Photo of the Week – March 27, 2014

Prairies are underappreciated by much of the general public, even in states and provinces where prairies are (or were) the dominant landform.  They’re often seen as boring, drab, weedy, or otherwise uninteresting.  One of my goals in life is to get people to see prairies a little differently.  The best way to change someone’s opinion of prairies is to take them on a hike and show them what’s really there, but the first step is to pique their interest.

That’s where photography comes in.

Stiff sunflower.  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Stiff sunflower. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

These two photographs are among 60 prairie photos I’ve just posted on the “Prairie Photos” page of this blog.  You can see all 60 by clicking on the “Prairie Photos” tab at the top of the blog’s home page or you can just follow this link.

Spider at sunrise.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

Spider at sunrise. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

If you have friends or acquaintances that haven’t yet experienced the charm of prairies, please consider sending them the link to these photos.  Maybe one or more of the images will spark an interest in an ecosystem they’d never really thought much about before.  Then, if you see that spark, grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them out to an actual prairie so they can see one for themselves.

Thanks.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Random Caterpillar Photo

For no particular reason, here is a picture of a caterpillar:

This photo was taken just after the sun went down at Griffith Prairie - owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  North of Aurora, Nebraska.  June 27, 2006.

This photo was taken just after sunset at Griffith Prairie – owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute. North of Aurora, Nebraska. June 27, 2006.

I was looking through some old photos and stumbled upon this one.  I’d forgotten how much I liked it, and thought I’d share it with you.

Among other things, I like the “flyaway hair” of this caterpillar.  I hope it brightens your day..

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

A Primer on Soil Microbes – An Interview with Sarah Hargreaves

Most of us who work in prairies think mostly about what we see aboveground.  I guess that’s understandable, but to ignore the complex and critical functioning of the soil and its inhabitants is to ignore much of what really drives grassland ecology.  Of course if we DID want to focus belowground, what would we actually focus on?  How much do you know about soil fungi or bacteria?

Exactly.  Me too.

This is why I was excited that Sarah Hargreaves agreed to an interview about the mysterious world of soil microbes.  Sarah is finishing up her PhD in microbial ecology at Iowa State University.  That means she’s not only up to speed on what’s known about soil microbes in the scientific literature, she’s also been studying them herself for the last several years.  A perfect person to throw hard questions at.

What do you know the little creatures that live underground in prairies?  And no, prairie dogs don't count.

What do you know the little creatures that live belowground in prairies? And no, prairie dogs don’t count.

So, here are my initial questions for Sarah, followed by her answers.  As you’ll see, she’s an excellent writer, and can communicate complex ideas in a very accessible way.  Because of that, I’ve also asked her if she’d be willing to answer follow up questions from both me and you – and she agreed (though she asked if she could wait until she finishes her dissertation, which I think is due TODAY!)

So, after you read this post, leave any questions you have in the comments section, and we’ll see if Sarah can answer a few of them in a future post.

What is a soil microbe?  What broad taxa are we really talking about?

Soil microbes span all three domains of life and include bacteria, archaea, fungi. They are the most diverse group of organisms, comprising the vast majority of living organisms on earth! Bacterial and archaea are single-celled and not visible to the naked eye unless clumped together in biofilms. Although bacteria and archaea are similar in many ways, archaea often live in extreme environments, like hot springs or salt lakes, and perform more obscure functions, like transforming methane. Fungi, in contrast, are multicellular organisms. Because of the visible fruiting bodies (“mushrooms”) of some fungi, it may seem odd that they are “microorganisms”. The vast majority of a soil fungus, however, lives below the soil surface in the form of mycelia, which consist of root-like structures called hyphae.

Now and then we get a look at soil fungi

Now and then we get a look at soil fungi, but only when they pop up above ground.

What roles do microbes play in prairie soils?

By releasing digestive enzymes into the soil environment, microbes break down dead plants, animals, and other microbes. This process of recycling makes nutrients available to living plants, soil microfauna and microbes. Decomposition by microbes also builds soil organic matter, which gives prairie soil its beautiful dark color, provides rich texture, and stores nutrients, carbon, and water. All of these factors combine to create a healthy environment for the web of life to thrive: for plants to grow, soil microfauna to explore, and animals to burrow. Soil microbes are also important partners to plants. In exchange for carbon from the plant, symbiotic bacteria (e.g. nitrogen fixers associated with legumes) and fungi (i.e. mycorrhizae associated with prairie plants) greatly enhance plant nutrient uptake.

Is it fair to compare our ability to describe the world of soil microbes to looking into a room through the keyhole? 

Microbes are the most diverse type of organism on earth and soil is arguably the most complex matrix, so for microbes, it’s more like looking into a room through a pinhole – this means the field of soil microbiology is a very exciting place to be! While we have cultured (grown) some microbes in the laboratory for over a century, soil microbiology was previously limited by our ability to isolate and cultivate the vast majority of them. Largely as a result of the human genome and human microbiome projects, new sequencing technologies now make it possible to sequence the immense diversity of the soil microbiome directly from DNA extracted from soil. From these studies, we have learned that microbes are far more diverse and ecologically important than we previously thought. Sequencing has also put pressure on culturing techniques, and we are becoming much better at growing microbes in the lab. My hope is that future advances in soil microbiology will couple sequencing with culturing in order to understand the ecology of specific microbes and identify keystone microbes that can be targeted in restoration.

What else would you want someone interested in prairie ecology to understand or think about in terms of soil microbes?

Microorganisms, and microbial communities, are not all equal. For example, fungal-to-bacterial ratios are critical to soil health and sustainability. This is because soils with more fungi relative to bacteria (higher fungal to bacterial ratios) regain structure faster, retain more nitrogen and are more resilient to drought and floods.  In addition, all bacterial and fungi aren’t equal. Ideally, a prairie soil has a mix of fast and slow growing bacteria and a diversity of symbiotic fungi so that prairie plants can find an ideal match. Finally, while microbes are the foundation of a healthy soil, they are part of a larger soil food web that must be intact in order to sustain the microbial community.

As prairie managers and ecologists, we think a lot about the relative abundance of plants, but not necessarily fungi or bacteria...

As prairie managers and ecologists, we think a lot about the relative abundance of plants, but not necessarily fungi or bacteria…

So, is there an optimal ratio of fungi to bacteria in soils?

“Healthier” soils generally have a fungal-dominated community. Given variability in the measurements we use and differences across sites, it is hard to pinpoint an optimal ratio; it is fairer to say that the ratio should increase with restoration.

The fungal to bacterial ratio is important because of the different lifestyles of bacteria and fungi. Bacteria have faster turnover rates (i.e. short life cycles), such that bacterial-dominated communities are linked to faster rates of nitrogen cycling and subsequent N losses from soil. In contrast, fungi have slower life cycles, which result in greater retention of nitrogen in the soil.  Due to their extensive hyphal networks, fungi are also thought to be larger contributors to both the production of enzymes involved in decomposition and aggregate formation, and resistant to drought. On a community-level, fungal hyphae are the “internet of the soil” – they facilitate connections among other microbes and plants, helping plants to acquire nutrients and alleviate plant water stress. This doesn’t mean bacteria aren’t good! It is the balance between bacteria and fungi that seems to be most important.

What’s known about how prairie restoration and management can impact soil microbial communities? 

First, diversity begets diversity, so it’s important to start with a diverse mixture of native prairie plants.  There is also some evidence to show that prairie burns help maintain
a good fungal to bacterial ratio by promoting fungal abundance.

However, while we know some groups of microbes are very important in prairie soils - like Verrucomicrobia bacteria that dominate native prairie soils and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that form symbiotic relationships with plants - there is still a lot of work to be done to understand how to manage restoration for these and other specific groups of microbes. Even more, past land use has a legacy that will determine what might be needed to restore a rich diversity of soil microbes. Nitrogen fertilization, pesticides and tillage can all have lasting impacts on the types of organisms that are active in a soil. That said, the microbes are there, often in a dormant state, so they do have the capacity to come back and improve soil health when and if the conditions are right.

When we convert cropland to prairie, we just broadcast seeds on top of the ground, but ultimate establishment success depends upon soil microbes we usually don't even think about.

When we convert cropland to prairie, we just broadcast seeds on top of the ground, but what’s belowground has a huge impact on what kind of plant community is formed.

There is certainly lots to learn…  Speaking of that, what story is emerging from your particular research on soil microbes in agricultural systems?

My graduate research contrasts soil microbial communities in conventional corn-based agricultural systems with alternative agricultural systems that incorporate perennial plants. The idea is that, by providing microbes with perennial root systems, they have a richer “buffet” of food that they can use to restore soil health. What I am finding is that newly established perennial cropping systems improve the function of the microbial communities but I have not yet seen dramatic changes in the diversity of the microbial communities. The perennial cropping system that I work with is a switchgrass monoculture and my results are mirrored by work in a diverse prairie cropping system. Overall, these results tell me that perennial plants in agricultural ecosystems can restore soil microbes, but practices such as fertilization and harvesting likely limit the rate and extent of restoration.

(THANK YOU to Sarah for taking time away from her dissertation writing to help us understand more about soil microbes!)

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

Photo of the Week – March 21, 2014

During the big sandhill crane migration spectacle each spring, about 600,000 cranes stop by to visit the Platte River.  Most of them stick around for a few weeks, put on as much body fat as they can, and then head north to nesting grounds.  However, a very low percentage of cranes never get to leave.  Some are killed by powerlines or predators, others just die of old age or other ailments.  We see these dead birds here and there through the spring, and so do the predators and scavengers that take advantage of the abundant food source.

Our crew stumbled upon a dead crane this week, and before the scavengers got to work on it (much) I took advantage of the opportunity to get some close up photos.  It’s not often I get this close to a crane, and I’m guessing the same is true for most of you.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.  As always, you can click on an image to see a larger and sharper version of it.

The combination of gray and brown feathers on the wing are particularly attractive.  The gray is the natural color of the crane’s feathers, but they stain their feathers by spreading iron-rich soil on them.  I’ve actually watched them do this in our restored wetlands, where streaks of iron deposits can be seen in bare sand.  In places where the sand is saturated when groundwater is high and dry when groundwater falls, the iron in the sand rusts and turns a deep reddish brown.  We use those rusted iron deposits as indicators when we’re deciding how deep to excavate wetlands during the restoration process, but they’re also a great place for cranes to find staining compound!

Given the propensity of humans to dye their gray hair other colors, we probably shouldn’t wonder at cranes doing the same kind of thing.  At least cranes can claim (legitimately) they’re doing it for camouflaging purposes.

Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

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Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

While the wing feathers were very pretty, the head of the dead crane was the most interesting to examine up close.  Some of you may know that the red patch on the head of a sandhill crane is not made up of red feathers, but is actually a (relatively) bald patch.  The red cap is a sign of maturity for these cranes – birds hatched last year don’t yet have one.

In cranes, at least, “crane-pattern baldness” is a good thing.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

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Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – March 2014

This is a guest post by Eliza Perry, one of our Hubbard Fellows.

After a few months with very little fresh air, we have been busy getting ready for the crane and burn seasons here on the Platte. Anne and I have been trucking along with our research project reports, but I’m thrilled to be using my body again. We have been learning and hearing about the crane migration and spring burns for nine months now, and they are both finally here! I thought I’d share what we’ve been doing to prepare for these events.

CRANE BLIND PREP

Anne takes down old weathered burlap off the front of a blind. We cover the outside of the blinds with burlap and cut peepholes at different heights so that we can watch the birds without them knowing. Photo by Eliza.

Anne takes down old weathered burlap off the front of a blind. We cover the outside of the blinds with burlap and cut peepholes at different heights so that we can watch the birds without them knowing. Photo by Eliza.

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Nelson shows me that to get the best views, we need to cut all of the vegetation that can be seen from any angle inside the blind. Photo by Eliza.

Nelson shows me that to get the best views, we need to cut all of the vegetation that can be seen from any angle inside the blind. Photo by Eliza.

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We used a beaver blade (weed whacker with a chainsaw chain on the bottom) to cut down the vegetation in front of the blinds. Photo by Eliza.

We used a beaver blade (weed whacker with a saw blade on the bottom) to cut down the vegetation in front of the blinds. Photo by Eliza.

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Nelson sweeps cobwebs, bird poo and old nests off of the blind interior. Photo by Eliza.

Nelson sweeps cobwebs, bird poo and old nests off of the blind interior. Photo by Eliza.

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BURN UNIT PREP

Burn breaks are essential for conducting prescribed fires. We mow a 20ft swath around each burn unit and then rake these areas to keep fires contained and away from property lines. By mowing and raking, we are removing the majority of fuels that a fire needs to burn, which allows us to control where and how the fire moves. I went to mow our Miller property and encountered thousands of cranes getting their protein fix from insects and earthworms right inside of our burn unit. We decided to continue with our work anyway. The birds lifted off right in front of me. Photo by Eliza.

Burn breaks are essential for conducting prescribed fires. We mow a 20ft swath around each burn unit and then rake these areas to keep fires contained and away from property lines. By mowing and raking, we are removing the majority of fuels that a fire needs to burn, which allows us to control where and how the fire moves. I went to mow our Miller property and encountered thousands of cranes getting their protein fix from insects and earthworms right inside of our burn unit. We decided to continue with our work anyway. The birds lifted off right in front of me. Photo by Eliza.

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Nelson sharpens the blades on the shredder after several days of mowing.  Photo by Eliza.

Nelson sharpens the blades on the shredder after several days of mowing. Photo by Eliza.

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FIRE REFRESHER

Land management professionals from various agencies and organizations got together at the Whooping Crane Trust for an annual fire refresher course. In this photo, Nelson is giving a presentation on fire equipment and safety. Photo by Eliza.

Land management professionals from various agencies and organizations got together at the Whooping Crane Trust for an annual fire refresher course. In this photo, Nelson is giving a presentation on fire equipment and safety. Photo by Eliza.

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Everybody practiced deploying a fire shelter. Fire shelters are a last resort for surviving intense radiant or convective heat in an entrapment situation when a fire becomes inescapable. Actual fire shelters are made with layers of aluminum foil and fiberglass, but they can each be used only once so these green tarp replicas are used during trainings. Photo by Chris Helzer.

Everybody practiced deploying a fire shelter. Fire shelters are a last resort for surviving intense radiant or convective heat in an entrapment situation when a fire becomes inescapable. Actual fire shelters are made with layers of aluminum foil and fiberglass, but they can each be used only once so these green tarp replicas are used during trainings. Photo by Chris Helzer.

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We also participated in sand table exercises, in which a moderator gives a team of professionals with different levels of field experience a burn plan and written scenarios to work through by constructing a burn unit on the sand table, given different variables (wind direction, terrain, etc.). It was really helpful for newbies like Anne and I to work with more seasoned firefighters to learn how to respond safely to various conditions. Photo by Eliza.

We also participated in sand table exercises, in which a moderator gives a team of professionals with different levels of field experience a burn plan and written scenarios to work through by constructing a burn unit on the sand table, given different variables (wind direction, terrain, etc.). It was really helpful for newbies like Anne and I to work with more seasoned firefighters to learn how to respond safely to various conditions. Photo by Eliza.

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In order to complete the certification for becoming a Type 2 firefighter, we had to pass either the “arduous” or “moderate” pack test, which involves walking 3 miles in under 45 minutes carrying 45lbs or walking 2 miles in under 30 minutes carrying 25lbs (respectively). We wore weight vests to distribute the weight evenly on our upper bodies. It was great team bonding, but most of us were pretty sore the next day. From right to left, Anne Stine, Eliza Perry, volunteer firefighter Anne Troyer, Mardell Jasnowski and Nelson Winkel. Photo by Chris Helzer.

In order to complete the certification for becoming a Type 2 firefighter, we had to pass either the “arduous” or “moderate” pack test, which involves walking 3 miles in under 45 minutes carrying 45lbs or walking 2 miles in under 30 minutes carrying 25lbs (respectively). We wore weight vests to distribute the weight evenly on our upper bodies. It was great team bonding, but most of us were pretty sore the next day. From right to left, Anne Stine, Eliza Perry, volunteer firefighter Anne Troyer, Mardell Jasnowski and Nelson Winkel. Photo by Chris Helzer.

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The Platte River Prairies crew hosted our own field day to practice using each of the hand tools and slip-on water pumps before we begin burning regularly. We learned techniques for laying wet lines and mopping up using both the truck and ATVs. Laying a wet line refers to spraying water (or foam or other fire retardant) ahead of the igniter along the inside of the burn break for an extra layer of protection; mopping up in this case means following behind the igniter and making sure the fire does not cross into the burn break. We will also need to master backing up ATVs with 200 gallons of water in tow. Here, Anne lays a wet line and I’m trying to stay at an appropriate distance in the truck. Photo by Chris Helzer.

The Platte River Prairies crew hosted our own field day to practice using each of the hand tools and slip-on water pumps before we begin burning regularly. We learned techniques for laying wet lines and mopping up using both the truck and ATVs. Laying a wet line refers to spraying water (or foam or other fire retardant) ahead of the igniter along the inside of the burn break for an extra layer of protection; mopping up in this case means following behind the igniter and making sure the fire does not cross into the burn break. We will also need to master backing up ATVs with 200 gallons of water in tow. Here, Anne lays a wet line and I’m trying to stay at an appropriate distance in the truck. Photo by Chris Helzer.

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SANDHILL CRANE VIEWING TOURS

I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS IN MY WHOLE LIFE. It is absolutely breathtaking to see and hear thousands of these beautiful creatures all together. I have been leading tours most nights and a few mornings this past week, and on three of these occasions the birds were right in front of our blind. I found that I really enjoy watching the antics of just one bird at a time, bending gracefully to poke around in the sand or within their feathers. Their gait and coloring give them an especially regal appearance. They strut around among their companions and make the most beautiful racket I’ve ever heard. Several Nebraskans have told me crane calls signify spring to them. I like that much better than mud, the only indication of spring in Maine. Check out Anne Stine’s recent post for a more in-depth description

I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS IN MY WHOLE LIFE. It is absolutely breathtaking to see and hear thousands of these beautiful creatures all together. I have been leading tours most nights and a few mornings this past week, and on three of these occasions the birds were right in front of our blind. I found that I really enjoy watching the antics of just one bird at a time, bending gracefully to poke around in the sand or within their feathers. Their gait and coloring give them an especially regal appearance. They strut around among their companions and make the most beautiful racket I’ve ever heard. Several Nebraskans have told me crane calls signify spring to them. I like that much better than mud, the only indication of spring in Maine. Check out Anne Stine’s recent post for a more in-depth description of her crane viewing experiences.  Photo by Eliza.

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A slightly crooked shot by Eliza.

A slightly crooked shot by Eliza.

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Sunset over the Platte River. Photo by Eliza.

Sunset over the Platte River. Photo by Eliza.

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Posted in General, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Magic (?) Stick

Ok, this is something I can’t explain – I’m hoping someone else can help.

The slideshow below consists of a series of images taken about an hour apart last June by one of the timelapse cameras at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Hover your mouse over the images and you can click the arrows to move between photos.  Watch the stick in the foreground…

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What in the world?  The stick doesn’t do it most days, but on some days, the timelapse camera captures one end of the stick rising into the air.  Overnight, it returns to its previous position.

Here it is again, a couple weeks later:

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Later in the season, the stick was dislodged so one end was no longer in the ground.  It still moved, but in more of a twisting motion.  I think the stick just to its left is moving slightly as well?

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This is not a living entity.  It’s a stick; dead and disconnected, but still able to move.

My best guess at an explanation is that the stick is moving because of moisture.  Over time, the stick absorbs moisture and then dries out, and the shrinking and swelling of the wood could change its shape.  Because humidity tends to rise overnight and fall during the day, that could explain the pattern.  But, if daily humidity patterns are affecting the stick, why doesn’t it happen more often?  Also, in the October series above, the stick was lifting as it rained, so that seems counter to my hypothesis…?

Anyone else have an explanation?  I love a good mystery…

Posted in General, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 31 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Cranes and Blind Mice

The sandhill cranes have returned for their annual visit to the Platte River of Nebraska, one of the greatest migratory phenomena in the world.  The following is a guest post by Hubbard Fellow Anne Stine:

Have you ever been scolded by a deer mouse? I have.  That was just one of the new experiences I’ve shared with visitors in the past few weeks, now that the cranes have returned to the Platte River Valley.

Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River in Nebraska.  March 2007.

Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River in Nebraska. March 2007.

I actually got scolded twice. When a deer mouse scolds you, it sounds like a cheeping bird:  “ZHee zeezezezezeze”. That mouse was so put-out that her rumpus-room (our crane blind) was filled with people, she stuck her head out of a hole in the wall and twittered at us to scram. I cannot imagine that telling-off a roomful of large predators is evolutionarily adaptive to a small mammal, but evidently even mice can be curmudgeons.

Our group of large predators was gathered in the blind to stalk cranes. The snow geese, Canada geese, and Sandhill cranes have all returned to the Platte River.  If you angle your neck to look straight up in the sky, you can see threads of birds waving and intersecting with the breeze. Their numbers are unlike anything I’ve seen back east. The way they ride the wind at different heights, so you see and hear layers of their lines crossing in the air, is totally mesmerizing.

The night before last the cranes roosted directly downriver of our large blind.  At first, we weren’t sure we’d get to see any of these birds up close. Whirlpools of birds circled and landed below the western horizon, their skinny long legs stretched out in front of them.  They flew low overhead, but they didn’t seem to find what they were looking for in a roost on our part of the river. A lonely Canada goose stuck her neck straight up and honked at the sky, trying in vain to call down companions.

Then, as the sky was just beginning to darken, four cranes landed on a sand bar about 50 feet down stream of our building.  At first they just stood around, sometimes pacing in their goofy prancing walk, as if waiting for their cue. More cranes passed overhead, but continued to settle downstream. Finally, a line of cranes heading east noticed their comrades loitering down below. They trilled loudly and initiated their descent, wings cupped like a parachutist and legs stretched out. After the first large group settled with our four pioneering friends on the near sandbar, the population of cranes downriver swelled and built upon itself. Cranes are gregarious birds, so a few trendsetters can determine where everyone sleeps for the night.

Looking out the crane blind, cranes flying by.  Photo by Anne Stine.

Looking out the crane blind, cranes flying by. Photo by Anne Stine.

Cranes may roost on the river, but they don’t linger there all day- they have work to do. The next day we were mowing and raking burn breaks in our prairies when we heard a party going on in the trees at the north end. The cranes were feasting along the stream! Half the flock would rise and trill, and then settle, while the ones on the ground poked around, looking for invertebrates.  We worried about flushing them from their daytime hunting grounds, but they didn’t seem to mind us too much as long as our machinery kept moving.

Seeing these pre-historic goofballs reminds me that spring is upon us, and soon I’ll be trading my hot tea for lemonade and my fuzzy robe for a hammock in the yard. I can’t wait.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 13, 2014

Here are two photos that caught my attention as I was going through timelapse imagery the other day…

In my last post, I showed some timelapse photos from a fenceline at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in north-central Nebraska.  At the time, I promised a good story about the trail that developed on the cattle side (right side) of the fence.  As a reminder, the fence in these photos was installed in what had been a cattle pasture, but the left side is now grazed by bison (light stocking rate) and the right side is grazed by cattle (moderate stocking rate).  More details on the stocking rates below…

The first photo in which cattle appear in their pasture is this one, taken on June 21 at 6:36 pm.

Cattle

June 21, 2013.  6:36 pm

Notice the absence of a cattle trail in this first photo.  Then look at the photo below, which was taken ONE HOUR LATER.

trail

June 21, 2013.  7:41 pm

Seriously?  A trail formed the very first time cattle walked along the fenceline??

I’m not surprised or bothered by the development of the trail, but I’m relatively shocked that it only took one pass by cattle to make it!  I would have expected the gradual development of a path over a few weeks.  On the other hand there were 110 cows and 110 calves in the pasture.  Rich Walters, Niobrara Valley Preserve manager, pointed out that if all those cattle followed the fence line in single file formation, that was 880 hooves stepping on those relatively loose sandy soils.  I suppose that would have an immediate impact.

Here’s one more surprise.  The cattle were brought into this pasture on June 2.  Why did it take until June 21 for them to (apparently) make their way to the north edge to graze and then create a trail?  I can’t say for sure that they hadn’t explored this part of the pasture prior to the 21st, but there isn’t any indication of grazing impact in the timelapse photos taken between June 2 and June 21.  It may be that the cattle had enough forage further south (and closer to their water tank) that they just never wandered very far, but I would have expected them to have made an exploratory pass around the pasture within the first few days - just to see what they had to work with…

Before I go further, I’m sure some people are already mentally condemning cattle for their trail-making and other faults, but that’s not the point I’m making here.  As I wrote in a recent post, I think cattle are very useful as prairie management tools, and are comparable to bison in most respects – though the formation of these narrow trails is certainly one difference between the two animals.  Sure, cattle trails can cause problems, especially in chronically overgrazed sites with steep slopes and erodible soils, but the vegetation beneath cattle trails can also recover pretty quickly if given the chance.  In the meantime, trails can provide valuable habitat for reptiles and invertebrates looking for a place to warm up in the morning sun, and are used as transportation corridors by many other animals besides cattle.

