Photo of the Week – April 20, 2018

The prairie is finally waking up (again) around here.  Before last weekend’s blizzard weather, plants were starting to green up, but all that stopped for a while last weekend so we could enjoy one last (?) snowstorm.  We didn’t end up with much accumulation on the Platte River, but our Niobrara Valley Preserve got over a foot of snow.  Yesterday afternoon, the sun was warm and bright along the Platte, so I took a few hours to enjoy the latest reboot of spring.

This tiny orb weaver spider was starting a web in a recently burned patch of prairie. The grass was only a few inches tall, but the spider was using the breeze to string silk between the young shoots. I laid on my belly for quite a while and watched it work.

I’m not sure if it finally noticed me or just needed a rest, but after working for quite a while, the spider retreated to this little hiding place. I waited for several minutes, but it apparently wasn’t going to keep working, so I left it alone.

I noticed this open hole in a fresh pocket gopher mound and thought maybe I’d catch the gopher bringing a load of dirt out of its tunnel. I sat quietly near the hole for a few minutes until I looked more closely and decided it didn’t look as fresh as I’d first thought. I don’t think anything had disturbed the soil at the mouth of the hole since the snow melted. Pretending not to feel foolish, I moved on…

This roundheaded bushclover (Lespdeza capitata) leaf had what I think were probably fungal spots on it. While it wasn’t fresh green growth, I thought it was interesting and attractive enough to be photographed.

While it doesn’t look like much, the yellow-flowered sun sedge (Carex heliophila) shown here was my most exciting discovery of the day. We can’t get it to establish from seed, so we’d moved some plants from a nearby remnant into this restored prairie back in 2011.  Since then we hadn’t been able to find any (tiny plants under tall grass). Since the plants were blooming yesterday, I went looking in an area that was grazed last year and found hundreds of them! The plants survived and are spreading quickly via rhizomes.  This was the first one I found.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are playing their annual role of supporting early pollinators until native wildflowers get rolling. Yesterday was the first time I’d seen any blooming, but I saw several flies (including this one) and a honey bee already feeding from them.

It’s supposed to cool off again this weekend, but the forecast doesn’t show temperatures dropping below freezing – at least for the next week.  Maybe spring will actually catch on this time?  It’ll be interesting to watch plants like windflower (Anemone caroliniana) that started to grow and then got frozen off – multiple times.  Will they still bloom, or will they just give up and wait for next year?  Regardless, it’s sure nice to see something moving around in the prairies besides dead plant stems being blown around by the wind.  Let’s go spring!

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

Known Unknowns

As you may have noticed, I write a blog about prairies.  I post a couple times a week on various topics, ranging widely from basic natural history facts to fairly complex scientific ideas.  I’ve also written a book on prairie ecology and management.  As a result of this, people often assume I know much more than I actually do.

When I write a post, I usually dive into scientific journals (or at least Wikipedia) in order to gather enough information to write something interesting.  Sometimes, I can even retain that new information in my brain for as much as a week or two after I write my blog post.  However, more often than I’d like to admit, I’ll do an online search for information on a particular topic and one of my old blog posts will pop up in my search results!  I then get the surreal experience of learning from my younger self.

The point is, while I’ve been exploring and studying prairies for more than 25 years, I still feel like I’m just getting started.  There’s way more that I don’t know than I do know, and I find examples of this every day.  In today’s post, I’m sharing some of those examples with you.  I’m honestly not sure why you’d want to read about topics on which I have no useful information to share, so I won’t be offended (or even know) if you just stop reading here.

Here goes:

What made that hole in the ground?

There are all kinds of burrows in prairies, and I have no idea what kind of creature dug many of them.  Most of the bigger ones are probably made by badgers as they hunt for ground squirrels, but there are lots of other relatively large animals that dig too, and I don’t really know how to tell their burrows apart from each others.  Smaller burrows are even more mysterious to me.   Little mouse-sized mammals do a lot of burrowing, but I’m not sure which species do or don’t dig their own holes or how to tell them apart.

I’m pretty sure this is a badger hole. Partly because of the diameter of the hole, and partly because the track sure looks like a badger track.  Having that

Sometimes I find even smaller holes lined with silk and I’m pretty confident those have wolf spiders in them, but I don’t even know for sure whether wolf spiders dig their own burrows or just appropriate them from other creatures.  I’m getting better at recognizing burrows made by native bees and wasps because most of them have a little raised lip around the edge, but without seeing the resident come out of the hole, it’s really hard to know if I’m right.  Someday, maybe I’ll take the time to dig deeper into this topic.  Hardee har har.

What kind of insect is that?

I love to photograph insects and other small invertebrates.  When I can, I try to figure out what species I’ve photographed and I usually include those identifications when I put photos up on the blog.  However, most of those identifications come from helpful friends who graciously put up with my frequent emailed photos and queries.  I also take advantage of the excellent Bugguide website, where visitors can either click through images to gradually narrow down possible identifications or submit a photo for experts to identify.  Because I post so many photos of insects with the species name included, people have gotten the impression that I can wander around in prairies ticking off the names of all the insects I see.  Not true.  I can name a lot more than I could 10 or 15 years ago, but I mostly know the common species, or maybe the broad categories (“look, a grasshopper!”).  I try to make up for my lack of knowledge by being extra enthusiastic about what I see.  (“Wow!  Look how cool that little critter is!!”)

I think this is some kind of hopper. Not a grasshopper. It’s sure a neat looking little critter, though, huh?

How does intensive grazing followed by long rest periods affect soil carbon?

Good grief.  I have no idea.  To be fair, though, no one else does either, as far as I can tell.  There is some limited information out there about how grazing can affect soil carbon production and storage, but the science is still far behind on this topic.  Some grazing seems to support more soil carbon than chronic overgrazing or the absence of grazing, but the impact of specific grazing regimes or patterns is still a big mystery.  I can make some educated guesses about what’s happening with soil carbon based on what I know about root responses to grazing, but they’re still just guesses.  Ongoing and proposed research projects should help us understand this topic better in the coming years.

Grazing practices like patch-burn grazing surely have some important effects on soil carbon. Maybe they’re positive, maybe they’re not. I don’t know.

How do various herbicides work?

I managed to get through both my undergraduate and graduate degrees without ever taking any chemistry classes beyond Chemistry 101.  At the time, I was pretty pleased with myself about that, but I’ve come to regret it.  I have a very poor understanding of the various chemical compounds found in herbicides, let alone what their modes of action are in targeted plants.  I’ve also fallen far behind in terms of knowing which herbicides are best for killing which plants, what kind of residual impacts they might have, etc.  Fortunately, I have a father-in-law and several close colleagues who are well-informed on these topics, so I can get pretty quick answers when I have questions – answers I promptly forget as soon as I move on to another project.

Why do bison destroy yucca?

I don’t know, but they sure do.  Both cattle and bison will graze on yucca, especially during the winter when little else is green, but bison seem to have a vendetta against yucca, and I have no idea why.  Managers of bison herds have told me about watching bison violently uproot yucca plants with their horns.  I haven’t yet gotten to see that personally, but I’ve seen the impressive results.  Why do bison work so hard to get rid of a winter food source for themselves?  Are they really trying to kill the plants, or is it just fun?  No one I’ve talked to has seen evidence that the bison eat the roots of yucca or get any other obvious immediate benefit from uprooting the plants.  Regardless, there is usually a sharp fenceline contrast between bison pastures and cattle pastures in terms of yucca abundance, and it’s not due simply to the fact that most cattle pastures aren’t grazed during the winter.

This big clump of yucca was excavated by bison, but still managed to hold on to life. So far.

So, those are some examples of topics I don’t know much about.  I could keep going, but I’ve already written over 1000 words, and that seems more than sufficient since you’re probably not learning anything by reading them.  Sorry about that.  If you’re feeling unsatisfied, you can always go back and read one of the many posts I actually researched ahead of time.  Or you could just go read Wikipedia

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , | 21 Comments

Photo of the Week – April 13, 2018

Spring is here, but only for a few more hours.  We saw some nice green-up this week, with temperatures in the mid to upper 70’s.  Tonight, we’re supposed to get 5-7 inches of snow along the Platte River and as much as a foot and a half up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Next week?  More warm weather.

I did my best to enjoy the warm weather this week.  Between prescribed fires, I got my camera out of the bag a few times, and found both flowers and invertebrates (or at least one) to photograph.

Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) was popping out of the ground this week.

I rescued this leopard frog from fire as it was hopping into danger during our prescribed burn this week.

Rosettes of fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) keep some color through the winter, but their winter red is transitioning to green now.

I spotted this juvenile wolf spider scooting through a patch of bare sand and it sat still just long enough for me to photograph it.

Sun sedge (Carex heliophila) started to bloom on Thursday. I know that specifically because I checked on it Tuesday and Wednesday, desperately hoping for some color to photograph. By midday on Thursday, it was finally starting to bloom on the south-facing slopes of hills at our Platte River Prairies.

 

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Bench Strength of Prairies in the Face of Climate Change

In case you hadn’t noticed, the climate is changing.  Things are getting weird, and they’re going to get weirder.  Here in central North America, we’re expecting more and more intense storm events and drought periods in the coming decades.  Scientists are scrambling to figure out how to predict and facilitate the inevitable changes those crazy weather events will bring to natural systems, including prairies.

Fortunately, prairies have been training for this for a very long time.  A few months ago, I wrote a post about the resilience of prairies, and how that resilience is built largely upon the diversity within their ecological communities and the size and connectivity of prairie habitats.  Prairies that are relatively big and still have the majority of their potential plant and animal species are going into this encounter with rapid climate change with what you might call solid bench strength.

Diversity of plants and animals is the keystone to ecological resilience. The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands, Illinois.

In sports, teams want to have lots of available players that represent a broad diversity of skills.  Each opponent they face will have its own individual mix of power, endurance, speed, and other attributes.  A successful team can build a roster for each game that counters their opponent’s strengths, no matter what they are.  The number and quality of their players is a team’s bench strength.

Healthy prairies have great bench strength too.  No matter what gets thrown at them, they can adapt by changing their roster of species.  The speed at which they can drastically change the makeup of their “team” is impressive.  Anyone who has spent many years watching the same prairie has seen this in action, but none of us have seen prairies go through what Professor John Weaver saw back in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Weaver, one of the best known prairie ecologists of all time, had been studying 30 “large typical prairies” across parts of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Colorado prior to the start of the Dust Bowl era.  His baseline data gave him an invaluable opportunity to document the dramatic changes to the plant communities of those prairies during and after the droughts of the 1930’s.  What he recorded, along with his former student F.W. Albertson, was an incredible testimony to the dynamism and resilience of those prairies.  Their 88 page 1944 publication, entitled “Nature and Degree of Recovery of Grassland from the Great Drought of 1933 to 1940”  encapsulates the bulk of their findings in one place, and is worth a read if you have the time.

In 2012, we got a small glimpse of what Weaver and Albertson saw in the 1930’s, but our drought – while severe – only lasted one year here in Nebraska.

In 2013, the response of the prairie to the 2012 drought included some explosions of wildflowers, including shell leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus).

One of the biggest plant community shifts Weaver and Albertson documented was the widespread and dramatic death of grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), and the subsequent rise of other grasses such as prairie dropseed (Sporobolous heterolepis), sand dropseed (Sporobolous cryptandrous), porcupine grass (Stipa spartea), and most of all, western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii).  Western wheatgrass populations exploded throughout the mid to late 1930’s, to the point where many prairies were completely dominated by it, to the near exclusion of other plant species. In fact, in a 1942 publication, Weaver said the following, “The large area of drought-damaged true prairie and native pasture now dominated by western wheat grass and the harmful effects of the successful competition for water of western wheat grass with species of greater forage value present a problem of much scientific interest and great economic importance.”

In other words, as they made massive substitutions within their lineups, prairies were changing so much they became almost unrecognizable, even to those who knew them best.  Weaver and Albertson watched waves of forb species they’d always considered to be of little value become stars on the field, and they and others didn’t quite know how to react.  Daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus), Missouri goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis), and heath aster (Aster ericoides) were all examples of wildflowers that suddenly rose to prominence in new and major ways.  The two dismayed scientists described how heath aster, a “nearly worthless native forb,” formed near monocultures across wide swaths of prairie, to the extent that it “ruined many of the prairies…for the production of hay, because of its brush-like growth.”  Others were out of their depths on this too, and Weaver and Albertson reported that “considerable native sod was broken because of the seriousness of this pest.”  In the following sentence, however, they begrudgingly added a short sentence, “Of course, it did protect the soil.”

While Weaver and Albertson considered heath aster to be “nearly worthless” it plays an important role in the prairie, and is an important food source for pollinators in the fall.

Exactly.  While the strategy was foreign and frightening to those who hadn’t seen prairies dealing with these kinds of conditions before, those prairies were just doing what they’ve done many times before – making whatever roster adjustments were necessary to keep functioning at a high level.  In addition to forb species they denigrated as weeds, Weaver and Albertson noted that many wildflowers with “large storage organs”, including bulbs and corms, also greatly expanded their population size during the dust bowl years.  This included species like Violet wood-sorrel (Oxalis violaceae), bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), windflower (Anemone caroliniana), and wild garlic (Allium canadense).  Those species and others increased the size of the patches they’d occurred in previously, but also were found “in many new locations.”  Other native forbs that became superabundant in some prairies, especially early in the dust bowl years, included prairie ragwort (Senecio plattensis), white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Windflower (Anemone caroliniana) was one of the wildflowers with “large storage organs” that proliferated during the droughts of the 1930’s.

As rains started to return in the early 1940’s, Weaver and Albertson watched with amazement and renewed optimism as plant communities started “recovering”, which of course meant they were returning to a composition more familiar to the people observing them.  Grasses were often the first to rebound in prairies, including big bluestem, which initially formed large and lush monocultures in many places.  Wildflowers that hadn’t been seen for seven years or more, suddenly appeared everywhere, including blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre), which grew “more thickly than if the stands of 7 normal years had been combined.”  Downy gentian (Gentiana puberula), which had been considered rare prior to the big droughts, became much more common in the early 1940’s than Weaver and Albertson had ever seen before, with abundances of “15 or more plants in a space of a few rods”.

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) returned fairly quickly to “normal abundance” by 1943, as did many others, including silverleaf scurfpea (Pediomelum argophyllum), cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), and buffalo pea (Astragalus crassicarpus).  Prairie violets (Viola pedatifida), pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta),  and others came back more slowly, but returned nevertheless.  Importantly, those returning species didn’t appear to be traveling from long distances.  Instead, they simply re-emerged, either from seeds or underground buds, from where they’d been sitting on the metaphorical bench, awaiting the call to step up to the plate again.

Buffalo pea (Astragalus crassicarpus) and many other wildflowers recovered from the long droughts at a speed that amazed Weaver and Albertson.

The prairies we know today have been through a lot.  In Nebraska and surrounding states, we have specific documentation of the kinds of extreme roster changes prairies can and have made to adjust to the world around them, thanks to the work of John Weaver and F.W. Albertson.  If you have a favorite local prairie, and I hope you do, it’s important to remember that the way it has looked for as long as you’ve known it is only a small sample of what it’s capable of.  Smart teams don’t reveal their secrets before they need to.

As we work to keep prairies healthy through this period of rapid climate change, it’s both useful and reassuring to remember what they’ve been through before.  Today’s prairies certainly have additional challenges to deal with today, compared to the dust bowl days (more invasive species, more landscape fragmentation, etc.), but many should still have sufficient bench strength to make the adjustments they’ll need to make in the coming years.  Our responsibility is to provide management that helps prairies sustain their plant and animal diversity, as well as to protect prairies from additional conversion to cropland or other land uses.  Where possible, restoring prairie habitat around and between prairie fragments can also help build resilience.  In short, we have to allow prairies to do what they do best – adapt and adjust.  Prairies are wily veterans and they’ve been in this game for a long time.  It’s a good bet they’ve still got a few tricks up their sleeve.

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Photo of the Week – April 6, 2018

Predators play key roles in ecosystems.  When they are absent or rare, impacts ripple through landscapes, often in unexpected ways.  We all rely on the presence and effectiveness of predators, but usually fail to adequately celebrate their importance.

When thinking about predators, most people probably conjure up images of lions, tigers, bears, and other large vertebrates.  However, smaller invertebrate predators play the same kinds of critical roles as those big animals.  Here are a few portraits of tiny predators that help keep prairies healthy and vibrant.

No one will be surprised that I included a crab spider in this batch of images. This one ambushed a hover fly on hoary vervain (Verbena stricta).

This juvenile assassin bug is finishing off a fly.

This adult assassin bug sits poised and ready to attack any prey that comes near.

Jumping spiders, the teddy bears of spiders, are very effective predators – maybe because their prey gets distracted by their cuteness.

Dragonflies are large nimble predators that (fortunately for us) are big enough to handle small insects, but not big enough to cause us harm.

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2018 Hubbard Fellows

It’s well past time for me to provide an introduction to our latest class of Hubbard Fellows.  Alex Brechbill and Olivia Schouten are spending a year of their lives working with us here in Nebraska, helping us with all aspects of our conservation work.  At the same time, we are trying to give them the most well-rounded experience possible and prepare them for their future conservation careers.  This is the 5th class of Hubbard Fellows we’ve had now, and definitely the most local.  Olivia hails from Pella, Iowa and Alex is from right here in Aurora, Nebraska.  I could tell you lots more about them, but I’ll let them do it in their own words below.  Stay tuned for future blog posts by both Fellows throughout this year.

Olivia Schouten, Chris Helzer, Alex Brechbill.

Olivia –

I am a Midwesterner born and raised, growing up in Iowa among seemingly endless cornfields. Though there isn’t a lot of public land in the state, I was lucky enough to not only grow up near Lake Red Rock, one of the larger public recreation areas in the state, but to have parents that took their children on week-long camping vacations every year to our country’s amazing state and national parks. These trips gave me a love of the outdoors and our wilderness areas, those places where human’s touch was minimal and the plants and animals living in these places could do so in relative peace.

For most of my childhood, I didn’t think that Iowa could offer the same sense of wildness as our parks out west. There were just too many humans, and our impact was too great. That perception changed in high school, however, when I realized that just down the road from my hometown was one of the most ambitious conservation projects in Iowa; Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, a massive prairie restoration just 20 minutes from downtown Des Moines. I walked into this refuge as a high school student and left with my eyes opened to what wild places could look like in the Midwest, with dreams of vast grasslands once covering the entirety of the American heartland. My love of prairies and conservation began then, and never left. Though I have broad interests, ranging from art to astronomy, ultimately I decided that I wanted a chance to work on the landscape that I love, and do what I could to make sure our Midwestern ecosystems persist in the future.

My experience is rooted firmly in research, starting with my time at Central College working for my B.A. degrees in biology and anthropology. I had the opportunity to work with a professor researching the ecosystem services provided by diverse plantings of prairie species, where I learned about the potential there is in the prairie states to incorporate our native habitats into out altered landscape. After leaving Central, I worked in South Dakota and Iowa collecting data on plant and animal communities, and in January of 2015 I started attending Wichita State University in Kansas as a master’s student, studying the processes influencing the development of prairie plant communities.

Now I find myself in Nebraska, the fourth state I’ve had the opportunity to work on prairies in. I love prairies in all of their forms, and I’m excited to see what aspects of prairie ecology can be transferred from Kansas or South Dakota, and what unique challenges the prairies along the Platte River face here in Nebraska. I’ve already been inspired more than once in my short time here, from seeing the majesty of the sandhill crane migration firsthand, to enjoying the subtle beauty of the winter prairie dusted with snow.

I am excited to have the opportunity over the coming year to develop my hands-on skills in prairie stewardship and management, and I believe I’m off to a good start! I’ve already managed to put five prescribed burns under my belt, gotten a chainsaw in my hands to fight back woody encroachment, and had many insightful conversations about the use of grazing in managing diverse prairies. The year ahead looks exciting, and I’m eager to see the prairie through all its seasons, learning about management and conservation along the way. When I’m done, I’m sure I will leave a more effective advocate and lover of prairies!

Olivia (left) and Alex (right) last month at our first burn of the year.

Alex –

In February, I was ice fishing with my dad near my parents’ house in Doniphan, Nebraska. As I dropped my line into the icy waters of the freshly drilled hole, I heard the trills of Sandhill cranes from the North. My heart raced at the excitement of seeing the first cranes of the Spring migration circling above the Platte River. Soon, dozens of Sandhill cranes were circling in the skies.

Seeing them made me think about my own return to central Nebraska. I was raised in Aurora, Nebraska, just down Interstate 80 from TNC’s Platte River Prairies. I graduated from Aurora High School in 2013 and went to Nebraska Wesleyan University, where I studied Political Science, with a focus in environmental policy. While a student, I worked at the Nebraska State Unicameral for two sessions as a legislative page. I saw, firsthand, how crucial policymaking is in Nebraska. Inspired by state politics, I pursued national law by accepting an internship at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Working alongside federal trial attorneys, I researched various environmental policies, helping me shape my professional aspirations to pursue environmental law. Although I enjoy research, I am always looking for a way to get outdoors.

I spent my collegiate summers seeking new outdoor experiences, which allowed me to travel around the United States, and even Central and South America. My love for wild, untrammeled landscapes brought me to the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota as a canoe guide for two summers. Guiding was an unforgettable experience, surrounded by dedicated staff and seemingly endless lakes. After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University, I went to the Siuslaw National Forest on the coast of Oregon in the temperate rainforests for a summer of interpretation as a Field Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, sponsored by The Student Conservation Association. Whether it’s canoeing, hiking, or climbing, I am always looking for new places to go and different ways to experience them.

The Hubbard Conservation Fellowship is a phenomenal opportunity for me to be able to work both as a land steward, working hands-on with chainsaws, tractors, and prescribed burns, and as a researcher. The fellowship offers a holistic conservation experience working all over: the Niobrara Valley Preserve, the Omaha field office, the Platte River, and a peek into other states. I am continually impressed with The Nature Conservancy as a worldwide organization; the largest environmental organization in the world, but also one that affects local communities.

It’s been wonderful reconnecting with central Nebraska. To see the great outdoors, I always thought I needed to go west, but it turns out I just needed to go to my backyard. I can’t wait for the brisk mornings, the blistering hot afternoons, and the crisp evenings that I grew so acquainted with growing up. The next year has so much opportunity, and I can’t wait to explore the prairies of the Heartland.

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Photo of the Week – March 30, 2018

Spring is almost here.  I spotted my first butterfly this week (too far away to identify it) and there are a few other insects starting to move around as well.  Not much flowering in the prairies yet, though plants are starting to green up, especially where we’ve burned.  While I wait for the new season to fully kick into gear, I’m falling back to a popular (to me) theme of “Random Photos from Last Year” to fill the gap.  Enjoy.

Anyone know what this insect is? (Other than a hemipteran) I photographed it at our family prairie last summer.  It looks predatory to me, but what do I know?

The Niobrara River, flowing through our Niobrara Valley Preserve. This is a stretch of river I don’t photograph very often, but there is a great photo waiting for me in this location.  I haven’t quite found it yet, but this photo is heading in the right direction.

