Photo of the Week – January 29, 2015

Ok, I admit it – I’m a sucker for crab spiders.

A crab spider on Flodman's thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.

A crab spider on Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.  July 2014.

As much as I enjoy looking at prairie flowers, I enjoy them even more when there’s a crab spider lying in wait among their petals.  I must have more than a hundred photos of crab spiders on flowers, but when the lighting is good and I see those long hairy legs and cute little face… I just can’t help myself!

Do you suppose I need some kind of intervention?

“Hi, my name is Chris Helzer and I really like crab spiders.”  (Hi Chris…)

“It’s been three weeks since I last photographed a crab spider…”  (Applause)

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A Travel Week Plant Quiz

I’m writing this from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where I am preparing to speak at and attend the 2015 Native Prairie Restoration and Reclamation Workshop hosted by Saskatchewan Prairie Conservation Action Plan.  It’s my first trip to Saskatchewan, and I’m excited to meet a lot of new people and learn about a prairie landscape I’m not very familiar with.

The view from my airplane window as we approached Saskatoon from the west today.  A beautiful landscape with lots of wetlands scattered across it.

The view from my airplane window as we approached Saskatoon from the west today. It’s a beautiful landscape with lots of wetlands scattered across it.

Because of my travel schedule this week, I didn’t have time to write a pithy or entertaining blog post.  Instead, I’m just posting a photo of a prairie wildflower that is common in the sandhills of Nebraska (and other sandy habitats in central North America – including Saskatchewan) to see if you can identify it.  Since I know some of you will get it pretty easily, I’ll put the name of the plant in the comments section below and you can check your answer against it.

Can you name this wildflower?  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Can you name this wildflower? The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Finally, to compensate you for such a short (and odd) blog post, here is a link to one of my favorite posts from way back in January 2011.  Many of you were not following the blog back then, and I think it’s a story worth reading.  I hope you enjoy it.

Posted in General, Prairie Animals, Prairie Management, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Photo of the Week – January 23, 2015

There are a few subjects I can’t seem to keep from photographing.  Milkweed seeds, for example.  Patterns of ice on frozen wetlands.  Dew-covered insects.  And sunflowers.

What flower is more distinctive?  Their bright yellow color and big round flowers stand out, even in the most showy of flowery prairies.  Insects seem to find stiff sunflower attractive too, based on the number of insects I’ve found and photographed on them.

Plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) in restored sand prairie.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) in restored sand prairie. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

We’re fortunate to have seven different species of sunflower in our Platte River Prairies, five of which are perennials.  The above photo is of one of the two annuals, plains sunflower, which inhabits the drier sandy uplands of our sites and is very abundant in the Nebraska Sandhills to our north.

I have plenty of sunflower photos I like, but this is one of my favorites from last year.  I like the overall composition, but I also like that the sunflower in the foreground is atypical.  Something has prevented the petals (ray florets, for you botanists) from developing completely.  It’s interesting (and not unattractive), and also stimulates questions about what happened, and why.

I like mysteries…

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Ruminations on Tree Planting and Prairie Conservation

Trees are great, but trees in and around prairies can negatively impact habitat quality for many grassland plant and animal species and provide points of introduction for invasive species.  Encroachment by trees has become a major threat to prairie conservation in many landscapes.  

A few months ago, I cut across the courthouse lawn on my way home from the office (I was walking – it’s a small town).  On the west side of the courthouse, there are a number of statues and other monuments memorializing veterans of various wars.  In the midst of those, however, is a very different kind of memorial (pictured below).  This plaque-on-concrete memorial got me thinking – yet again – about our relationships with trees, our desire to plant and care for them, and how that affects our former, current, and future relationship with prairie.

We love trees so much, we use them to memorialize important events and people in our lives.  Sometimes, we then create memorials to honor people who plant trees!

We love trees so much, we use them to memorialize important events and people in our lives. Sometimes, we even create memorials to honor the trees and the people who planted them!

I live in Nebraska, home of Arbor Day.  Early European settlers of Nebraska were enthusiastic tree planters for both practical and aesthetic reasons; our legislature even designated us as “The Tree Planters State” back in 1895.  There were good reason for all that tree planting.  It’s certainly nice to have shade around one’s house and yard, and a grove of trees provides a valuable shield from strong winter winds for both homes and livestock.  In addition, early settlers found the open prairie lacked adequate wood for fuel and building materials.  However, despite the numerous practical uses for trees, I think most tree planting was and is done primarily as a way to make the landscape more visually appealing.  People just like trees.

This brings me to my contemplation of tree planting and prairie conservation.  Research has shown that when given a choice, people seem most attracted to the aesthetics of a savanna-like landscape – one with scattered trees and short grass.  That mindset is evident in the way we design our yards and parks.  Not only do we enjoy having trees, we really like to plant them ourselves.  We gain immense satisfaction from the simple act of digging a hole and plopping a seed or small seedling in the ground, knowing that we and future generations will be able to watch that tree grow skyward.  The trees we plant often become almost family members in the way we celebrate their growth and mark time by how big the trees were when such and such happened.

The landscaping around the Hamilton County, Nebraska courthouse (where the above plaque is located) is a great example of the kind of scattered trees/short vegetation landscape humans find aesthetically appealing.

The landscaping around the Hamilton County, Nebraska courthouse (where the above plaque is located) is a great example of the kind of scattered trees/short vegetation landscape humans find aesthetically appealing.

This brings up two issues for those of us working to conserve prairies.  First, we’re starting from a handicapped position when we advocate for prairie conservation because prairies are not what most people visualize when they think of natural beauty.  Given the choice between a treeless grassland and a park-like landscape dotted with trees, most people would choose the wooded park as a site to photograph, hike or picnic, or build a house.  In fact, there are countless examples in which people buy a small patch of prairie for a recreational property and immediately plant numerous trees to make it “look nicer.”  We really haven’t changed much from our European settler predecessors in that regard.

Second, we haven’t yet found a prairie-related analog to tree planting; a simple activity that creates something people can take ownership of, love and nurture.  Planting trees is so easy a child can do it, and with very little investment of time or money, someone can establish a couple trees that become treasured landmarks or memorials – – which further reinforces people’s love of trees and wooded areas.  In contrast, planting prairies is fairly complicated and requires more space.  It also takes a few years for a planting to grow out of its weedy phase and start to look like a prairie.  Prairie planting can certainly be rewarding, but it’s not nearly as simple, accessible, and instantly gratifying as tree planting.

Many people find wide expanses of open prairie impressive, but not alluring.  How do we get people to care about and nurture landscapes and ecosystems they have to work to appreciate?

Many people find wide expanses of open prairie impressive but not alluring. How do we get people to care about and nurture landscapes and ecosystems they have to work to appreciate?

So how can we help people connect with prairies in the same way they connect with trees and wooded landscapes?  I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas.

1) We need to encourage more people to spend time in prairies and make sure they enjoy themselves when they go. It can be a definite challenge to convince someone to take a walk in a prairie.  Even worse, when people do step foot in a prairie, many are unimpressed because they don’t really know what to look for or how to appreciate what they’re seeing.  As a result, they often walk away with an even less favorable opinion than before they came.  “It was just a lot of grass!  And I was pulling ticks off myself all night!”

A good naturalist and interpreter can lead someone on their first prairie excursion and make it a positive and thought-provoking experience.  There is no substitute for the expertise and enthusiasm of a good leader, but there aren’t enough of those people to go around.  Several Nebraska Master Naturalists approached me last year with an idea to create a “Prairie Exploration Guide” – a pamphlet/booklet designed to help newcomers to prairie see the beauty and complexity they might otherwise miss.  The guide is still in the development stage, but I have high hopes that it will be a useful tool when it’s done.

2) Using native prairie plants in landscaping is becoming increasingly popular. The public’s concern over population declines of bees and monarch butterflies is helping to spur the movement, as are issues such as water conservation.  There is no question that getting the public to buy, plant, and appreciate native prairie plants in their backyards is a major step toward building a prairie conservation constituency – and backyard prairie gardens also make real conservation contributions on their own.  Significant obstacles still hinder the movement, especially our cultural norms about what yards and gardens are “supposed” to look like, but I am optimistic about the future.

3) One successful method for engaging people in prairie conservation at our Platte River Prairies has been through seed harvesting. People identify with both the value of seeds and the idea of restoring lost habitats.  Harvesting seed is a tangible way people can contribute toward something important; they can measure that contribution by the amount of seed piling up in their buckets.  Ideally, harvesters come back and help plant the seed they picked, and then visit regularly to watch the prairie planting develop over time.

I hope that helping me harvest and plant seeds at our family prairie will help my kids develop a love for grasslands.

I hope that helping to harvest and plant seeds at our family prairie will help my kids develop a love for grasslands.

Along those lines, one of the most inspired strategies I’ve seen to engage people in prairie restoration was being done by Wayne Pauly in Dane County, Wisconsin.  I went on a tour of some of his prairie restorations back in 2004 and was very impressed with both his plantings and his involvement of volunteers. Most particularly I liked Wayne’s strategy of having volunteers “paint the prairie” with seeds during prairie plantings.  He’d give each volunteer a bucket of seeds of one prairie wildflower species and let them decide how and where to plant those seeds – allowing them to create a pattern or design of their choice (thus the idea of “painting”).  That is a brilliant idea, and one that should not only be fun on planting day, but should also draw those volunteers back in subsequent years to view the results of their work.

Humans have a long and strong relationship with trees, one that is likely embedded within our DNA.  Tree planting is an easy, accessible, and tangible way to contribute something to the natural world.  Unfortunately, tree planting doesn’t do anything to help prairies, and can sometimes be counterproductive if trees are planted in or near open grassland.  If prairie conservation is to succeed, we need to get the public excited about grasslands and combat the perception that prairies would look a lot prettier if they just had some trees growing in them.  More importantly, we need more strategies that actively connect people with prairies and give them the same sense of fulfilment they get from planting trees.  I think we’re getting better, but we have a long way to go.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Photo of the Week – January 15, 2015

Earlier this week, I wrote about interesting holes in the bark of burned ponderosa pine trees at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  However, I wasn’t actually focused on documenting holes in trees at the time – I was just looking for interesting photo compositions.  Ponderosa pine bark patterns are always fun to explore, but the additional contrast between the tawny browns and the charred black from the wildfire created even more intriguing images than usual.  The photo below was my favorite from that trip’s pine bark art.

Ponderosa pine bark on a burned tree at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Ponderosa pine bark on a burned tree at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

The photo reminds me of a Rorschach test.  What do you see in it?  I see the tall face of an angry looking man looking to the right.  He may or may not be sticking out his tongue.  I think I’d prefer not to hear Dr. Rorschach’s diagnosis of my personality characteristics…

Posted in General, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

DON’T PANIC! It’s just a crane fly.

“WOW!  That’s a GIGANTIC mosquito!!”

That is a common response to most people’s first sighting of a crane fly, a flying insect with a wingspan of 1-2 cm or more.  Although they do somewhat resemble very large mosquitoes, crane flies are completely harmless to humans.  Crane flies are one of many groups of insects that are widespread and diverse, but almost completely unknown to most of us.

A crane fly on indiangrass at Lincoln Creek Prairie - Aurora, Nebraska.

A crane fly on indiangrass at Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

There are apparently over 15,000 species and subspecies of crane flies worldwide.  Raise your hand if you’d heard of them before this post…   Exactly.  That’s not a knock on you, but an indication of the great complexity and diversity of the our world.

The photo above is – I think – of a female tiger crane fly (Nephrotoma ferruginea).  That identification isn’t based upon any particular knowledge of mine, but upon a search of the fantastic website    I know diddly poo about crane flies, but according to a short blurb I found at this link , the larvae of this species hang out in the soil and eat decaying plants and roots. Most adult crane flies only live a week or two – just time to find a mate and lay eggs before dying.

Crane flies are common in prairies, but also easy to find in many other habitats, including backyards, so there are plenty of opportunities to mistake them for huge mosquitoes.  If you start keeping your life list of crane fly species now, maybe you can get all 15,000 of them by sometime next century…

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

A Hole New Mystery to Consider

On my last trip to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I photographed the bark of wildfire-killed pine trees in warm late day light.  I liked both the patterns and the color and was just trying to make some visually-interesting images.  As I was taking the photos, I saw numerous small holes in the trees but didn’t think much about them.  Holes in dead trees are not really unusual, after all.  Upon looking at the photos later, however, I noticed something intriguing – many of the holes seemed to have a funnel shape, or beveled edge, at the surface of the tree.


Tiny holes in the bark of a standing dead ponderosa pine tree killed by a 2012 wildfire.  The two near the center of the image have a funnel-shaped or beveled edge to them.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

I couldn’t come up with a good explanation for that beveling, so I did what I usually do when I can’t identify something – I sent the photos to people with more expertise and begged for help.  Ted MacRae was kind enough to respond that except for the flared ends, the perfectly round holes might have been created by adult pine sawyers (Monochamus spp.).  James Trager liked my speculation that perhaps something like a woodpecker might have chipped away at the holes, looking for an invertebrate meal, and added nuthatches and chickadees as other options.  But none of us have a good answer.

After hearing back from Ted and James, I looked more closely at other photos from that evening and noticed something else that might or might not be a useful clue.  Not only had the edges of some of the holes been chipped (?) away, but there were similar marks elsewhere on the bark.  I’m not sure if those are related to what happened around the margins of the holes or not.  In the photo below, look at the “pitting” – especially in the top left quarter of the image.

More holes in trees.

More holes in trees, along with tiny chipped or pitted marks, both around the insect(?) holes and elsewhere.

Is some creature (bird?  insect?  microbe?)  chipping away at the tree?  If so, why?  And is that creature chipping away at the edges of holes made by beetles too?  And if so, WHY?  Or, are the beveled edges of the round holes a separate phenomenon from the pitted surface of the bark elsewhere?

I guess it’s good for my brain’s health to ponder mysteries like this, and it’s fun to think through all the possibilities.  On the other hand, it would also be fun to KNOW WHAT THE HECK IS HAPPENING HERE, so if you have good theories – or even better, actual answers – please let me know!

I didn’t measure the holes, so I hesitate to give estimates of their size, but they were really small.  Maybe 3-4 mm across?  I didn’t give that info to Ted (but I should have), and I’m wondering now whether the holes were actually too small for pine sawyer beetles.


Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Photo of the Week – January 8, 2015

I was able to take a trip up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve just after the first of the year.  Snow covered the ground and it was bitterly cold much of the time I was there, but there was one evening’s worth of good light and reasonable temperatures that allowed for some photography.  Here are two images from that evening that show the landscape from two vastly different perspectives.


Ice and snow covered The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve last weekend.  This is a panoramic image comprised of several photos merged together.  You can click on the image to see a larger version of it.

The Niobrara Valley Preserve is a place that feels big (and it is).  From some of the higher vantage points on site, you can see for many miles in every direction.  It’s easy to feel swallowed up by that expansiveness – something that I find exhilarating, but others find overwhelming.  At the same time, much of the beauty of the place is found in the smaller details, including simple things such as the top of a ragweed plant emerging from a glistening hole in the melting snow…

Ragweed in snow.  Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Ragweed in snow. Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

I am very fortunate to be able to make regular visits to the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Despite the cold, snow, and wind, this latest trip was one of my favorites.  I’m sure I will go back soon.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Jasmine and Tractors

This post is written by Jasmine Cutter, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  

I Like Big Tractors and I Cannot Lie

I think I’ve had unacknowledged tractor-envy for a while. Growing up in the suburbs, the biggest piece of “machinery” I dealt with was probably our push lawnmower. When I moved to Minnesota and the prevalence and presence of large farm machinery increased greatly, I’d often find myself feeling a little jealous of the people who got to drive combines (once I learned that’s what those giant things are called) and the other mysterious, long-limbed machines; they commanded so much power at their fingertips, and I wondered what the world looked like from so high. When I got to use a riding mower in Montana (my first time on non-automotive machinery), I thought that was fantastic. Thankfully, living in Nebraska has provided an antidote to my tractor-envy, and has given me a chance to refine my mowing abilities.

Ear protection: check! Cold protection: check! Awesome sunglasses: check! Don’t worry, I was parked.  Photo by Jasmine Cutter.

Ear protection: check! Cold protection: check! Awesome sunglasses: check! Don’t worry, I was parked. Photo by Jasmine Cutter.

Dillon and I were lucky that soon after our arrival, Platte River Prairies acquired our new, shiny green John Deere 5075E tractor. There is also a well-used, slightly less intimidating, yellow John Deere 401B tractor. I knew that we would get to learn how to operate tractors as part of the Fellowship, but I was unaware of how vital the tractors are to our management here. Most of that was due to ignorance about how many ways a tractor can be put to use (sooo many ways!), but I was also generally naive about how precious labor and time is to land stewards. My previous stewardship experience at Carleton College was in a relatively labor-rich context – working in the Arboretum was a work-study option – and many management objectives were tackled by teams of students wielding hand tools. The dynamic here is very different: there is Nelson, there are the two Fellows (we spend a lot of time on stewardship, but also have other projects diverting our attention), Sam for the last few summers, and Chris and Mardell come and help when they can. Even with the help of our wonderful volunteers who help collect seed and tackle other projects for us, we’re dealing with a lot less available labor. Needless to say, I’m learning a lot about how to prioritize management and how to efficiently tackle our management objectives.

