever happen.

…Will we ever see a big white crane in one of those photos?

 

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Tumbleweed Dystopia!

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This is a guest post by Anne Stine, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  All photos are by Anne:

I took a three-day weekend to go camping in Cimarron and Comanche grasslands, where Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado all meet. Historically, this area was dustbowl central. The federal grasslands originate in the real estate bought up by the government during the depression, when it became clear that this area was not suited to heavy-tillage farming. The roads were marked by abandoned houses, and the region is rather remote. Remote is part of what I look for in a good camping destination.

After following frustrating directions that led me down several rough dirt roads and up some rancher’s driveway, I backtracked and pulled over in Campo, Colorado for breakfast and better instructions. Campo has a post office, a church, and the homey Campo Café. The locals were finishing their Saturday morning breakfast and trying to round up help for the various chores they had on their agenda. The all wanted help ‘burning weeds’. I learned the significance of this preoccupation later.

When I asked directions to Picture Canyon, everyone to a man had been there. One said it was a “really special place”, and he seemed tickled I had come so far to visit a piece of land in his backyard. The man was right. Picture Canyon, in Comanche National Grassland, is a special place. It has been a refuge to Apache and Comanche, and it features pictographs, ruins of abandoned homesteads, and a natural arch. Unfortunately for me, the trails were so lightly used and haphazardly marked I was unable to find any of them. After spending hours with the entirety of my mental faculties fixed on path-finding, I decided to call it quits when I took out my compass and it split into three pieces- a bad omen if ever I saw one.

Nevertheless, I was smitten by the rocks and flora of this semi-arid prairie. I recognized yucca, cholla, rabbit brush, blue grama, buffalo grass, prairie coneflower, scarlet globemallow, a milkweed species, and sand dropseed. I also saw withered prickly pear (from the rough winter?), and devil’s claw, a native plant in the sesame family eaten like okra. The soils were sandy and loose. My general impression of the place is that it rides the border between prairie and desert. However, what really struck me were the tumbleweeds.

Devilsclaw- A very cool native edible. You can buy seeds from specialty stores.

Devilsclaw- A very cool native edible. You can buy seeds from specialty stores.

The tumbleweeds shifted with alarming rapidity and scurried like animals. A path that had been clear in the morning was blocked, taller than a person’s head, by the afternoon. A forty foot canyon was packed to the brim. I included a picture, with a picnicker for scale. I see why the farmers were so intent on burning their weeds. I could only think “Someone, give me a drip torch! I’ll solve that tumbleweed problem.” when blocked from exploring side canyons by their packed mass. Though tempting, lighting a fire in a box canyon under 35 mph gusts is probably not an ideal solution.

Tumbleweeds- I wasn’t kidding about the 40 ft canyon full up with tumbleweeds. See the person leaving the picnic area? She said the weeds rolled like a wave with every gust.

Tumbleweeds- I wasn’t kidding about the 40 ft canyon full up with tumbleweeds. See the person leaving the picnic area? She said the weeds rolled like a wave with every gust.

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A closer look at the canyon.

A closer look at the canyon.

Tumbleweeds (Salsola tragus) were accidentally introduced to South Dakota via contaminated flax seed from Russia in the 1870s (from Flora of North America). From there the weed spread throughout the United States. Tumbleweeds have an irritatingly efficient method of dispersal. They’re annuals, and after they dry at the end of the season their stem snaps, allowing them to ‘tumble’ across the landscape. They litter the earth with seeds at every bounce. No animals are needed to spread this pest.

This has been a banner year for tumbleweeds. Tumbleweeds thrive on the disturbance in the wake of fires and drought, and they themselves are a fire hazard. Their populations are so bad that in Colorado and New Mexico there are reports of people trapped in their homes by tumbleweeds piled up against their doors. The tumbleweed plague has garnered major news coverage and special task forces in stricken regions.

The other campers and I all gathered in the evening to discuss the shocking abundance of tumbleweeds. When I told them that it hadn’t been a problem in Nebraska, they were curious. I think part of the reason Nebraska escaped this pestilence is because it is wetter here and more heavily cultivated. More moisture seems to allow the native vegetation to compete better on fallow lands, and intensive farming doesn’t allow the weeds a place to grow in areas under cultivation. Unfortunately for Colorado’s ranchers, drought and open space has given the tumbleweed an edge.

Hidden shelter- can you spot my tent? Between the cedar and the canyon wall is the only place it would stay terrestrial with the gusty winds.

Hidden shelter- can you spot my tent? Between the cedar and the canyon wall is the only place it would stay terrestrial with the gusty winds.

On the drive back through eastern Colorado I appreciated the wildlife I saw, still seemingly thriving in the face of this unusual boom. Colorado’s high plains are a hunter’s paradise- I saw abundant pronghorn antelope and muledeer, and I counted 9 pheasants in the troughs alongside the highway (a behavior that has earned them the sobriquet ‘ditch-parrot’, which I adore). Lastly, I met and fell in love with a german shorthaired pointer pup, whom I intend to adopt at the end of April (if everything goes according to plan). So, I learned more about current and past crises in my grassland home, and I picked up a new family member along the way. Not bad for a long weekend.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

2014 Sandhill Crane Migration – Platte River, Nebraska

March is always a busy time on Nebraska’s Platte River.  It’s the beginning of prime prescribed fire season, of course, and a good time to work on fence repair and tree clearing projects.  But there’s no question that sandhill cranes rule the month.

The early morning scene on the Platte River in March.  Note the abundance of feathers floating down the river...

The early morning scene on the Platte River last week.  Note the abundance of feathers floating down the river…

About 600,000 sandhill cranes spend a good portion of late February, March, and early April along the Platte River before heading north to nesting grounds.  It’s one of the greatest migratory phenomena in the world, and it happens right in our backyard.  Because of that, our staff spends quite a bit of time taking groups of people into our viewing blinds where we watch the cranes land on the river at sunset and take off again in the morning.  It’s an important fundraising opportunity for The Nature Conservancy, and a way to show our Nebraska members what we’ve been working on and thank them for their support.  It’s really gratifying to watch the reaction of people as they see the crane spectacle for the first time.

My son Daniel got his first trip to a crane blind on his birthday this year.  It was very cold, but he was still glad to go.

My son Daniel got to take his first trip to a crane blind on his 10th birthday this year. It was very cold, but he still had a great time.

Because I’m in the blinds fairly frequently, I get quite a few opportunities to photograph cranes – though the number of nights and mornings when the light is favorable can be limited.  Also, I’m really not a wildlife photographer, either in terms of my equipment or aptitude.  Despite that, I usually end up with a few decent photos by the end of each season, though not as many as I should.

This year, I also tried to get some video footage of the cranes – something I have even less experience with and aptitude for than wildlife photography!  Also, my only video camera is the video function on my Nikon D300s SLR camera, and I’m still learning to use it.

You can see two of my attempts by clicking on the links below:

Video 1 – Cranes preparing to leave the river on a cold morning.  This 30 second clip gives you a feel for the density, activity, and noise of a crane roost.

Video 2 – Cranes chasing each other around on a sand bar.  There is a lot of jumping and chasing among cranes.  Some of it is courtship and pair bonding, some of it is just posturing.  This clip is about 30 seconds long.

 

Silhouettes against the evening sky.

Silhouettes against the evening sky.

In the evenings, the cranes often wait to come to the river until it is getting dark, making photography difficult.  In those cases, the best photo opportunities are usually silhouettes of the birds against the sky as they drop into the river.  On nights when the light is nice and our guests are fully engaged watching the big event, I manage to snap off a few shots.  Both close-ups on a few birds at a time and more wider views can be attractive.

Sandhill cranes coming to the river after sunset.

Sandhill cranes coming to the river after sunset.

This year, my favorite image was the first shot I took one evening.  The sunset was beautiful and the cranes were parachuting gracefully toward the water as I poked my camera lens out the window of the blind.  The resulting photo reminded me of the theme song to a 1980′s TV show - The Greatest American Hero.

"Believe it or not, I'm walking on air..."   Cranes floating down to the river at sunset.

“Believe it or not, I’m walking on air…” Cranes floating down to the river at sunset.

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Bonus Coverage

On one of the crane tours I led this spring, I met 11-year-old Jack McDowall and his dad.  Jack is a fellow blogger who is working on a year-long project to photograph and document his bird sightings.  I think many of you would enjoy his photos and the natural history information he includes along with them – including a post from his trip to our viewing blind.  If you’d like to visit his blog, you can link to it here.

 

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

Ten Thousand Acres

A major milestone was reached in prairie conservation today when our good friends and partners over at Prairie Plains Resource Institute (PPRI) planted their 10,000th acre of prairie.

Ten thousand acres of new prairie in Nebraska!  It’s an incredible contribution to our state, and to conservation in general.

Bill Whitney (co-founder and executive director of PPRI) has been a major influence on my career and the careers of many of us in grassland conservation.  He is the godfather of prairie restoration in Nebraska, and personally mentored me in both prairie ecology and restoration during my early years as a young land steward.  If you’re not familiar with Prairie Plains, please click HERE to read more about today’s milestone and all their other accomplishments.

Congratulations and THANK YOU to Bill, Jan, Mike, Sarah, Amy, and Jeff (along with all the other PPRI staff through the years).

Bill Whitney, co-founder and executive director of Prairie Plains Resource Institute harvesting native grass seeds.

Bill Whitney, co-founder and executive director of Prairie Plains Resource Institute harvesting native grass seeds.

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 To put Prairie Plains’ 10,000 acres of restored prairie in context, consider these statistics.

- In 1978, there was an estimated 2,300 acres of high quality prairie left in the entire state of Illinois.

- There are an estimated 12,000 acres of prairie left in Wisconsin today.

- Iowa has less than 30,000 acres of its original tallgrass prairie left.

Posted in General, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments