Konza Prairie Trip Part 2 – Tree and Shrub Encroachment

A couple years ago, I wrote about some work from Kansas State University related to woody plant expansion in prairies.  Many of us who work with prairies constantly wrestle with questions about trees in prairies. Why are they encroaching so quickly these days? What prevented them from doing that in the past?  During our recent trip to Konza Prairie, we got to discuss this topic more in-depth with Jesse Nippert and other researchers at Kansas State.

Clearly, a combination of factors influences how quickly trees and shrubs enter and spread in grasslands.  One big reason is the increase in “seed rain” in some of today’s prairies.  Prairies in fragmented landscapes with numerous trees and shrubs in nearby woodlots, road ditches, shelterbelts, etc., are deluged with seeds from those woody plants.  The vast majority of those seeds fail to establish, but the high number of seeds coming in means that some will find opportunities to grow.

Smooth sumac clones like this small one are expanding at Konza Prairie, especially in areas burned less frequently than every other year.

Smooth sumac clones like this small one are expanding at Konza Prairie and many other sites in central North America.

Other factors may include the higher rates of carbon dioxide in today’s atmosphere and higher amounts of nitrogen deposition (from industry and agricultural facilities, for example), both of which tend to favor woody plant establishment.  In addition, we are in a relatively wet climatic period if you look at the geologic record.  While there have been droughts, including severe ones, in recent years, those droughts are nothing like the multi-decade severe droughts that can be seen in the relatively recent geologic records for the central United States.  Long and/or frequent droughts favor herbaceous plants (such as grasses and wildflowers) over trees.

However, Jesse Nippert’s research into the way trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs (wildflowers) compete for water belowground provides some additional insight into the march of woody plants into prairies.  As we started talking about roots, Jesse confirmed something I’d heard from Dave Wedin at the University of Nebraska; even though grasses can have very deep roots, most of their water use is actually very shallow – within the top 25 cm of soil.  Jesse says the reason those grasses persist during very dry periods is not because of their deep root systems, but because they can continue to grow and function when available soil moisture is very low.  Forbs also pull a lot of their moisture from shallow roots, but utilize slightly deeper roots (50-75 cm deep) during droughts because they can’t compete well with the ultra-efficient fine-rooted grasses at the upper levels.

It turns out that understanding root competition might help us better understand woody plant encroachment as well.  In many parts of Konza prairie, clonal shrubs such as rough-leaved dogwood and smooth sumac have expanded rapidly over the last several decades.  As Jesse and his students have studied this phenomenon, they have concluded that an important factor behind this expansion is the strategy those shrub clones use to acquire water.  While grasses and forbs are mostly using water from the top 1/2m of the soil, shrubs pull much of their water from deeper in the soil profile, allowing them critical access to water not being utilized by their competition – especially in years when the upper soil layers are dry.

The clonal form of dogwood and sumac gives them another advantage.  As clones expand, the tillers (aboveground stems) on the outer edge of the clones have very small roots.  However, by studying the isotopic signatures of the water in those shallow-rooted tillers, Jesse can tell that they are also accessing water from deep in the soil profile.  He says this is almost surely because the older, deep-rooted plants in the center of the clone are sharing the water they acquire with the younger stems on the outside.  Not a bad strategy.

Of course, as these clones of dogwood and sumac use their water acquisition and sharing strategy to advantage and spread into the prairie, they also shade out their competition – especially beneath the tall/dense tillers toward the centers of clones.  Suppressing the growth of grassy undergrowth not only removes that competition for resources, it also helps make the clones fireproof.  Since dried grasses are the primary fuel for prairie fires, the absence of grasses beneath shrub clones means that fires can’t burn through them.  It’s not hard to see how the processes of deep water acquisition/sharing and fire-proofing can create a positive feedback loop that helps drive an inexorable expansion of shrubs into the surrounding prairie.

We didn’t talk about this in Kansas, but my experience is that fire-proof shrub clones are an important avenue for the establishment of trees as well.  Many tree seeds are deposited into those shrub patches by birds that see those shrubs as convenient and prominent perching sites.  If those seeds are able to germinate and establish within those clones – and they often can – the resulting trees can grow without fear of the fires that would otherwise threaten them.  Hiding in the middle of big shrub clones also gives those trees a chance to grow in relative safety from marauding prairie land managers…

Because much of Konza prairie has been managed under a variety of long-term fire regimes (1,2,4,10, and 20 year frequencies), Kansas State Researchers have some pretty good data on how fire frequency affects shrub expansion as well.  Essentially, prairies burned every year or every other year do not have encroachment by dogwood or sumac, but prairies burned less often are being gradually overtaken by shrubs.  Interestingly, the fastest expansion appears to be in prairie watersheds managed with a fire frequency of every four years (which is also about what the estimated average fire frequency was for that landscape during pre-European settlement).  While it might seem counterintuitive that a four year fire frequency allows for faster woody encroachment than a 10 or 20 year frequency, the explanation appears to lie in the way shrubs respond to fire.  Fire seems to stimulate radial growth in dogwood and sumac, meaning that the plants put an emphasis in growing horizontally rather than just vertically after they are burned.  Under very frequent fire, this is apparently immaterial, probably because the shrubs never get enough rest between fires to take advantage of that radial growth.  However, when they are given 3 years to recover between fires, that radial growth response after each fire means that burning actually stimulates faster expansion of shrub clones.  Under a 10 year fire frequency, that extra radial growth only occurs once every 10 years, so the overall expansion is actually slower than in under a four year fire regime.

Small research plots like these at Konza Prairie help demonstrate the impacts of various fire frequencies.  The treeless grassland to the left is burned annually.  The wooded area to the right is burned every 20 years.  Both started out looking the same.

Small research plots like these at Konza Prairie help demonstrate the impacts of various fire frequencies. The treeless grassland to the left is burned annually. The wooded area to the right is burned every 20 years. Both started out looking the same.

Before you jump to the conclusion that burning every year or two seems the obvious best strategy for shrub control, remember that woody plant suppression is only one of many objectives for prairie management.  I’ll address some of the other, less positive, effects of frequent fires at Konza in an upcoming post.

As I said earlier, there are multiple factors that affect the rate of tree and shrub encroachment on prairies.  Seed rain might be as important as anything, and climatic conditions, increases in nitrogen and carbon dioxide levels, and fire suppression are all likely contributors as well.  However, the way plants compete belowground, particularly the deep water use strategy of clonal shrubs such as dogwood and sumac, also seems to play an important role.   Frequent fire application can be one way to prevent encroachment, though it comes with other baggage (see upcoming post…) and may not help remove shrub patches once they’re established.  At Konza, they took some of the every-20-year-fire-freuency watersheds and started burning them annually to see if they could get rid of the shrubs and trees.  Thirteen years later, those patches are still there, though the individual stems are much smaller.  It seems that while frequent fire might help prevent woody plant establishment, frequent fire alone might not be able to reverse it – at least not on a very fast timeline.

Woody plant encroachment is one of the biggest challenges we face in prairie management today.  A solid understanding of the mechanisms behind that encroachment should help us design more effective strategies to combat it.  Shredding, burning and herbicide application are all useful tactics, but figuring out the timing, frequency, and intensity of those applications will be critical.  We need to use the various competitive strategies of grasses, forbs, and shrubs to our advantage.  As an example, some recent work by Dirac Twidwell (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) seems to indicate that burning under more extreme heat and drought conditions than we typically feel comfortable with might be one way to really tip the scales away from woody plants.  The feasibility of that will be limited in some landscapes, but surely there are other innovative tactics that can help.  If we work together and aren’t afraid to try some new ideas, we can figure this out.

 

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The Hidden Depths of Kim Tri

When Kim Tri (pronounced “tree) contacted us about coming out to volunteer for a month in the late spring/early summer, we weren’t sure what to think.  Why would someone from Sterling College in Vermont – a tiny little liberal arts school we’d never heard of – want to come spend a month learning about prairies and doing land stewardship work?  She said she needed to do a senior project for school which would entail keeping a journal while she was here and then producing a mural (?!) as a final product.  Hmm…

However, as we looked into her a little more, we felt a little more comfortable.  She had grown up in Rochester, Minnesota and had spent a couple years doing Conservation Corps work around the country, so she at least had some familiarity with prairies and hard work.  Plus, we weren’t in a position to be too picky – we really needed the help.  …We got back to her and said we’d be happy to host her for a month.

When Kim arrived, we were in the midst of an herbicide spraying campaign against both musk thistles and poison hemlock.  She jumped right into the fray, joined the crew, and was a huge help.  Besides being a quick study and hard worker, we also learned that Kim was an artist of considerable skill.  She showed us some of her sketches and paintings one afternoon, and it was clear she knew what she was doing.   The mural idea started to make a little more sense, though I was really curious to see what she would come up with.  Before Kim left us, I asked her to send me a photo of the mural when she finished it, and said that maybe between some of her journal writing and the mural, we could make a blog post of some kind about her experience.  (I kept my expectations fairly low.)

