How Do You Evaluate Your Prairie?

The most challenging aspect of prairie management may be evaluating what’s happening on the land and what to do about it.  What should you focus on as you walk around a prairie?  Which plant species can tell you the most about the current condition of the prairie community?  How do you know whether changes in the plant community are short term weather-related changes, versus an indication of a long term trend?  What characteristics of wildlife habitat are the most important to monitor?  It can all seem overwhelming.

Evaluating prairies and impacts of management is important but can seem overwhelming.  What should you look for as you walk through a prairie?  (Scott Moats at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa.)

Evaluating prairies and impacts of management is important but isn’t necessarily easy. What should you look for as you walk through a prairie? (Scott Moats at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa.)

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.  One of my main jobs is to help people restore and manage their prairies more effectively.  I try to share tips and techniques gleaned from our work on the Platte River Prairies, as well as from my experiences visiting and collaborating with other prairie managers across the country.  However, suggestions of management strategies are only useful if a prairie manager knows what challenges his/her prairie is facing.  Some managers are good at thinking about wildlife habitat needs but struggle to evaluate plant composition changes.  Others may focus so heavily on invasive species encroachment they ignore the needs of pollinators or grassland birds.  With so many things to think about, what are the most important?

As I walk through the prairies I work with, I pay close attention to (among other things) the abundance and vigor of particular plant species and note the distribution of certain habitat qualities.  My mental checklist is influenced by years of watching those sites respond to weather and management, as well as by the management objectives I’m evaluating.  However, I also enjoy having other ecologists and managers visit our sites because I can learn a great deal from their perspectives.  Because they have a different set of experiences than I do, they notice and evaluate different factors than I do.

This prairie was burned and grazed with a fairly light stocking rate last year.  It has not been grazed this year.  When I walked it this week, I was looking at the vigor of the dominant grasses (still low) and the wildflowers (high).  I also wanted to see if it had maintained the mixed-height habitat structure I was hoping for (it had).

This prairie was burned and grazed with a fairly light stocking rate last year. It has not been grazed this year. When I walked it this week, I was looking at the vigor of the dominant grasses (still low) and the wildflowers (high). I also wanted to see if it had maintained the mixed-height habitat structure I was hoping for (it had).

Because the process of evaluating prairies and their management needs is both important and potentially overwhelming, I want to try to develop some basic guidelines – a kind of checklist for evaluating prairies.  I need help, so I’m reaching out to others, including the readers of this blog, for their input.

What do you look at as you walk through the prairies you’re familiar with?  How do you know whether a prairie you’re managing is headed in the right or wrong direction?  Are there particular plant or animal species that you feel are good indicators of the larger prairie community?  Tell me about your mental checklist…

Please leave any suggestions and ideas you have in the comments section below (if you don’t see a comments section, click on the title of this post and then look again).  I’ll try to synthesize your thoughts and mine and see if we can come up with something useful.  Thank you very much for your help.

To get you started, here are a few examples of items on my personal mental checklist:

How many species of pollinator plants are blooming right now, and how abundant are they?

Are the populations of our most dangerous invasive species increasing or decreasing?

Which plant species are being grazed by our cattle and which are they ignoring?

Are new plants germinating and establishing themselves or is the “canopy” of existing plants stifling new growth?

Are there patches of vegetation structure types present that represent the full spectrum of habitat types? (tall/rank, short/sparse, mixed-height, etc.)

 

if you were a bee, would you find a good selection of feeding options throughout the season?

If you were a bee, would you find a good selection of feeding options throughout the season?

 

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Emergence of Life in a Wetland

After many years of wanting to, we finally installed some solar-powered pumps and livestock water tanks in our family prairie.  (Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks for providing cost-share money!)  Those two water tanks give the cattle nice cool clean water to drink and allow us more flexibility in the way we design our grazing each year.  Most importantly, they allow us to exclude the pond/wetland from grazing so it can start to function as a wetland rather than as a big mud hole for cattle to stand around in.

Because we’ve had good rains this year, the wetland has been pretty full.  That’s nice, but it has also prevented much of the wetland-edge seed I planted from germinating and growing.  Despite that, the recovery of the wetland is well underway.  There is now grass growing right to the water’s edge and arrowhead and other emergent plants are starting to appear in shallow water.  I’ve been spraying the few reed canarygrass plants growing nearby in the hope of preventing that invasive species from taking over the margins of the wetland, and hopefully I can get some more diverse wetland plants to establish there instead.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

My daughter and I went for a walk at the prairie over the weekend and visited the wetland to see what was happening.  As I waded into the shallow water to take the above photo, leopard frogs scattered from my footsteps and red-winged blackbirds scolded me for encroaching upon their territories – very good signs of recovery.  However, looking more closely at the arrowhead plants poking through the water, I found even more evidence of new life.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Adult damselflies fluttered around everywhere, and many of them had apparently just appeared on the scene because the larval exoskeletons they’d just emerged from were stuck to leaves and stems all over the place.

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While I was too late to see the actual emergence of the damselflies, I did manage to find a green darner dragonfly that had just popped out of its larval skeleton and was fluttering its wings and waiting for its body to dry and harden.  I snapped a few pictures of it in place and then carried it over to Anna so she could get a good look at it.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

After we became a little better acquainted with the new dragonfly, we set it safely on a fence post so it could finish hardening up in the warm sun.  I took a few more quick photos of it on the post and then left it alone.  It was gratifying to see other dragonfly species zipping around nearby too – I’m hoping that’s a sign that a number of other aquatic invertebrates are also colonizing our recovering wetland.  It should be fun to watch the changes in the coming years.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.

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

Photo of the Week – August 1, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I was walking around in my family’s prairie and spotted this tiny silhouette.  The morning sun was shining through the leaves of a stiff goldenrod plant and a fly was (apparently) warming itself in those rays.  Since I was on the opposite side of the leaf from the fly, I was able to sneak up, get my tripod set up, and take a couple photographs before it flew off.

The silhouette of a fly on a stiff goldenrod leaf.  Helzer Family Prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.

The silhouette of a fly on a stiff goldenrod leaf. Helzer Family Prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.

Have a great weekend!

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The Answer to Yesterday’s Plant Quiz

Buckbrush in bloom.

Another look at the flowers.

Many thanks to everyone who guessed at the identity of the plant species featured in yesterday’s post.  Here is another photo of the same plant species in bloom, from a little further away.  The species is commonly named “buckbrush”, which actually refers to a couple different species in the genus Symphoricarpos.  I believe this particular one is wolfberry, aka western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), though it can be difficult to tell without seeing the fruits.  Wolfberry has white or light-colored fruits, while its cousin coralberry has red fruits.  Both grow together in many of our Nebraska prairies.  I’ve included a photo of coralberry fruits below – I don’t have a good photo of wolfberry with white berries.

This is a photo of coralberry, a close relative of wolfberry.  The two species look very similar except that coralberry has red fruits and wolfberry fruits are white.

This is a photo of coralberry, a close relative of wolfberry. The two species look very similar except that coralberry has red fruits and wolfberry fruits are white.

Taken together as buckbrush, coralberry and snowberry are seen as “weeds” by many ranchers and range scientists.  I suppose there is some degree of competition for resources with grass, but buckbrush is a low-growing shrub (often two feet tall or less) and I usually see it in loose colonies with plenty of grass still growing between plants.  At least in the prairies I’m familiar with, cattle graze right through the buckbrush colonies and get the grass they’re looking for.  In my family prairie, my grandpa and other relatives spent years spraying patches of buckbrush, trying – unsuccessfully – to eliminate them.  In the nearly 15 years that I’ve been helping to manage the site, we’ve not sprayed the patches, and I don’t think they’ve grown any bigger during that time.

On the positive side buckbrush berries are apparently highly sought as a food source by wildlife species.  In addition, because it’s a short-statured woody plant, it doesn’t significantly change the habitat structure of a grassland in ways that would negatively impact most grassland wildlife.  It’s also very pretty…

When I teach our staff and visitors how to identify buckbrush, I adapt the mnemonic device “MAD Buck”, which was intended to remind people of the common eastern North American trees that have opposite branching – Maple, Ash, Dogwood, and Buckeye.  In this case, since we don’t have Buckeye in the Platte River Prairies, I just substitute Buckbrush.  Most other woody species have alternate branching.  (Opposite branching means that each branch is paired with another one right across the stem from it, rather than staggered.)

Thanks again to all who submitted guesses yesterday.  The first to jump in with the correct answer was Quinn Long (who ought to know since he’s a professional botanist) so, as promised, he is awarded 400 points.  Quinn, you can redeem those points at any retailer you can talk into it.

Good luck with that.

Oh, and several people guessed “milkweed”, which is understandable based on the appearance of the leaves in that particular photo.  However, the flowers of milkweed have a very distinctive shape – see below – that is pretty different from that of buckbrush.  It’s okay, though, you don’t lose any points for guessing incorrectly!

Swamp milkweed, displaying the distinctive flowers of milkweed.  Notice the conspicuous absence of visible anthers (the little appendages that hold pollen).

Swamp milkweed, displaying the distinctive flowers of milkweed. Notice the conspicuous absence of visible anthers (the little appendages that hold pollen).

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

What’s This Flower?

It’s been a while since we’ve done a plant identification quiz, so let’s see how you do.  Can you identify this common prairie flower?  It is found throughout the eastern half of the United States.  While it has a beautiful flower, this plant is rarely recognized for that trait.  Many ranchers in Nebraska would love to get rid of it because they think it reduces the amount of livestock forage in native pastures.  I’m skeptical that its impact is significant in most cases.  Regardless, it’s been mowed and sprayed for years but still persists, which is fortunate since its fruits/seeds are highly sought after by wildlife.

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What do you think?  Put your answers in the comments section below (if you can’t see the comments section, click on the title of this post and then try again).  400 points to the first person to correctly identify it.

I’ll post the answer tomorrow, along with some more information on the species.

 

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , | 16 Comments

New Date! – Next Platte River Prairies Field Day is August 27, 2014

Our next Field Day will be on August 27 – – NOT August 29, 2014.  It was pointed out to me by several people that it might be a bad idea to schedule a field day on the Friday of Labor Day weekend.  My only excuse is that on my paper calendar (yes, I still use paper) I couldn’t see ahead to the next week to see that Monday was Labor Day.  Plus, I just didn’t think about it.

So, please consider joining us in the Platte River Prairies on Wednesday AUGUST 27 for a day of hiking, natural history, and prairie management and restoration discussion!

Late August is a great time to visit the Platte River Prairies - the grasslands are loaded with yellows and golds, accented with pinks and whites, and rich with texture.

Late August is a great time to visit the Platte River Prairies – the grasslands are loaded with yellows and golds, accented with pinks and whites, and rich with texture.

The agenda is under construction, but I’ll post it soon.  In the meantime, please make sure you the put the right date (AUGUST 27) on your calendar – paper or digital.  We’ll have a full day of events and activities, and you can stop by for some or all of them.

See you then!

(Did I mention that the date has changed to August 27?  That’s a Wednesday, not a Friday)

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Photo of the Week – July 24, 2014

I’m definitely a better close-up photographer than a landscape photographer.  Part of that is just the way my mind works – I tend to look down instead of up when I walk around a prairie.  I can always find an interesting flower or insect to photograph when the light is good for photography, but I have a harder time constructing an interesting composition or the larger landscape.  There are so many things to think about with landscape photos; foreground, background, sky, leading lines – or not… ack!  As a result, when the light is pretty, I usually look around for something small and interesting.

However, there are days and places where even I can take good landscape photos, and yesterday was a perfect example.  I got up early enough to drive the 35 minutes between my house and our Platte River Prairies before sunrise.  I’d been eyeing the prolific blooming of fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) in the sandhills on the edge of the river valley.  It’s been several years since we’ve seen a big explosion of primrose flowers, and this year’s seemed even more spectacular than the last one.

At the first glimpse of the sun, I knew it was a going to be good morning.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

At the first glimpse of the sun, I knew it was a going to be good morning. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Before the sun popped over the horizon, I wandered around and pretended there was enough light to make good photographs, knowing that I was only shooting because digital photos are free…  Once the sun appeared, though, things got serious.

Goodness gracious

Fourpoint evening primroses all the way to the horizon.

How can you not take great photos when you’re surrounded by big yellow flowers, the sky is filled with gorgeous clouds, and the light is coming in low and warm?  I scurried around with my camera and tripod, trying composition after composition, and liking each one more than the one previous.  The biggest difficulty was trying to come up with photographs that really showed the size, scope, and abundance of the flowers in real life.  My wide angle lens felt insufficiently wide for the scene.

More primoses

More primroses

I ended up with hundreds of photographs of primroses.  I stayed up late last night trying to go through them and pick out a handful to use for today’s post.  I felt good when I narrowed them down to 20, but that’s way too many for one blog post – especially when they all look about the same…  I went to sleep dreaming about fields of yellow.

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This morning, I managed to narrow it down to the photos you see here, but it was painful.  Stop by sometime and I’ll show you the others…!

The ecology behind the photos

So why are there so many fourpoint evening primroses this year?  Across the sandy prairies of Nebraska, fourpoint primrose is having a good year, though maybe not as good of a year as sunflowers had last year.  Fourpoint evening primroses are biennial plants, so they typically germinate and form a rosette (just leaves, no vertical stems) in their first year of life and then bloom and die in their second – leaving behind many thousands of seeds to kickstart the next generation.  They are not strong competitors with grasses, so fourpoint primroses can’t germinate in years when the vegetation is dense.

Ok, I did take a FEW close-ups too.  Every day, the primose opens a new row of buds as the previous days' flowers wilt.  Judging by the unopened buds at the tops of these flowers, we'll be seeing yellow for a while yet.

Ok, I did take a FEW close-ups too. Every day, the primrose opens a new row of buds as the previous days’ flowers wilt. Judging by the unopened buds at the tops of these flowers, we’ll be seeing yellow for a while yet.

The year 2012 was the most severe one-year drought on record for our area.  That weakened the grasses in our sandhills prairie.  Coincidentally, however, we also burned and grazed those hills in 2012.  As a result, by July, the hills were covered in very short brown grass and not much else because the plants had given up and gone dormant in the face of intense grazing and no soil moisture.  It looked pretty tough.  We had better moisture in 2013, and the grasses started their slow recovery, but there was a lot of open space between them that was colonized by annual plants (such as annual sunflowers).  However, another major colonizer was fourpoint evening primrose.  Unlike the sunflowers, however, the primrose plants didn’t bloom last year – they bided their time and soaked in the sun, water, and nutrients made available by the low density of plants surrounding them.  Then, this summer – 2 years after the drought – they made their move and exploded onto the scene with resplendent glory.  Or something.  Anyway, they sure are pretty.

We’ve had lots of rain this year, and we’re not grazing those sandhills this year, so the grass is getting pretty dense beneath the primrose flowers.  That means we won’t see many primroses next year or the year after.  That’s ok, they’ll wait – and when the time is right, they’ll be back.

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Prairie Ecologist Spam

Ok, this is pretty tangential, but I just have to share.

One component of this blog that is hidden to everyone but me is the abundance of spam comments that show up in my queue, waiting to be approved or deleted.  A spam filter catches many of them, but a fair number still slip through.  While they are annoying, some of these fake comments can also be relatively entertaining – depending upon what kind of mood I’m in.  Right now, my mood is such that I think they’re funny.  See what you think…

Some of the comments are clearly just random words put together in the hope that they will sneak past the computer-driven spam filter.  Here are a couple recent examples:

“Ϲoaϲh Factorfy Online Canada Houseknecht told police hе wouldn’t see tҺem biild a bаse, and realized he previously been scammed.”There not another facility while using the production capability we have now here,” said Flеtcher.  Usain Boolt S Coach еel exceptional on his or her birthday cеlebration”It comes with a connectiion right now.All the wɑs being attempting ravishing, Nonetheless, there were clearky anything ononsense working with her perfectly seeing that.”

“Notch the ground, and gravel. Now, the ethical dilemmas that unlicensed contractors face a maximum penalty of five Cubans sentenced to nearly $1. The third tip is to consult your local municipal offices and manufacturing, to increase the likelihood of mold and mildew. ReliableRemodeler com offers homeowners a simple and only unlicensed contractors way they recommend to area. To conclude with, and on time, every contractor satisfied and comfortable through these holes and cracks.”

Other times, spammers use language that is strongly complimentary, hoping that I will approve the comment and their website address will show up next to their published comment.  Often, I can tell they are spam just by the broad nature of the comments (having nothing to do with the topic of the post), but now and then I have to look at the name of the supposed commenter to be sure.  Here are a few of the complimentary versions:

“I’m really enjoying the design and layout of your site.  It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a designer to create your theme? Exceptional work!”

“I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for magnificent info I was looking for this information for my mission.”

“Thanks in support of sharing such a pleasant opinion, post is nice, thats
why i have read it entirely”

Many of the spam comments are clearly written by non-native English speakers (e.g, the last of the above “complimentary” examples).  This can lead to some accidental, but very funny prose.  The following is the funniest spam comment I’ve seen yet:

“Excellent web site. A lot of helpful information here. I’m sending it to some buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thank you in your sweat!”

Hee hee!

Ok, this is a prairie blog, not BuzzFeed, so let me at least give you something with some relevance to prairies…  Look!  Here’s a picture of a sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus) flower!

A close-up photo of the flower of sensitive briar, aka cat's claw, aka Mimosa quadrivalvus, aka Schrankia nuttallii.

A close-up photo of a flower of sensitive briar, aka cat’s claw, aka Mimosa quadrivalvus, aka Schrankia nuttallii.

Here's the same flower, photographed from slightly further away to give you a little context.

Here’s the same flower, photographed from slightly further away to give you a little context.

If you want to learn more about sensitive briar, you can read this previous post.

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

Watching Wetland Water Levels – Timelapse Photography

It’s timelapse photography time again…  I downloaded more photos from the cameras at our restored wetland in the Platte River Prairies a couple weeks ago, and have been looking through the images for stories.  One theme that stood out in this batch was the variability of the water level in the wetland through time.

This wetland is directly connected to the water table, but is also supplied by a groundwater-fed stream that brings both rainwater and groundwater from about 25 miles west of us.  Platte River flows and irrigation pumping both influence the water table here in the Platte Valley, as does evapotranspiration by plants – and other factors.  It’s a complicated series of events and processes.  However, in general, we expect the water table to be relatively high in the spring and to decline as summer progresses.  I looked at photos from early June and early July (below) and that pattern of summer decline is apparent this year.

June 8, 2014

June 8, 2014.  A panoramic image created by merging photos from two adjacent timelapse cameras.

July 8, 2014

July 8, 2014.  You can click on each photo to see a larger/sharper version of it.

Seeing the pattern of water level rise and fall through weeks and months is interesting, and timelapse photography allows us to watch that pattern pretty easily.  However, it’s also interesting to look at shorter-duration patterns.  I shared one example of that back in December, with a series of images showing daily water level drops due to evapotranspiration.  Today, I’m sharing a second example of short-term water level changes – this time, it’s due to water coming downstream after a rain event.

In the early morning of June 21, 2014, a big storm system moved through our area, dumping between 2 and 4 inches of rain.  The map below shows the precipitation amounts from that storm.

This photo from http://water.weather.gov/precip/ shows rain amounts for our area on June 21.  The black arrow indicates the location of our wetland.

This image from the National Weather Service (http://water.weather.gov/precip/) shows rain amounts for our area on June 21. The black arrow indicates the location of our wetland.

Rainwater from the storm swelled the stream that flows into our wetland, but also created runoff flow throughout the watershed.  The Youtube video below shows the water level changes in our wetland through the day on June 21, 2014, starting at 7am and ending at 8pm.  The changing light conditions from image to image make it a little difficult to see, so you may have watch it several times to get the full effect.  The foreground, the green peninsula on the left, and the little island just left of center are all good landmarks to help see the water level change.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about stream or wetland water levels rising and falling after a big rain event.  On the other hand, it’s not often we get the opportunity to actually see it happen.  Timelapse photography gives us the opportunity to compress time and see natural processes from a different perspective.  For me, at least, that opportunity helps me better understand and appreciate the variability of the earth we live on.

As always, thanks to Moonshell Media for their help with this timelapse photography project.  If you’re interested in exploring timelapse photography for conservation purposes, you can contact them at 402 817 4313 or info@moonshellmedia.com.

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

Photo of the Week – July 17, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I posted a photo of a sunset from the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  In the post, I talked about having to scramble to get into position for the photo before the color left the sky.  Barely a week later, I found myself in the same situation again…

This time, I was at home in the evening, playing an indoor game with my 13-year-old son.  A rainstorm passed through while we played, and as the storm was moving away, the sky started to light up in one of those Great Plains post-storm sunset spectacles.  Mammatus clouds abounded, along with lots of color and texture.  As my son and I enjoyed the view through the window, he told me I should really be out taking pictures.  I replied that I was perfectly happy enjoying the view with him, and that we were in the middle of a game.  A few minutes later, however, the sky was even more spectacular and, since he was insisting, I grabbed my camera and ran for it.

A sky like that deserved a decent foreground, and ideally, I wanted something that could reflect the light.  I jumped in the car and drove west toward the nearest wetland (9 miles away).  As I drove, I was watching the already-fading color and receding clouds through my rear-view mirror…  After what seemed like an hour-and-a-half, I finally reached the wetland and jumped out of the car.

Post-storm clouds over a wetland at Springer Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.

Post-storm clouds over a wetland at Springer Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.

I had time for about one photograph facing east (above) before the color in that part of the sky faded completely.  However, there was still a little color to the west, so I hopped over to a different wetland pool and tried to set something up in that direction.  I’d pulled on some knee-high rubber boots, which did me no good at all as I waded into thigh-high water…

Last light at Springer.

Last light at Springer.

I managed to shoot a few frames before the light disappeared, and then slogged my way back to the bank and dumped my boots out on the gravel road.  Then I squished my way back to the car and drove back home to have a shower.

 

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