Oddballs or Innovators?

I spotted an upland sandpiper on top of a power pole last week.  In central Nebraska, that’s not really noteworthy – upland sandpipers are pretty common across much of the state.  They tend to nest in large open grasslands with short vegetation structure, and Nebraska has an abundance of that kind of habitat.  This particular sandpiper, however, was perched on a pole surrounded by what looked to be miles of contiguous cropland.  Seeing the sandpiper in that context got me thinking about how conservation scientists deal with patterns in data and, more particularly, the outliers that don’t fit those patterns.

This is not the upland sandpiper I saw surrounded by cornfields, but another one who was living where he was "supposed" to be living - in big open grasslands near Norden, Nebraska.

This is not the upland sandpiper I saw surrounded by cornfields, but another one who was living where he was “supposed” to be living – in big open grasslands near Norden, Nebraska.

My graduate research focused on grassland birds in fragmented prairies.  I categorized bird species by the size of prairie they tended to nest in.  Dickcissels and red-winged blackbirds seemed comfortable in really small prairies, grasshopper sparrows wanted a little more space, and bobolinks and upland sandpipers were usually in large prairies.  Now and then, of course, we’d find a bird in a prairie much smaller than it was “supposed” to be in.  An outlier.  I included those outliers in the data, and their behavior was averaged in with all the other sightings, but I treated them as an anomaly – not something important.  I wonder now if that was the right perspective.

As an ecologist, I see anomalies all the time.  Behaviors of plants or animals that don’t fit what I know – or think – to be the broad pattern of behavior of their species.  For example, during the spring migration of sandhill cranes, we tell visitors that cranes prefer to hang out in harvested fields or open treeless grasslands with short vegetation structure, but now and then we see a group of cranes feeding in tall grass beneath a grove of trees.  Plants can be surprising too.  Entire-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) typically grow in lowland sites in our Platte River Prairies, but occasionally, some individuals will establish on top of a sandy ridge.  As a third example, I pay close attention to what plant species cattle graze in our prairies.  Forage selection varies by season, but there are some plant species cattle just don’t like to eat – except now and then when I find a clearly-grazed patch of Canada goldenrod, tall dropseed, or some other plant cattle “don’t like”.

It’s easy to dismiss those odd observations as unimportant results of unique circumstances.  Maybe cranes sometimes find a food source so fantastic it overrides their discomfort with tall vegetation.  Rosinweed and milkvetch plants might colonize dry sandy areas because of a lack of competition, but they might not survive for long.  And who knows why cattle do what they do sometimes…?

We usually see rosinweed in lowland areas of our prairies, surrounded by other lowland tallgrass prairie plants.

We usually see rosinweed in lowland areas of our prairies, surrounded by other lowland tallgrass prairie plants.

An agronomist friend of mine has shown me photographs of upland sandpiper nests in crop fields he works with.  It’s not an unheard of phenomenon, but it’s not representative of how most upland sandpipers act.  The birds that nest in those crop fields may be birds that were less able to defend territories in more suitable habitat.  Alternatively, maybe those birds are pioneers, forging a new path for the survival of the species!

Rather than dismissing anomalies, maybe we should be pursuing them with as much energy as we spend looking for patterns.  In this rapidly changing world, individual plants and animals that can survive where others can’t might just hold the key to conservation success.  Maybe those individuals are adapting to conditions in ways others of their species haven’t.  If upland sandpipers could figure out how to nest successfully in crop fields, for example, that would open up a great deal of nesting habitat for a species that has largely disappeared from large areas of North America.  If rosinweed can adapt to a wider range of habitat types, that might be a pretty important strategy for its survival in the face of a rapidly changing climate.  Should we be looking harder for ways to identify and facilitate that kind of adaptation?

It’s a big, beautiful, complex world out there.  It’s tempting to categorize everything we see into tidy little bundles to and simplify that complexity.  Oddballs can make life difficult, after all.  On the other hand, Nikola Tesla, John Lennon, and Steve Jobs were pretty odd, but turned out to have pretty good ideas in the end.