This gorgeous wasp was feeding on butterfly milkweed at Lincoln Creek Prairie here in Aurora.

This is a giant blowout at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, but it’s unlike most blowouts in that it has steep bluffs on the north and south sides that have a texture almost like sandstone. We found a burrowing owl nest on the south bank a couple years ago.  There’s a great photo waiting for me here too.  Someday I’ll find it.

I mainly put that last photo in as a precursor to this one. It was taken at the southeast corner of the big blowout where the sand blows most actively.  I’m a sucker for waves of sand.  I could spend all day looking at them and never get bored.

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Boxelder Bugs: Accessible Ambassadors for Nature

Conservation success relies upon people feeling connected to nature.  As a result, conservation groups spend a lot of time trying to show the public how much their health and prosperity depend upon natural services and processes (clean air and water, storm surge protection, pollination, etc.).  They also try to find easy ways for people to interact with nature where they live.  The latter can be particularly difficult, especially as we become a more and more urban society.  Programs that promote and install trees, pollinator gardens, rain gardens and other tidbits of nature within our concrete jungles can all help bring nature to people.  However, I think we’re missing an easy answer that could very well be staring at you right now: the friendly neighborhood boxelder bug.

I photographed this boxelder bug on my sidewalk last week, just a few feet from where my wife first spotted it crawling on a blooming daffodil.  It was in a sheltered area on the sunny side of our house; probably warming up on a pleasant spring day.  Boxelder bugs keep their long straw-like mouth parts tucked beneath them except when they poke them into plants and seeds to feed.

Chances are, if you’re in the United States, and you look carefully through whatever building you’re in right now, you’ll find at least one boxelder bug hanging around.  If it’s a sunny day, you might be able to go outside and find some warming themselves on the south side of that same building.  Boxelder bugs make themselves easily available to us, but we have largely failed to take them up on their obvious offer of friendship.

Boxelder bugs are harmless.  They don’t bite people and they don’t cause any significant injury to plants, including the boxelder, maple, and ash trees they like to feed on.  Boxelder bugs are sometimes characterized as nuisances because they can accumulate in large numbers, especially on the sunny outside walls of buildings, or even indoors, near windows or other warm places.  And yes, large numbers of insects can create large amounts of insect poop, and that can sometimes cause some discoloration of walls or curtains.  Fair enough, but most of us put up with a lot more from kids, dogs, and/or cats without calling in exterminators.

Boxelder bugs are often seen on trees, especially maple, boxelder, and ash, where they feed on the seeds – but don’t appear to cause any problems for these trees or any other plants they feed on.  They like to overwinter in piles of plant material (landscaping mulch, compost piles, etc.) or make their ways through tiny cracks and crevices into warm buildings.

Most often, boxelder bugs get noticed during the winter when a few of them warm up enough to come wandering out of their hiding places into the living spaces of humans.  This is a perfect example of how these bugs can be ambassadors for nature.  They are quite literally little representatives of nature that present themselves to us, in a completely nonthreatening way, right in our homes.  If we can spread the word about the harmlessness of boxelder bugs, maybe we can turn these surprise appearances into positive interactions.  If we can point them toward information about the fascinating lives of boxelder bugs and other creatures, we might even start a cascade of exploration.

You’re skeptical?  Well, people are already taking an interest in boxelder bugs without our encouragement.  How do I know?  Back in February 2013, I wrote a short blog post about how glad I was to find boxelder bugs in my house because I was looking for something to photograph during the middle of the winter.  Though the post was mostly about new camera gear, I also threw in a few natural history facts about boxelder bugs, as is my wont.

The boxelder bug (Boisea trivitatta) is a true bug, and has the characteristic triangle shape on its back, straw-like mouth, and incomplete wing coverings (among other things). The “trivitatta” portion of its name refers to the three stripes behind its head.  The are categorized as “scentless plant bugs” but can release a bad tasting (and smelly) compound when attacked in order to fend off predators.  They don’t use that defense against humans, however, or at least I’ve not experienced that with the hundreds I’ve picked up to examine over the years.

Five years later, that post on boxelder bugs continues to attract a surprising number of readers.  In fact, during the last couple of years, the post has been viewed between 1000 and 5000 times every month!   It has become, by far, the most viewed post I’ve ever written, surpassing many posts I’d have predicted to have more lasting interest and value.  It has been viewed five times as frequently as “What’s the Best Time to Burn?” and almost ten times as often as “The Conservation Value of Backyard Prairies”.  I was just looking for an excuse to try out a new flash system for my camera and ended up writing the most popular thing I’ve ever written.  It’s an odd world, to be sure.

