Working Outside My Comfort Zone

A Brief Photo Journal:

Late last week, I found myself driving through the middle of the Nebraska sandhills as the sun was getting low in the sky.  I decided to stop and check out a small federal wildlife management area to see if I could find anything to photograph.  I had noticed the sign for the site on previous trips, but had never taken the time to drive up the winding road to see what it looked like.  This seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try.

As it turned out, the place was kind of a mess.  In the middle of the twelve million acres of beautiful, ecologically-intact sandhills prairie, this refuge was dominated by invasive species such as narrowleaf cattails, reed canarygrass, and smooth brome.  The area had obviously been farmed in the past, and had apparently not recovered gracefully.

The mess

The mess.  A lot of non-native plants around a wetland.  Oh, and the light was drab and it was really windy.  If you look hard, you can see a couple native grass plants here and there.

I wasn’t sure this was going to work out as a photography location.  A big open-water wetland surrounded by invasive plants?  To make things worse, the sun was behind a big dark bank of clouds, and the wind was howling at about 35-40 miles per hour…  On the other hand, there wasn’t really time to get anywhere else before dark, and there was a promising-looking thin slice of blue sky between the cloud bank and the horizon.  I decided to stick around and see what happened when the sun reached that sliver of sky.

The site looked very different when the sunlight burst through the clouds.

The site looked very different when the sunlight burst through the clouds.

The light, when it finally appeared, was worth the wait.  The low angle of the sun bathed the whole scene in beautiful orange light.  Now I had to get past my purist snobbery about native vs. invasive plants and force myself to think only about light and composition.  Sure, the landscape was covered with invasives, but the light was wonderful and there were interesting photographs to be made.

Invasive narrowleaf cattails, which surrounded the entire wetland (with a reed canarygrass understory).  But they WERE really pretty in that light!

Invasive narrowleaf cattails surrounded the entire wetland (with a reed canarygrass understory). But they WERE really pretty in that light!

Because of the wind, everything was whipping around like crazy, so I had to bump up my camera’s ISO and open up the aperture (apologies for the photography jargon) in order to freeze the action.  The tradeoff, of course, was a shallow depth-of-field, so the backgrounds of my photos were all out of focus.

More cattails.  I was holding the big one on the left still with my hand...

More cattails.

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Even on this relatively small wetland, the wind was strong enough to whip up some pretty big waves.

Even on this relatively small wetland, the wind was strong enough to whip up some pretty big waves.

As the sun approached the horizon, the light intensity eventually dropped to the point where I could no longer get the shutter speed I needed to freeze the blowing plants.  To compensate, I pointed the camera toward the setting sun (don’t try this at home, kids), and tried to silhouette a few plants against that light, which allowed me to use a faster shutter speed.

Pointing toward the sun to take advantage of the light intensity and freeze the blowing plants.

Pointing toward the sun to take advantage of the light intensity and freeze the blowing plants.

.

Look!  A native plant!  (Not that it matters, photographically...)  Canada wild rye silhouetted against the setting sun.

Look! A native plant! (Not that it matters, photographically…) Canada wild rye silhouetted against the setting sun.

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Color in the sky as the sun disappeared.

The clouds were very pretty as the sun hit the horizon.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the photos I got from that twenty minutes of light.  At the very least, it was good for me to get out of my photography comfort zone.  For one thing, I don’t usually attempt landscape photography in 35 mph winds!  I also need to get better at embracing the beauty of an area even when it is ecologically degraded.  First of all, it’s important to photograph those kinds of areas to showcase the conservation challenges we face.  More importantly, if I only photograph places that are in great shape, that really limits the places I can take my camera!

Last light.  Time to hit the road.

Last light. Time to hit the road.

I probably won’t come back to this particular wildlife area anytime soon.  There are plenty of other sites in the sandhills that are more interesting and attractive as photographic locations.  On the other hand, I’m not sorry I stuck around last week.  It was a good reminder that beauty can be found anywhere, even in the middle of a bunch of invasive weeds.

