Photo of the Week – October 19, 2018

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds at our family prairie last weekend.

This is the season of flying fluffy seeds.  Asters, thistles, blazing stars, milkweeds, and other late season flowers are sending their seeds into the air, a few of which might actually land in a place where they can germinate.  Each of those seeds is attached to a filamentous structure, variously called a pappus or coma, depending upon the species of plant.  Those fluffy structures catch the wind and allow the seed to travel many miles, in some cases – though most land within a few meters of their origin.

Seeds that can float on the air are a nice adaptation for plants, but they are also attractive photographic subjects.  Over the last week, I’ve photographed the seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in some local prairies.  Here are a few of those photos for your Friday enjoyment.

Common milkweed seeds lined up inside their pod, nearly ready for launch.
A common milkweed seed temporarily hung up on big bluestem.
The coma of this milkweed seed got stuck and was drifting lazily in the breeze, having become separated from its seed.
Tall thistle seeds.  Many of these get eaten by insects before they get a chance to fly away, but at least one of these managed to escape – so far.
Dotted gayfeather seeds, backlit by the autumn sun.

Crab Spider Tent

A crab spider and silk webbing at our family last weekend.

A few of us took a short trip out to our family prairie last weekend.  My daughter was back from college for the weekend and wanted to see what was happening in the prairie, so we did a little canoeing (tight circles in the small pond), hiking, and exploring.  Later, I found myself photographing dotted gayfeather seeds, and while I was looking for more of those plants, I stumbled upon a grass leaf that was bent funny with some kind of white silk holding it in that position.  I had actually walked past the grass leaf before my brain finally registered the fact that I should go back and examine it.

Looking more closely, I could see enough of the creature inside to identify it as a crab spider.  It had been raining quite a bit during the previous couple weeks, so my first thought was that the crab spider had made itself a little rain shelter.  (Crab spiders don’t make webs, but like all spiders, do make silk and use it for various purposes.).  However, my better guess was that it was a nest and that it might contain a bunch of spider eggs.  I photographed it for a few minutes, taking lots of photos, since the breeze was making it hard to keep the spider in focus.

A tiny spiderling, accidentally photographed.

Later, when I was looking through images at home, I was culling all the photos of the spider that weren’t in focus (dang that wind) when I happened to spot something that confirmed my guess.  Right above an unfocused crab spider face, a tiny spiderling appeared – just in one photo, not in any others.  Apparently, this was indeed a crab spider nest, and at least one egg had already hatched.  

The crab spider eventually shifted around and showed its face.

Crab spiders aren’t the only group of spiders that take care of their kids.  Frequent readers of this blog will, of course, remember a previous post of mine showing a mother wolf spider carrying her brood around on her body, and even if you don’t, you may have heard that wolf spiders lug both their egg sacs and newly hatched babies around with them.  Wolf spiders aren’t alone, though, and we’re still learning more about how well various spider species care for their young.  If you’re interested, you can read more in this nice blog post from Biome Ecology.  Otherwise, you can just join me in wishing this particular crab spider’s brood good luck as they disperse and try to find safe places to overwinter.

Olivia and the Whistle-Pig

This post was written and illustrated by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia is an excellent scientist and land manager, as well as a great writer.  In this post, she shares a recent experience with, and some interesting trivia about, a cute furry animal.

We had a visitor in the front yard the other day, which gave me a great opportunity to take some pictures of a mammal I don’t often get to see. This woodchuck (Marmota monax) has been spotted around our crew quarters here on the Platte River Prairies for a few weeks now, and appears to have taken up residence in our wood pile. I finally managed to spend some time watching it from the safety of the living room while it foraged in the yard for dandelion leaves.

I was so excited to see this woodchuck come so close, so I could see the details, from its little ears to the frosted tips of its fur. But while they may look cuddly, woodchucks are known for being pretty feisty and aggressive.

I haven’t had many experiences with woodchucks, also called groundhogs and whistle-pigs. (As an aside, I didn’t realize they were one in the same until I was in college. I have a friend Jessica, who’s probably reading this, who was there when I made the connection and exclaimed “Wait? You’re saying how much wood would a woodchuck chuck and Groundhog Day are the same thing?!”, and likes to bring it up whenever she can.) In fact, I’ve probably seen more yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), a close cousin to woodchucks, while travelling in the Rocky Mountains than our local woodchucks. I remember hearing a few whistling while walking in the woods around my hometown in Iowa, but other than that, this may be the first one I’ve ever seen, especially this close!

One of the yellow- bellied marmots I saw and photographed while in Colorado in August. They look superficially similar to woodchucks, but their ranges don’t overlap, so there’s little risk of mistaking one for the other.

Unfortunately, the other experience I have with these mammals, and one that I’m sure many readers also share, is of their digging habits. My parents recently had one removed from their backyard because it was busy burrowing under their garage. Apparently they are also pests in gardens, which doesn’t surprise me since I watched the one in our yard munching happily away on dandelions for several minutes. I’m inclined to find ways to cohabitate peacefully with native animals that sometimes cause problems or destruction to human structures, and a quick Google search turned up a lot of advice on how to discourage woodchucks from taking up residence around your home or eating your gardens. But I’m not going to talk any more about that (though like many perceived “pest” species, the destruction they cause is likely inflated), because I think this woodchuck is adorable, and I was inspired to look up more information about them!

So here’s an informal list of some fun facts I dug up:

  1. The name does not actually refer to woodchucks chucking wood, but comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which means “digger”
  2. Baby woodchucks are called chucklings!
  3. They are really big squirrels! (Family Sciuridae)
  4. Their incisors grow 1/16” per week
  5. They can climb trees and swim
  6. They enter true hibernate over winter, surviving on stored fat instead of making food caches
  7. Their dens often provide homes for other animals like small rodents, reptiles, skunks, red foxes, and cottontails
  8. Woodchuck burrows have “bathroom” chambers
  9. The origins of Groundhog Day began in 1886, when an editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper wrote that the local groundhogs hadn’t seen their shadows, and therefore spring would be early
  10. Their bodies drop to 37 degrees during hibernation!
  11. And their heartbeats slow to 5 beats per minute!
  12. They have a top speed of 8 mph
  13. They are for the most part solitary, with males only hanging out with females during the breeding season and females taking care of their young
  14. They can eat a pound of food per sitting (a lot for a creature that weighs at most 15 lbs)
I love the black paws and legs of this woodchuck. It looks like she’s wearing gloves!
I could have watched this adorable creature waddling around the yard eating dandelions all day.

Photo of the Week – October 11, 2018

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

I have a complicated relationship with smooth sumac.  It’s a native prairie shrub and a long-term and important member of the grassland plant community.  On the other hand, it is often more abundant than I’d like, especially in smaller prairie fragments – altering habitat structure, shading out other plants, and offering protective and nurturing conditions for encroaching trees.  I don’t want to eradicate smooth sumac, but it can spread over large areas, and seems to be getting better at doing so as the climate changes.

In the fall, however, my relationship with smooth sumac gets a lot rosier.  I can’t think of any prairie plants that have a more striking autumn plumage, especially against a backdrop of golden grasses.  Photographing sumac leaves in the fall has become an annual tradition for me – one I very much enjoy.  The only problem is that I’m constantly trying to find new ways to photograph this plant, for which I already have a big library of images.  This year, I focused on a couple plants that leaves that weren’t just uniformly red.  One of those plants had leaves that seemed to be in various stages of their green to red transformation, and the other had patterns I can’t explain, but am very much entranced by.

These variegated leaves stood out among others in a small sumac patch, caught in the middle of their color transformation from green to red.
This is a closeup of the above leaf/leaflets.
I have no idea why these leaflets had these magnificent patterns, but I sure like ’em.
Again, a closer view of the same leaflets.

As soon as sumac drops its leaves our relationship will deteriorate again.  I’ll look upon the same plants I photographed this week with a sharp and wary eye, watching closely to see if they are trying to take over one of my favorite prairies.  For now, though, they sure are pretty, aren’t they?

Square Meter Photo Project – September

Maximilian sunflower dominated the plot at the beginning of September.

September was another phenomenal month for my square meter photography project.  There were lots of new species to add to my running total, but I also continue to be inspired by the simple process of trying to find beauty within a tiny space.  The month started with a continuation of the Maximilian sunflower flush from August and the myriad insects visiting those blooms.  However, as the sunflowers wilted, I continued to find plenty to photograph, including a few species I’d been hoping for and one (a vertebrate – see below) I’d never expected.

Bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) on Maximilian sunflower.
Indiangrass in full bloom.
This damselfly was curling its long abdomen up above its head.  I caught it half way into its curling motion.
Maximilian sunflower against a cloudy sky.
A bold jumper (jumping spider) stops to look at me for a moment.
A metallic sweat bee (Augochloropsis fulgida) on Maximilian sunflower.
This Cope’s gray tree frog was the only vertebrate I managed to photograph all year (in my little plot).  It really made my day when I spotted it!

The growing season is quickly winding down now, and most of the plants in my little plot are well on their way toward winter dormancy.  Cold wet weather has greatly reduced the number of insects moving around, and even on warm days, the numbers are pretty low.  I’m going to keep photographing through the end of the year, but I’m guessing my species totals aren’t going to change much.  Right now, I’m enjoying photographing fall colors, and waiting for the first frosts and snows to bring some highlights to the browning leaves and stems.

With the tremendous help of several smart people, I’ve put together a reasonably good summary of the species I’ve found within the plot so far.  Counting a few from October as well, I have now photographed 98 different species of plants and animals in that square meter of prairie – all in 2018!  And yes, I’m really really hoping I can find at least two more…

That species list includes 12 plant species, 21 flies, 15 beetles, and 14 bees, along with butterflies, moths, mantids, spiders, ants, bugs, hoppers, aphids, barklice, grasshoppers, mites, and katydids.  Many thanks to Julie Peterson, James Trager, Mike Arduser, and Jim Kalisch for their identification help.

I spooked this milkweed bug off the butterfly milkweed plant in my plot and then spotted it a few minutes later crawling up a sunflower.
Wilting Maximilian sunflower blossoms.
An Arabesque orbweaver dangles on a silk thread.
Can you spot the tiny black beetle?
A syrphid fly on a dried Maximilian sunflower leaf.
This monarch was warming up and drying off when I arrived at my plot one morning.
This is a photo I showed earlier this month, but it was worth an encore.  Butterfly milkweed seed hanging on its pod.
A Maximilian sunflower leaf drying out as Autumn nears.

I’m really hoping this project will help raise awareness of and interest in prairies among people who might not otherwise think twice about an ecosystem they assume is just a bunch of grass.  Additionally, I’m hoping people will see how accessible the diversity and beauty of prairies can be.  I didn’t go looking for the best quality prairie in central Nebraska for this project – I chose the closest example of a restored (planted) prairie to my house.  Once I chose the spot, I just sat down and started paying attention.  Anyone can do the same thing in any prairie anywhere.  

If you think this project might be helpful to your own efforts to convince your friends or neighbors that prairies are interesting, feel free to send them to the web page I’ve created for the project.  I’m exploring several other ways to expand the reach of this effort, so stay tuned for more information on those, but for now, I’ve tried to synthesize the project within a single web page.

New Look, Same Blog

Hi everyone.  You’ve probably noticed a little different look to the blog this week.  I’m fiddling around with the format, hoping to create a better reading experience, especially for those of you reading this on your phones.  I’m not done messing around yet, but am at the point where some feedback would be helpful.

 This is just a random damselfly nymph photo from this past summer to give you something interesting to look at.  (I think it was likely coming out of the water to transform to its adult body – which is pretty cool!)

If you have a few minutes, I’d sure appreciate it if you could look back over the last several posts and then answer some quick questions about how those look and feel to you.  I’ll do my best to create a format that works for as many people as possible.  Even if you just answer the first question (about which device you use) that would be tremendously helpful.

Please answer the questions that apply to you and the device(s) you use.  If you want to provide more specific feedback, please leave a comment on this post (if you can figure out how to do that in this new format!) If you read this via email, you might have to click the post title to open it in a browser before you can comment.

Thank you very much for the help on this.  I appreciate your feedback and your patience as I muddle through this process.

Chris

Photo of the Week – October 5, 2018

Bison are pretty tough.  At our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and at many other sites in the upper Great Plains, bison make it through the winter without any supplementary feed. They just eat cured grasses, grow a thick coat, and plow through snow and ice as needed.  Bison don’t need humans to help with calving, and they protect their babies very effectively from predators.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that animals like that would be completely unfazed by a little rain.

Yesterday, some of our Nebraska staff took a trip up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Loess Hills of Iowa.  Land steward James Baker led us on a very scenic hike before a band of cold rainy weather moved in.  We then piled into some trucks with James and Director of Stewardship Scott Moats and went to visit the resident bison herd.  The bison were peacefully grazing as we drove up, despite the pouring rain.  When we stopped, a small group came over to check us out. Here are a few photos of those rugged bison, who didn’t need to huddle in dry and heated pickups to stay comfortable.

P.S. In case you had any doubt about my nerd qualifications, here’s one more piece of evidence.  As I was working up these photos (in the backseat of a truck heading back to Nebraska) yesterday, I was looking closely at the streaks of rain captured by my camera.  Based on the size of a bison calf’s eye and the length of the rain streaks closest to those eyes, I estimated that my camera captured about an inch of raindrop fall during the 1/250 of a second the camera’s shutter was open.  Now, I’d want to do some actual measuring of bison calves’ eyes to check this, but based on that rough estimation, those raindrops were falling about 250 inches per second.  Now, if I convert that number to miles per hour, I get 14.2 mph.  A quick online search found that raindrops are estimated to fall at about 20 mph.  I was pretty close!!  I mean, given that I don’t really know how big a bison eye is or how close those raindrop streaks were to that eye…  (NERD)

A Bubble-Blowing, Rotten Plant-Eating, Gas Mask-Faced Picture-Winged Fly

Please join me for a moment to appreciate a fly that eats rotting vegetation and looks like it is wearing a gas mask while doing it.  Oh, it also has gorgeous decorative wings and likes to blow bubbles.  Yep, you read that correctly.

Delphinia pictaon a sunflower at Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

Delphinia picta, a picture-winged fly, comes across as eccentric, to say the least.  Its appearance, alone, is remarkable.  The wings are distinctively shaped and patterned, and its long face really does look like it’s wearing a gas mask.  Though small (about 7mm in length), it’s a species that will catch your eye if you glance its way.

Both the adults and larvae of D. picta feed on rotting vegetation.  Mama flies lay their eggs in rotting vegetation, the larvae hatch out and feed on the same rotting vegetation, and after they pupate and become adults, they keep feeding on that same rotting vegetation – or a suitable subsitute.  It must taste good.  Oh, adults have also been documented eating the fermenting poop left behind by tree-boring long-horned beetles.  You know, for a change of pace.  

Delphinia picta can be distinguished from other similar species by the pattern on its wings, the dark-colored top of its abdomen, and its long gas-mask-looking face.  

The aforementioned bubble blowing behavior appears to be a result of the fly regurgitating a little of its most recent meal (likely rotting vegetation) and holding it as a bubble protruding from its mouth.  This might be used as part of a mating ritual (hubba hubba) or as a way to evaporate some of the liquid from its food for easier digestion.  Or maybe both.  

I looked all over online for a common name for this terrific species, but I couldn’t find anything besides Latin.  That seems unconscionable to me.  If there ever was a fly that deserved a nickname, this is it.  Let’s see if we can come up with one, shall we? 

Since picta means painted, that seems like an obvious component of any name we choose.  Since it prefers (did I mention this already?) to eat rotting vegetation, we could potentially call it the “Painted Compost Fly”, but I don’t love that.

Any fly with a face like this deserves a good nickname.

I guess we could just go with “painted fly”, but that’s too plain for such an interesting species.  I think we’ve got to include something about its diet.  I have a suggestion, but I don’t know if it’ll catch on.  I looked up synonyms for rotting and decaying and one of the more fun options is putrefying.  That’s a word we can work with.  See what you think of this option:

The Painted Putrefly.  

Yes?  No?  Can you do better?

Photo of the Week – September 27, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of my square meter photography project has been the chance to closely follow the lives of individual organisms over time.  For example, I’ve closely followed the progress of the two butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants within the boundaries of my square meter plot.  The plants bloomed beautifully back in late June, which was great, though fewer pollinators visited the flowers than I had hoped.  Perhaps correlated with that, only one seed pod was produced between those two plants.  Since then, I have been watching that one pod very very closely…

On the morning of September 24, the pod was just starting to open.

This week, that pod finally opened up, giving me the long-awaited chance to photograph some milkweed seeds within my plot.  As it turns out, it’s a good thing I was vigilant, because that pod opened up and emptied itself out out very quickly.  Within only a few days, the pod went from tightly closed to completely devoid of seeds.

By the afternoon of the same day (24th) the pod had opened up much more, exposing the seeds, which were beginning to dry out and fluff up.
The next day, September 25, the pod was wide open and seeds were beginning to fly out.
I was traveling on the 26th, so didn’t get to check in on my plot.  By the 27th, only three days after the pod opened, it was empty.  Some of the seeds landed close by, but others flew much further away.

While many of the seeds were blown well out of my little plot, a handful got stuck on adjacent plants, giving me the chance to photograph them.  Here are some photos of those seeds as they were coming out of the pod or after they got hung up within the borders of my plot.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia Marvels at the Persistence of Plants

This post was written by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Olivia is an excellent scientist, with strong expertise in plants and plant communities, as you’ll be able to see from this post.  

As a biologist with broad interests, I can usually find something to love in all living things, but I’ll admit that plants have a special place in my heart. This is probably a good thing, since I’ve spent the majority of my education and professional life cultivating my knowledge of plants. I’ve found that they are often underappreciated and often overlooked, which is a shame, because plants are some of the most amazing organisms out there (in my humble opinion).

Plants, in most places, not only form the basis of the food chain, but also provide the structure of habitat. A forest with towering trees is very different than an open grassland or a sparsely vegetated desert, and the animals that live there respond accordingly. Plants are eaten, trampled underfoot, exposed to the whims of the weather, and just generally beaten down by the world around them, all on top of competing with each other for resources and space. But while plants have it rough, they are also really good at persisting.

Trees are an excellent example of just how persistent plants can be. I was reminded of this earlier in the summer when I came across a grove of cottonwoods in one of our Platte Prairies while searching for musk thistles. At first glance I thought one of the cottonwoods had recently fallen and the leaves hadn’t died back yet. On closer inspection, however, I realized that the tree had probably fallen years ago, and instead of dying, the parts of the trunk that now contacted the earth had sprouted roots and continued on living. Branches had grown up from the trunk,and now looked essentially like three trees, all connected by the same fallen trunk.

This cottonwood, in true tree fashion, just refused to die. Photo by Olivia Schouten

Trees are clearly hard to kill, as anyone who’s tried to cut down a deciduous tree in your yard knows. Once the tree is cut you have to treat the stump with herbicide, otherwise the still-living roots will simply sprout again. Nearly every tree we cut here on the Platte to keep our prairies open needs to be treated with an herbicide. While it would be nice to not have to use chemicals in our stewardship work like this, that resilience of trees can also be a blessing. After the wildfire at our Niobrara Valley Preserve a few years ago, much of the forest along the river was killed. However, the oaks along the slopes are re-sprouting from their roots, as only the tops of the trees had been killed in the blaze. Because of this, these forests have a jump start on regenerating after the devastation of the fire.

It’s probably a good thing musk thistles are so showy, otherwise it would be much more difficult to find them.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Since I found that cottonwood looking for musk thistles, it’s probably worth talking about them and their own resilient strategies. As a biennial, these plants only have one chance to flower and produce seeds, so they produce thousands of them at a time. And they can fly. That’s not great for us, considering they are considered noxious weeds here in Nebraska, but as a strategy for this plant it certainly pays off.

But wait, there’s more! Even when uprooted or sprayed with herbicide, if the flowers on a musk thistle plant have been pollinated, they will still produce seeds! So when we control this plant, we not only cut off the root just under the ground and pull it out, we have to collect any flowers, or else nothing will actually have been controlled. This persistent ability of musk thistles makes things more difficult and time consuming for us to control, but you have to admit that it’s a cool adaptation, and in its native habitat, likely very useful.

We collected about three tubfuls of musk thistle flowers by the end of the control season. We let the flowers rot to make sure any seeds were destroyed before throwing them out.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

So far these examples relate back to land management, and how the difficulty in killing plants affects our ability to effectively manage invasive plants in prairies. But we rely on these same tenacious qualities in our native prairies species as well. Chris talks a lot about the resilience of prairies on this blog, and a lot of that depends on the persistent nature of individual plants.

Consider big bluestem, a favorite of both cattle and bison. It can be cropped down again and again to within an inch of the ground over a growing season, but while such trauma might kill another plant, big bluestem holds on until the herd moves on and it gets a break, coming back taller and stronger the next year, until it’s back to full strength within a few years. In addition, even in those years that it’s hammered by grazing, big bluestem will find a way to flower, since all that short and weak vegetation around them makes for a good place to put out seeds.

This patch of big bluestem has been hit pretty hard by cows this year, but that didn’t stop it from blooming.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Other plants may just find that conditions in a certain year aren’t for them. Maybe it’s too dry, or too cold, or the grasses around them are just too tall. Perennial prairie plants don’t let that stop them, as many will simply take a break, growing very little above ground for a year, relying more on stores of energy in their roots than anything else. To some, it may seem like those plants have died and disappeared from a field. But just wait, when conditions become favorable, most of those plants will show up again, just as strong, and benefiting from that strategy of waiting it out through the hard times.

Now, just because plants are tough doesn’t mean they’re invincible. If put under too much stress even the most stubborn plant will eventually die. Knowing how plants are able to persist can help us more effectively target those plants we don’t want, but also help ensure that our desirable plants always have a chance to let their persistent nature shine!