Using the Light When the Light is Right

I have a pretty great job.

I love my work for many reasons, but a big one is the freedom I have to take photographs when opportunities present themselves.  Photography is an important part of conservation work, and my photos are used in many places – including this blog, print and online publications, and even things like notecards and thank you gifts for donors and board members.


The Niobrara River flowing through the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.  I captured this image during a brief 15 minutes of sunlight during an otherwise overcast couple of days.

Because good photos are so important to our work, I often take a few minutes (or longer) in the middle of a work day to slip away and photograph something – especially when the light is pretty and/or we find something interesting like a bull snake in the middle of the road.  I owe my co-workers a great deal for their extreme patience and forbearance in this regard.  Not only are they understanding of my tendency to wander off in the middle of jobs, they have also gotten used to the fact that they could be the subject of a photo at any moment.  (Thanks to all of you!)

Last week, I helped with a bison roundup at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  I did some actual work during part of the day, but also found time to photograph bison, staff and volunteers helping with the roundup – and even a few other things like colorful leaves and a cute little cricket.  Because this is normal behavior for me, no one thought much of it.  Or at least they didn’t say anything, which was polite of them.

field cricket TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

I found this little cricket when I wandered away from the roundup for a little while.

Smooth sumac leaves in autumn. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

The overcast skies on the day of the roundup made landscape photography difficult, but there wasn’t much breeze and close-up photography worked ok – especially during brief moments when the sun was behind a thinner area of clouds.  Smooth sumac leaves were starting to fall, but I found a few still hanging on.

In addition to making time during the work day, I had two other opportunities for photography while I was up at the Preserve.  The first came on the night before the roundup.  I didn’t get to photograph anything in the afternoon or evening because I didn’t arrive until after dark.  However, as we were getting ready for bed, I was admiring the bright moon hiding behind some thin clouds.  I pointed them out to Evan, one of our Hubbard Fellows and a talented photographer.  After a brief discussion, the two of us headed out to see what we could do with the light.  We didn’t get back until after midnight…

Norden bridge at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Norden bridge at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Niobrara river at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Niobrara river at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Here's Evan's version of the moon over waterfall.

Here’s Evan’s version of the moon over waterfall.  I chose to make the scene kind of dark and moody but he chose to make his brighter.  It’s always fun to see how different photographers interpret the same view…  I really like the way he framed the image so the hole in the bottom right of the image counterbalances the moon in the top left.

Norden bridge at the TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

Norden bridge at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Moonlight, clouds, and stars.

The second opportunity came on the morning after the main roundup.  Some of the staff was sticking around to help with vet work on the bison calves, but I needed to head home to catch my daughter’s cross country meet, so I was planning to leave after breakfast.  The sky had been overcast all the previous day and all that morning, but as I was packing my gear, I noticed a small break in the clouds.  It looked to me like it just might provide a few minutes of morning sunlight, so I stopped packing, grabbed my camera, and headed up the hill.  Just as I’d hoped, the sun did pop through the clouds and I had almost exactly 15 minutes of light before it disappeared again behind what looked to be a never-ending mass of dark clouds.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

As I started wandering up into the sandhills, the light started to fade, so I just had time to take a couple quick shots.  This isn’t my favorite photo from the day, but it does showcase the beautiful immensity of the Nebraska Sandhills landscape.

The old photographer’s adage is “F/8 and be there”, meaning that camera settings are much less important than making sure you’re in the right place at the right time.    I’m incredibly grateful that my job allows me to “be there” when the light and other conditions line up, and that I’m allowed to just grab my camera and go shoot.  It also doesn’t hurt to work in beautiful places.

I often feel like I’m getting away with something, and that eventually I’m going to have to get a real job.  Boy, I sure hope not!

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Photo of the Week – October 22, 2015

Today was a busy one.  I helped with one of our two annual bison roundups (one for each herd) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  We brought about 500 bison in from the hills, ran them through a corral system, and sorted the ones to be kept from those to be sold.  It was a cool and cloudy day, but the predicted rain held off until the last two hours, and we got everything done by late afternoon.  I always love the chance to see these animals up close, and to listen to the sounds of pounding hooves and bison grunts.

Bison roundup at TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

Portrait of a bison cow in the corral.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I will post more photos from the Preserve next week, but I’ve just got time to post this one before I head to supper and then bed.

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Snake Season!

It’s a great time of year to see snakes.  As the weather cools in the fall, snakes are especially drawn to places where they can soak up warm sunlight during the middle part of the day.  That makes it fairly likely to see snakes (alive and dead) along roads.  In addition, many snake species overwinter together in communal winter dens – particularly in higher latitudes.  As they move from their summer feeding areas to those winter dens, they often have to cross roads and other open areas.  This puts snakes at risk from cars and predators but provides even more opportunities for interested people to see snakes that can be difficult to find during the rest of the year.

Yesterday, we spotted this beautiful young bull snake on a gravel road along the edge of one of our Platte River Prairies.  It was only about 16 or so inches long, but it did a great job of making itself look menacing when we stopped to take a closer look.

Young bull snake on gravel road along the boundary of the TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This little bull snake was doing its very best to scare me off, but it didn’t work.  Instead it got its portrait taken.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

As we approached it, the snake coiled up and flattened its head, making it look very much like a viper.  It was also wiggling the tip of its tail back and forth very quickly – a move that would have made a sound like a rattlesnake rattle in dry leaves (a great scare tactic) but wasn’t incredibly effective on the gravel.  As I moved in with my camera, the snake struck at me several times, but never came anywhere close to biting me.  Being a biologist, my response to all this was to lie down on the gravel and photograph the snake.  However, if I hadn’t known that bull snakes are basically harmless – unless you’re a small mammal or bird – I probably would have headed quickly in another direction.  The snake probably would have preferred that…

I felt badly that the snake was putting on such a great show to no avail.  Maybe I should have acted a little more frightened.  Instead, I photographed the poor snake for a few minutes and then left it alone – hopefully before I completely destroyed its self esteem.

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The Beauty and Complexity of Prairie in Three Minutes

Several people have asked for a different version of the 30 second video I posted earlier today.  If you’re one of those viewers who wants more time to enjoy each image, try this 3 minute version.

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The Beauty and Complexity of Prairie in 30 Seconds

I frequently give presentations on prairies to various groups of people.  With some audiences, I discuss fairly technical strategies for prairie restoration or management.  Often, however, my primary goal is to introduce my audience to the idea that prairies are more than just a lot of grass.

I think it’s fair to say that most of the general public has very little feel for what prairies really are.  That makes it difficult to sell them on the value of prairie conservation.  My presentations are always heavy on photographs, and I try to tell a lot of interesting natural history stories about the diverse plants and animals found in grasslands.  I hope that when I finish, audience members will walk out thinking prairies are a little more fascinating and worth their notice than they’d previously thought.  Maybe that spark of interest will grow into eventual support for prairie conservation among at least a few of them.

As I was preparing for another of those presentations this week, I thought (not for the first time) about the need to spread that spark of interest beyond the small number of people I can speak to in person.  Online video is one medium that can help accomplish that, so I took a crack at making one.  Since I’m a person who almost never watches a video longer than a minute or two, I kept mine very short.

So – here is my very simple attempt to provide a glimpse of prairie life in about 30 seconds.  There are no stories, just a cascade of images designed to showcase the diversity of plants, animals, and prairie landscapes people might not know exist.  If people want to learn more, they will hopefully explore a little more on their own.  Maybe they’ll even find a blog they could follow…

If the embedded video above doesn’t work for you, try clicking here instead.

And, Grant?  If you’re reading this, this one’s for you pal.  If the photos don’t do it for you, try reading this short essay by Doug Ladd, one of the smartest people I know.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 8, 2015

Ok, I know I post an awful lot of spider photos.  I have a couple good excuses.  First, I like spiders.  I just do.  Second, for whatever reason, my eyes seem to find spiders as I walk through prairies.  Third, spiders are abundant in prairies (and most other ecosystems) and they play very important roles in prairie ecology.  It seems appropriate for them to be well represented in any collection of grassland images.

Spider on web on switchgrass. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.

This tiny spider made its web on the flowering head of switchgrass in the Nebraska Sandhills.  Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.

But mostly, I just like spiders.  I hope you do too.

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How big do prairies need to be?