People seem to stumble onto my boxelder bug post because they are looking for information on the little insects that have shown up in their houses, and a fair number of those people appear to be looking for something beyond just how to kill them.  The comments section is full of people thanking me for providing positive information on boxelder bugs and telling me about how they are making friends with the boxelder bug(s) in their home.  This is energy that needs to be harnessed and used for good!

If people become comfortable with boxelder bugs, they might also become comfortable with other invertebrates around them, including ants, millipedes, and even (gasp) spiders.  Looking at these little creatures with interest and empathy, instead of fear or disgust, might lead them to look around for other animals to learn about.  Once they’ve gotten a pretty good inventory of what they can find in their homes and neighborhoods, they might start to wander further, and to expand upon their species of interest.  Before you know it, they’ll be amateur naturalists and conservation supporters.

Pigeons are another example of an animal living among us that is easy to observe and has plenty of fascinating stories to learn about.  Don’t believe me?  Do a Google search for “pigeon trivia”.

Boxelder bugs aren’t the only potential accessible ambassador for nature.  They happen to be handy (and cute) but there are plenty of other animals hanging around too, including both invertebrates and larger animals.  We naturalists tend to be snobbish about species like pigeons and house sparrows, but imagine what could happen if a young kid started following one of those birds around to see where it lives?  That curiosity, once satisfied, would very likely lead them to look around for other species to learn about.

If we’re going to build a constituency for nature in an urban world, it makes sense to focus more on urban and suburban nature.  Boxelder bugs, pigeons, and many other animals are right there, waiting to be noticed and learned about.  It’s important to show people what nature looks like out in the great wide open spaces, but we should probably spend more time talking about the nature living right outside, or even inside, our homes.

Who could look deeply into the four red eyes of a boxelder bug and not come away deeply moved?  (Did you notice the two smaller eyes behind the bigger ones?  I’m telling you – there’s a lot more to these little critters than you might think at first.)

Posted in General, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 22, 2018

It’s always inspiring to hang out with other conservation photographers, especially when they’re really good at what they do.  As I mentioned in my last post, I recently spent an early morning in one of our crane viewing blinds and got to see a whooping crane right out in front.  My two companions that morning were Michael Forsberg and Melissa Groo, both of whom are incredibly talented and accomplished wildlife photographers, as well as passionate and effective advocates for conservation.

Also?  They have really really big lenses.  Like, intimidatingly large lenses.  And when there is a whooping crane hanging out on the other side of the river from you, a big lens is sure handy.  As a result, you should check out both Mike and Melissa’s individual Instagram accounts to see the photos they got from that morning.  I know Mike has already posted the amazing shot he took of the whooper stretching its wings, which turned out looking like a white angel in the midst of a dull gray mob of birds.  I don’t think Melissa has posted any photos yet from that morning, but she did post a shot of the same bird in a nearby field from a few days before.  (Check out their other work as well, you’ll be glad you did.)

Melissa’s lens was so big, you can’t even see Mike or his lens, which are right on the other side of her.

Good for them.  Seriously.  They had the right equipment for the job on that morning and were able to capture powerful images they’ll use for good purposes.  Me?  Not so much.  I spent my morning capturing the “atmosphere” of the morning, and enjoying my overall good fortune.  After all, I was hanging out great people, and looking at one of the few whooping cranes left in the world, along with four or five thousand sandhill cranes.  I was doing just fine.

The closest sandhill cranes were quite a ways from our blind, and the whooping crane was near the far bank of the river.  It’s not in this particular photo, but even if it was, you probably wouldn’t be able to see it!

With my cute little 18-300mm lens, I concentrated on capturing the overall feel of the morning, rather than individual birds.

Am I jealous that when I go out to take pictures, my entire photography kit, including the vehicle I’m driving, cost less than one of the lenses Mike and Melissa were shooting with?  Well, maybe just a little bit.  But mostly, I’m glad they’re successful enough to afford those lenses.  This is what they do, and they need to have the right tools for the job.  There are only about three or four days a year when I wish I had a longer lens.  The rest of the time, I’m usually looking down toward my feet for photo opportunities, not across a broad river channel, and I’m perfectly happy with that.  After all, it wouldn’t make any sense to have all conservation photographers capturing the same kinds of images, right?  Somebody has to chase little bugs around prairies, and I’m more than happy to help fill that role.

Speaking of photos near my feet, I’ve had a couple opportunities to practice my own brand of conservation photography in the days since my whooping crane morning.  I had a very pleasant walk through one of our recently burned prairies a couple nights ago.  Then, yesterday, I enjoyed an hour or so photographing prairie plants on what might be the last frosty morning of the winter.  Until my favorite subjects (bugs and flowers) start becoming more available, I’m feeding my appetite with whatever else I can find.

The prairies we burned a couple weeks ago have been popular feeding spots for hordes of sandhill cranes looking for underground invertebrates to feed on. Did I photograph those cranes on our burned prairies? No, I just found and photographed a dainty little down feather one of them dropped.

The brown scorched leaves of this shell leaf penstemon plant might give you the impression that it’s dead, but it will actually thrive this coming season because the cattle grazing in this burned prairie will help suppress its major competitors – grasses – growing nearby.

This penstemon leaf reminded me of a fish…

A frosty sunflower seed head. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Indiangrass seedhead and frost.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to incorporate photography into my regular job.  It’s something I’m passionate about, and something I feel is critically important in order to help people understand and feel connected to nature.  I don’t often travel far from home to photograph nature, but I’m sure glad others do.  For example, I’ll likely never get to see the Arctic or Antarctic regions of this world, but I feel a strong connection to those places because of the photographs of people like Paul Nicklen.  In my own small way, I hope I can provide that kind of connection between people and the prairies I love – despite my tiny little camera lenses…

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

When Is A Whooping Crane Not A Whooping Crane?

Along the Central Platte River in Nebraska, there is an annual congregation of hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes during the month of March.  For about two decades or so, there has also been a single whooping crane that appears to arrive and depart with those sandhill cranes.  There are various theories about why the whooper hangs around with sandhill cranes instead of its own kind, but most of us assume it is unaware of, or possibly uninterested in other whooping cranes.  We’re not really sure where it goes during the rest of the year, but it always shows up when the sandhill cranes come through each spring.

This whooping crane has been hanging out with sandhill cranes for about 20 years or more – assuming it’s the same bird each year.  It certainly stands out in a crowd, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, it’s not the crowd it’s supposed to be hanging out with.

It’s kind of a sad situation, but does give visitors to this part of the state an improved chance of seeing a whooping crane.  Most whoopers migrate through this area later in the spring, after the sandhill cranes (and the crowds that come to watch them) have left.  A fairly small percentage of whooping cranes stop at the Platte each spring, and those that do stop are usually just here for a night or two, making it unlikely that many people will see them.  By contrast, the “lonely” whooper often stays for a few weeks or more, making it pretty accessible to grateful crane watchers.

As I was driving out for an early morning crane tour last weekend, I was thinking about the lonely whooping crane.  It had been hanging around near our viewing blinds along the river’s edge over the last week or two.  I knew there was a good chance we’d see the whooper on the river in front of our blinds (and we did!) but I was also thinking about something else.  What if the whooper left the river while we were in the viewing blind and landed in the grassland between the blind and where our vehicles were parked?  Since it’s a federal crime to disturb an endangered bird, we might be stuck in the blinds for a few extra hours, waiting for the whooping crane to leave.

When we first snuck into the blind, it was mostly dark, and most of the cranes were still asleep. We thought we saw something white in the sea of gray, but we had to wait until the light got a little stronger before we were sure of what we were seeing. The other two photographers with me had lenses longer than my arm (more on that later this week). This shot was taken with my puny little 18-300mm lens and then cropped liberally to make the whooper look bigger than a little white dot.

That discomforting thought led me down a rambling philosophical journey as I drove (did I mention it was early in the morning?) about whether or not that lonely bird should actually count as a whooping crane.  By law, of course, it does count, and there’s no question about that.  But what about in an existential sense?

The endangered species act is supposed to help populations of rare species recover, right?  We’ve added layers of protection for the remaining individuals of those rare species so they can survive and reproduce, increasing the size of their population.  But what if an individual is separated from its kind and doesn’t even recognize what it is?  If our lonely whooping crane has no chance of ever interacting with other whoopers, let alone reproducing, how should we categorize it?  Whooping cranes in zoos are physically removed from the wild population, but still have the potential to breed and create more whoopers, which could potentially be returned to the wild at some point.  The lonely whooping crane doesn’t seem to have that possibility.

After it woke up and stretched a little, the whooper wandered slowly upstream a quarter of a mile or more before we lost sight of it. It seemed to be walking completely alone – not following other birds. The sandhill cranes didn’t seem bothered by it, but also didn’t seem to interact with it in any way.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not saying the lonely whooping crane isn’t important, and I’m not advocating that it be somehow removed from its protected status under the law.  I just found it interesting to think about what it means to be part of a species.  Do you have to be a contributing member?  Is reproduction the way animals pay dues to their species?  If our lonely whooping crane isn’t really a whooping crane, what is it?

I can’t emphasize enough how early it was in the morning when I was thinking about this.  I often do my best thinking while driving, but I’m not sure this counts.  Also, I honestly feel grateful to have the opportunity to see whooping cranes (including this one) fairly regularly during their migration, and I probably shouldn’t take that for granted.  However, being grateful doesn’t mean I can’t allow my mind to wander into the realm of whooping crane existentialism, does it?

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , | 26 Comments