Photo of the Week – May 28, 2015

One difference between using cattle grazing and other grassland management options like fire or mowing is that cattle have brains.  They can decide where they want to go (within our fences) and what they want to eat, and their behavior isn’t always completely predictable.   For example, while we know that cattle will spend more time grazing in the burned patch of a prairie than in unburned areas, it’s always interesting to see what plants they decide to graze on or avoid, and how that changes day to day and season to season.  Overall, their unpredictability is a positive for our management because we build it into our plans.

Cattle joining the photographer for lunch  Platte River Prairies.

Curious cattle.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Another interesting facet of cattle behavior is their interaction with us when we’re out in the field.  Cattle are often curious and come to investigate what we’re up to – probably because they’re hoping we have something fun to eat with us.  I did some plant community monitoring this week and the cattle in that prairie tagged along for a while.

Hey, what's for lunch?

“Hey, what’s for lunch?  Also, what’s that white thing?  Does it taste good?  Can I lick it?”

They ignored me all morning, but when I stopped to eat my peanut butter sandwich, the cattle happened to be coming to get water nearby, so they checked up on me.  When I finished my lunch and started walking transects again, they followed along just to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that concerned them.  (I wasn’t.)

Vegetation monitoring

Vegetation monitoring with an audience.  Counting species within a plot frame has a different vibe when you’re being watched.

Eventually, they apparently got bored (or hungry) and wandered off, leaving me to work alone.  By myself.

Sigh.

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

A Day in the Bluffs

We spent a long day at our Rulo Bluffs property last week.  The site is at the very southeast corner of Nebraska, and includes about 450 acres of mostly oak/hickory woodland with prairie and savanna habitat on steep ridge tops.  I’ve written before about our work to burn and thin the woodlands to open up the understory layer as a way to encourage higher plant diversity and better wildlife habitat.  Last week, Nelson, our land manager, spent the entire day in a rubber-tracked skidsteer, shredding brush along ridges because we didn’t manage to get a fire  done last fall or this spring.  I got a few overhead photos of his work with our drone.

Nelso Winkel shredding brush with a skidsteer at The Nature Conservancy's Rulo Bluffs Preserve, Nebraska.  Using fire, thinning, and shredding, we are trying to allow more light to hit the ground in the woodland, which enhances oak tree regeneration, increases plant diversity, and improves habitat quality for many wildlife species.

Nelso Winkel shredding brush with a skidsteer at The Nature Conservancy’s Rulo Bluffs Preserve, Nebraska. Using fire, thinning, and shredding, we are trying to allow more light to hit the ground in the woodland, which enhances oak tree regeneration, increases plant diversity, and improves habitat quality for many wildlife species.

This photo shows a ridge where we've been working for more at least 15 years to beat back brush with fire and mechanical treatments.  Nelson didn't have to shred this area this year because the brush is finally starting to give way to more herbaceous plants.

This photo shows a ridge where we’ve been working for more at least 15 years to beat back brush with fire and mechanical treatments. Nelson didn’t have to shred this area this year because the brush is finally starting to give way to more herbaceous plants.

The second image above, taken with our drone, was interesting because it and others from the day showed a surprising number of large dead trees scattered across the property.  We knew we were reducing the number of smaller diameter trees with our thinning and fire work, and that a few bigger trees were also dying, but couldn’t see the real scope of that without being in the air.  (Couldn’t see the forest for the trees…)  While we’re not trying to kill off a large number of big trees, losing some provides space for new oak trees to get started, and provides a number of other benefits – including habitat for the many species that live in standing dead timber.  So, it wasn’t a shock or disappointment to see all the dead trees, it was just an interesting observation we couldn’t have gotten without the ability to get eyes up in the air.

My main job last week was to be on site in case Nelson ran into trouble with the skidsteer.  (That makes it sound like I was there to help fix the skidsteer – nothing could be further from the truth.  Nelson has more mechanical ability in his little finger than I could dream of.  I was just there to go for help in case he rolled the thing down the hill or something.)  While he was doing the real work, I tried to stay productive by pulling garlic mustard, scouting for invasive honeysuckle, and killing small trees with herbicide.  I also managed to find a little time for some photography.  Here are a few of the photos I took.

This is

This is starting to look more like what we want the site to be.  A strong herbaceous (non-woody) plant community, including sedges, grasses, and wildflowers, supports better wildlife diversity and also helps facilitate fire to maintain that open woodland character.

 

These paw paw trees were top-killed in our 2014 prescribed fire. they are regrowing from the base, but aren’t yet tall enough to suppress growth of other plants beneath them.

 

A small bur oak is fighting to establish itself on a prairie ridge as older oaks near the end of their lives.  Both in the woodland and savanna portions of the site, this replacement process is critically important.

A small bur oak is fighting to establish itself on a prairie ridge as older oaks near the end of their lives. Both in the woodland and savanna portions of the site, this replacement process is critically important.

 

These beautiful metallic-looking flies were pretty abundant the day were at the site.  I saw several in the clutches of spiders, but didn't manage to photograph any of those.

These beautiful metallic-looking flies were pretty abundant the day were at the site. I saw several in the clutches of spiders, but didn’t manage to photograph any of those.

A close-up photo of bur oak leaves.

A close-up photo of bur oak leaves.

I'm not sure what species of bug (and it is a true bug) this nymph is, but it sure was striking against the green leaves it was feeding on.  I watched it repeatedly stick its long proboscis into this leaf as it moved across it.

I’m not sure what species of bug (and it is a true bug) this nymph is, but it sure was striking against the green leaves it was feeding on. I watched it repeatedly stick its long proboscis into this leaf as it moved across it.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a beautiful tree.  Both its pink flower and leaves are very attractive.  However, it is also one of the species we are trying to reduce the density of in the understory of the Rulo Bluffs woodland.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a beautiful tree. Both its pink flower and leaves are very attractive. However, it is also one of the species we are trying to reduce the density of in the understory of the Rulo Bluffs woodland.

This beautiful little brown snake was about 10 inches long.  I spotted it  as it was making its way through one of the areas Nelson had just shredded.

This beautiful little brown snake was about 10 inches long. I spotted it as it was making its way through one of the areas Nelson had just shredded.

There are a couple species of raspberries, or close relatives, at Rulo Bluffs, but I don't know what species they are.  This one was particularly beautiful the day we were there.

There are a couple species of raspberries, or close relatives, at Rulo Bluffs, but I don’t know what species they are. This one was particularly beautiful the day we were there.

Because of its long distance from our shop and field headquarters, we never feel like we spend enough time working at Rulo Bluffs.  It’s a beautiful site, and one of the best examples of oak woodland remaining in Nebraska.  As with other oak/hickory woodlands, however, it requires active management in order to survive and regenerate.  Without frequent fire, or substitutes such as thinning and shredding, the understory at Rulo Bluffs would become choked with small trees and shrubs, such as ironwood, dogwood, paw paw, and others.  Those woody understory species block light from hitting the ground, prevent the establishment of new oaks, and choke out most grasses, sedges, and wildflowers.  Eventually, if older oaks die without being replaced, these woodlands change into new communities, dominated by trees such as ash, hackberry, and others that don’t create leaf litter that can carry fire.  At that point, restoring the oak/hickory woodland community, which supports a much larger diversity of plant and animal life, is nearly impossible.

…and that is why we keep trying to find time to head down to Rulo Bluffs.  That, and it’s such a beautiful place.

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Photo of the Week – May 21, 2015

We were working at our Rulo Bluffs Preserve this week.  While Nelson was shredding brush on the ridge tops, I was pulling garlic mustard and killing small trees.  I also found time to take a few photos.  Here is one of a small Symphoricarpus  plant (a small shrub – I’m not sure which species it is.  Probably coralberry).  I liked the way the light from the overcast sky brought out the subtle color and texture in the leaves.

The Nature Conservancy's Rulo Bluffs Preserve.  Nebraska.  Buckbrush (coralberry?) Symphoricarpus sp.

The Nature Conservancy’s Rulo Bluffs Preserve., Nebraska.

I also found a brown snake, a bright red bug nymph, a shiny metallic fly, and more.  I’ll share those photos next week, once I get time to work through them.

 

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ants in the Sun

A couple weeks ago, I was broadcasting seeds across a prairie we’d recently burned.  The sun had just popped out after several days of cool rainy weather, and its warmth felt pretty good.  As I crisscrossed the burned area, I noticed several large ant mounds.  When I looked closely at those mounds, I was surprised at the large number of ants massed on top.

Formica obscuriventris  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

A few ants found a perch above the mob of ants beneath them on top of a large ant mound.  Formica obscuriventris.   TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Because it didn’t appear most of the ants were doing anything other than milling about, I surmised they were probably just enjoying the heat of the sun as I was.  James Trager, who graciously identified the ants for me, supported my guess.  He added that this kind of thermoregulatory behavior is common, and not only warms the individual ants, but also the inside of the mound as those warmer ants go back into the tunnels.

Mound building ants trying to drag a piece of earthworm into the mound.

Mound building ants trying to drag a piece of earthworm into the mound.

Not all the ants were just enjoying the sunshine, however.  At least a few were returning from hunting trips with food for the colony.  The foragers were dragging the food items up the mound and toward multiple tunnel entrances.  Unfortunately, it looked like it was going to be very difficult to get the food past the mob of ants.  In particular, I watched as several ants pulling a piece of earthworm toward the tunnels gave up after trying for several minutes to drag it into the mob.  Other ants periodically tried to pick it up and move it as well, but they also gave up.  I assume the piece of worm made it inside at some point, but I can’t confirm that…

Spider

A spider being carried toward the mound.

 

More food.

More food.

I enjoyed watching the ants, but eventually had to get back to work.  I was trying to help increase the plant diversity of the degraded prairie the ants are living in.  That broader range of plant species should help the ants in several ways, including by attracting a wider selection of insects for the ants to feed on.  I hope so.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Photo of the Week – May 15, 2015

Killdeer are really cute when they’re young.

Killdeer chick at the Helzer family prairie.

Killdeer chick at the Helzer family prairie.

Have a great weekend.

Posted in Prairie Animals | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Beaver Crossings

Karen Hamburger, a longtime volunteer with us, recently passed along another batch of trail camera video clips from our Derr Wetland Restoration.  You might remember seeing some of her video in an earlier post.

This time, much of her footage was centered around beaver dams.  There were quite a few video clips of beavers repairing dams or swimming past, along with otters, muskrats, ducks, and other wetland creatures.  However, Karen also captured some more terrestrial species using the beaver dams.

I often use beaver dams as a convenient bridge to cross a stream, and I know I’m not alone in that.  It makes sense that those same dams are important crossing locations for many wildlife species as well.  Karen’s trail cameras documented some of those crossings, including species such as bobcat, raccoon, coyote, and white-tailed deer.  See below.

In addition to wildlife, Karen’s camera also caught another creature crossing a beaver dam at our wetland.  Not once, but twice, she documented photographer Michael Forsberg working his way across the stream with camera in hand.

Mike has been photographing the wetland for many years, and has his own set of camera traps (trail cameras) at the site.  He has also been helping us capture timelapse imagery from the site through both the Platte Basin Timelapse Project and Moonshell Media.  This time, Mike got caught on the other end of the camera.

Beavers play important engineering roles in landscapes. Their dam construction activities change water flow patterns, flood low-lying areas, and create important habitat for many plant and animal species.  Karen’s videos are a good reminder that beaver activity not only affects wetland species, it also affects movement patterns of terrestrial species by providing stream crossings.  As beaver dam locations change, wildlife have to adjust their travel accordingly, and it’s fun to think about how those movement changes could ripple through ecosystems.  The location of a stream crossing for both predators and herbivores affects where those animals choose to forage, for example.  The fate of a plant or small mammal could well be decided by where a deer or coyote can cross a stream – which may be determined by where a beaver family decides to place a dam.  Fascinating!

 

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Photo of the Week – May 7, 2015

As I’ve said many times, the prairie is an ecosystem best seen up close.  You have to look carefully to see much of the beauty.  Dillon (one of our Hubbard Fellows) and I were poking around today and found this yellow wood sorrel flower.  It looked as if an artistic child had been playing with a hole punch.  There were a few scattered holes in nearby blossoms but this was the only one that looked as if it had been purposefully accented.  Any insect smarties out there know what might have made the holes?

Wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) with insect holes.  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) with insect holes. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This is the season of small statured wildflowers.  Puccoon, ragwort, locoweed, wood sorrel and many others are just starting to bloom.  Perhaps the most ostentatiously-colored of our spring flowers, however, is purple poppy mallow.  This one was just getting ready to open today.

Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata).  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata).  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Another look at the same flower.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain lately, which bodes well for a good wildflower season, at least for the next month or so.  We’ll see what kind of weather the El Nino brings after that.  We might get really wet or really dry.  For now, I’ll enjoy the colors.

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

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – A Watershed Reflection by Dillon

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

Though I came into the Hubbard Fellowship to learn about restoration and conservation of prairies, I have had the good fortune to spend a fair amount of time in, associated with, or, at least, thinking about stream and river systems too. Most of these experiences have been of the Platte River – from surveying for mussels in a southern braid to visiting the various dams, diversions and other irrigation structures that utilize its mighty flow. Oh, and of course, how about the bazillion hours shared with roosting sandhill cranes and awestruck visitors in riverside blinds this spring!

The Central Platte River near Wood River, Nebraska.

The Central Platte River near Wood River, Nebraska.

Even when my work does not lead me there, the Platte is inescapable – I drive across it to go just about anywhere and often parallel it for miles on end (who is following who?) as I journey across the state. It is also a persisting reference point and a comforting explanation for some of the tree lines I see from Interstate 80. Its associated groundwater makes possible our impressively realized agricultural potential and supports a great diversity of plants and wildlife. Here is a good map of the extent of the Platte Watershed –  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platte_River#/media/File:Platterivermap.jpg – which I see in the embodiment of the Platte River itself, but is much more expansive than a single waterway.

Hubbard Fellows Dillon Blankenship (left) and Jasmine Cutter stand near an irrigation ditch during a tour of Platte River irrigation activities.

Hubbard Fellows Dillon Blankenship (left) and Jasmine Cutter stand near an irrigation ditch while on a tour to learn about irrigated agriculture and the Platte River.

I mention this on The Prairie Ecologist blog now because I am feeling particularly inspired to appreciate my watershed today. I’ve been doing an online course concerning water issues in the western United States that has had me thinking a lot about where my water comes from – which, thankfully, is plentiful enough from its origins in the Rockies to me and on to the Missouri that I don’t have to borrow from watersheds beyond my own. It has also illuminated the complexity of how we allocate water resources to satisfy interests across state boundaries (Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska for the Platte) and has altogether inspired a deeper appreciation for this vital fluid’s movement across the landscape.

Of course, The Prairie Ecologist blog community is a diverse crowd when it comes to geography, so I expect many of you to be intrinsically tied to rivers and watersheds beyond the Platte and that is great!

Some of your attachments must be physical – you live on them and in them and they, quite literally, are a part of you. However, I also suspect you have been affected by water systems in nonmaterial ways– the memory of a family canoeing trip (or “tanking” excursion if you are Nebraskan), the viewing of an inspiring water-related natural spectacle, or the comfort of a secret fishing spot for contemplation and big catfish.

Many people's strongest experience on the Platte River comes while watching sandhill cranes in the spring.

Many people’s strongest personal connection with the Platte River comes from watching migratory sandhill cranes in the spring.

Despite being a Platte River patron – and to some extent a lover of the Loup and a Niobrara nut – I also feel the pull of waters from previous, far-off stations (Oregon’s Willamette River, the Buffalo River of Arkansas…) and am excited to be shaped by whichever watersheds I call home in the future.

For the sake of this watershed reflection, I want YOU to get involved in these musings…

In a book*I have been reading I found this gem of a question, which is particularly relevant here:

After the author reminds us that the human body is nearly 2/3 composed of water, he asks, “What body of water makes up 2/3 of you?”

Well? [This would be a good time for you to utilize that comments section at the bottom of the page…]

And if, by chance, the Platte IS your river, I hope you will check out what our friends at the Platte Basin Timelapse project have been up to as they document and share “a watershed in motion.” http://www.plattebasintimelapse.com/

 

*Urrea, Luis Alberto. Wandering Time. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Print.

 

 

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Photo of the Week – May 1, 2015

Last year, I moved into a nice old house (100 years old this year) with a big lot and plenty of potential.  The kids have been enjoying the yard, the loft above the garage, and some of the new furniture and accessories (including a bison skull named Lefty hanging on the living room wall).  One of the unexpected perks of the new house is some junk wood along our neighbor’s fence.  I found the wood late last fall as I was trimming shrubs.  It was buried beneath what appeared to be several year’s worth of leaves.  My first thought upon seeing it was that it might be a good place to find snakes, but it was late enough in the year that they weren’t around then.  I left the wood in place, figuring we’d check it out again in the spring.

Snakes!

Snakes!

Now that spring has arrived, the wood has certainly met expectations.  The other day we found at least 10 snakes underneath it, and there might have been a few more (they kept moving…).  What would be a nightmare for many people has become almost a daily adventure for my son Daniel (“Dad!  Come look at the snakes now!”) and yesterday he took his older siblings out to join in the fun.

Counting snakes.

Counting snakes.

A big female plains garter waits patiently for us to put her wooden shelter back in place.

A big female plains garter waits patiently for us to put her wooden shelter back in place.

I’m not sure what the wood was used for (an old makeshift door of some kind?), or why it was left behind to rot beneath leaves, but I think it’ll stay where it is for a while longer.  We have a lot of work to do over the next few years to make the yard more friendly to pollinators, wildlife, and other creatures, but the old wood along the fence is a good start.

…I’m not sure I’ll tell the neighbors about it just yet.  That might be a conversation that should wait until I know them a little better.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Visual Illustration of Plant Diversity’s Importance

Last week, I took some photos that powerfully demonstrate the importance of plant diversity.

DCIM100GOPROG0080136.

Research plots at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Several years ago, we created some research plots to help us learn more about how plant diversity interacts with ecosystem function.  As you can see above, the plots include a grid of squares (3/4 acre in size), each planted with one of three seed mixtures: monoculture (big bluestem), low diversity (grasses and a few forbs harvested in the fall), and high diversity (100 species).  Working with academic partners, we have several research projects underway, including a couple that demonstrate the influence plant diversity has on the spread of invasive plant species.

Other researchers have found similar relationships between plant diversity and resistance to invasive species, but that is only one of many benefits from having a wide variety of plants in a prairie.  Both herbivores and pollinators benefit from having a broad selection of food choices available to them.  During extreme weather conditions (hot, dry, wet, cold), high diversity prairies always have plants that flourish under those conditions and help provide habitat and food conditions for animals.  Most importantly, because of these and other reasons, prairies with high plant diversity also have high total biological diversity, including more species of microbes, insects, other invertebrates and vertebrates.  That overall diversity is important for its own sake, but also because of the role each species plays in the functioning of the ecosystem.

The aerial photo I took from our small drone last week illustrates another benefit of plant diversity; prairies with high plant diversity have green vegetation for more of the growing season.  Every plant species starts and ends their growth period at different times.  Some start early, bloom, and are done before summer even starts.  Others bide their time and don’t bloom until late in the fall.  When you mix all those species together in one prairie, you end up with consistent, but ever-changing, availability of nutritious vegetation and flowers throughout the growing season.

ah

Labeled plots, showing the location of the various treatments.

Our monoculture research plots (big bluestem only) looked very different from our other plots last week because big bluestem was just starting to grow (on April 23).  Even after we burned all the plots this spring, allowing the soil to warm earlier than it otherwise would have, the most advanced big bluestem plants only had leaves of a few inches in length.  Our low diversity plots (mostly grasses) showed more green, but only due to the presence of one grass species, Canada wildrye (Elymus canadensis), a cool-season grass that begins its grown early in the year.  By contrast, the high-diversity plots had many plant species growing, with some close to blooming.

The monoculture plots were planted only with big bluestem,

The monoculture plots were planted only with big bluestem, which was just barely starting to grow last week.

Low diversity

The low diversity plots were slightly greener than the monoculture plots, mainly because Canada wildrye was growing quickly (most of the other grasses were just breaking dormancy).

high diversity

The high diversity plots had numerous species showing vigorous growth, even early in the season.

Although the visual differences between plots on April 23 are striking, they are ecologically significant as well.  Invertebrate and vertebrate herbivores (including cattle, if the plots were grazed) can find a variety of forage options in the high diversity plots right now – far more than in the low diversity or monoculture plots.  Within a week or so, the high diversity plots will also have several different kinds of wildflowers in bloom, providing resources for early-season bees and other pollinators.  The low diversity and monoculture plots will have far fewer resources for pollinators throughout the season.  Furthermore, invasive plants species trying to establish themselves within the high diversity plots face stiff competition from plants using wide range of growth strategies.  They will find a smaller amount of resistance in the other plots, where less diverse plant communities are not as efficient at taking up space and fully utilizing resources.

Plant diversity is incredibly important in natural systems for a variety of reasons, only a few of which are mentioned here.  We still have a lot to learn about how plant communities function, and how plant diversity plays into that.  However, we already know enough to recognize the value of having numerous players in the game.  It was fun to see a visual demonstration of that value last week.

 

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Plants, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments