On Becoming a Wise Old Person of the Prairie

When I first started learning about prairies, I developed an immense respect for the “wise old people of the prairie” who seemed to be infinite fountains of knowledge. There have been several of those folks in my life, not all of them particularly old, who both inspired me and helped me gain a deeper understanding of grasslands. I loved to tag along with them on prairie walks. I would pepper them with questions about everything we saw, savoring each answer like an exquisite pastry. I was and am eternally grateful to them, and I’ve long aspired to become one of them.

Now that I’ve spent more than 25 years studying, restoring, and managing prairies, I feel like I’m starting to approach “wise old person of the prairie” status, at least among some audiences. In particular, I love introducing new classes of our Hubbard Fellows to our Nebraska prairies and helping them unwrap some of the same fascination I found during my own introductory period. The only people more gratifying to work with are my own kids. They all know that Kim is a better source of information on just about any other science topic (or math or English or…) but – while it’s close – I think I’m still the household expert on prairies. Having our own prairie gives our family particularly nice opportunities to spend time together in my favorite habitat.

Atticus stands in the middle of a “fairy ring”, a colloquial name for a pattern of extra green grass caused by a fungus. The outwardly spreading fungus breaks down organic matter in the soil, making increased nitrogen available for plant growth.

I feel like all my kids have a good foundational knowledge of grasslands, and for the most part, they’ve even appreciated getting it. My older three appear to be headed down non-ecology career paths, and that’s fine. As long as they keep their conservation ethic, I’m perfectly happy and proud to have them pursue whatever careers make them happy. My step-son Atticus, however, has been in a biology/ecology mode for long enough that he just might stick there, which would also be wonderful. Last weekend, Atticus and I spent a few hours at our family prairie, and I got to play “wise old person” with him. I think we both enjoyed it – I know I did.

Cattle were grazing down the smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass at the prairie. They also looked quite charming.

Until I started becoming one, I didn’t realize how personally gratifying it was to be a wise old person of the prairie. It’s not because it’s fun to show off my knowledge. Instead, it’s because I get to rediscover the most basic aspects of prairies each time I help someone else see them. Watching Atticus stalk brown thrashers and eastern kingbirds, and kneel down to admire a tree cricket nymph feeding on pollen keeps those common species from losing their sparkle for me.

Atticus spotted a colony of American vetch (Vicia americana) growing near the top of a small ridge, so we stopped to examine it. He was entranced by the way its tendrils grasped the nearby vegetation.
Atticus enjoyed looking at several bird species, especially a brown thrasher, eastern kingbirds, grasshopper sparrows, and a red-tailed hawk circling above its nest tree.
There is only one patch of woolly locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) in our prairie, in the middle of a fairly large flat dominated by pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta). We watched a queen bumblebee make a quick visit before hurrying off to find more food for its new nest.

I’m always happy to spend time with anyone in a prairie, and I never have trouble generating excitement about whatever we find, especially if it’s the first time my companions have seen or heard of that species or phenomenon. That said, there’s definitely a higher level of satisfaction and pleasure when my companions are family members. Atticus and I wandered around the prairie for about three hours, but the time flew by. We watched birds, found and discussed a badger den and fungal fairy ring, admired the new calves, checked on the blooming progress of multiple plant species, and canoed in tight circles around our tiny pond – among other activities. During the whole trip, I enjoyed watching Atticus file away new discoveries and call up old ones. He even grabbed my camera and asked to take a turn with it, which I think is the first time one of my kids has done that.

Atticus wasn’t content to simply watch me take flower photos and decided to get in on the act. (You can see the red-tailed hawk nest above his head.) Here, he’s photographing locoweed.
Here are the three photos Atticus took. Not bad, huh?
We keep a canoe stationed at the edge of our muddy farm pond so we can take it out on the water whenever we feel like it. The pond’s diminutive size makes for a lot of circular canoeing, but it’s still fun.
This tree cricket nymph was one of several insects we spotted on prairie ragwort (Senecio plattensis). One of the others was a green sweat bee, which Atticus wanted to photograph but that didn’t play nicely.
This crab spider was on the ragwort flower right next to the one with the tree cricket nymph.

I recognize that I have been very fortunate in my life. After all, I get paid to keep learning and sharing about my favorite habitat type. However, becoming a wise old person of the prairie is something I would have pursued regardless of my profession. It’s more of an apprenticeship than a job, I think. If you haven’t already, I hope you can find your own mentor(s) to follow through prairies. Don’t ever feel badly about asking them too many questions – if they’re anything like me, they’ll relish every opportunity to help you learn. Eventually, maybe you can reach wise old person status yourself. I highly recommend it.

Most of the pussytoes plants (Antennaria neglecta) we saw had already lost their seed, but a few still had some hanging on.
White-eyed grass (Sisyrhinchium campestre) was scattered around the prairie, but was nearly invisible until we were almost on top of it.

Photo of the Week – May 17, 2019

Spring is slowly progressing. I helped the Platte River Prairies crew build some fence yesterday in 94 degree weather, which seemed incongruous with the continuing (relative) scarcity of flowers. Puccoons (Lithospermum spp) are blooming, along with ragworts (Senecio plattensis) and a few other species, but many others are still keeping their buds tightly closed. Hopefully, we’ll start seeing more color within the next few weeks. Most grassland breeding birds have finally returned, though we’re still awaiting the arrival of dickcissels.

Bobolink male. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. (Cropped liberally from the original image…)

I was out hiking this morning and the light was nice, but since the breeze made flower photography difficult, I resorted to wildlife photography. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I lack the patience to sit for hours in a photography blind in order to get good wildlife photos, and I don’t have a big telephoto lens. Instead, I rely on finding less wary (less smart?) individual animals that let me get close enough to take reasonably good photos of them.

This cottontail hid in a patch of tall grass as I drove through one of our prairies in my truck. It let me creep up close enough (in the truck) to get a few photos before it finally had enough and scampered off.
Killdeer are not shy about announcing their presence, both when trying to lead interlopers away from their nest and just as a general rule. This one was no exception (to the general rule) but also let me sidle up to it awkwardly (in my truck again). Again, this photo is cropped fairly significantly.

This last photo is from a couple weeks ago. I was at our prairie, cutting down some locust trees and generally enjoying the day while a thunderstorm rolled past to the north. As the storm receded into the eastern sky, the trailing clouds made for some attractive landscape photo opportunities. Here is one of my favorites from that evening.

The Helzer Family Prairie in early May.