Kim at the Niobrara Valley Preserve during a rare moment of leisure.

Kim at the Niobrara Valley Preserve during a rare moment of leisure.

Last week, Kim sent me a photo of the mural (see below) along with a complete – and excellent -blog post, already written and ready to go.  She even had some very nice photos to illustrate the post.  I think you’ll appreciate her talents as you read her essay and enjoy her photographs and mural.  I’m going to get out of the way now and let you do that.

All the writing and artwork below are by Kim.

            The announcement that I had plans in Nebraska was treated with a sort of pitying disbelief, expressed in one word.  “Why?” I brushed this off, steering more than one of these conversations around with an inspiration drawn from the cause for which I was prepared to travel a thousand miles and back.

            Earlier this year, my answer to a similar question was much different.  I recall mentioning the idea of spending time in Nebraska or Kansas.  That time had to be spent somewhere with prairies and the folks who conserve them, according to the proposal I’d written for my senior project.  Why Nebraska or Kansas?  “Because I hate them so much,” I’d laugh.

            Let me first say that I didn’t really mean that.  Every state has its charms.  The real reason, which I was reluctant to articulate, was to challenge myself.  It was crucial, personally, to prove that prairies were as dear to me as I felt they were when I was rambling around the Green Mountains.  Would I feel the same in the midst of a state for which I held no affection?

            Really, I only personally disliked Kansas.  For me, Kansas was long, flat hours in the long, flat dark, a long, long way from anywhere called home.

            Nebraska, in my only experience of the state, was a snowstorm following me from Arizona.  It was blurry stretches of highways that had to be travelled in order to make it back to Minnesota.  Also, I remember red noses stuck on the deer crossing signs, but that’s beside the point.

            My attitude towards Nebraska came from a friend who had logged a lot of hours travelling through the state and was convinced that the country would be better off without it.  This friend visited me at the Platte River Prairies on his way across the interstate.  One spectacular sunset and an evening in the Sandhills later, he turned to me where we sat on the shag carpet of the legendary Derr House.  “So this is school for you?” he said.  “I guess you’ve got it figured out.”

            Yup, I’d say so.

Blooming prickly pear cactus along the Platte River in Nebraska.  Photo by Kim Tri.

Blooming prickly pear cactus along the Platte River in Nebraska. Photo by Kim Tri.

            Before arriving at the Platte River Prairies, the place for me was mostly a blank.  Having briefly looked over this blog while studying, I half-remembered having seen the preserve through the lens of another’s camera, but all I really had was a dot on a map.  Of all of the handy volunteer pages for the various Plains states on The Nature Conservancy website, theirs was the best put together.  It offered housing to scholarly volunteers who were interested in a month or so of work.  Decision made.

            I blew into the preserve on the harsh wind of a Plains thunderstorm, which gave way to a long, rainy day in which to think about what I’d done.  I had no apprehensions about the house, but still I felt the niggling doubt that accompanies me on every move.  Where the heck was I?  Marooned in a vast island of corn, so different from the mountains of the past few years.  Also, it was rainy.

            Still, I had to explore—meet the neighbors, so to speak.  I first became acquainted with the little prickly pear in the yard, a reassuring sign of being back west.  Then I met the yellow spring flowers, the ragwort and puccoon—sunny faces on a gray day, particularly when the sun shone on them through the breaks in the clouds.  The sudden sunlight also illuminated the grazing cows, making them appear touched with grace.  The cattle were also neighbors, which I came to accept despite my lifelong dislike of cattle.  They are essential parts of the natural community in a grassland ecosystem evolved to grazing.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) - The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.  Photo by Kim Tri

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) – The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Photo by Kim Tri

Cattle grazing along one of the hiking trails through the Platte River Prairies.  Photo by Kim Tri.

Cattle grazing along one of the hiking trails through the Platte River Prairies. Photo by Kim Tri.

           My doubt didn’t last long.  This vibrant little community of the prairie bustled with inhabitants.  Kingbirds flicked their tails, deer bounded away, hawks soared, owls called, waterfowl preened.  Insects buzzed and greeted the new blossoms.  I, too, greeted the opening flowers, alert for something new every day to write in the journal which I was tasked to keep of my time in Nebraska.  Now, as much as I appreciate Aldo Leopold, phenology had always seemed tedious.  Then, suddenly, I understood.  I was elated at the sight of the first blooming prairie coneflower.  Ever since learning to recognize it, I’d been eyeing its developing buds and waiting.

Yellow coneflower, aka upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera).  Photo by Kim Tri

Yellow coneflower, aka upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). Photo by Kim Tri

            What I remember most is a sense of peace in the tall grass.  Back in Vermont, there was no end of inspiring landscapes, but the trees and hills were becoming stifling, making me restless.  Out on the prairie, it was different.  Studying the grasslands was not like studying the forests, in a way that’s difficult to describe.  Perhaps it’s the clarity of being able to see so far.  Perhaps it’s watching the mood of the sky for warning weather, the wild power of the thunderstorms that make all calm days seem extraordinarily tranquil.

            There was something also in my timing that seemed perfect, as well.  In my brief spell at the preserve, I got to experience the last burn of the season, straggling Sandhill cranes, the Niobrara preserve and their legendary bison tours, an unusually early Field Day, and a succession of wildflowers.

Colorful clouds over the prairie before sunrise.  Platte River Prairies. Photo by Kim Tri.

Colorful clouds over the prairie before sunrise. Platte River Prairies. Photo by Kim Tri.

            Perhaps it’s always the right time to be at the Platte River Prairies.  That would explain the chronic volunteers, who indulge their prairie work like a habit, and the revolving door of visiting researchers.  And everyone had something to teach, more than I could readily absorb.  Back in Vermont, a stack of books and an unreliable internet connection were my portal into the prairies.  Being in Nebraska, I was surrounded by dedicated and knowledgeable folks, and was frankly a little spoiled.  I’d gone from teaching my senior project advisor about drought and fire ecology to living it, being schooled by others and the land.

            In a long line of good life decisions, I can add this one to the list, for sure.

Mural by Kim Tri, inspired by her time in The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Mural by Kim Tri, inspired by her time in The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  Please click on the image to see a larger, sharper version.  It’s worth it.

 

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Photo of the Week – August 28, 2014

I made a quick run out to our family prairie this week to see how our grazing management was looking.  It was a beautiful evening for a stroll, as the sun went down through layers of diffuse clouds.  The abundant rain this year has fueled tremendous growth in the prairie and has filled up the wetland to its rim.  As planned, a portion of the prairie is short-cropped by cattle grazing while other areas are either ungrazed or lightly grazed, and there was a lot of life on display.

Grasshoppers and katydids exploded around my feet as I walked around – most of them clearly adults since they were flying short distances before landing again (they only get wings after their final molt into adulthood).  They were joined by hordes of other invertebrates, including caterpillars, bees, butterflies, and many others.  I flushed a great horned owl from a big ash tree, and then was very pleased to see a rail (probably a Virginia rail) dangle its feet as it flew across our recovering wetland.  Here are a few photos from the night.

Caterpillar

I’ve seen this same species of caterpillar in a couple places this week.  This one was munching on false boneset.

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Dotted gayfeather and stiff goldenrod were both abundant upslope of the wetland.

Dotted gayfeather and stiff goldenrod were both abundant uphill from the wetland.

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A close-up view of dotted gayfeather.

A close-up view of dotted gayfeather.

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Our wetland at sunset.

Our wetland at sunset.  The addition of a couple solar-powered wells for livestock water has allowed us to exclude cattle from the pond/wetland area, and the habitat improvements are obvious.

A quick note of thanks:  This blog quietly passed two milestones this week.  I posted my 500th post, and we passed the 1,800 mark on blog subscribers.  Thank you for your continued support of this site – I hope it’s as useful and enjoyable to you as it is to me.

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Field Day Reminder – TOMORROW, Rain or Shine! Also, A Bee Photo

A reminder – we will have our Platte River Prairies Field Day tomorrow, August 27, from 9am to 3:30.  Details can be found here.

Rain is in the forecast for tomorrow, but it looks like the best chances for precipitation are before and after the Field Day.  Either way, we’ll be there and will have plenty of things to see, do, and discuss, so please plan to attend.  (However, in addition to your lunch, you might throw in a rain jacket and/or umbrella just in case.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s something completely unrelated:

As I was walking across my yard on the way home from work last night, I saw the following happening RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF MY SIDEWALK.

Two bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) trying to ensure the next generation of bumblebees.

Two bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) trying to ensure the next generation of bumblebees.

Three things.  First, this is a good way to see the sexual dimorphism of bumblebees.  (Don’t get excited – it just means that males and females are different sizes.)  Second, the stinger on the female looks like it’s in an awkward place.  Finally, the process of making new bumblebees apparently takes a while and the full attention of both parties.  I had time to go back to the truck, grab my camera gear, set up a couple flashes, and take quite a few photos.  After I got my photos, I put my gear away and walked by again and they were still going.

