Photo of the Week – September 20, 2012

Last week, I managed to find about half an hour’s time to wander with my camera, so I decided to try to get some more photos of this year’s drought impacts.  I headed down toward one of our crispy brown lowland prairies, with every intention of photographing dormant grasses and wildflowers.  However, there’s a wetland swale in that prairie that has stayed wet enough during this summer that the vegetation is still vibrant, green, and blooming.  Despite my best efforts, I found myself edging toward the swale…

There were several wildflower species blooming in the swale, with lots of bees and soldier beetles crawling around on them.  But the visual standouts were the lobelias.  Both cardinal flower and blue lobelia were tall and in full flower, so I spent a few minutes taking their portraits.  It’s hard to imagine a more striking flower than a bright red cardinal flower, but the counterpoint of the blue lobelias was every bit as pleasant to look at. 

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

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Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

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I didn’t end up with a camera full brown grass images, but in a way, these lobelia photos are equally representative of this year’s drought.  Although the majority of the landscape is dead and brown, there are bright spots of green scattered around in places where the soil organic matter is high enough to hold moisture, or where groundwater is still close enough to the surface to support life.  Those scattered oases of green are keeping a number of insects and other species alive at the moment, as demonstrated by the loud buzzing sound that surrounded me as I walked through the wetland swale.  Besides being a good “glass half full” thing to do, focusing on those oases in times of drought is probably a critical conservation strategy.  Those little patches of life are making huge contributions to the ecological resilience of our larger prairie/wetland ecosystem, and we should be studying the conditions that create them and thinking about how to ensure those conditions are sustained. 

Plus, the flowers are really pretty.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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9 Responses to Photo of the Week – September 20, 2012

  1. James McGee says:

    I have read there are no hummingbirds on the great plains. It is good to know that they make it as far as your prairies. If cardinal flowers is present, the pollinator must be present also.

    James

    • James C. Trager says:

      Cardinal flower does have some lepidopteran visitors that probably help pollinate it, notably, Phoebis sennae or cloudless sulfur.
      Perhaps Chris can tell us if this migrant species occurs around there…

      • Chris Helzer says:

        Cloudless sulphur is around, but not common. I very rarely see hummingbirds, especially away from town, but I’m sure there are a few around. I’m not sure what the primary pollinator of our lobelias are. There was a soldier beetle deep down the throat of one of them the other day…

  2. Brent Lathrop says:

    Chris the Cardinal flower is stunning. Thanks for taking the half hour to wander……….

  3. msellie39 says:

    Reblogged this on baileyblogstories2012 and commented:
    This is a blog that I enjoy reading.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Beautiful!! And yes, there is beauty during a drought…completely unrelated to flowers, the red headed woodpecker population is thriving for some reason this year.

  5. Jennifer says:

    At least on my property…

  6. Kole says:

    Great pics….nice to see the cardinal flower actually showing its colors. Dang drought will not let up! I’m in Iowa and afraid I’m going to need a miracle for the seeding I did early last winter. Almost unbearable to look at the site.

    Chris, were you involved with any projects where 2012 was the initial establishment phase?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Kole – The only seeding we did this year was some overseeding of degraded prairies, and we’re seeing almost no establishment there (no surprise). BUT – we did a lot of cropfield seedings back in the last drought, and all of them turned out ok. Those years weren’t as tough as this year, but it’s too soon to panic, I think. Based on my experiences, I’d advise you to give it a couple years before you give up. I agree – it’s tough to look at it in the meantime.

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