Oh, and in case you doubted me, the photo below proves that there truly were bison on the left side of the fence in 2013, though their numbers and the relative size of their pasture to the cattle pasture on the right created a very different grazing environment.

Bison grazing on the left side of the fence.  August 10, 2013

Bison grazing on the left side of the fence. August 10, 2013

The two sides of the fence looked pretty different from each other by the time cattle were removed, in terms of vegetation height and density.  After my last post, several of you asked about the stocking rates on each side.  There were approximately 225 bison (cows, calves, and bulls) in the 10,000 acre bison pasture to the left of this fence in 2013.  They were grazing year round, but had plenty of room to roam since the Preserve staff had cut back their numbers pretty drastically following the big wildfire in 2012.  At that stocking rate, bison didn’t graze very intensively in most parts of the pasture, including the area shown in this photo.  On the cattle side of the fence, the 110 cow/calf pairs were restricted to only 640 acres of pasture.  Even though they were only in the pasture for about 5 weeks (June 2 – July 12), that’s still a much higher effective stocking rate than that in the bison pasture.  The difference in the height of vegetation between the left and right sides of the fence, then, is due to stocking rate, not grazer species.

I’m already learning an awful lot from looking at the first year of timelapse imagery at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and much of what I’m learning has been unexpected.  The rapid formation of a cattle trail is a great example.  I’ll be sharing another example within the next week or two, though it’s more of a mystery than a lesson at this point.  For now, I’ll just tease that post by saying it has to do with a stick that moves by itself…  You can have fun thinking about that for a while!

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Fenceline Timelapse

I got my hands on another batch of timelapse imagery for our Niobrara Valley Preserve last week.  I now have images from all nine of the Preserve’s cameras for the 2013 growing season (late April through the middle of October).  The photos from those cameras document the first year of recovery from the drought and major wildfire back in the summer of 2012.  As I work through the many thousands of images, I’ll be sharing some of the interesting stories I see.

I’ll start with a series of images from a camera set along a new fenceline.  As the staff at the Preserve set out to rebuild fences after the wildfire, they took advantage of the opportunity to shift the location of some fence lines.  In this case, they moved the south boundary fence of the east bison pasture and enlarged that pasture to more than 10,000 acres.  The fence was constructed through what had been a traditional cattle pasture (unplowed sandhills prairie that had been conservatively grazed by cattle for many years).  We chose to place a camera along that new fence for two reasons.  First, it was a good place to watch the recovery of the prairie plant community following the fire.  Second, it provided a good chance to look for differences between bison-grazed and cattle-grazed prairie.

Here is a slideshow of images from the 2013 season from May through mid-October.  If you hover your mouse over the images, you can click on the arrows and fast forward (or backward) through the photos to look at changes over time.  The left side of the fence is now bison pasture, while the right side is still cattle pasture.  Below the slideshow, I’ve written about some of what I see as I look through the photos.

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The first thing that’s obvious in the images is the rapid recovery of the prairie’s plant community from an intense drought and wildfire.  In the first image (May 2) it looks like there is nothing but bare ground.  Even the ash from the fire was washed/blown away, leaving almost nothing above ground.  However, as spring arrived, both annual and perennial plants seemed to jump out of the ground and fill the landscape with green vibrant vegetation.  It’s difficult to identify many of the plants, given the scale and resolution of the images, but there are two major flushes of blooms – the very pale pink flowers of wild roses (Rosa arkansana) in June and the yellow plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) in August.  You might remember reading about the abundance of sunflowers across much of the sandhills from an earlier post.

One of the reasons I chose this particular location for the camera was to watch the yucca (aka soapweed or Yucca glauca) plants over time.  There is very little yucca in our bison pastures at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, but it is fairly common in cattle pastures.  That has less to do with bison grazing vs. cattle grazing than with the fact that the bison are in the pastures through the winter and the cattle are pulled out in the fall.  Both bison and cattle will graze on yucca during the winter because while the leaves are tough and spiny, they are green when almost nothing else is.  I think we’ll get to watch through time as the yucca on the left side of the fence gradually disappears through years of winter grazing by bison while the yucca on the right grows relatively unhindered.  We’ll see!  To see the yucca, it’s best to start on the last image of the slideshow (October 21) and look for the spiny green plants surrounded by brown vegetation.  Then you can watch those plants grow as you click from May through October.  Since I haven’t seen the images from this past winter yet, I don’t know if bison have been grazing the yucca, but I sure hope so (for the sake of the story…).

One difference that can already be seen between the bison side of the fence (left) and the cattle side is the formation of a trail along the cattle side of the fence.  I will provide more information on that in a post that will come out very soon, so I won’t talk much about it here except to say that while the formation of numerous trails are definitely a real difference between bison and cattle pastures, they are not necessarily a bad thing.  More on that topic, with a VERY interesting couple of timelapse photos, coming soon.

One last observation is that either the camera or fence moved quite a bit through the season, and since the fence clearly didn’t move, it had to be the camera.  I’m not sure how to explain that.  I don’t think it was being bumped when the memory cards were swapped out every month or two because the movements occurred in between those events as well.  I imagine the most likely scenario is simply that the massive wooden post we stuck in the ground (with concrete) shifted in the sandy soil.  We’ll see if that continues over time or if it settles into a location.  It’s not a problem, just something interesting.

Finally, one of the great things about timelapse imagery is the opportunity to capture beautiful images without having to be there to click the shutter on the camera.  Here are three photos from this camera that I thought were particularly pleasing.

Sunrise on August 19, 2013.

Sunrise on August 19, 2013.

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Moonlit prairie on the same day as the above photo - August 19, 2013

Moonlit prairie on the same day as the above photo – August 19, 2013

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Lightning during the night on June 21, 2013.  Wild rose flowers can be seen in the glow of the lightning.

Lightning during the night on June 21, 2013. Wild rose flowers can be barely seen in the glow of the lightning.

Many thanks to Mike Forsberg, Jeff Dale, David Weber, and everyone else at Moonshell Media that has been working on this timelapse photography project with us.  Special thanks also to the Nebraska Environmental Trust for funding the installation of the cameras as a way to help us better understand the effects of wildfire on Nebraska’s ecosystems.

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

Photo of the Week – March 6, 2014

As I posted a couple days ago, I spent some time at my favorite wetland earlier this week.  It was a cold, but very pleasant morning.  The sun was moving in and out of thin clouds, creating attractive light and a nice sky for photograph backgrounds.

A beautiful early March day at The Nature Conservancy's Derr Wetland.

A beautiful early March day at The Nature Conservancy’s Derr Wetland.

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frozen wetland

An ice ridge formed along the edge of a flowing channel prior to the most recent cold spell.  It apparently caught blowing snow during last weekend’s flurries.

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Cattails

I assume the gap near the bases of these cattails was formed either by wind or by the relative warmth of the cattail stems, but I can’t explain the mounded ice.

Beaver activity was obvious along the stream that runs into and through the wetland.  Numerous dams are being maintained, and I found lots of recent tracks and marks from the dragging of sticks in patches of snow or bare sand.  The beavers’ slowing of the streamflow probably enables the surface to  freeze more quickly – to the detriment of waterfowl looking for a place to roost and feed – but the concentrated flow through the dams maintains small areas of open water where wildlife can access it.

Water pours over a small beaver dam.

Water pours over a small beaver dam.

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Another one

The only open water left after the most recent cold snap was just below some of the larger beaver dams, though the ice was very thin in other places, especially above some of the more active springs.

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Water over the dam

Water flows through the spillway of a dam just upstream of the open wetland area.  There are at least seven separate dams being maintained by the inhabitants of a single beaver lodge.

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The beaver lodge is several hundred yards upstream of the main wetland area.

The beaver lodge is several hundred yards upstream of the main wetland area.

Beavers weren’t the only wildlife species active along the wetland.  Based on recent images I downloaded from our timelapse cameras on site, waterfowl have also been using the wetland in big numbers.  Canada geese, especially, have been abundant – especially before the surface froze last week.  Based on evidence found at the scene, they have continued to use the frozen wetland too…

goose feather

Goose feathers littered the frozen surface of the wetland

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feather

Here and there, tiny fluffs of feather clung to plants of all kinds.

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poop

Feathers were not the only thing geese left behind on the ice.  I can’t think of a better way to end this blog post then with a big pile of goose poop.  So there you go.

No beavers or geese were harmed during the making of this blog post.  However, more than 300 images were shot during a two hour period. 

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments