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…

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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!

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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

A Warm Kind of Cold

Last week, I complained about the long brown winter we’ve had, and wondered when spring was coming.  Well, it’s still brown – we missed out completely on the last snow, which had been forecast to give us up to four inches of photographic beauty.

On the upside, I went out to my favorite wetland yesterday, and while it was only 16 degrees F, it actually felt much warmer than that.  A lack of wind helped, as did periodic sunshine, but the air just felt like it was warming.  It’s an odd thing, isn’t it?  The unemotional thermometer said 16 degrees, but  I think my knowledge that the temperature was going to get above freezing later in the day (it did!) helped warm me up.

There were other signs of impending spring.  Red-winged blackbird males have returned to begin setting up and defending their territories. (Females, the smarter ones, are apparently content to wait a few more weeks until it warms up and the boys have fought their silly little battles.)  Sandhill cranes are starting to fill the sky as the annual migratory phenomenon begins again here on the Central Platte River.  I’m still waiting for the first song sparrow to begin singing, and I’m guessing it’ll be a while until I see the first bees emerging, but things are looking up.

Here’s a photograph from my short hike yesterday.  I’ll share more later this week.

A panoramic photo made up of nine different images stitched together.  The Nature Conservancy's Derr Wetland Restoration, Nebraska.

A panoramic photo made up of nine different images stitched together. The Nature Conservancy’s Derr Wetland Restoration, Nebraska.  Click on the photo to see a larger version of it that better portrays the feel of the site.

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Eliza’s Lessons for Job Applicants

A guest post by Eliza Perry, one of our Hubbard Fellows:

For the past few months, Anne and I have been helping with the process of selecting the 2014-2015 Hubbard Fellows. And OH MAN, being on the “other end” of employment seeking was incredibly enlightening, and I wanted to share with my fellow job-hunters some of the key things I learned that I’ll be keeping in mind during my own upcoming job search. Below these you will find Chris’ response to what I took away from my experience.

Eliza contemplates the complexities of the job application process.

Eliza contemplates the complexities of the job application process.  Photo by Eliza.

1. Get relevant experience. FIND A WAY! Find a way to get relevant experience in whatever direction you hope to pursue after your schooling. That might mean relocating for a summer or volunteering during your already super busy school year.

2. Enthusiasm for every aspect of the position. Especially if you want to work for The Nature Conservancy, chances are your position will include a broad variety of responsibilities. Articulating your knowledge of and enthusiasm for each of these is very important, and shows that you specifically want this position, in this place.

3. Leadership capabilities. Yes, being the head of the outdoors club or the founder of an environmental group is a plus, but it turns out leadership capabilities can be demonstrated in less obvious ways too. It’s easy to assume that only presidents of clubs and captains of teams truly have leadership experience. However leadership, especially in relation to this fellowship, means taking initiative and being the type of worker that others can successfully model themselves after. Both of these abilities can be demonstrated in almost any setting/situation, and both indicate you are equipped to contribute meaningfully to your employer.

4. Don’t be self-serving. Don’t get me wrong, it is really important to ask yourself “What am I hoping to take away from my experiences on the job?” Defining goals and a tentative metric of success and articulating these during all stages of the application process can really make an applicant stand out. However, and this is a big however, there is always a danger of focusing too exclusively (in cover letters and interviews) on what we would get out of the experience, and neglecting how we’d contribute to the employer. Coming off as self-serving, even if inadvertently, can definitely work against you.

5. Engage with your hiring committee and show your personality. Don’t treat the interview process like talking to a wall. Awkward as it can seem sometimes, hiring committees are actually composed of other members of the human species who can laugh at your jokes, respond to your inquiries, and judge your demeanor. There’s no single right way to go about it, but find ways to be who you are while also taking full advantage of the opportunity to hear about the position and show your enthusiasm. Doing so shows your personality, which is a big factor in deciding whether a candidate is right for the job and shows that you are a fellow thoughtful human being.

6. The Hulk Effect. We applicants can get caught up in the job-hunting stress and try to morph into exactly what we imagine employers want. We shed our own skins and turn into The Incredible Hulk, flexing our pumped-up resumes and bellowing “PICK ME!” We’re not meant to excel at every job because we all have different strengths and weaknesses. So the reality is you might not be the best fit for a particular position. If this is the case, it doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the merits of your application. Instead, it might mean the job isn’t right for you (but plenty of other jobs will be). I did not hear this often, if at all, from career counselors or while I was job hunting. I think rejection of this sort tends to make us feel like we’re inadequate in general, but that is simply not the case. What’s more, career counseling can make you feel like you should avoid being yourself, and instead be universally appealing—be The Hulk—but that can be spotted easily in interviews and reference checks.