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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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22 Responses to Working Outside My Comfort Zone

  1. Wonderful photographs!

  2. bill stevens says:

    Great photographs of a sandhills lake. Invasives — yes, but are they of value to the animals? After all, this site was set aside for birds and mammals. Are native plants of FAR greater value to them? Does anyone really know (I imagine it varies by species). What studies are there of the value of natives vs. invasives when it comes to migrating waterfowl? As far as support goes, most people are far more interested in animals than in plants. If the true value of native plants to birds and mammals were known (sorry, insects just don’t inspire the love, and reptiles and amphibians can’t cut it with most, either), it would be another point to make in encouraging the planting of native species. Were the photos from Crescent Lake, Valentine NWR or where?Katie StevensMoab, Utah

    Date: Mon, 4 Nov 2013 13:00:43 +0000 To: wpstevens@hotmail.com

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Bill, Those particular invasives provide some value for wildlife, but not as much as a more diverse community. Much of the issue is structure-related. For example, cattails, especially, can kind of clog up the shallow areas of wetlands where many birds and other wildlife would otherwise do much of their feeding. The cattails outcompete plants that have better wildlife food value and make those shallow areas unusable just because the cattails form an impenetrable wall. Reed canarygrass can be good nesting cover for some ducks, but only if managed fairly intensively to keep it from becoming too dense. I don’t think I’ll name the site because I don’t want to bang on the agency in charge of it. I don’t think the habitat conditons are probably a reflection of their management, but more a reflection of the site history.

      • James McGee says:

        Hi Chris, Contractors burned half of a cattail choked slough near me a few years ago. I’ve never seen any waterfowl in this slough. After they burned the slough, I understood the reason. The whole thing was filled with raccoons. They were running all over the place. It was quite a scene. I’m sure the raccoons made their way to the unburned half of the slough by night fall. The ducks and geese aren’t stupid. They stay away from the sloughs. They graze our lawns and sleep on top of our houses at night.
        Sincerely,
        James

  3. elfinelvin says:

    Your experience reminds me of the cover story in the last Nature Conservancy magazine about Patagonia sheep ranchers and their efforts to restore their pastureland. They had some behind the scenes videos on the web site and one of them showed the photography team trying to set up their equipment in 40 mph winds. Apparently winds like that are the norm in the grasslands of Patagonia. What they are doing there reminded me a lot of what’s being done in the prairies here.

  4. Judith Deaton says:

    So those are Nebraskan skies! I would feel quite at home there.

  5. Crow Sutton says:

    Beautiful!

  6. Jeanine Lackey says:

    I love those big sky shots!

  7. Patrick says:

    Chris, could you share your thoughts about how you would approach this site if it were given to you to restore? How would you prioritize the restoration work, and what would be the most cost-effective way to get it done? Thanks.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Patrick, a great question. I’d want to study the site a little more before saying for sure, but I think because it’s been farmed (assuming that’s true) it’s a little easier than it might otherwise be. I’d probably alternately disk and spray the entire site for as many years (probably 3-4) as it took to stop seeing canarygrass, brome, and cattails resprout. Then, after the last spraying treatment, without re-disking, I’d seed the entire site with a high-diversity mixture of seeds and see what happened.

      • James McGee says:

        Hi Chris, Openlands restored some wetlands at Deer Grove East FPD in Cook County. Linda Masters headed up the project. Hydrology was restored in this self contained watershed. The area had been farmed and the wetlands were full of Reed Canary Grass. They finally gave up on spraying the Reed Canary Grass seedlings each year. Their solution was to scrape away all the soil with a Reed Canary Grass seed bank and bury it on site. This finally seemed to have worked. The restoration looks really good. I would consult with Linda before I did any wetland restoration.
        Sincerely,
        James

      • Patrick says:

        Thanks for the reply. I kinda thought disk/spray/repeat and overseed approach might be the way to go, but the comment James gives is also very interesting. Would you consider trying a late spring burn before the disk/spray regimen to maybe clear the thatch and set back the cool season grasses?

        • Chris Helzer says:

          Patrick – yes, absolutely, a burn of any kind to remove thatch would be almost necessary (that, or grazing) before disking. And, as you say, weakening the vegetation would probably enhance the success of the spraying – so either growing season fire or grazing (or both) would be good for that.