Ownership of a reliable tractor that is the right size and has the right attachments to fit our needs is essential to efficiently completing our stewardship goals. For example, we’ve been spending the last two weeks pulling out old fence line, and while we might be strong, we’re not fence-has-been-buried-by-six inches-of-dirt-and-sod-and-is-now-one-with-the-earth strong. I have tried tugging on those fences, and while we can make some progress, it’s amazing to operate the tractor and feel how easily our hydraulics enable us to tear out these wires that would take us days to uncover and pull out by hand.


The mighty green beast in all its glory!  Photo by Chris Helzer.

Our tractors certainly help with efficiency, but simply stated, we depend on them as our primary implement for a lot of our stewardship and maintenance. Our tractors are essential to mowing firebreaks and fence lines, and for shredding invasive vegetation to a height that delays its growth and makes it short enough for our sprayers. When we need to spray a large area (which isn’t too often), the tractor – and Nelson’s innovative spray setups – save us a lot of time, and give us a powerful tool against our more entrenched patches of invasive plants. The tractors are also used for pulling out stuck vehicles (not that we ever do that) and for navigating terrain that’s too swampy for our other vehicles.

I love our tractors because they enable us to accomplish our objectives, but I also appreciate that they give me a chance to hone a different set of skills. Tractor operation requires attention to detail, especially spatial awareness. I need to be able to judge terrain so I don’t tip over, I need to make sure I’m far enough from co-workers and vehicles that I’m not going to damage anything or anyone, and I also need to know which part of the tractor is going to move when I pull a certain lever. Because they are so powerful, it’s hard to undo something once you’ve done it with a tractor. There’s also a lot of multi-tasking. It’s surprisingly challenging to simultaneously steer, manage my speed, avoid obstacles, engage the correct lever, and ensure that I’m spraying (or mowing) what I intend to. But I’m feeling more confident in my abilities every day.

During the corn harvest, our neighbors invited us out to ride along with them in their combine and corn wagon. Years of curiosity finally fulfilled!

During the corn harvest, our neighbors invited us out to ride along with them in their combine and corn wagon. Years of curiosity finally fulfilled!  Photo by Jasmine Cutter.

Tractor time is also appreciated because mowing or spraying is relatively slow-paced compared to most of our stewardship tasks. For all their might, when you’re mowing with a tractor, the swath you’re able to cover is only as wide as the shredder attachment, which is a relatively unimpressive nine feet or so. When you’re covering several dozen acres nine feet at a time at 5mph, that is a lot of laps. But honestly, I really value this time, and the chance to examine every foot of our property (or at least every foot of the perimeter). I’ve honed my ability to identify plants while in motion, discovered gates I never knew existed, observed how voles move through the thatch, and gained a better understanding of how the plant composition of our units shifts with topography.

Our tractors are also indirectly beneficial to my life here. When the farmers are talking about their machinery, I have at least some idea of what they’re talking about, even if our tractor is maybe half the size of theirs. I now know what a PTO (Power Take-Off) is, I have stories about nearly tipping over (there was a buried beaver lodge), and I am able to get some respect when people learn that I drive the tractor, just like Nelson or Dillon.

Dillon driving the John Deere.  Self portrait by Dillon Blankenship.

Dillon driving the John Deere. Self portrait by Dillon Blankenship.

While I’ve satiated the majority of my machinery-related curiosity, my only remaining wish is that I have a chance to operate the mythical skidsteer. I saw one in action at Carleton and marveled at its ability to wrench stumps from the ground (something we desperately need help with along our old fence line). Nelson has told us tales of their dexterity and usefulness at our Rulo site. Hopefully I will get a chance to drive the beast when we rent one in the spring; just think of all the farm cred I’ll garner!

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Management | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Photo of the Week – December 31, 2014

I am on vacation this week, so apologies for not posting much.  My kids and I are skiing in Wyoming (Snowy Range) and having a great time despite some very cold temperatures (we started today at 33 below zero!)  Because we were packed pretty tightly in my small car, I didn’t even bring my camera gear along.  I did, however, bring my phone and managed to get a few photos with it.  Here’s a sunrise outside the cabin we’re staying in.

Sunrise over Sheep Mountain - near Albany, Wyoming.

Sunrise over Sheep Mountain – near Albany, Wyoming.

I hope you had a great 2014 and have an even better 2015.  See you on the other side.

– Chris

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , | 4 Comments