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From Chris:

I think Eliza did an excellent job of capturing some key points.  Everyone evaluates candidates differently, so it’s hard to know what a particular hiring manager is going to be looking for, but I think Eliza’s point # 6 about avoiding the HULK syndrome is really good.  At least for the kinds of positions I fill, I’m not just looking at qualifications, I’m looking for the right fit – in both directions, for us as an organization, but also for the candidates in order to maximize the likelihood of a successful experience.  That “fit” can include a lot of intangible aspects related to personality and interests and how those attributes correlate with our culture and values.

When it comes down to a group of finalists, it’s rare that one person stands out in terms of their experience or other qualifications.  More often, I am left to choose between several very qualified people and I have to try to figure out who is going to meld best with our team in both complimentary and contradictory ways.  As part of that, I have to judge how well each candidate will likely get along with other staff, which is why Eliza’s point about interacting in a genuine way during interviews is so important.  The final stage of the selection process is when someone’s enthusiasm for the position (Eliza’s Lesson #2) really comes into play.  I will almost always choose someone who has the skills to do the job but also REALLY wants to be here rather than someone who might have more experience but sees this as just one of many options.

Having said that, experience is also really important, and I’m astounded by how many college students finish school with almost no relevant job experience.  Especially in the conservation field where there are far fewer jobs than candidates, the idea that you’ll get a good job just by taking classes is ludicrous.  As an employer, I’m looking for people who have the kind of real world experience they’ll need if they work for me.  Often, in my particular case, it’s experience with tools (ATVs, chainsaws, fence repair tools, etc.) or skills (plant identification, herbicide spraying, seed harvest, etc.)

When I’m hiring entry level or stewardship positions, I assume that I’ll need to train a person in the way we do things locally, but if they have at least some experience somewhere else, our training process becomes much easier.  More importantly, if a candidate has gained relevant experience elsewhere, I feel comfortable that they’ll enjoy working with us because this won’t be the first time they’ve spent long hours doing that kind of work.  If they’ve never actually done the work before, there’s a decent chance they’ll find out that it’s not as much fun as they’d hoped, and then both of us will be miserable.

Lastly, when I look at someone’s experience, I’m often willing to forgive a lack of comprehensive experience if it’s clear that they’ve taken full advantage of their limited opportunities to gain experience.  For example, I don’t expect someone just graduating from college to have 2 years of field experience.  But if I look at their resume and see that they’ve spent their summers doing construction work or waiting tables instead of finding work in conservation, I assume they’re not really serious about working in this field – especially if they haven’t compensated by getting conservation experience in other ways, such as through volunteering on weekends or evenings.

Again, not everyone thinks like I do, and hiring decisions are made for lots of different reasons, so Eliza and I would both be curious to hear from both employers and job applicants about your experiences and suggestions.  Thanks!

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Photo of the Week – February 27, 2014

For a nature photographer like me, Nebraska winters can get pretty long.  Especially winters like this one with very little snow.  How many photos of brown grass and dried flowers can I take, after all?  I don’t have the equipment or patience to photograph wildlife very well, so I’m kind of stuck with landscapes and close-up photos.

Well, a guy’s gotta photograph something…  While I was visiting my in-laws in Sarpy County, Nebraska (south of Omaha) last weekend, I decided to challenge myself to find something interesting to photograph within the small restored prairies on their property.  I guess you’ll have to judge whether or not I was successful.

Indiangrass.  Weiss Acres - Sarpy County, Nebraska.

Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans).  Weiss Acres – Sarpy County, Nebraska.

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A false sunflower seed head is backlit by the setting sun.

A false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) seed head is backlit by the setting sun.

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The double helix pattern of an open partridge pea seed pod.

The double helix pattern of an open partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate) seed pod.

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Another false  sunflower seed head.

Another false sunflower seed head…

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Another (yawn) sunflower seed head.  This time it's Maximilian sunflower.  The light was kind of interesting, though.

Another (yawn) sunflower seed head. This time it’s Maximilian sunflower. What can I say?  The light was kind of interesting.

So, there you go.  Now, how about a little snow?  Or some nice hoar frost?  Ice storm??

Spring is coming soon, right?

Sigh.

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