There is an awful lot we still don’t understand about prairies (and the rest of the natural world, for that matter).  First and foremost, we haven’t even come close to discovering all the species that live in prairies.  We have probably identified all of the birds, and most of the other vertebrates, but there are still many prairie invertebrates no one has yet described.  The world of microorganisms is beginning to open up to us, but that is still, by far, the biggest pool of unknown species.  How can we manage a natural system when we don’t even know what’s there – especially when those inhabitants have a tremendous impact on ecosystem function?

It's still possible that we'll find more snake species in North American prairies, but we've surely discovered nearly all of them. This one is a juvenile eastern racer (Coluber constrictor) in TNC's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

It’s possible that we’ll find more snake species in North American prairies, but we’ve surely discovered nearly all of them. This one is a juvenile eastern racer (Coluber constrictor) in TNC’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

We need to discover more species and understand the basics of their life histories, but there are some other really big prairie questions out there that need attention as well.  I thought I’d share a few of the ones I think are most important.  I’m hoping you’ll find them thought-provoking and join me in trying to chip away at them.  We’re not going to answer any of them in the near future, but more people thinking about them and making careful observations will speed us more quickly along the path.  Because each question takes some explaining, I’ll just deal with one here and cover the others in future posts.

Big Question #1:  How big and connected does a prairie landscape need to be to support the majority of prairie species and essential natural processes?

This one has bothered me for a long time because not knowing the answer prevents us from setting reasonable goals for landscape-scale conservation efforts.  As prairie landscapes get carved up by rowcrop agriculture (e.g., the Dakotas), how do we know how much fragmentation will be catastrophic to the ecosystem?  On the flip side, in landscapes that were carved up long ago, what size prairie restoration projects should we aim for to truly restore sustainable prairie ecosystems?

We know that some prairie species require large patches of habitat.  Based on quite a bit of research on birds, we can make reasonable guesses about the size of prairie landscape needed to maintain populations of most bird species.  I’m not completely up to date on this research topic, but I think it’s fair to say that if you had a couple thousand acres of prairie and managed it for a diversity of habitat structure, you’d see most of the grassland bird species in your region show up to nest.  To ensure that those populations were large enough to survive tough years, it’d be nice to have more like 5,000 or 10,000 acres.  Depending upon where you live, that might sound like an impossibly big number or a very manageable one (Illinois doesn’t even have 10,000 acres of remnant prairie in the state, while 10,000 acres is pretty small for a ranch in the 12 million acre Nebraska Sandhills).


Upland sandpipers are found most often in larger prairies, especially those with relatively short vegetation.

Assuming that 10,000 acres is a comfortably large prairie for grassland birds, you might think we could just use that as a benchmark for other species as well.  Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with that assumption, many of which I laid out in an earlier post.  One big problem is that bird habitat (quantified largely by factors like vegetation structure and insect abundance) is not necessarily quality habitat for pollinators, ants, or many other species that rely on high plant diversity.  Each of those other species has particular needs, both for habitat size and habitat quality.

A few species (bison? prairie dogs? others?) might need considerably more than 10,000 acres to support a viable population.  However, many other species probably need considerably fewer.   In fact, 10,000 acres might seem like an entire universe to many invertebrate species – although the more we learn about insect migrations, the more complicated that picture becomes.  Is 10,000 acres enough to provide for the vast majority of prairie species?  Maybe.  We really don’t know.

Green darners, and many other dragonfly species, migrate long distances. So do a number of moths and butterflies. Other invertebrates can also travel long distances. Does that make them more or less reliant on large prairie blocks?

Green darners, and many other dragonfly species, migrate long distances. So do a number of moths and butterflies. Other invertebrates can also travel long distances. Does that make them more or less reliant on large prairie blocks?

Regardless of whether or not it’s big enough to sustain populations, we know that restoring and/or preserving a single 10,000 acre block of prairie somewhere in the central United States would not be sufficient to conserve all prairie species.  In order to preserve genetic health and allow populations to recover from catastrophic events, species need multiple habitats in multiple locations.  They also need connectivity between those habitats so that individuals can move between populations.  So, we will need multiple examples of large prairie blocks in every region of the country, with smaller prairies around and between them.  (Questions about what constitutes connectivity and how much connectivity each species needs are also big important questions, but before we address those, we first need to know how large individual habitat blocks need to be.)

Why is this so important?  I’ll give you two real world examples.  First, think about a prairie landscape that has been relatively intact for thousands of years, but is now becoming fragmented by a rapid increase in new rowcrop agriculture.  This is a situation all too familiar to conservationists in the Dakotas, where millions of acres of prairie have been converted to rowcrops over the last couple of decades.  As those conservationists struggle to protect remaining prairie through conservation easements and other strategies, they are doing so with limited time and money.  Knowing what size a prairie block needs to be to sustain species and ecosystem processes would be tremendously helpful.

Let’s say an organization obtains a conservation easement that prevents 5,000 acres from being farmed.  Should they prioritize obtaining an additional easement next to it so that if everything else in the county gets farmed up, there will still be a 10,000 acre block of prairie remaining?  What if they have to pay double the price to obtain that second easement?  Is it worthwhile?  Or should they spend the same amount of money on two more 5,000 acre easements in other locations?  Not knowing the answer to what seems a pretty basic question makes it really difficult to know how to proceed.

My second example is at the other end of the spectrum.  There are a number of large scale prairie restoration efforts going on around North America, where thousands of acres of cropland are being restored to high-diversity prairie communities.  The best of those start with a number of unplowed prairie fragments and enlarge and reconnect those through restoration. The complexes of interconnected remnant and restored grassland they build are many thousands of acres in size.  The Nature Conservancy’s Glacial Ridge project in Minnesota, Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois, and Kankakee Sands project in Indiana are all great examples of this, as is the US Forest Service’s Midewin Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.

We have proven that we can rebuild prairie landscapes of 10,000 acres and larger.  The sites look good, with beautiful plant communities and abundant wildlife, but are they big enough to sustain that biological diversity?  Should those sites be spending $15,000 per acre to buy high-priced cropland around their borders and increase the size of their restoration projects? Or should they invest those funds in invasive species control and other management needs to protect the investment they’ve already made?

Unfortunately, the answers to these fairly simple questions are not going to be simple to obtain.  We and others have taken a few baby steps by comparing the diversity and abundance of invertebrate species among prairie fragments of varying sizes and degrees of isolation, but we’re just getting started.  I think a better approach would be a large collaborative project that focuses on some of our largest, most intact prairie landscapes such as the Sandhills of Nebraska and the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma.  Studying how populations and ecosystem processes differ between core areas of those landscapes and the fragmented edges would be an excellent start.  We could learn which species might be most vulnerable to the negative impacts of fragmentation, and then focus on those species through additional research looking at how they are doing in prairies of varying sizes across their ranges.

We can learn a lot by studying how species do in the core versus the ragged edges of huge intact prairie landscapes like the Nebraska Sandhills.

We can learn a lot by studying how species do in the core versus the ragged edges of huge intact prairie landscapes like the Nebraska Sandhills.

I’ve planted this idea with quite a few people, but nothing has really taken off yet.  I’m not giving up.  This is too important.  Does anyone have a couple million dollars to spend answering one of the most pressing conservation questions of our time?

Here are a couple other examples of big research questions I think about.  I’ll address them in more detail in future posts.

1. How effective is prairie restoration (converting cropfield to high-diversity prairie plant communities) at defragmenting prairie landscapes?  Do populations of plants, insects, and wildlife in small prairie fragments grow larger and more interconnected when surrounding cropland is converted to prairie?  What are the key ecosystem components that need to be restored in order for that to happen?

2. How do prairie species respond to fire and grazing management patches, and how should that affect the scale and frequency of those management treatments?  What happens to a vole or other creature living in the unburned patch of a prairie when that patch burns?  Can it travel to other suitable habitat?  How does it know where to go?  What kinds of habitat can it cross and how far can it travel?

3. How does plant diversity influence the productivity and sustainability of grasslands, especially in ways that directly influence agricultural production?  Why should a rancher care about the plant diversity of his/her pasture?  Are there demonstrable increases in soil health, pollination services, forage productivity, forage selection, etc., and are those strong enough that a rancher would trade slightly lower annual income for them?


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Photo of the Week – October 1, 2015

This has been a week of big black spiders.  …In a good way.

First, my wife brought home a huge black wolf spider one of her biology students caught.  It stayed the weekend, and my stepson helped me photograph it on Sunday.  Later this week, I found the biggest jumping spider I’ve ever seen just outside the house at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters.  I had to photograph that too, of course…  Here are some of the photos of those spiders, and a little bit about how I got them.

Big wolf spider. Aurora, Nebraska.

A big wolf spider (Hogna aspersa).  Including its legs, it was about as long as a lip balm container.

Another look.

Another look.

To photograph the wolf spider, I utilized a long-standing technique of mine.  Some of you might remember a previous post I wrote about using a wheelbarrow as a wildlife photography studio.  I brought out the same wheelbarrow again for this spider, but had my stepson assist me by holding a diffuser (to soften the bright sunlight) and helping to keep the spider from getting away.  Having an assistant made the job much easier, though also much less humorous for any potential observers of the process.  (Though I’m still pretty sure my neighbors are keeping their eyes open for houses in better neighborhoods.  Between the pile of garter snakes beneath our backyard snake board and the giant hairy spider in our wheelbarrow, we’re not exactly everyone’s picture of the ideal neighbor!)

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

Atticus was a big help, both diffusing the light and keeping the spider contained.

When I first saw the jumping spider, I was talking with our Hubbard Fellows and waiting for someone to meet us at the house.  It was perched on a Maximilian sunflower plant in the prairie garden.  I put it in a paper bag until I had time to look more carefully at it.  Later, I took the top of the sunflower plant the spider had been on, cut it off, stuck it into a pocket gopher mound, and carefully relocated the spider to it.  The Fellows then got to watch me squirm around on my hands and knees with my camera, trying to cajole the spider into posing for the camera.  We did promise the Fellows a wide range of experiences, I guess…

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider (Phiddipus apacheanus) on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Big jumping spider on Maximilian sunflower. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Isn’t she cute?  She was nearly 3/4 inches long – the longest jumping spider I’ve seen.

I’ve spent more than 20 years looking at spiders and other invertebrates in Nebraska prairies, and I pride myself on being a fairly keen observer.  It’s an inspiring thing to me that I’d never seen either of these spider species before this week.  I hope I never stop finding new prairie species to marvel at.

…especially species that fit into my wheelbarrow!

Many thanks (once again) to Bill Beachly of Hastings College for his help identifying these spiders – which, by the way, he called “lovely ladies”.

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

Follow Up: Windmill and Bales Photo

A week ago, I posted two similar photos of a windmill and hay bales in the Nebraska Sandhills.  I asked for help deciding which was a better shot.  In case you’re curious as to results and don’t want to sort through all the comments to see which photo was more popular, I thought I’d post the answer here.

As expected, there was a strong response but no consensus…

Of the 37 people who responded with a clear preference, 20 of you liked composition #1 and 17 liked #2.  Many of you had strong feelings for one over the other, while others liked them both about the same.  Again, this is what I expected based on previous attempts to get help choosing between photos, including this one that stimulated great discussion about two bison photos.  While it didn’t help me choose between the two photos, it’s always fun to hear people’s perspectives on images.  (By the way, this is why I’ve never liked to enter or judge photo contests.  Once you winnow out those photographers who are missing the basics of using light, aperture, etc., it’s all about the personal taste of the judges.)

I do appreciate the input.  Just for fun, here’s a third option I didn’t include in the first post.  No, you don’t need to vote again…

Thanks for your help – have a great weekend.

Windmill and hay bales. Nebraska Sandhills in Cherry County.

Windmill and hay bales. Nebraska Sandhills in Cherry County.

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Photo of the Week – September 24, 2015

I showed up a little early for a meeting at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters this week.  While waiting for the others to arrive, I took advantage of morning sunlight filtering through the fog to photograph a few insects stuck in the dew.  I found a few big robber flies and dragonflies that were so cool and wet that I was able to stick my lens as close to them as I liked.  Here are four photos, two each of a robber fly and dragonfly.

Robberfly. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Robber fly. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Robberfly. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A more up close and personal view of the same robber fly.

Dragonfly and dew. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A meadowhawk (dragonfly) in a patch of western ragweed.  This is migration season, and there were several of these nearby.

Dragonfly and dew. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A second look at the same dragonfly.

Nothing like some dew and nice light to make me look like a great photographer!

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