Photo of the Week – September 22, 2017

The Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) is an impressive creature.  Introduced to North America, it has certainly made itself at home here.  Entomologists I’ve talked to express varying levels of concern about the presence of the Chinese mantis – as well as the narrow-winged mantis (Tenodera angustipennis) and European mantis (Mantis religiosa).  Most would rather those non-native mantises not be here, but say it’s hard to find strong evidence that they are doing measurable harm to the ecosystems they’ve moved into.  If anyone knows of research that has defined the impacts of these non-native mantises I’d love to hear about it.

The Chinese mantis comes in either grayish-brown, green, or a combination of green and brown.

Regardless of impact, Chinese mantises are fascinating animals, as are our native mantises like the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina).   While I was out taking pictures last weekend, I ran across three different Chinese mantises and captured the images in this post.  I think they show some of the various attributes of these amazing (and possibly harmful) creatures.

A Chinese mantis feeds on a captured hover fly.  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Seen from underneath, the mouth of the mantis is really otherworldly.  Praying mantises can turn their head 180 degrees – a unique attribute among insects.  That ability helps them scan for both prey and predators.

“Do you mind? I’m eating here…”

This mantis was finishing off a skipper butterfly (a Sachem?) while hanging beneath the flowers of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea).

The “pupils” in the big compound eyes of mantids are actually pseudopupils, and are a trick of the light rather than an actual structure.  Look at the location of the pseudopupil in the earlier photo showing the underside of a mantis’ head…

The mantis in this photo is not looking in a different direction than in the above photo, but the angle of light hitting the eyes makes it look that way.

One additional attribute of praying mantises, especially the big ones, is that they are noticed by the general public, including kids.  I spent last Friday helping with a prairie-based field day for 5th graders, and my job was to get the students interested in invertebrates.  We used sweep nets to catch inverts, and the kids got to catch and hold grasshoppers, katydids, and spiders.  Moving kids from “Spiders are icky!” to “Ha ha – this spider tickles when it walks on my hand!” is a really important process.  If we want people to understand the value of invertebrates, they first have to see them as something other than icky.  In that regard, the absolute star of the day was a big Chinese mantis one of the kids found early in the day.  I kept it and showed it to each group of students I visited with during the day, and it never failed to get oohs and aahs from them.  Everyone got to touch it, and it was big enough that we could easily talk about it’s various body parts, how it hunts, etc.  As an ambassador for invertebrate kind, it was very effective.  An important gateway bug, if you will.

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Corrected/Updated Information on the Painted Lady Migration Post

Well, about an hour after I published today’s blog post on the painted lady migration, I received an email response from Royce Bitzer (Iowa State University) which answered some questions I’d sent him earlier in the week.  I’d waited for his responses before posting, but finally decided to just go ahead with the information I had.

Dr. Bitzer provided one main piece of information that was different from what I’d originally said in my post, which is that there isn’t any evidence that the big super bloom of wildflowers in California spurred the migration.  He was surprised by that, but said that based on reports from the Las Vegas, NV and Albuquerque, NM areas, this year’s high numbers of migrating butterflies likely came from places near those reports, rather than from further west in California.

A little bit of additional information from Dr. Bitzer…   There is no evidence that painted ladies (or red admiral butterflies) can overwinter around here, so the butterflies we see during the summer get here through migration.  The painted ladies in my backyard now are likely a combination of butterflies that hatched out here (descendants of migrants) and others that are passing through from further north.  He’s been trying to track reports of movement over the last several weeks, and it appears that the big southern migration started over Labor Day weekend (Sept 2-4) when a cold front swept butterflies out of Canada and into the Dakotas.  Since then they’ve been moving further south, reaching Iowa and Nebraska.  They are joining up with already-present large populations that had hatched out here before the migrants arrived.

Anyway, I apologize for a second post on this topic, but I wanted to be sure I was providing the best information I could.  The original post has now been edited to make it more correct.

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The Painted Lady Butterfly: This Year’s Poster Child for Insect Migration

Note: this post was slightly edited after initial publication to make it more accurate.

Migrating painted lady butterflies are stealing some of the attention from the annual monarch butterfly migration, at least here in Nebraska.  Thousands upon thousands of painted ladies are fluttering around flowers and trees here in town, as well as out in nearby prairies and roadsides.  It’s been a great opportunity for photographers like me, but those big numbers of butterflies also present a great opportunity to remind people that other insects besides monarch butterflies rely on long-distance migrations.  Some of you will probably remember posts I wrote several years ago about moth migrations in North America and about longer intercontinental migrations of painted ladies and other species.

This painted lady butterfly was sharing this (native) tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) blossom with a bee. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Right after I took the earlier photo, a second painted lady butterfly joined the first.  These thistles are extraordinarily popular among pollinators this time of year.

There is still a tremendous amount to learn about insect migration, mostly because it’s difficult to study.  Technological advances allow for the use of smaller and smaller transmitters that can be attached to some insects to help track them, but most studies of migration rely upon large coordinated reporting efforts by scientists and members of the public across wide geographic areas.  To date, we know that many butterflies, moths, and dragonflies migrate, along with locusts (in Africa and the Middle East) and maybe some ladybird beetles.  Many of those migrations are assisted by winds, but the insects use the winds to go where they want rather than just getting blown randomly around.  Navigation and orientation strategies are still being explored, but it appears that some species use the sun to help orient themselves, and maybe even the earth’s magnetic field.

Back in September 2013, I photographed this migrating variegated meadowhawk dragonfly as it waited for the morning sun to dry it out enough to continue its southward journey.

Painted lady butterflies have migratory populations around the world (they are on every continent except Australia and Antarctica).  In North America, populations are centered in the dry landscapes of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.  Migrations to the north and west occur frequently, but not consistently, and are strongest in years of abundant rainfall in those dry landscapes.  Strong plant growth in the desert provides lots of food for painted ladies, allowing them to grow big populations that start to outstrip their food availability, and that pushes them to migrate.  This year’s painted lady numbers in the Central U.S. appear to be some of the highest in recent years.  Reports of very high numbers passing through Albuquerque, New Mexico and Las Vegas, Nevada provide clues about the possible origins of this year’s butterfly “outbreak.” (Thanks to Royce Bitzer for that information).

Painted lady on heath aster (Aster ericoides).

Sunning itself.

It’s fascinating to consider the idea that plant growth conditions (and probably other factors) in the desert southwest led to the hordes of painted lady butterflies we’re seeing right now in Nebraska and around the Central United States.  As we learn more about insect migration, we’ll probably see more and more of these kinds of interrelationships between what happens in geographic locations that are very distant from each other.

We already know that many of the grassland nesting birds in Nebraska rely heavily on habitats in Central and South America, as well as on grasslands between here and there.  Insect migrations are much less well  understood, but monarch butterfly concerns have highlighted the fact that what happens in forests west of Mexico City impacts the butterflies we see in the Central U.S. – and vice versa.  Imagine the other interconnections we’ll find as we discover more migratory species and the routes they take from place to place!

Danger lurks as a painted lady feeds right above a Chinese praying mantis which was finishing off a smaller butterfly (a skipper of some kind) this weekend.

I don’t have any idea what painted lady butterflies need for habitat between their desert southwest origins and Nebraska.  Apparently, they’re finding what they need for now, but it’s a little disconcerting not to better understand what factors could lead to a collapse of that migratory process in the future.  Painted ladies are really common right now, so understanding those factors might not seem particularly urgent, but how many of us would have predicted the current calamity facing monarch butterflies just a few decades ago?  Hopefully, researchers and their citizen scientist partners can start figuring some of this out before we start seeing populations of migratory butterflies, moths, and dragonflies start to decline because of something we just didn’t realize might be important.

As I mentioned earlier, research on insect migration relies on coordination between many people, and across wide geographies.  If you want to get involved, there are numerous options.  To help collect data on dragonfly migration, check out the Xerces Society’s Migratory Dragonfly Partnership where you can learn how to identify and report sightings of migratory species.  If you want to contribute sightings for monarchs, hummingbirds, whooping cranes or even gray whales, check out the Journey North website.  Finally, if you want to learn more about the lives and migrations of painted ladies and their cousins the red admirals, visit Royce Bitzer’s excellent website.

In the meantime, if you live in part of the world where painted lady butterfly numbers are extraordinarily high right now, enjoy them while you can.  As I write this, I’m following my own advice by gazing happily out my dining room window at the (literally) hundreds of butterflies I can see in my yard right now.  I wasn’t able to travel to the desert to see the amazing colors during this spring’s wildflower season, but apparently some of that desert color traveled here instead!

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Photo of the Week – September 15, 2017

I spent a couple long days collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week. There wasn’t a lot of time (or light, honestly) for photography other than the first hour of sunlight on Thursday morning. The Sandhills prairie is nearing the end of flowering season and sliding quickly into its fall costume.  A few late-season flowers are in full bloom, but the most of the color in the prairie this time of year comes from leaves changing from green to various shades of brown and red.  Here are a few photos from yesterday morning.

Sunrise over the Sandhills and Niobrara River, with sunflower skeletons in the foreground.

The flurry of sunflower blooming was nearly over, but a few plants held on to their last blossoms, much to the delight of the bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, and other insects feeding on their pollen and nectar.

Wild rose (Rosa arkansana) had a great fruit year in the Sandhills, especially in recently-burned prairie. 

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolium) is one of the last flowers to bloom in the Sandhills season, and patches were scattered about the prairie.

Smooth sumac in the the middle of its transition to from green to red.  In this burned area, skeletons of previous growth are surrounded by the regrowth from the base of the plants.

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Becoming a Rule Breaker (Artistically)

I’ve never had any formal visual art training, notwithstanding my elementary teachers’ efforts to show me how to color within the lines.  When I started getting serious about photography, most of I what I learned was from books and photographers who were kind enough to offer helpful critiques of my work.  In my early days as an insecure nature photographer, I spent a lot of time paging through magazines and how-to books, looking for photos I liked.  Then I tried to mimic those compositions in my own work.  I was also very earnest in my attempts to learn and follow the rules of composition mentioned in photography books and magazines.

One particular rule I remember reading about said that when photographing animals, you should always have them looking in toward the center of the photo rather than out toward the edge of the photo.  For example, compare these two photos of an upland sandpiper (actually one photo that I cropped in two different ways for illustrative purposes).

In the top image, the bird’s eye is near one of the “power points” of the rule of thirds, so it conforms to that particular rule.  However, because the bird is on the right side of the frame and looking toward the right, the photo seems unbalanced.  In the lower image, the placement of the bird on the left side leaves it more space, and most people probably feel the bottom image is the better composition of the two.  If nothing else, the top image creates a kind of mental tension, in which the viewer feels there’s something wrong, or at least uncomfortable, about the composition.

Creating tension or discomfort, of course, can sometimes be a powerful strategy for artists, and can set their work apart from that of others.  As for me, though, I’m not really much of a risk taker when it comes to composition. In fact, I looked back through quite a few of my photos as I was thinking about this blog post, and couldn’t find many where I had intentionally created a visually jarring composition.  For better or worse, my objective is usually to draw people into a natural world they might not otherwise become familiar with, so making them uncomfortable seems counterproductive.

I don’t do a lot of traditional wildlife photography; I spend much more time photographing insects and flowers.  As far as I can tell, the aforementioned rule about having an animal look toward the center of an image seems often to apply to flowers too, which is a fascinating thing to ponder.  As viewers, are our minds projecting an imaginary face onto flowers, driving our expectation of how those flower photos should be composed?  Or is composition more driven by other factors, such as the curvature of the flower stems or the balancing of subject matter?

Consider the stiff sunflower image above, one of my favorite flower photos.  It would look odd (wrong?) if the flower were moved over to the right half of the image, right?  Is that because we ascribe a face to the flower and expect it to look in a certain direction relative to the photo composition?  Or is it just because of the way the curving line of the flower bends pleasingly toward the center in this photo, rather than away into nothingness if it were moved to the right?  Regardless, there’s something important about keeping the flower on the left side.

Now look at this photo of two Maximilian sunflower blossoms (above) I took last week.  The closer flower is the focal point of the image, and its “face” is “looking” toward the center of the photo.  The photo seems pretty balanced this way.  Compare that to the photo below, in which that same focal flower is moved over to the left.  It seems to be breaking the rules, yes?  Both photos have a second blossom in the background to balance the one in the foreground, but the second photo is still a little jarring because of where the face of the main flower is pointing.

Here’s the thing, though…  I think I like the second photo at least as much as the first, and maybe better.  There’s a slight tension in the image that I don’t think is too distracting, but instead makes the image interesting.  It makes me want to see more, to see what the flower sees.  Am I crazy for thinking the second is the more captivating of the two images?

…Good grief, does this mean I’m moving toward becoming a provocative art photographer??

The next thing you know, I’ll be putting horizon lines right smack in the middle of photos solely because the rules tell me not to.  Even worse, I’ll start writing long self-absorbed blog posts exploring the artistic choices I make when creating images…

…oh, wait…

Dang.

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Photo of the Week – September 7, 2017

The numerous wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada have been sending smoke out our way, especially earlier this week.  I got up early Monday morning to catch the sunrise, hoping a smoky haze would soften the light well into the morning and give me a good long opportunity for photography.  My plan only sort of worked…  The smoky haze was so thick, the sun was up for about 20 minutes before it finally got high and bright enough that I could even see it through the haze.

The sun finally showed up through the smoky haze about 20 minutes after sunrise.

Once I could see the sun, I still had to wait another hour or two before there was enough light to do much photography.  Not that it was painful to have to wander around our Platte River Prairies for a few hours, of course, but it was hard to see all kinds of interesting things and not have enough light to photograph them!  Now and then, the haze would clear enough that I could barely see my shadow – and I’d quickly grab my camera out of the bag and look for something to photograph before it darkened up again.

A grasshopper staring at me from its perch on stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

The grasshopper above and the bumblebee below were both photographed during those brief periods of brighter light.  Apart from those brief periods, the smoky haze kept things pretty dim until about 9:30 or 10am, when the light got really nice (still diffused, but by thinner haze, which created beautiful even light).

This bumblebee apparently spent the night on this dotted gayfeather flower (Liatris punctata).

When that gorgeous photography light finally arrived, I was walking around some restored wetlands and prairies we’d seeded in 2013.  There were quite a few flowers in the wetland sloughs we’d excavated and seeded in former cropland, and I enjoyed searching for some particularly photogenic examples.

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) in restored wetland.

Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) in the same restored wetland slough.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) was even more abundant than its blue cousin.

Alongside the restored wetlands, Maximilian sunflower was very abundant, and popular with pollinators – especially a horde of painted lady butterflies.

This was just one of hundreds (thousands?) of painted lady butterflies in the prairie.

I finally peeled myself away from the prairie and headed home, but the smoky light would have allowed me to keep photographing for most of the day (though the breeze was challenging).  By Tuesday, the wind had shifted directions, and we’ve had bright sunny days since, which limits photography to early mornings and late evenings.

This is the time of year when I start to feel an urgency to photograph as many flowers and insects as I can because I know they’re not going to be around much longer.  We had temperatures in the low 40’s (F) last night, and parts of Nebraska were forecast to have frost.  Hopefully, we’ll get at least a few more weeks of flowers before the first big freeze knocks most of them out for the year.

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

Does Dotted Gayfeather Flower More Under Reduced Competition?

Late summer is definitely a season of yellow flowers in prairies, with goldenrods and sunflowers in the vanguard.  However, there are exceptions to the yellow rule, and one of the most prominent of those in our prairies right now is dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).

Dotted gayfeather punctuated an otherwise yellow-dominated plant community last week at our family prairie south of Aurora, Nebraska.

Last week, I was collecting data on the number of flowering stems within various management treatments at our Platte River Prairies, and noticed an apparent pattern with dotted gayfeather.  In particular, I thought I was seeing more flowering stems on gayfeather plants in one treatment than another right next to it.  I had a little extra time, so I tested the observation by counting the stems on a bunch of plants in each treatment, and sure enough – I was right.  Where we had burned and intensively grazed the prairie last year, there were more than twice as many flowering stems per plant (on average) as there were in the unburned, lightly grazed patch right next to it.  Both areas were in the same restored prairie (planted in 2000).  You might recall a post I wrote back in mid-August about this same site, which included photos of both the 2016 burn and unburned areas…

Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals

I collected my dotted gayfeather data pretty simply – I just walked through each part of the prairie and counted the ramets (stems) of every plant I encountered.  In total, I counted stems on 58 plants in the unburned patch and 53 plants in the 2016 burn.  The average number of stems per plant in the unburned/lightly grazed patch was 6.12, compared to 12.5 in the burned/grazed patch.  A big majority (76%) of the plants in the unburned area had 10 or fewer stems per plant, and the highest number of stems on any plant was 17.  By comparison, only 56% of the plants in the 2016 burn patch had 10 or fewer stems and eleven plants (21%) had more than 17 stems.  There were some extraordinarily large plants in the 2016 burn patch, including plants with 39, 40, 42, and even 51 stems!

One of the larger plants in the 2016 burn patch

Now, this is a single site and it’s really important not to draw too many conclusions from a one year sample.  I’ll be looking at the same site again over the next couple years to see how things change as future management is applied differently to each patch.  The unburned area is slated to be burned and grazed in 2018, for example, so it will be really interesting to see how dotted gayfeather plants look in both 2018 and 2019.  I’m not sharing my data from this year because I think there are conclusions to be drawn from it, but rather because it’s fun to speculate about what might have caused the apparent pattern.  I’m hoping some of you will enjoy speculating with me, and maybe even look around in prairies near you for similar patterns.

In that spirit, here are a few thoughts running through my head.  First of all, the 2016 burn patch in this restored prairie was grazed really intensively all of last season, which severely weakened the vigor of dominant grasses.  Coming into this season, most of those grasses were very short in stature, allowing a lot of light to hit the ground, and their root systems were greatly reduced, allowing space for a flush of opportunistic plants to flourish – including dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and many others.  However, we also saw abundant seedlings of long-lived, more conservative plants as well, especially white and purple prairie clover (Dalea sp).

Many of the opportunistic plants that flourish in times of abundant light and root space do so through establishment of new plants from seeds waiting in the soil.  However, that’s not the only way plants can respond.   Most perennial plants, including dotted gayfeather, grow new stems each year from buds that are produced at the base of the plant or on rhizomes (underground stems).  Each bud represents a potential future flowering stem, and healthy plants can have quite a few of those buds and deploy them as needed.

Here is the 2016 burn patch about a year ago, after a spring burn and season-long intensive grazing. You can see ungrazed dotted gayfeather flowers blooming. but most grass leaves have been grazed short.

It makes sense to me that dotted gayfeather plants in our 2016 burn patch deployed more buds this spring than plants in the nearby unburned patch where surrounding vegetation is more dense.  Long-lived plants like dotted gayfeather should benefit from producing extra flowers/seeds in years when their competition is weakened.  Maybe abundant bud deployment happened because gayfeather plants were able to expand their root systems last year and reach new resources, or maybe the short stature of surrounding vegetation allowed more light to hit the base of the plant this spring, triggering buds to open.

Of course it’s also possible that all my speculation is complete bunk.  Maybe the plants in the 2016 burn patch are always bigger than those to the east, regardless of management, and I just hadn’t noticed before.  If so, I’ll know that after a couple more years of sampling.  Either way, it’s sure fun to wonder what might be happening and then collect data to test whether or not I’m right.  Opportunities like that are exactly why I love being a scientist.

Please share your thoughts and experiences related to this topic, and if you get a chance to go look at dotted gayfeather plants in patch-burned grazed prairie or other similar situations, let me know what you see!

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Photo of the Week – August 31 2017

I’m not a wildlife photographer.  Wildlife photographers put in countless hours tracking, observing, and either stalking subjects or sitting in a blind.  I admire wildlife photographers but I don’t have the patience to be one.  Instead, I get my wildlife photos the easy way – by always (ALWAYS) carrying my camera when I’m in the field so that when I have a random close encounter with an animal, I’ve got a chance to take its picture.  This month, I’ve had three successful (and accidental) photographic encounters with mammalian wildlife species, and am sharing the results here.

Mule deer (in the rain) at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Back in mid-August, I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve collecting data on flowering plants across various management treatments.  I’d gotten up early that morning and driven the 4+ hours up to Niobrara because the forecast said the rain would be ending in the early morning and it looked like a good day to be in the field.  Instead, it rained all day.  While I was driving my truck between sampling locations (in the rain) two mule deer flushed out of some brushy vegetation in front of me and turned to look at my truck.  The buck turned away again and took off over the hill, but the doe stayed behind to see what I was up to.  I rolled down the passenger side window of the truck, grabbed my camera from behind the seat, and took this photo.  I didn’t even get wet – did I mention it was raining?

A young porcupine at dusk – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Later the same day, it finally stopped raining, the sun came out, and both the landscape and I dried out a little before evening.  I wandered around with my camera until the photography light disappeared, and then hopped in my truck and headed back to headquarters.  As I was coming down the lane between the mailbox and the crew quarters, where I was staying, a young porcupine crossed the road in front of me and climbed up the embankment.  Other people had been seeing the same porcupine this summer, but though I’d seen its mom, this was the first time I’d seen the young one.  It was moving quickly enough that I didn’t have time to grab my camera out the back seat of my truck, and instead just grabbed my cell phone out of my pocket as I climbed up the embankment to get a closer look.  The porcupine didn’t even pause or turn its head to look at me as it made its way to the top and then waddled off across the prairie toward a small patch of trees.  I squeezed off three shots with my phone camera and got one that was decent.

Black-tailed jackrabbit in the Platte River Prairies.

The final photo (and my favorite) comes from yesterday, when I was riding my ATV through our Platte River Prairies.  I was cruising along pretty slowly and flushed a jack rabbit.  That’s not unusual, but in this case, instead of popping up out of the grass and bounding off with its ears held high, the rabbit took two quick hops and then hunkered back down in the vegetation.  I stopped the ATV in surprise, and when I realized the rabbit had invested in its hiding strategy, I grabbed my camera from my bag and took a couple pictures of it through the grass.  Then I slid slowly off the seat of the 4-wheeler and took a few steps to get a better angle for the photo (above) I ended up liking the best.  After that, we just sat there, keeping an eye on each other, until I decided I had work to do and wished the rabbit a pleasant day.  As I started up the ATV motor, the rabbit finally decided to scamper off.

Maybe someday I’ll gain the patience and perseverance it takes to be a real wildlife photographer.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep my camera handy for those times when the wildlife decides to pose for me.

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

Well, Now, I Wonder…

People often seem surprised to learn that I’m an introvert – probably because in large groups, I feel pretty comfortable being the center of attention and talking to an interested audience.  However, when I’m just one of many people in a large gathering, I naturally retreat to the edges of the group where I don’t feel hemmed in by humanity.  As a result, during presentations out in the field, I tend to wander and explore while staying within earshot of what’s being said.  I’m not trying to be rude, I’m just keeping my escape routes open…

Accordingly, two of the three mysteries I wanted to share today were things I found while skulking in the background during a tour last Friday at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.  The first was a trailing wild bean plant (Strophostyles sp) with a series of intriguing holes in the leaves.  I showed a couple other people, but none of us knew what might have made the holes.  I’m guessing invertebrate, of course, but I don’t have any idea beyond that.  It looks to me like something was rasping away at the surface of the leaf until it punched all the way through and then repeated the process in a new spot.  Anyone recognize this?

Interesting holes in trailing wild bean leaves…

The second mystery relates to some piles of wild rose hip remains scattered around on the ground.  We were standing in the middle of a good patch of wild rose and talking about how plants in recently burned areas (at least this year) seemed to have lots of large fruits.  As I wandered around with my eyes scanning the ground, I spotted several places where some animal had apparently dismantled rose hips, leaving the skin (rind?  husk?) and seeds strewn about on the ground.

Rose hip remains.

At first, I was wondering why an animal would go through the trouble to open up the fruit and then not eat the seeds or skin since there’s not much more to the fruit than that.  Upon a closer look, though, it appears many of the seeds had been split in two, which makes me wonder if something was eating the center of the seeds and then spitting them out – almost like a ballplayer at a baseball game.  I’m guessing this is a small mammal, but don’t remember seeing piles quite like this before.  Help?

A closer look a the rose seeds, which seem to be split in half and hollowed out?

The final mystery was not something I discovered, but instead came from a question someone asked me.  I feel bad, but I honestly don’t remember who it was who asked – I’d give them credit if I did because it was a great question.  The question was, “Why don’t we see big flushes of annual sunflowers in the same place two years in a row, even when there is still plenty of bare ground?”  We’d been talking about the hypothesis that plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) germinates really well when there is abundant bare soil – such as after a fire or drought.  However, the question asker rightly pointed out that it doesn’t seem like the same phenomenon repeats itself in the same location in the following year, even if those bare soil conditions still appear to be present.

Populations of plains sunflower, like the one our group explored in this burned patch of Sandhills prairie, don’t seem to flourish two years in a row, even when bare ground persists. There must be something else driving that population boom and/or restricting a subsequent one.

I don’t have an answer for that sunflower question.  Possible explanations could include 1) the majority of the available seed bank germinated the first year and seeds from that crop need a year or more to become stratified or otherwise prepared to germinate; 2) sunflowers produce chemicals that inhibit their own growth the next year (seems doubtful); 3) an insect, microbe, or other organism builds up large populations during population booms of sunflowers and then either eats or infects seeds/plants of the next generation, preventing them from establishing.  There are probably lots of other possibilities.  Anyone have the answer?

I’ve said it many times, and it’s always true – finding these kinds of mysteries is what helps keep me interested and excited about prairie ecology.  It’s fun to figure out the solution to the mysteries, but then I have to find more mysteries.  Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of them!

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Photo of the Week – August 24, 2017

Today at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, we were hosting a field trip for a group of land managers from around the Sandhills.  As our caravan of pickups was traveling across our east bison pasture at around 5pm, Gerry Steinauer (state botanist for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) was sitting in the passenger seat of my truck and writer/photographer Bill Allen was in the back seat.  We had spotted a small group of bison and were detouring across a gravelly flat toward them.  Out of nowhere, Gerry suddenly called out to stop the truck.

He jumped out of the truck and knelt down next to a tiny plant with a pink flower.  The plant was prairie fame flower (Talinum parviflorum, aka Phemeranthus parviflorum).  It’s the most common of the three fame flower species in the Sandhills, but is still a plant that can be difficult to find.  It tends to grow in well-drained coarse sand or gravelly soils and doesn’t get very tall.  When it’s not blooming, its small succulent leaves are only a couple inches tall, so it hides well – even in the sparsely vegetated habitat it prefers.  During its blooming season, Gerry says fame flower doesn’t start flowering until about 4pm, so it’s not very visible for most of the day.  As a result, it’s always a pleasure to see one.

Prairie fame flower. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

As we started walking around the truck, we kept seeing more and more fame flower plants in bloom, so all three of our truck’s passengers grabbed our cameras and proceeded to start taking photos.  I think I’ve seen maybe 5 or 10 fame flower plants in bloom during the last 20 years, and we were seeing at least 100 flowering plants within  20 or 30 yards of the truck.

Before long, the rest of our caravan visited the bison and then came back our way, trying to figure out why we were crouched and/or laying on the ground.  We showed them the fame flower and they at least pretended to be impressed, which was kind of them.  (That’s not really fair – they were genuinely interested in the plant, though maybe not enough to stretch out prone in cactus-infested prairie to photograph it.)

Fame flower up close.

As we finished our drive across the pasture, our brains were programmed to see the little flowers, and we ended up spotting a couple more good patches of it.  The field trip had gone really well, with lots of thought-provoking discussion , but finding this big patch of fame flower put a perfect finishing touch on the day.

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