Photo of the Week – August 16, 2018

I’ve been spending a lot of this summer at Lincoln Creek Prairie, right across town from my house.  Much of my time there has been spent working on my square meter photography project, but I’ve wandered a lot through the rest of the prairie as well.  Visiting the same site frequently always helps me appreciate the dynamic nature of prairies.  I get to track individual flower blossoms as they transform from buds to blossoms to seed heads, and watch insects move from larva/nymph stage to adult.

Last weekend,  for example, I visited the prairie two days in a row and spotted four different Chinese mantises  that had just emerged from their last molt, leaving their exoskeletons behind.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those exoskeletons before, let alone four over a two day period.  I’m guessing the skeletons don’t usually hang around long before they fall, dry up, and shrivel into obscurity – not necessarily in that order.

A Chinese mantid peers at me as I eased my camera toward it.  This one was photographed a few days before I found the exoskeletons and recently-molted adults.  

This is one of four shed mantis exoskeletons I found over a two day period.

One of my most exciting finds at Lincoln Creek this month was a small bee with gorgeous blue eyes.  It was a male Tetraloniella cressoniana – something I know only because I sent the photo to  Mike Arduser for identification.  I’ve photographed this species once before, back in 2009, and I wrote about it in a 2011 blog post.  The bee is noteworthy because it is very specialized in diet – feeding only on pitcher sage, aka blue sage (Salvia azurea).  Not coincidentally, that is the flower species in both pictures I have of this species.

Ever since learning about the species from Mike, I’d been hoping to see and photograph it again.  I finally got my wish last week, on a dewy morning at Lincoln Creek.  The bee was poised on a blue sage flower, probably waiting for the prairie to warm up and dry out enough that females would emerge from their nests.  I took quite a few shots of it as I gradually edged closer and closer, until it nearly filled the frame.  As soon as I got home, I fired off one of the photos to Mike, who enthusiastically identified it for me.

A male blue sage bee, which tolerantly allowed me to photograph it – only, I assume, because no females were available to chase.

Dewy mornings have always been favorite photographic opportunities for me, especially when the wind is calm.  Insects get trapped in dew drops, making them easy to photograph, and the entire prairie glistens and sparkles as the first light of the day hits it.  Photographing individual dew drops is always alluring, but rarely turns out very well for me – my macro lens doesn’t magnify them enough for my taste, and depth-of-field issues and slight breezes increase the technical difficulty significantly.  Now and then, however, I find the right situation.  That happened last week with a big droplet near a patch of sensitive briar flowers.

A dew drop and sensitive briar flower (Mimosa quadrivalvus) made a pretty combination.

Lincoln Creek Prairie has been a favorite spot of mine since I moved to town over 20 years ago.  It’s only about a mile from my house, and is a nice restored prairie with lots of flower and insect diversity.  The prairie is small and subdivided by tree lines and roads, but none of that really affects close-up photography.  Despite having made hundreds of trips to the prairie before this summer, though, I’m still finding new subject matter and making new observations – showcasing beautifully what prairies are all about.

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Square Meter of Prairie Project – July 2018

Quick note – registration is still open for the 2018 Grassland Restoration Network workshop (September 5-6) in Illinois.  Click here for more information and/or to register.  It’ll be worth your time!

The square meter photography project continues!  Throughout this calendar year, I’m trying to document as much beauty and diversity as I can within a single square meter of prairie along Lincoln Creek in Aurora, Nebraska.  Today, I’m sharing some of my favorite images from July.  If you want to look backwards, you can click to on these links to look at selected photos from June, May, and January.

July was a little slower than I’d expected, to be honest (August, however, has been really hopping).  I was surprised how few pollinators showed up to feed on the butterfly milkweed plant in my little plot.  (I’m sure it didn’t have anything to do with the loony guy and his camera looming nearby.  There were lots of insects hanging around on butterfly milkweed plants elsewhere in the prairie…)  Regardless, there was still plenty going on in the plot last month.  Here are some highlights.

One of the few bugs I did see on the butterfly milkweed plant in my plot kept playing hide and seek with me.  This was the only photo I could get on this particular day.

A few days after the above photo, I saw the same kind of bug again, but this one was more tolerant of my lens in its face.

Morning dew drops.

I’m not sure what this beetle is, but I saw it a few times last month.

This tiny spider was hanging out one day.  It looks similar to the lynx spider I was seeing in June, but the eyes are wrong – and it seemed to be making a web.

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

A leaf-footed bug (I think?)

I believe this intricately-patterned little beauty is a leaf hopper. Any guidance as to species would be appreciated…

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Photo of the Week – August 10, 2018

Roses are red, violets are blue,

Except that in nature, both vary in hue.

-Chris Helzer

Pardon the terrible poetry, but even outside of horticultural varieties, the flowers of both roses and violets can be many different colors.  Less frequently, even sunflowers can display colors other than their typical yellow.  For example, there is a clone of stiff sunflowers (Helianthus pauciflorus) blooming right now over at Lincoln Creek Prairie, here in Aurora, that includes beautiful red highlights.

These stiff sunflower blossoms have a little extra accent to their typical yellow color.

The red color appears to be genetically linked because there is an entire clone (a patch of stems connected by underground stems called rhizomes) with the same feature.  It reminds me of the way upright yellow coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), another yellow flower, can often include varying amounts of red.  But that red variation is much more common in the coneflower – I almost never see it in sunflowers.  In fact, I’m wondering if the other times I’ve seen it might have been in this same clone, but years ago…

Regardless, I took a few minutes to appreciate (and document) these unique blossoms last week.  The bees feeding on them didn’t seem put off by the unusual color, which means maybe the genetic trait of that red color will be passed on and show up elsewhere.  If I think of it, I might even go harvest some of that seed myself in a month or so…  Here are a few more photos from that same flower patch.

Melissodes agilis on stiff sunflower. You can see that the reddish color is really just on the backside of the flower. The bees didn’t seem to care.

Svastra obliqua (aka, the sunflower bee).  Look at all that yellow pollen on her back leg…  (Thanks to Mike Arduser for confirming the ID of both these bee species.)

What a gorgeous flower…

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Apply Now for the Hubbard Fellowship!

We are now accepting applications for the 6th class of Hubbard Fellows with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.  Application deadline is September 21, and the position will run from February 2019 through January of 2020.

This has been one of the most satisfying programs I’ve ever been involved with.  The opportunity to supervise and mentor young, bright future conservation leaders is incredibly energizing, and fills me with hope.  If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about the Fellowship, you can click here or just go to the Hubbard Fellowship tab at the top of this blog’s home page.

Current Fellows Alex and Olivia (left), along with TNC staffer Amanda Hefner and former Fellow Katharine Hogan prepare themselves to collect data at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

The Hubbard Fellowship program is designed to help recent college graduates get comprehensive experience with a conservation organization and give them a big leg up toward their career.  The hope is to bypass the need to spend several years working short-term seasonal jobs to gain a variety of experiences by giving them all those experiences within one position.

Fellows become an integral part of our land management and restoration team – harvesting and planting seeds, killing weeds, clearing trees and brush, fixing fences, helping with bison roundups, and much more.  They also collect data and interact with a number of scientists and research projects.  Beyond that, however, they are also very active in communication and outreach, leading volunteer work days and sandhill crane viewing tours, speaking to various audiences, writing blog posts and newsletter articles, and helping with our social media presence.  They get a chance to learn about and help with fundraising, see how budgeting and financial management works, and become active participants in conservation strategy meetings and discussions.  Fellows attend our statewide board meetings, are active participants in our statewide strategy meetings and workshops, and attend multiple conferences in and out of the state.

On a tour during a statewide conservation conference, Dillon and Jasmine pause to contemplate their futures.

Beyond those experiences, Fellows also develop and implement an independent project that both fits their particular interests and fills a need for our program.  Those projects have included field research, social science research, enhancing our volunteer program, developing educational materials, and more.  Those projects give Fellows in-depth experience within a topic of interest, but also a substantial accomplishment to point to as they move toward graduate school or apply for permanent jobs.

Evan collects insects for a research project being conducted by a visiting scientist from Kansas State University.

We are looking for motivated, future conservation leaders who want to live and work in rural Nebraska and become an integral part of our conservation efforts for a year.  The application process includes a short essay and letter of reference, in addition to a cover letter and resume.  All materials must be submitted by midnight on September 21, 2018.  Housing is provided for the Fellows, right in the middle of our Platte River Prairies, west of Grand Island, Nebraska.

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.  Thanks!

Katharine and Eric explore a waterfall at the Niobrara Valley Preserve during a staff canoe trip down the Niobrara River.

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A Tough Plant, Not A Weed

I blame whomever named the plant.  Giving a plant the name “ironweed”, apparently – according to Google – because of its tough stem, creates an unnecessarily negative connotation right from the start.  It’s an unfair connotation for a plant that is both beautiful and important.  It’s also a big favorite of butterflies; something I can attest to after spending a couple hours last weekend chasing monarchs and others around ironweed patches at our family prairie.

Ironweed at our family prairie, growing abundantly in a smooth brome-filled draw.  The abundance of the plant goes up and down each year, but it never spreads beyond the draw or shades out the grass around and beneath it.

There are three species of ironweed (genus Vernonia) in Nebraska, and two that are common in the prairies I am most familiar with.  Both of those – V. fasciculata and V. baldwinii – seem to act in similar ways, but the first likes a little wetter sites than the second.  Both species can occur as scattered plants across a prairie, but are also often found in fairly dense patches where conditions favor them.  That patchy local abundance is the first mark against them by people who don’t appreciate their value.  The second mark is that cattle absolutely refuse to eat them.  This both helps them stand out (especially when blooming) in heavily grazed pastures and helps them spread across those same sites since they gain a strong competitive edge when surrounding plants are all being grazed hard.

Like many other plant species I tend to admire and write about, however, ironweed is not an invasive plant – it’s an opportunist.  It takes advantage of soil and management conditions that favor it, but doesn’t just spread aggressively across pastures.  If you look online, it’s not hard to find websites that encourage its control in pastures.  I dispute that.  At least in my experience, ironweed has its favorite locations (often in draws or other low spots where moisture and nitrogen are high) and pulses in abundance within those locations as grazing treatments and weather vary from year to year.  At our family prairie, ironweed is fairly abundant in some of the low draws where high nitrogen also strongly favors smooth brome, but while there are years when those patches are thicker than others, the overall patch sizes and stem densities of ironweed aren’t any higher today than they were 15 years ago.  That matches what I see elsewhere in central and eastern Nebraska.

(I found a university website online that blamed ironweed for making cattle have to look harder to find grass, thus reducing grazing efficiency.  Give me a break.  That’s the same attitude that leads to people spraying pastures to remove everything that isn’t grass, and then wondering why they need to fertilize their grass and supplement their cattle’s diet.  The same people blame others for the lack of wildlife and pollinators on their land.  …Ok, I’m done ranting – let’s talk about butterflies.)

When I arrived at our family prairie last weekend, I immediately noticed monarch butterflies flying all over the place.  I’d seen a surprising number of larvae back in July, so figured we might have a good August, but I was still impressed with how many adults I saw.  I’m guessing there were 40-50 or more across our 100 acres of prairie.  They kept moving, so it was hard to count them…

Almost every monarch I spotted was either flying or feeding on ironweed.  A few other flowers got attention too, including wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii), and some early tall thistle blossoms (Cirsium altissimum), but ironweed clearly monopolized most of their attention.  I started stalking monarchs with my camera and eventually found a couple that let me get close enough for to capture reasonable photographs.  While I was doing that, I also spotted myriad bees, along with quite a few other butterfly and moth species.

Here are some photos of the butterflies and moths that were kind enough to let me get close.  I didn’t ever get a good shot of a bee, though there were at least a dozen species feeding on the ironweed flowers, and I also never caught up to one of the many silver-spotted skipper butterflies that were all over the place.

This is one of many monarchs that were floating from plant to plant across ironweed patches last weekend.

I haven’t looked up this moth yet. Maybe one of you can save me the trouble? Thanks in advance.

I’ve been seeing a lot of adult swallowtails around lately, including this tiger swallowtail , which was pretty easy to spot, even from across a large draw.

Ok, this black swallowtail wasn’t on ironweed when I photographed it, but it went to ironweed after feeding on this native thistle.  I was taking bets (in my head) about whether or not the crab spider on that thistle would be able to take down the big butterfly. The butterfly eventually moved within striking distance, but the spider didn’t attack, so I’m guessing it decided to wait for something a little smaller.

Thanks to Neil Dankert, I can tell you that this gorgeous little brown skipper butterfly is a tawny-edged skipper.

Ironweed is too beautiful and important for its name.  Maybe we need a campaign to rename it, and maybe that campaign would help convince people, including those at a certain unnamed university, to leave this plant alone to do its job.  Either way, it might be fun to think about potential names.  Any ideas?

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Work Pants

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Alex has a great aptitude and personality for environmental law and policy work, but not to the detriment of his outdoor work ethic – as you’ll see here.  Also – Stay tuned for an announcement very soon about the application period for the next round of our Fellowship.

After graduating college with a degree in political science, I was convinced I was going to dive headfirst into a cubicle. There was something very exciting about it. I would have my own desk, the ability to throw on a sweater because the A/C is just a bit too chilly, and maybe, if I’m lucky, two monitors on my computer. This image was so idyllic because most of my work experience includes me being knee-high in mud (and probably not mud, if we are being honest), saturated in sweat, and consistently covered in perma-dirt, no matter how fancy I get with my laundry.

I was convinced I would have that dream cubicle. I wanted to, and still want to, pursue environmental law in some capacity: paralegal, administrative assistant, research, etc. Despite having plenty of outdoors jobs, I’ve had my fair share of indoor positions, slowly building a collection of slacks, khakis, corduroys, and dress pants for the day that I finally get my name on a desk. However, that collection will have to keep gathering dust, because my favorite pants are my workpants.

They are khaki canvas Dickies, with the classic red patch on the right butt cheek. They are size 32×32, but depending on the day, they would ideally be about two inches snugger and two inches longer. I’ve had them for four years. They were originally intended for my dad, but I intercepted them as they were my size.

Are these pants freshly laundered or have I worked in them for three weeks? You can never really tell by just looking at them.

Workpants are the physical manifestation of how much it takes to keep ecosystems in their desired condition. Without a little elbow grease, most of our prairies would be thickets of Siberian elm, a sea of musk thistles, or thatch dense enough you’d have to Bear Grylls your way out. Growing up, I marveled at how beautiful landscapes could regulate themselves without any intervention. However, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It takes folks out in the field every day of the week, not just when it is convenient, but when it’s raining, windy, hot, cold, summer, or winter. It is by no means glamorous work, but it’s rewarding, beautifully messy work. My pants have borne the brunt of that labor, from mud to paint. Every spot, snag, hole, wrinkle, or stain has a story.

In the last seven months, I have conducted a very scientific study regarding the reasons I have washed my workpants. Although the research is ongoing, I have some results that I think are notable for this audience. One might ask, “are most scientific studies done in colored pencil and marker?” The answer is that although it may seem archaic, I assure you it is still very scientific.

Life-long scientific research. Still trying to get it published in Workpants Quarterly.

Some of the preliminary findings are that there has been a lot of poison ivy this year and that I’ve done a lot of chainsaw work, as shown by the lingering smell of two-stroke exhaust. After looking at the raw data and punching some numbers, I found that there is a clear correlation between my pants not fitting and how long I have been chainsawing. On occasion, after I take off my chaps, one may think that I’m wearing a second pair of chaps underneath my chaps, however, that is merely the outline of my sweat from where the chaps were once occupying.

This is the Achilles’ heel of any good pair of pants, the classic backpocket wallet hole. I prefer the hole in my backpocket to be somewhere in between “that’ll be fine” and “I think I lost my wallet in the prairie.

Once upon a time, these pants used to be more of an orange-khaki color, as shown by the color under the cuff. Over the years they’ve been sunbleached and built up a good patina. They get better with time, like a fine wine.

Permadirt and blue stains. Really it’s a match made in heaven.

Although it made a small appearance in the above data, breaking through the ice was one of my favorite experiences. In February, I and the other field staff were preparing for crane season, and one of the objectives was to remove cattails to make a clear view of the roosting cranes on the river. The river was still frozen at this time, but I was still wary of the thickness of ice. From the bank of the river, I removed all the cattails that I could reach. However, there were still cattails out further that were blocking the view of the river from the blind. Thinking of the cranes, I braved the ice. As I reached the outer edge of the cattails, I knew my goose was cooked. I plunged two feet down into the brisk water and got stuck in the muck, the murky water flowing into my boots. Within an instant, the stale winter air became rank with pungent, marinating muck that had not been disturbed for months. The damage was done, my Muck Boots were filled with literal muck, and I wasn’t going anywhere. To my demise, I finished the job, removing the cattails. To exit the icy water, I laid the weedwhacker on ice near the bank and beached-whaled myself out of the mucky water. Like I said, it’s not glamorous work, but it’s rewarding. The science is still ongoing, but if you’d like to contribute to my (very scientific) research, I’d be curious if you have any good stories about your trusty workpants!

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Photo of the Week – August 3, 2018

I walked around one of our newer prairie/wetland restoration sites yesterday morning.  The sun was just starting to punch some holes in low-lying fog and everything was wet.  A cool and wet summer morning is usually a great time to find immobile insects and photograph them, but I for some reason I wasn’t seeing much as I walked.  Not a dragonfly, not a butterfly, not even a big ol’ beetle…  I did eventually find some bees encased in dew drops, waiting for the sun to emerge to warm and dry them.

A sunflower bee (Svastra obliqua) hides beneath a wet sawtooth sunflower leaf while waiting for morning fog to completely disperse.

Unlike females, male solitary bees don’t have nests to defend and spend most of their days chasing around foraging females.  When night comes, most species (except for a few night-feeding bees) just find a convenient place to shelter until morning.  Many times, they seem to choose roost sites where they can be a little protected from potential predators, but other times they just end up on the exposed surface of a flower (the equivalent of falling asleep on their dinner plate, I guess).  Most of the bees I saw yesterday were at least somewhat hidden- which is why I had to look pretty hard to find them, but there were a few out in the open as well, including the one pictured below.

This little fella (Melissodes agilis) looks like he fell asleep and became covered in dew drops while feeding on this rosinweed plant (Silphium integrifolium).

As I wandered along a wetland swale, I was admiring one of my favorite plants – prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) – when I happened to look down inside the blossom and spotted a fuzzy little bee.  Because it seemed like a convenient and relatively safe hiding place for bees, I started looking into other flowers too, and sure enough, I found more bees.

An agile long-horned bee (Melissodes agilis) sheltering inside a prairie gentian blossom. The circular holes in the flower petals were made by a different kind of bee – a leaf cutting bee, harvesting materials for its nest construction.

All the bees I was seeing in the prairie gentian flowers looked like the same species to me, but I’ve become smart enough not to overestimate my ability to tell bee species apart, so I double checked with Mike Arduser.  Mike confirmed that they are all male agile long-horned bees (Melissodes agilis), as was the bee I’d seen on the rosinweed flower.  He said they appear to have just recently emerged, based on their fresh appearance.  I’ll take his word for that and so should you.

There are actually three bees stacked on top of each other on this flower.

Mike also confirmed that the agile long-horned bees don’t have any particular tie to prairie gentian (they don’t specialize on its pollen or use it for nesting sites or materials).  Instead, it just appears a number of them independently recognized the potential value of prairie gentian flowers as safe overnight roost sites.  If I hadn’t been specifically admiring the gentian flowers, I’m sure I wouldn’t have noticed the bees.  I’m guessing most predators wouldn’t have spotted them either, though if a smart predator had happened to find one then and decided to do what I did and check other flowers nearby, it would have had a pretty easy time filling up on bees for breakfast!

After hearing from Mike, I followed up with a series of questions I’m guessing even he can’t answer.  Among those, I’m wondering if an individual bee returns to the same roost site night after night – assuming it isn’t disturbed while sleeping the previous night.  If that hasn’t been studied, it seems like it would be relatively easy to do a mark and recapture study on them.  The trick might be to catch the bees AFTER they leave their roost, though, so they don’t associate that roost site with being caught…  Ok, maybe it wouldn’t be as easy as I was thinking.  If you try it, however, let me know what you figure out!

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A Day of Bush Katydids

I was at our family prairie for a while last weekend, checking on grazing progress and generally catching up on what’s been happening.  There were several highlights of the trip, but one big one was that I saw LOTS of bush katydids.  Apparently, they had gone through their final molt to adulthood recently because they were flying all around the prairie (nymphs don’t have functional wings).  They were flushing away from my feet as I walked, which was nice because then I could watch where they landed.  That was about the only way I could spot them because of their impressive camouflage.  During a couple hours on site, I was able to track and re-find enough katydids to get quite a few photographs (all the photos in this post were from the same evening).

Bush katydids are exquisitely beautiful.

Katydids are similar to grasshoppers, but are in different suborders (meaning they split off fairly high on the taxonomic tree).  If you’re of a certain age, or read older natural history books, you may have first learned to call them “long-horned grasshoppers”, but that’s a fairly outdated term nowadays.  Katydids are pretty easy to distinguish from grasshoppers by their antennae length.  Grasshoppers have short antennae, while katydids have very long threadlike antennae – usually longer than their bodies.

Bush katydids (Genus Scudderia) are one of several groups of katydids, and tend to have a very green leaf-like appearance.  They are so leaf-like, in fact, most of us probably walk past many more of them than we notice, despite the fact they are pretty big insects (often over 2 inches in length).

Males of these and other katydids make courtship “songs” by rubbing their wings together.  While we hear those sounds through the ears on our head, katydids hear sounds through tympanum located on their legs.

The dark oval on the leg of this bush katydid is the tympanum, or ear.

Here are more photos of bush katydids from last weekend.  I saw a lot more of them than I photographed…these are just the ones that sat still long enough for me to get within range (some of them flew a couple times before giving up and letting me take their picture).

Crickets and katydids, including bush katydids, provide much of the evening sound in prairies.  There are many websites that feature those sounds, but here is one that is set up pretty well to help you distinguish between the various species.  If you can’t find them by sight, maybe you can at least find them by ear!

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia Finds a Fancy Moth

This post is by Olivia Schouten, one of this year’s Hubbard Fellows.  In this post, she shares a quick story about a moth she stumbled upon while doing invasive species control work.

Searching for musk thistles has given me a great way to explore every last corner of our properties here on the Platte, finding some cool things along the way! While we need to remove them, there’s no question that musk thistle flowers attract a wide assortment of pollinators, and it was on one such musk thistle that I found one of the coolest moths I’ve ever seen.

Look at this neat little moth!  (Photo by Olivia Schouten)

This little guy caught my eye as I approached this thistle, and I just had to stop and inspect it. It was about the size of one of my fingernails, and one of the fanciest insects I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Its wings looked like a bright red dress fringed with lace, with a golden furry cape thrown over its shoulders. I’ve always thought moth faces are cute, and this one was no exception, with its big green eye watching me warily as I stuck my phone in its face to get a few pictures.

A little online searching later and I identified it as the Indian blanket moth (Schinia volupia), a southern plains species that lays its eggs exclusively on Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), a prairie wildflower that is just as brilliantly yellow and red as this moth. I’m not entirely sure if this coloring of the moth is meant to act as camouflage while it sits on the host flowers, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that its fancy coloring probably doesn’t hurt (though it certainly made it more obvious when sitting on a different flower). The larva are just as striking, with red and white stripes running vertically down the caterpillar’s body. They feed exclusively on Indian blanket, though the adults will likely visit different species of Asteraceae for nectar.

Overall, it was great to get a chance to see this cute little specialist moth, and I’ll definitely be looking closer when I pass a patch of Indian Blanket in the future!

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Photo of the Week – July 27, 2018

When I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week, I flew our drone a few times when the light was nice.  It’s really hard to show the scale of this landscape by taking photos from the ground, and I’m having a great time experimenting with aerial photography in order to better illustrate that scale.  Here are a few images from last week, taken right around the headquarters of NVP.  I’m also amassing still and video footage of bison, but I’ll share some of that at another time.

This photo was taken in the evening, with late day light accenting the texture of the landscape. This photo looks east (downriver) and you can see both some piles of recently-cleared eastern red cedars in the foreground and our headquarters buildings on the right side of the image.

This image was taken right above the headquarters, looking to the east as the sun was breaking above the horizon. The skiff of fog didn’t last long once the sun came up, but made for some nice highlights while it lasted.

This image looks south. It shows where the northern portion of the Nebraska Sandhills (a 12 million acre grassland landscape) terminates at the wooded breaks of the Niobrara River. The woodland shown here went through the big 2012 wildfire, but many of the trees were protected from fire by the cool, moist north-facing slopes. Those same factors help support tree species (including paper birch) that don’t otherwise seem like they have any right to be in the hot and arid west.  Many of the trees in the upper reaches of the draws are bur oaks, along with a few ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees that survived the big fire.

This image was taken just a few minutes after the foggy sunrise photo above, but is facing the opposite direction (upstream) and shows the day’s first light hitting the river bank.

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