2014 Patch-Burn Grazing Meeting – Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

Curious about patch-burn grazing?  Want to get together with other grassland enthusiasts, ranchers, researchers, and wildlife managers and talk about a variety of ways to manage for diverse wildlife habitats and plant communities?  The annual Patch-Burn Grazing Meeting might just be for you.

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A photo from the field tour of the 2013 Patch-Burn Grazing meeting in South Dakota/Minnesota.

This is an annual, and informal, gathering held at a different location each year.  This year, we get to host it here at the Platte River Prairies, so we’ll be sharing some of what we’ve learned (successes and failures) about managing prairies with various combinations of fire, grazing, haying, and other tools.  Discussion topics will also include potential differences between how patch-burn grazing works in southern vs. northern grasslands, whether/how it might work on Nebraska sandhills ranches, alternate methods for creating habitat diversity besides “traditional” patch-burn grazing, and some practical issues such as figuring stocking rate and dealing with livestock health issues.

The meeting will be held August 13 and 14 in Grand Island, Nebraska, with a tour on the 14th of our Platte River Prairies just to the west.  There is no registration fee, but food and lodging will be at your own expense.  If you’re interested in attending, you can see the agenda for the meeting here and the registration form here.  Registration is due July 20.

 

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Eliza’s (Sort of) Farewell

This is Eliza Perry’s final blog post as a Hubbard Fellow.  However, as you’ll see below, it is not the end of her employment with The Nature Conservancy.  Meanwhile, two new Fellows have moved in to fill the void left by Eliza and her fellow Fellow, Anne Stine.  Dillon and Jasmine will be introducing themselves to you shortly.

 From Eliza -

For me, Friday June 6th marked the last day of a wild ride—a totally unforeseen, extraordinary, defining year of my life. I had been stalking The Nature Conservancy’s employment website for weeks before this incredible opportunity popped up and I went for it with all I had. This has easily been the most fulfilling year of my life and I know I have learned a great deal more than I could have ever anticipated.

Eliza gave a presentation on her Fellowship year and accomplishments at the May Board Meeting of The Nature Conservancy's Nebraska Chapter.

Eliza gave a presentation on her Fellowship year and accomplishments at the May Board Meeting of The Nature Conservancy’s Nebraska Chapter.

Under normal circumstances, I would have documented every day of my last few weeks, taking upwards of a thousand photos in fourteen days. Tragically, I dropped my camera while filming our wetland restoration at night so words will have to suffice. Growing season is such a busy time for us, but I had to leave just as it was getting underway. Invasives like musk thistles and poison hemlock were becoming very apparent features in certain areas of our properties, and we use this early window to beat them back before they outrun us. I also got to hang out with and train the next class of Hubbard Fellows, which was an incredible privilege because maybe the best part of all this is knowing others will be able to experience something like my year at the Platte River Prairies.

I’m writing this with my feet dangling off a pier in my hometown, looking out on a view that I took for granted my whole life. But the blue ocean doesn’t feel like home right now because I’m missing the golden green oceans in Nebraska. I could not be more excited about the fact that I will be back to the Good Life in a few weeks to start in my new position with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska as our Major Gifts Manager in Omaha! I am thrilled (and nervous) and convinced that there could not a better continuation of my journey in conservation. I’ll be entering the whole new world of fundraising alongside my favorite TNC chapter.

While rummaging around in my old bedroom after returning to Maine, I found letters I wrote in high school to lots of intangible, inanimate things during a peculiar phase in my journaling habit. The following is a sample of my letter to nature:

“Nature,  I just want you to BE there for all of time and forever, doing your thing as you see fit. I know I personally get in your way and so do billions of my peers, but what I plan to do is use my life to help keep you on track in at least my little corner of the world.”

While I might have worded that a little differently these days, it still perfectly describes why I am working in the field of conservation. I want Nebraska’s beauty to continue to exist and thrive because it must and because it ought to. Everyone in conservation has their own reasons for fighting the good (often steeply uphill) fight, but this past year has made it only more of a compulsion for me.

Eliza got experience

Prescribed fire was just one of the activities Eliza (left) gained experience with during her Fellowship year.

And boy was I in good company. As all of the visitors to this blog know, Chris Helzer is a marvel and an inspiration. His passion can sway some of the most staunchly opposing forces. I am still amazed I got to work with him and try to absorb some of his wisdom. The same goes for Nelson Winkel, land manager at the Platte River Prairies, who is truly my hero. The amount of work that each of them and all the other staff members at our chapter accomplish every day is astonishing. The fellowship is only one of innumerable things vying for their attention, but we were always given the support and guidance we needed to get ourselves working independently and well. This chapter, especially trustee Anne Hubbard whose generosity is the reason I just spent the year with TNC, recognizes the important voice that inexperienced aspiring conservationists can contribute to the cause of protecting and enhancing natural resources. Together we have pioneered a growing movement within the organization to provide professional development opportunities to young people so they can propel conservation forward.

Ending one chapter and beginning another always feels surreal and I tend to get extra sentimental. I am so proud to be a Hubbard Fellow. I feel fortunate beyond words to have spent the last twelve months with my mentors on the Platte River working for an organization that does so much good for the world and for Nebraska.

 

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Photo of the Week – July 3, 2014

I was back up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last weekend.  The weather was beautiful, and so were the sandhills.  A few of us went exploring in the late evening, but the sun was hiding behind clouds, so photography wasn’t much of an option.  However, after we got back to headquarters, I glanced up and noticed the entire sky had turned almost blood red!  I grabbed my camera and the closest vehicle and raced up to my favorite vantage point.

The color was already starting fade a little by the time I arrived, so I quickly popped my wide angle lens on and looked around for some foreground to put in front of that sky.  I found a spot, set up the tripod and  ….the camera wouldn’t work.  Ack!!  It took me a few frantic moments to figure out that the lens hadn’t mounted correctly, and a few more to get it off and back on the right way.  By that time, much of the color had left the sky, but there was still enough to squeeze off about three photographs before it disappeared completely.

Here’s one of those three photographs…

Sunset over the Niobrara River.  The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Fading sunset over the Niobrara River. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Have a great Fourth of July!

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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…

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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