During the whole photography process, the bees completely ignored me, my gear, and the repeated firing of two flash units.  It seems like the bees would be pretty easy quarry for predators at times like this.  Maybe, instead of doing it in the middle of a sidewalk, it’d be a good idea to retreat to somewhere more sheltered?  (Get a room!)

Ok, everyone move along now.  Nothing more to see here.

 

 

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

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Dillon the Prairie Doctor

This post is written by Dillon Blankenship, one of our Hubbard Fellows.

Becoming a Prairie Doctor (or Living in a World of Wounds)

Last weekend I drove back to Arkansas to attend a wedding. It is a sizable drive (approximately nine hours from Wood River), but is manageable with a sufficient supply of snacks and music. The trip went smoothly enough and, with the recent honing of my plant identification skills, I was more aware than ever before of the interesting flora to be seen from the interstate. Of course, much of the scenery included corn and soybeans, but there were also many “wild” plants along the way – goldenrod, sunflowers, hoary vervain. Missouri’s I-29 was lined with Illinois bundleflower.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native wildflower commonly seen in roadsides this time of year.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native wildflower commonly seen in roadsides this time of year.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of sinister plants to be seen too. Musk thistle, drying up now, sloughed its last seeds into the wind. Old stalks of teasel formed highway-side monocultures. Sericea lespedeza engulfed the road edges and outcroppings as I entered the Ozarks and I was welcomed home by a new patch of Queen Anne’s lace beginning its invasion of the field by my house.

I acknowledge that there are some differences of opinion on exactly how invasive or detrimental some of these exotics are, but given the large amounts of time I have devoted to invasive species control thus far in the fellowship, this sea of weeds was a depressing thing to behold.

It made me think of the oft-quoted line from Aldo Leopold’s Round River essay that, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

These plants were not new to my journey. They were likely there when I first drove to Wood River to interview for the Hubbard Fellowship in February, and they were certainly there when I drove back to Arkansas in June. The difference is that now I can spot these wounds a mile away (I literally see them in my sleep). When I passed them just a few months ago, I had not yet been educated by my mentors at the Platte River Prairies, nor had I invested so many intimate hours into working with these plants (as I spaded and sprayed their cohorts into oblivion).

I am furthering my ecological education on our prairie in many ways – through mastering species identifications, studying the interactions of fire and grazing, working in restorations, conducting wildlife research, and so much more – yet the ever-present threat of invasives continues to have the most pervasive impact on me. I showed some of my friends around the central Platte recently and found myself saying things like, “…and this,” (with a graceful Vanna White arm swing)  “is all Reed canary grass” or “this pretty flower covering the sandbars to the horizon is the nefarious Purple loosestrife.” (editor’s note – we also have many areas that are not completely overrun with invasives…)

Purple loosestrife and reed canarygrass on the bank of the Platte River.

Purple loosestrife and reed canarygrass on the bank of the Platte River.

Even so, now that I am aware of the damages, I do not think I should shirk away in depression or ignore the problem to save my sanity – this assertion goes beyond the scourge of invasive species to encompass all the other wounds out there.  As Leopold continues, you have to know to see, and then you have to study so you can formulate the best prescriptions possible for healing the natural world.

Wish me luck.

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A Trip to Konza Prairie Biological Station, Part 1

Last week, several of us from the Platte River Prairies traveled south to visit the Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan Kansas.  Konza Prairie includes about 8,600 acres of prairie, jointly owned by Kansas State University and The Nature Conservancy.  The prairie is managed and used as a biological station by Kansas State University’s Division of Biology, but hosts research projects from scientists around the world.  The biological station has a three-fold mission: long-term ecological research, education, and prairie conservation.

Research results from Konza Prairie have been very influential for grassland managers across the world, but particularly in western tallgrass and mixed grass prairies of North America.  Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to report on several topics we discussed with researchers at Konza during our trip.  Today, I’ll just give you an overview of the site and our visit.

Annually-burned prairie near the headquarters of Konza Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas.  It has been very dry there since early summer, so much of the vegetation - including compass plant - is shorter than usual.

Annually-burned prairie near the headquarters of Konza Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas. It has been very dry there since early summer, so much of the vegetation – including compass plant – is shorter than usual.