  8. Mel says:

    Chris, I know this site, and it does have significant issues with invasive plants – narrow leaf cattail, smooth brome, cheatgrass, Canada thistle, reed canary grass, leafy spurge, etc, etc. You are correct in pointing out that it had been previously farmed (there was a center pivot in the lake on the east side of the WMA). The area has been prescribed burned and seeded with native grasses, but would probably need much more intensive management to get it over the hump to more native vegetation. At this point, it is probably more an allocation of resources issue than anything – where do you choose to invest your limited resources (personnel, funds). The marsh area can be quite productive for waterfowl in some years, and in 2011 when the water was high, there were lots of broods in the flooded vegetation beyond the ring of narrow leaf cattail. There are also a couple of prairie chicken booming grounds there in the spring.
    I’d be interested in your response to Patrick’s query above.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Mel, I figured you’d know it. I can’t imagine it was much fun to farm… probably not the wettest or sandiest site ever farmed, but still! And I know exactly what you mean about priorities and the frustration that goes along with having to put off working at a site because there is just too much else to do.

  9. love your honesty. pics are great as always.

  10. James C. Trager says:

    The lighting makes all the difference!
    If the site is breeding waterfowl, that’s good. Restoration of the surroundings from farming and invasion by aggressive exotic plants can come later, and will be an ongoing effort, as we know. It may even benefit further the waterfowl breeding, and will certainly improve things for upland critters, whether anyone cares about them or not. I do believe it’s important to sell these projects with charismatic species, but it really doesn’t matter if the masses of nature-deprived suburbia and urbia (and ruralia) don’t at first “get it” about the less charismatic species. The charismatic ones can be their gateway to greater diversity of appreciation.

  11. Mark Lindvall says:

    Chris, I agree that the invasive plants you listed are a major problem. As manager of this property, Yellowthroat Wildlife Management Area, I have worked here for years and watched it improve. Yes it has problems, but you should have seen it 20+ years ago. The WMA was part of a large farm that went bankrupt in the 70’s and came back into government ownership. Under the 1985 farm bill the USFWS could place conservation easements on portions of the land with wetlands or take part of the land fee title. We worked with FmHA to get 480 acres in fee title which became the WMA. When we got it there were 5 center pivots here and at least another 6 or 7 on other locations on the property. I remember working with FMHA to sell and have all the pivots removed, a good thing too as the person who bought the remainder of the farm told me he wished they would have not been sold as he would have liked to have been able to plant row crops again. The pivots had been planted to corn and then to tame annual rye when we got it. The land did not sell quickly and we were able to place a conservation easement on an additional 440 acres under the 1990 farm bill. Early on we were able to use private lands funds to seed the easement lands to native grasses and even some of the lands south of the WMA. These have come back fairly well. Finally we got some funds to seed the WMA and did it but unfortunately in a drought year. I remember camping there and doing the seeding. We also put in a water control structure to stop the drainage of the large wetland on the west side of the property. We have also cut quite a few cedars and other trees on the WMA. The part of the WMA that wasn’t farmed has a nice stand of native grass. The sad ending to the story is that just north of Yellowthroat WMA the cycle is starting over, several tracts of native prairie have been broken out, center pivots put up, and corn again planted in the sand. This is the third go around of corn farming in the Sandhills, when will we learn. Mark

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Mark! Great info and context, thanks. It’s nice to know that I was interpreting what I saw fairly accurately. Mel’s earlier points about wildlife value were also good. It’s hard to recover from that kind of site history, isn’t it? As you say, however, its current condition is certainly better than rowcrops with pivots.

      And yeah, I’m sure the farming will work out much better the third time around. Until the next drought hits.

      Thanks again, Mark.

    • James McGee says:

      Hello Mr. Lindvall, If you have prairie chicken booming grounds you must have had some success. I wish we had prairie chickens or grouse. We are just happy with bobolinks, sparrows, and wrens in Chicago area restorations.
      Sincerely,
      James

  12. Jessica says:

    Stunning photos! I love the prairie sky this time of year.

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