Maybe outliers are noteworthy after all…

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Photo of the Week – June 27, 2014

A selection of photos from a prairie ecologist’s family vacation in the mountains of Colorado…

Rocky mountain stream.

A rocky mountain stream not far from the door of the cabin we stayed in last week.  South of Idaho Springs, Colorado.

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Slow shutterspeed

Since I don’t see fast flowing water (or rocks) very often in my part of Nebraska, I don’t often get to play with the old photography trick of using a slow shutterspeed to show the movement of the water.

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slow shutterspeed again

I spent way more time than I should have on the slow-shutterspeed-trick…

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Where the snow is coming from...

We got to climb high enough to see the melting snow that was feeding all those streams.  It was fun to think about the fact that the snow melt we were looking at would be flowing right past us in the Platte River when we got home.  Hell’s Hole Trail.

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Boys and I climbed up a ridge one evening.

One evening, the boys and I climbed up a ridge near our cabin just because it was there.

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John thinks he's funny

John thought it was funny to pretend he was clinging to the edge of a cliff.  (His feet are solidly on the rocks below.)

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Favorite part of mountains are above the tree line.

My favorite parts of the mountains are above treeline where I don’t feel so closed in.  Chief Mountain.

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Dan also likes

Daniel (and his brother) lobbied hard to climb Chief Mountain, even though we’d done the same hike only a year before.  The scenery WAS very nice…

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Bristlecone pine

Bristlecone pines are found only at very high elevations.  Both the live and dead ones are very picturesque.

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Summit lake near Mount Evans.

One cool evening, we dodged some light showers and took a short uphill hike from Summit lake near Mount Evans.  The scenery was enough to take your breath away – though the 13,000 foot elevation helped with that as well…  

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Mount Evans and Summit Lake.

A  panoramic view of Mount Evans and Summit Lake from the trail.

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Douglas fir cone.

Of course, despite the gorgeous scenery, many of my  favorite photos from the trip were close-ups.  Just as in prairies, close-up photography helps me see details I would otherwise have missed.  For example, did you know Douglas fir cone had these funny little trident-like appendages on them?

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Colorado spruce

A close-up of Colorado spruce needles.

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Venus's slipper orchid, aka Fairly slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa).

Venus’s slipper orchid, aka Fairly slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa).  My wife found several of these near our cabin.  After I photographed one, I looked it up in one of the field guides in the cabin.  My favorite quote from the guide was: “Although one of our smallest orchids, Venus’s slipper is the most exquisite, as well as the most elusive.”

It was great to spend a week in cooler weather and see some different landscapes, and I really enjoyed the concentrated time with my family.  Pine and spruce woodlands are very pretty, though the alpine meadows above them were certainly my favorites.  I can see how some people really enjoy living in the mountains.  However, while I like short trips to the mountains, I am always glad to get back home to the wide open landscape of the Nebraska prairie.

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“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

It’s good to be back in the prairies after spending last week in the mountains.  The mountains were beautiful and daytime temperatures were pleasantly cool, but I sure enjoyed the chance to catch up with the goings on in our prairies yesterday.  As if to welcome me home, the weather provided about an hour of bright overcast skies and light winds around lunchtime – perfect weather for a little close-up photography.

As I wandered, I found a crab spider perched atop an upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) flower.  I’m a sucker for crab spiders, so I crept up and snapped a photograph of it.

Crab spider on upright prairie coneflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Crab spider on upright prairie coneflower. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I was surprised the spider was sitting so high on the flower – it seemed awfully visible to predators, and poorly placed to capture pollinators coming to visit the blooming portion of the flower below.  Just as I was wondering what it was up to, the spider answered my question for me.  It popped itself up on its “tiptoes” and let loose a long silk trail.

ENPO140624_D055

If you look closely, you can see a long silk thread emerging from the abdomen of the spider.

The spider was attempting a technique commonly called “ballooning”, though “kiting” seems a more appropriate term.  Small spiders use ballooning to travel long distances by releasing long silk threads into the breeze and floating off to wherever the wind carries them  Often, the spider only goes a short distance, but it’s still a faster mode of transportation than walking on short little legs!  Sometimes, if the wind is right, a ballooning spider can go many miles.

In this case, the light winds were apparently insufficient to carry the spider off, and after it failed to launch, it detached its silk thread and sat back down (dejectedly?).  I imagined the spider’s disappointment at having steeled itself for a potentially long trip only to find that it wasn’t going anywhere after all.

Oh well...

Oh well…

As I walked off, I left the spider with good wishes that it would catch a better breeze in the near future, but also with a silent warning.  It’s great to go to new and different places, but sometimes travel just helps you appreciate how nice it is to be home.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Photo Of The Week – June 20, 2014

I am writing this from a cabin in the rocky mountains of Colorado.  (Can you call it a cabin if it’s got wireless internet and satellite TV?  Probably not…)  Anyway, we’re taking a family vacation this week, so I’ve been seeing some landscapes, plants, and animals I’m not used to.

However, I got a pleasant surprise yesterday when we reached the end of a long hiking trail in the Mount Evans Wilderness.  The terminus of the trail was a high, wide open meadow (elevation 11,500 feet) with scattered bristlecone pines and abundant blooming wildflowers.  It felt much more like home than the steep wooded slopes we climbed to reach it.  Many of the wildflowers looked like they must be related to plants I know from home, but I didn’t know what many of them were – with one exception.

Pasqueflower (Pulsatella patens) at 11,500 feet in the Mount Evans Wilderness south of Idaho Springs, Colorado.

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) at 11,500 feet in the Mount Evans Wilderness south of Idaho Springs, Colorado.

I sure didn’t expect to see pasque flower at 11,500 feet elevation!  Can you believe a species found in the prairies of Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska also thrives way up in the alpine meadows of Colorado?  That’s quite a range!

Pasqueflower seedheads in the same meadow.

Pasqueflower seedheads in the same meadow.

I’ll probably post some more photos from our trip next week.  For now, you can always go look at last year’s batch

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Wetland Timelapse – Herons, Eagles, and Vultures

I downloaded timelapse images the other day from the restored stream/wetland at our Platte River Prairies.  Among the long series of photos, there were a couple interesting short stories I thought I’d share.

The first is something I’ve not seen before – a gang of great blue herons hanging out together.  I’ve seen nesting colonies of herons before, but when I see them out on wetlands, it’s almost always a single bird – rarely two, but they’re usually spaced well apart and studiously ignoring each other.  However, on May 25, a group of at least eight great blue herons spent a few hours feeding and lounging around together on our wetland.  They were there for the 3pm, 4pm, and 5pm photos but not before or after.  It’s certainly a relaxed-looking party – one of the birds was even laying down on its belly on the small island.  Have any of you seen anything like this before?

There are at least eight herons in this photo.  Maybe nine - I can't tell if the closest one is a single bird or two of them.

There are at least eight herons in this photo. Maybe nine – I can’t tell if the closest one is a single bird or two of them.

Here's a more-cropped version of the same photo.  What do you think?  One bird or two in the foreground?  And here you can see the bird laying down on the island too.

Here’s a more-cropped version of the same photo showing the main group of herons. What do you think? One bird or two in the foreground? …And here you can see the bird laying down on the island too.

The second occurrence of note included an immature bald eagle feeding on something dead, surrounded by a group of turkey vultures.  I can’t tell what’s being eaten, and of course we don’t know what happened prior to or after the photo.  It’s possible the turkey vultures spotted the eagle feeding and figured they’d hang around for leftovers.  However, I would guess the vultures were there first and the eagle bullied its way into the meal.  Regardless, it was a fun surprise to find this image!

I've titled this image, "Hey buddy, you gonna eat ALL of that?"

I’ve titled this image, “Hey buddy, you gonna eat ALL of that?”

As always, thanks to Moonshell Media for working with us on this timelapse project.

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

Realistic Motion Photography (Of Cute Fuzzy Mice)

You may remember a previous post in which I described a project to evaluate the impact of our prairie restoration work on small mammals.  Mike Schrad, a Nebraska Master Naturalist, is helping us collect some pilot data to see whether small mammal species in our remnant prairies are also using the adjacent restored prairies.  Mike is now in his second season of that project, and last week he had a great start to this collecting season.  Among other species, he caught a number of grasshopper mice and plains pocket mice in some upland sandy areas of our Platte River Prairies.

There will be more to come on those mouse species and the significance of finding them (especially the plains pocket mouse, which is a Tier 1 species (high conservation priority) in the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan).  Today, though, I wanted to share some distinctive photographs of the two species.  I hope it will be immediately clear that I’m experimenting with an exciting new style of wildlife photography – one that represents a more realistic view of how people generally see wildlife.

This might be my favorite photograph of the batch.  Note how easily you can see the smudge of light-colored fur beneath the blurry ear, and the indistinct yellowish streak along the body.  Along with size, those are the distinctive characters that best separate these pocket mice from other species.

This might be my favorite photograph of the batch. Note how easily you can see the smudge of light-colored fur beneath the blurry ear, and the indistinct yellowish streak along the body. Along with size, those are the characters that best separate pocket mice from other species.

After getting a couple of dry and boring documentary photos of a plains pocket mouse in Mike’s hand, we put one into a cardboard box in order to get something a little different.  It worked so well, we repeated the process with a grasshopper mouse.  I’m sure you’ll agree that these photographs portray these little creatures as we typically see them in the wild, unlike many of the photos you see in so-called “wildlife magazines” and “nature websites”.   Those tack-sharp photographs of animals sitting perfectly still and displaying their most charismatic features and poses in beautiful light are completely unrealistic.  Who wants to look at them?  Exactly.  What’s much more useful are photographs that show these creatures just as you might see them while hiking – a quick blur of fur zipping from one bit of cover to the next.

Here's a great shot of the long blurry tail pocket mice are known for.  Note how pink it is as it streaks past...

Here’s a great shot of the long blurry tail pocket mice are known for. Note how pink it is as it streaks past…

Here's an even better shot of the tail, without any of the distractions of the mouse's body itself.  This is how I often see mice in the field (except for the cardboard box, of course).

Here’s an even better shot of the tail, without any of the distractions of the mouse’s body itself. This is how I often see mice in the field (except for the cardboard box, of course).

When we put the grasshopper mouse in the box, I experimented with providing a more natural background of dried grasses.  I'm not sure yet if I like the effect.  It almost seems like it distracts from the subject...

When we put the grasshopper mouse in the box, I experimented with providing a more natural background of dried grasses. I’m not sure yet if I like the effect. It almost seems like it distracts from the subject…

Note the larger size, fuzzier (and shorter) tail, and grayer fur of this grasshopper mouse as it streaks past.

Note the larger size, fuzzier (and shorter) tail, and grayer fur of this grasshopper mouse as it zips past.

This one came out almost too sharp to be useful, but it does show the pointy nose that helps distinguish the grasshopper mice from other species.

This image highlights the pointy nose that helps distinguish the grasshopper mice from other species.

Some people will probably see these photos and think I’m just concocting wild justifications to cover my inability to take good sharp photographs of these little mice.  Those people obviously have no imagination or appreciation for the field of realistic motion photography, which I am currently developing and describing.  They will probably also not be among those who flock to buy my forthcoming field guide to wildflowers, entitled “Roadside Wildflowers at 60 Miles Per Hour”, in which each wildflower species is represented by a blurry streak of color that shows how it actually looks as you drive by on the highway.  I feel sorry for those people.

On the other hand, to you readers who appreciate my pioneering work, thank you for your support, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed my first attempt in this new medium.  Be assured that I’ll take many more similar photographs in the future, and will probably share some of the blurriest – and thus most useful – with you.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Photo of the Week – June 12, 2014

While I was in Iowa last week, I took advantage of some free time just before sunset to return to one of the restored (reconstructed) prairies we’d visited earlier in the day at the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area.  As I walked into the prairie, I could hear a few straggler (desperate?) prairie chickens booming on their lek and I flushed a pair of northern bobwhites from the fenceline.  Bobolinks, dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows were noisily announcing themselves across the prairie, and upland sandpipers were whistling and chattering above.  The insects were less noisy but were abundant, once I started looking closely for them.

Tall white indigo in restored prairie at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Kellerton Wildlife Management Area.

Tall white indigo in restored prairie at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Kellerton Wildlife Management Area.

As the sun lowered itself toward the horizon, I reflected upon the various ways the success of this particular prairie restoration effort could be measured.  It was certainly aesthetically pleasing, plant diversity was high, wildlife and insects certainly seemed to be responding well to it, and by replacing cropland with prairie, the Iowa DNR had – at least incrementally – defragmented the grassland landscape.  Seems like success to me!  …I decided to focus on the aesthetics for a while, and took advantage of the golden evening light until the sun disappeared completely.

A stinkbug on purple coneflower.

A stinkbug on purple coneflower.

 

Crab spider on Ohio spiderwort.

Crab spider on Ohio spiderwort.

 

A bug (Hemiptera) sits perched in the late day sunlight.

A bug (Hemiptera) perches in the late day sunlight.

 

Ohio spiderwort.

Ohio spiderwort in the afterglow of the sunset.

 

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Conservation Grazing in Iowa

I got the chance to spend a couple days in Iowa last week, talking about conservation grazing with staff of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  They invited me to join a two day workshop discussing various ways to use grazing for conservation objectives.  My main role was to kick off the meeting by providing various examples of objectives that can be addressed through grazing.  Beyond that, I was asked to participate in the remainder of the workshop and contribute thoughts and ideas as appropriate.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate, and came away with a better appreciation for the challenges faced by Iowa prairie managers.

Staff of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources discuss conservation grazing at the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area in south-central Iowa.

Staff of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources discuss conservation grazing at the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area in south-central Iowa.

I thought I’d share some of what I covered in my presentation.  Essentially, I focused on two broad categories of prairie management objectives that can be addressed through cattle grazing.  Those are:

  1. Reducing grass dominance to increase plant diversity
  2. Increasing heterogeneity of habitat

Reducing Grass Dominance

Dominant grass species can sometimes suppress prairie plant diversity by monopolizing soil and light resources.  Two categories of prairies seem particularly vulnerable to this: 1) prairies that have been degraded by chronic overgrazing or broadcast herbicide use, and 2) restored (reconstructed) prairies.  In Nebraska and Iowa, dominant grasses can include non-native invasive species such as smooth brome (Bromus inermis), Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), tall fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus), and reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea), as well as native species such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).

When attempting to reduce the dominance of these grasses, it’s important to be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish.  If the ultimate goal is to increase plant diversity, it’s not enough to just suppress the vigor of grasses.  In order to be successful, a variety of other plant species have to colonize territory abandoned by that weakened grass.  A late-spring prescribed fire can temporarily suppress the growth and vigor of smooth brome or Kentucky bluegrass, but often results in robust growth of big bluestem later that season.  Trading a dominant invasive grass for an aggressive native grass may not be success if wildflower diversity remains low.

Grazing can play an important role in increasing plant diversity by repeatedly defoliating  major grass species that limit plant diversity.  The timing, stocking rate, and frequency of grazing can all be adjusted based on the grass species and objectives at a particular site.  As an example, we sometimes combine an early spring prescribed fire with intensive grazing (through about June 1) to suppress cool-season invasive grasses such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass.  If big bluestem is abundant in the same place, we’ll leave cattle in for much of the summer as well, but at a lower stocking rate.  The strategy is to suppress both the invasive cool-season grasses and the native warm-season big bluestem while allowing other plants to thrive and expand their footprint.

At low stocking rates, cattle tend to keep big bluestem closely cropped, but don’t target most wildflower species.  We usually see an abundance of new plants growing in and amongst the weakened brome, bluegrass, and bluestem during the year of grazing and the following year.  Those new plants include both short-lived “opportunistic” plants and longer-lived perennial plants.  The result is a bump in plant diversity.  If we repeat the same kind of treatment every few years, we can often maintain a richer plant community than we can with other management options such as fire or mowing alone.

The rattlesnake master plant (Eryngium yuccifolium) in the foreground of this photo was ungrazed, in  spite of being the burned patch of this patch-burn grazed prairie.  A light stocking rate meant that even this often-favored plant was being rarely grazed in this Iowa DNR prairie.  Staff were hoping to reduce the dominance of tall fescue and allow species such as rattlesnake master to increase in abundance.

The rattlesnake master plant (Eryngium yuccifolium) in the foreground of this photo was ungrazed, in spite of being the burned patch of this patch-burn grazed prairie at Kellerton WMA.  A light stocking rate meant that even this often-favored plant escaped grazing in this Iowa DNR prairie. Staff were hoping to reduce the dominance of tall fescue and allow species such as rattlesnake master to increase in abundance.

There are countless ways to employ cattle grazing to weaken dominant plants and stimulate higher plant diversity.  I’ve written about other examples previously.  You can find a couple of those here and here.

Increasing Habitat Heterogeneity

Cattle grazing can create habitat structure that other management options such as fire and mowing can’t.  As they work to meet their nutritional needs, cattle graze some plant species (mostly their favorite grasses) preferentially.  Stocking rate, or the intensity of grazing, correlates with grazing selectivity.  At low stocking rates, cattle are free to eat only what they really want, resulting in closely cropped patches of grass interspersed with taller clumps of less palatable grasses and wildflowers.  When stocking rates are higher, cattle are forced to eat a wider range of plant species, creating a more uniformly short vegetation structure.  Both the “lower-stocking-rate-patchy-habitat” and “higher-stocking-rate-uniformly-short-habitat” can be valuable to wildlife and invertebrate species.

The ideal situation is to provide the widest possible range of habitat types within a prairie, or within a series of adjacent or connected prairies.  That way, regardless of their habitat needs, most wildlife and invertebrate species will be able to find a place to live.  Changing the location of each of those various habitat types from year to year helps keep any species (plant or animal) from becoming so abundant that it impacts other species to the point of reducing diversity.

Because of the unique vegetation structure created by grazing, a wider range of habitat types can be created with grazing than with either fire or mowing.  However, it’s also very important to ensure that grazing doesn’t have a detrimental impact on plant diversity in the name of creating wildlife habitat.  Significant periods of rest from grazing and careful monitoring of grazing impacts and populations of sensitive plant species are important.  If conservation is the primary goal, grazing should be used only when there are specific objectives to meet, not as a default strategy.

This seeded prairie has been part of a grazing system in every year since it was planted in 2003, and has maintained an excellent diversity of prairie plants.  Examples in the foreground include leadplant (Amorpha canescens).

This seeded prairie has been part of a grazing system in every year since it was planted in 2003, and has maintained an excellent diversity of prairie plants. Examples in the foreground include leadplant and Ohio spiderwort (blooming) but many others, including rare and conservative species, were abundant as well.

I’ve written much more on the topic of creating heterogeneous habitat with grazing in previous posts as well, and you can find a couple examples here and here.

Setting Useful Objectives – And Then Using Them

Regardless of the management tool(s) being employed, the biggest challenge for a prairie manager is to set clear objectives and then follow up on them.  Start by defining the outcome you want (different habitat structure, more plant diversity, etc.) and then describe precisely what success looks like.  Monitoring doesn’t have to mean spending hours on your knees with a plot frame, it just means measuring the outcome you desired.

For example, if you want more habitat diversity, you could start by listing the types of habitat structure you want (tall/dense, short sparse, patchy forbs with short grass, etc.) and how much of the prairie you’d like to be in each category.  Then, you could make a rough map of how the site looks before the treatment and estimate percentages of each habitat type.  After your grazing, fire, or mowing treatment, make another map and see if you reached your objective.

If plant diversity is important, decide how you will measure that.  This is where a plot frame and repeated sampling across a prairie can be helpful, but there are simpler ways as well.  You could pick out 3-5 small areas (less than 10 square meters) that you can find each year and then annually list the plant species you find in each area to see if that number changes over time.  You don’t have to identify all the species, just list how many there are.  If you are using grazing, it’s also important to figure out which plant species are favorites of the cattle and use that information to ensure that your management allows those plants enough rest from grazing that they can bloom and make seed every few years.

Most importantly, your objectives should drive the adjustments you make to management from day to day and season to season.  If you can define what you want, you can see if your management is moving you in the right direction.   It’s fine to change objectives as you learn, or as conditions change.  In fact, in our Platte River Prairies, while we have some broad objectives (plant and habitat diversity), we set new specific objectives and management strategies each year to respond to what we’re seeing on the ground.

Cattle grazing is just another tool that can be used for the conservation of prairies.  It’s not appropriate for all prairies or situations, but can help meet some objectives in ways that other tools (fire, mowing, herbicides) can’t.  Conservation grazing differs from ranching in that income doesn’t have to be a major part of the decision-making process each year.  On land where conservation is the primary objective, managers can decide when and how to employ grazing (or not) based purely on the conservation challenges they face.

Thanks again to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for inviting me to their conservation grazing discussion last week.  I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and creativity of the staff I met, and I look forward to hearing more about their prairie management and restoration work down the road.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo of the Week – June 6, 2014

I got up early last Saturday morning, hoping to capture some photographs of the Niobrara Valley Preserve in the light of the sunrise.  Unfortunately, the skies were cloudy, and the sun stayed stubbornly behind them as it rose above the distant hills.  The light reflecting from the prairie and adjacent woodlands was dull and muted – not good conditions for photographs.

The only contrast to be found was the reflection of the relatively bright sky off the river as I looked in the direction of the (supposed) sunrise.  I put on a long lens and aimed it toward the river, hoping to find a way to frame it.  As I played with compositions, a couple clouds brightened as the sun hit them obliquely.  The river glowed as it reflected that new light…

The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

 

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Seventeen-Year Cicadas are Back! (in Iowa, at Least)

I traveled to Iowa this week (more on that next week) and just happened to arrive during the emergence of one of the world’s most intriguing insects – the periodical cicada (Magicicada sp).  Made up of seven different species, periodical cicadas are found only in eastern North America and are named for their long life cycles of either 13 or 17 years.

This newly-emerged cicada (Magicicada sp) hadn't completely dried out yet, so it's wings weren't functional enough to fly away from me.  I put it on a stick for an easy photograph.

This newly-emerged cicada (Magicicada sp) hadn’t completely dried out yet, so it’s wings weren’t functional enough to fly away from me. I put it on a stick for an easy photograph.

All cicadas (that I know of) spend most of their lives underground as larvae before emerging for a brief, noisy life aboveground.  What makes periodical cicadas unique is not so much the length of time spent as larvae – though it’s longer than other cicada species – but rather the synchronization of their emergence.  The common dog-day cicada, for example spends multiple years underground as a larva, but we see adults every year because their emergence is staggered across years.  In contrast, periodical cicadas synchronize their emergence so the entire population in a particular area is on the same schedule.  That timing of emergence, however, does vary by region across North America, so while seventeen-year cicadas are out in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri this year, they emerged last year in an area covering states including Maryland, New York, and Virginia.  People living in eastern Nebraska will get a chance to see them in 2015.

Emerging as adults in hordes probably helps ensure the survival of individual periodical cicadas (and their species) because predators can’t eat nearly enough to put a dent in the population.  If periodical cicadas showed up in huge numbers every year or two, there would surely be predators with life cycles timed to take advantage of the abundant food source.  However, the extreme length and synchronization of the cicada life cycle has apparently kept any predator species from being able to take advantage (evolutionarily) of the phenomenon.  Fortunately for us, cicadas are harmless to people, and even the damage they do to trees by feeding and laying eggs in stems is almost always temporary.

There is much more fascinating information about periodical cicadas, but others have already covered it far more completely than I can.  If you’re interested, I strongly encourage you to visit the magicicada.org to learn more.

 

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