We had two main reasons for our trip to Konza.  First, our two Hubbard Fellows, Jasmine and Dillon, are designing research projects on small mammals and grasshoppers, respectively, and wanted to learn from Kansas State researchers on those topics.  Second, researchers from Konza Prairie have produced some of the most important grassland science there is, and we wanted to learn as much as we could by touring the site with some of those researchers.

Our Nebraska crew in Kansas.  From left: Jasmine Cutter, Chris Helzer, Dillon Blankenship, and Nelson Winkel.

Our Nebraska crew in Kansas. From left: Jasmine Cutter, Chris Helzer, Dillon Blankenship, and Nelson Winkel.

Thursday evening, we arrived just in time to take a short hike near the headquarters as the sun was going down.  Then we went to bed early so we could get up before the sun Friday morning and accompany researcher Drew Ricketts as he checked his small mammal trap line.  Drew is comparing the small mammal communities between patch-burn grazed prairie (with cattle), annually burned/grazed prairie, and ungrazed prairie burned every four years.  Jasmine wanted to see his trapping and handling techniques and get some tips on identifying some of the species.

Checking small mammal traps at sunrise.

Checking small mammal traps at sunrise.

Jasmine (left) watches as Drew Ricketts explains how to identify a white-footed mouse.

Jasmine (left) watches as Drew Ricketts explains how to identify a white-footed mouse.

Sherman live traps laid out in a grazed portion of the prairie.

Sherman live traps laid out in a grazed portion of the prairie.

The crew watches Drew and his assistant, Kyle (right) examine and record data from captured small mammals.

The crew watches Drew and his assistant, Kyle (right) examine and record data from captured small mammals.

After we spent a couple hours with Drew, we met up with Kansas State professors Tony Joern, John Blair, and Jesse Nippert and started a four hour tour of the site that was so full of information and ideas my head is still spinning.  We looked at the portion of the site grazed by a herd of 400 bison and talked about the impacts of bison vs. cattle grazing, the role of bison in keeping cedar trees out of prairie (they’re good at it), and several other related topics.  Next, we drove through the ungrazed watersheds of Konza that have been burned on frequencies of 1, 2, 4, 10, and 20 years since as far back as 1978.  The plant composition and habitat qualities of those areas have diverged in very interesting ways through time.  We finished by looking at a (fairly) new restoration project and some small plots treated with various fire regimes and fertilizer treatments.  Along the way, we talked about myriad other topics as well…

Patch-burn grazing was being used in a portion of Konza prairie.  These cattle were grazing in the most recently burned patch, creating habitat of short grass and tall forbs (wildflowers).  Ungrazed forbs in this photo includes leadplant and purple prairie clover.

Patch-burn grazing was being used in a portion of Konza prairie. These cattle were grazing in the most recently burned patch, creating habitat of short grass and tall forbs (wildflowers). Ungrazed forbs in this photo includes leadplant and purple prairie clover.  Research has shown higher diversity of many invertebrate and other animal groups in this kind of habitat than in more uniformly short or tall grassland habitat.

The Flint Hills prairie in Kansas is named for the shallow layers of bedrock beneath the surface.  There are also many scattered rocks in the prairie that are easier to find after a fire or grazing event opens up the vegetation.

The Flint Hills prairie in Kansas is named for the shallow layers of bedrock beneath the surface. There are also many scattered rocks in the prairie that are easy to see after a fire or grazing event opens up the vegetation.

The tour group included (from left)

The tour group included (from left) Dillon Blankenship, Jesse Nippert (KSU), John Blair (KSU), Jasmine Cutter, Nelson Winkel, and Tony Joern (KSU).

By the time Tony, John, and Jesse headed back to campus, we were ready to head home – not because it was hot (it was) or because we were hungry (we were), but because we didn’t feel like we could cram any more new information into our heads.  As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ll try to synthesize some of that information for you over the next couple of weeks, but I’ll also try to put it into small manageable doses.

Stay tuned!

Nelson and the Hubbard Fellows enjoy a rainbow over the prairie.

Nelson and the Hubbard Fellows enjoy a rainbow over the prairie.

 

Earth, sky, and grass at Konza Prairie.

Earth, sky, plants, and grazers at Konza Prairie.

Posted in General, Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Photo of the Week – August 21, 2014

I’ve written before about how many times I often snap the shutter on my camera to make sure I get the photo I want.  Digital photography makes that a cheap insurance option and gives me lots of images to choose from when I review them later.  However, I don’t always get the opportunity for multiple shots.

I had my camera out for a walk a few weeks ago, and while I was photographing a bee, I noticed a bush katydid on the prairie clover flower next to me.  I swung around slowly and squeezed off exactly one shot before it flew off.  As you can see from its camouflaged body, there was no hope of finding it again, so I had to move on.  I figured there was no chance the one shot I’d taken was sharp, well-composed, and correctly exposed for light, so I just forgot about it.  Imagine my surprise when I was looking through photos later and saw this….

A bush katydid feeding on purple prairie clover.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A bush katydid feeding on purple prairie clover. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Sure, I could brag about my lightning quick reflexes and fast thinking, but the truth of the matter is that this image came from mostly blind luck.  I had been planning to take a series of images to get multiple angles and compositions of the katydid, but most importantly, to ensure that I got the eye in sharp focus.  Instead, I got one shot that just happened to turn out just fine.  I’ll take it!

Many of you, I’m sure, will remember information I’ve passed on previously about how katydids can be distinguished from grasshoppers by their antennae length and how they hear through the tympana in their “elbows”, but in case you’ve forgotten, you can read about that in a post from earlier this year.

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A Special Volunteer

Volunteers are a critical part of our stewardship work at the Platte River Prairies.  We don’t have a lot of them, but we’ve been lucky to have some great ones.  All of our volunteers are appreciated, but we have special gratitude for those who commit so much time they are essentially staff – except we don’t have to pay them!  One of those terrific volunteers over the last three seasons has been Sam Sommers, a high school student from Kearney, Nebraska.  When his dad first approached us about Sam doing some volunteer work as a young high schooler, we wondered whether it would be worth our time, but figured that anyone with that much interest deserved our attention.  And man did we get our money’s worth (so to speak)!  He spent the vast majority of three summers working – very hard – alongside our stewardship staff.

Sam Sommers (left) helps last year's Hubbard Fellow Anne Stine and (then) Missouri Dept of Conservation ecologist Mike Arduser with some bee collectionin 2013.

Sam Sommers (left) helps last year’s Hubbard Fellow Anne Stine and (then) Missouri Dept of Conservation ecologist Mike Arduser with some bee collectionin 2013.

Sam is going off to study wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming this fall.  They are lucky to have him.  I could say a lot about how much we appreciate everything Sam has done for us – and we really do – but one of our Hubbard Fellows, Jasmine Cutter, stepped up to do it for me.

By Jasmine Cutter:

When I first got to the Platte River Prairies, I wasn’t sure who I was going to meet when I heard “Sam” mentioned. Based on Eliza’s (former Hubbard Fellow) enthusiasm – “Sam’s the best!!” – and Nelson’s nodded affirmation, I assumed that I was about to meet a celebrity. I have to say, Sam has lived up to the hype. He is tireless, curious, knowledgeable, and a real trouper! Sam is a master of the killstick, a seed-collector speedy enough to rival Chris (editor’s note: ok, he’s really good, but not THAT good), and a tireless thistle destroyer.

Here is Sam harvesting seeds along a restored Platte River wetland this summer.

Here is Sam harvesting seeds along a restored Platte River wetland this summer.

Coming into our Hubbard Fellowship just as the growing season was starting to take off was pretty overwhelming – long days, many different invasive species to learn, new tools to master, not to mention trying to figure out where all the sites are. Dillon and I often relied on Sam’s seasons of experience working here. His advice and assistance allowed us to operate fairly independently from Nelson, freeing up Nelson to work on other projects. Our introduction to stewardship wouldn’t have been nearly as smooth without Sam’s help.

Really, the thing that impresses me the most about Sam – besides his competency – is his work ethic. He is out here every day dealing with exactly what we’re dealing with: battling the mosquitoes/ticks/chiggers, the sometimes dispiritingly large patches of thistles, the sweaty herbiciding goggles, the heat, the long days… It’s hard to fathom how much more Chris and Nelson have been able to accomplish with Sam here. He has removed hundreds of trees, killed thousands of thistles and other invasive plants, collected dozens of gallons of seeds, and completed myriad other tasks that never would have happened without Sam. With a work ethic like his, I have no doubt that Sam will do great in college – it might even be a restful experience after his stint here. We will greatly miss Sam, and I can’t wait to hear about what he gets up to in the future!

Sam helped Jasmine and Mike Schrad (Nebraska Master Naturalist) with some small mammal trapping this summer.  Photo by Jasmine Cutter.

Sam helped Jasmine and Mike Schrad (Nebraska Master Naturalist) with some small mammal trapping this summer. Photo by Jasmine Cutter.

Sam, THANK YOU very much for everything, and have a great time at college! – Chris H

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Photo of the Week – August 15, 2014

Wasps are closely related to bees and ants, and some can be difficult to distinguish from their cousins.  In this case, the long body makes me pretty sure this is a wasp (though body length is not always a good cue), but I don’t know what kind of wasp it is.

A wasp on purple prairie clover.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A wasp on purple prairie clover. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Most wasps are parasitoids, which means they capture and paralyze prey with venom from their stinger and then feed that still living, but paralyzed, prey to their wasp larvae.  Usually, wasps specialize on a particular group of invertebrates (spiders, cicadas, grasshoppers, etc.).  As with most insect groups, wasps are more abundant than you might think, and if you really start looking for them, you’ll find them all over.  Most are not aggressive toward people and will sting only if you force them into it.

While the larvae of parasitoid wasps feed on paralyzed invertebrates, adults feed on pollen and nectar, and are pollinators for many plants.  The one in the above photo, for example, has pollen stuck all over its face and body.

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Next Field Day – August 27, 2014

We put together a draft agenda for our next Platte River Prairies Field Day, which will take place on Wednesday August 27 at our site south of Wood River, Nebraska.  The agenda is a draft only because we may add additional sessions and topics between now and then.  I hope to see you there!

You can download a PDF of this agenda here.

DRAFT AGENDA

9am – 9:15am

Introduction of the day’s sessions and orientation to the site.

 

 9:15am – 10:30 Sessions

Seed harvesting techniques – Bill Whitney

Tree killing techniques – Nelson Winkel and Dillon Blankenship

Small mammal ecology – Jasmine Cutter

Reading the prairie – Chris Helzer

 

10:45am-Noon

Invertebrate predators and other little critters – Julie Peterson

Seed harvesting techniques – Bill Whitney

Plants for pollinators – Jennifer Hopwood and/or Pete Berthelsen

 

12pm – 12:45pm – Lunch (bring your own)

 

12:45-2pm

Tree killing techniques – Nelson Winkel and Dillon Blankenship

Plants for Pollinators – Jennifer Hopwood and/or Pete Berthelsen

Reading the prairie – Chris Helzer

 

2:15-3:30

Seed storage and cleaning – Nelson Winkel

Reading the prairie – Chris Helzer

Invertebrate predators and other little critters – Julie Peterson

 

Session Descriptions

Seed harvesting techniques.  Bill Whitney, co-founder and director of Prairie Plains Resource Institute will provide demonstrations of how to harvest seed for prairie restoration, including how to identify when seed is ripe enough to harvest, how to hand-harvest efficiently, and other tips from his more than 30 years of prairie restoration experience.

Tree killing techniques.  Nelson Winkel and Dillon Blankenship of The Nature Conservancy will share tips on and do live demonstrations of three methods of deciduous tree control: basal bark treatment, cut stump treatment, and hack-and-squirt.

Small mammal ecology.  Jasmine Cutter of The Nature Conservancy is live trapping small mammals in the area and will talk about her results (and hopefully have live mammals to look at).

Reading the prairie.  Chris Helzer of The Nature Conservancy will talk about how to evaluate the management needs of a prairie.  Questions addressed will include: What plants are most important to pay attention to?  What do they tell you?  What are the important types of habitat structure to look for and how much do you need of each?  Which invasive species are important and how do you know when/how to attack them?  How do you know whether an area could benefit from fire and/or grazing?  This hike/session will be in a different prairie each time, so can attend multiple sessions if you like.

Invertebrate predators and other little critters.  Julie Peterson, UNL Assistant Professor of Entomology and Extension Specialist will lead a hike to find, identify, and discuss the ecology of invertebrates of all kinds, but with a particular focus on predators.

Seed storage and cleaning.  Nelson Winkel of The Nature Conservancy will lead a tour of TNC’s seed barn and talk about/demonstrate how to dry and process seed after harvest and how to store it until it’s time to plant.

Plants for pollinators.  Jennifer Hopwood of the Xerces Society (tentative) and Pete Berthelsen of Pheasants Forever will talk about which plant species are most important to pollinators.

 

OTHER INFORMATION

The Derr House is located 2 miles south of the Wood River exit off of Interstate 80 (Exit 300).  Turn south immediately after the highway curves to the east and you’ll be there.

For more directions to the site, go to: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/nebraska/placesweprotect/eastern-nebraska-platte-river-native-prairie-nature-trail.xml

Some snacks and cold drinks will be provided, but please bring your own lunch, sunscreen, bug spray, drinking water, and whatever else you need for a day in the field.

You are welcome to come for part or all of the day as your schedule allows.

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