Photo of the Week – June 22, 2018

This week, I’ve been feeling grateful that I have places close to home where I can chase little creatures around with my camera.  Of course, insects and spiders live just about everywhere, but between my backyard prairie garden and the small restored prairies on the other side of my small town, I’m set up pretty well.  During the last five or six days, I’ve had some really nice light to work with, and have managed to capture quite a few images of tiny prairie animals, either in my yard or across town.  Here are three of those:

I’ve been trying to get a good photo of a lynx spider like this one for years, but the little buggers have been too quick for me. For some reason, this one was sitting still on a milkweed leaf at Lincoln Creek Prairie this week, and stayed still while I crept close enough to take its picture.

This stilt bug, and/or others like it, have been hanging around on the black-eyed Susan flowers in our backyard this week.  Stilt bugs feed on nectar, and some species may be at least occasionally predatory as well.

A Reakirt’s blue butterfly hides among the flowers of lead plant. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A Closer Look at Prairie Roots

One of the biggest jobs of a prairie steward is to manage the competition between plants, ensuring that no species becomes too dominant and no species is pushed out of the community.  In our prairies, much of our effort is directed toward some of the stronger grass species, including big bluestem, indiangrass, smooth brome, and Kentucky bluegrass.  Left unchecked, those grasses (and a few others) can monopolize both light and soil resources and reduce plant diversity.  Our management targets those grasses with fire and grazing, often using season-long defoliation by cattle or bison to weaken the competitive ability of those grasses, opening up space and resources for other plants to flourish.  Our long-term plant data show that we’ve been able to maintain species richness and a full complement of plant species with this kind of management.

When those major grasses are weakened, one of the most obvious responses is a flush of “weedy” vegetation that quickly takes advantage of the soil and light resources that have become available.  Research has shown that growing season defoliation temporarily causes grasses to abandon some of their roots (until defoliation stops and the grasses recover), opening up space for nearby plants to grow larger and more abundant.  However, there are still many questions about the actual physical responses of grass roots to defoliation, and gaining a better understanding of that could be really important to prairie managers.  Researchers at Kansas State University are actively working on those questions right now.  Dr. Jesse Nippert, in particular, has done a lot of work on this subject, including some work on prairie shrubs that I wrote about a few years ago.

Last week, a couple of Jesse’s graduate students, Seton Bachle and Marissa Zaricor, were at our Platte River Prairies, collecting data on roots under grazed and ungrazed conditions.  In addition, Seton brought along a nifty tool called an air spade, which uses compressed air to dig into prairie soil with enough force to expel soil particles, but not so much that it tears apart the roots of plants (with the exception of the tiny rootlets at the tips).  Seton and I started talking about a year ago about the possibility of getting the air spade up here so we can look for visual evidence of grazing impacts to roots.  Marissa and Seton are both doing very in-depth (ha!) measurements of plant root responses, but I also wanted to see what’s those roots really look like.  The air spade seemed like a great way to do that.

Here is our sampling area, as seen by our drone. The bottom right portion was burned this spring and has been grazed fairly intensively since. The top left portion is unburned and has had very little grazing pressure.

Dust erupts out of the ground as Seton excavates with the air spade.

For this initial trial, we chose a part of the prairie that was burned this spring and was being grazed intensively by cattle as part of our patch-burn grazing management.  Abundant rain this year has meant that the cattle aren’t keeping the grasses as short as we’d really like, but we were still able to find some big bluestem plants that have been cropped pretty short.  As a comparison, we went across the burn line to part of the prairie that hasn’t had much grazing pressure in recent years and, because it is unburned, hasn’t had much attention from cattle this year either.  As a result, we were (ok, Seton was) able to excavate around the roots of big bluestem plants that had been grazed off to just a few inches of leaf height, as well as ungrazed plants with leaves around 12 inches high.

Here is the excavation spot in the burned/grazed patch.

Here is the unburned/ungrazed excavation site.

As Seton started blowing soil away from the roots (and I photographed the process with my camera and our drone), one of the first things that became obvious was the relatively shallow depth of the main root mass.  The work of J.E. Weaver and others has shown that prairie plants, including grasses, have some very deep roots.  However, more recent work, including that of Jesse Nippert of Kansas State, Dave Wedin at the University of Nebraska, and others, has shown that those grasses don’t appear to actually use those deep roots for much.  In fact, grasses tend to concentrate the vast majority of their root masses in the top foot or so of the soil profile, effectively monopolizing most of the moisture and nutrients there.  Forbs tend to pull most of their resources from below that, and shrubs work at even greater depths.  I’ll write about this more in a future post, but for now, just trust me when I say that this is abundant evidence for this (and many more questions being pursued).  Prairie grasses can have deep roots, but it’s the incredible root density at shallow depths that they most rely on, even during drought.

With the air spade, we could pretty easily see that most of the big bluestem roots were in that shallow depth, and only a few extended down below that.  However, as Seton pulled out fully-excavated clumps of big bluestem shoots and roots, my initial reaction was one of disappointment.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious difference in the density of roots or size of the overall root mass between the grazed and ungrazed plants.

Marissa and Seton examine the roots in the partially excavated grazed site.

Seton examines some of the roots dug out of the burned/grazed site.

My immediate thought was that because these plants had only been exposed to grazing for about a month, maybe there hadn’t been enough time to see changes in their root masses.  In addition, it might be that some of the roots were no longer active, but were still connected to the root mass for now.  We’ll be repeating this excavation process later in the season, and might see differences then that aren’t yet obvious.  In addition, we’ll look at some roots of grasses that were heavily grazed all of last season and see what those look like.  Still, I was a little disappointed not to see a bigger visual difference.

However, when Seton and Marissa looked at the roots, they pointed out something I hadn’t initially seen because I was so focused on root length and density.  The diameter of most of the roots of the ungrazed bluestem appeared to be considerably larger than those of the grazed plants.  We were working with a small sample size, but among all the plants we dug up, that size difference seemed to be pretty consistent.

An ungrazed clump of big bluestem on the left and grazed on the right.  You can’t see the length of all the roots in this image (they were similar between plants) but the ungrazed roots are noticeably thicker than the roots of the grazed plant.

Here’s another look at the difference in root thickness between the grazed plants (top) and ungrazed (bottom).

Marissa explained that thicker roots have more carbohydrates stored in them.  Plants that have been defoliated, and are trying to regrow shoots, have to pull carbohydrates from their reserves to do so – pulling them out of their roots and putting them into aboveground growth.  Whether those roots kind of deflate as the carbohydrates are pulled from them or stressed plants just create skinnier roots is something Marissa and Seton are hoping to learn from their work.  Regardless, carbohydrate storage plays into competitive ability.  Grasses rely on their storage capacity to fuel growth and withstand further stress, so differences in root diameter could be part of the answer to why grazed grasses are less competitive.  Seton and Marissa plan to examine some cross sections of the roots we dug up to see if they can see more under a microscope than we could by just looking at the roots with our naked eye.

Seton and Marissa’s actual scientific explorations will give us much better answers to questions about grazing impacts on grass roots than simply looking at a few samples, but it was fun to see the actual roots themselves.  While the differences between grazed and ungrazed plants weren’t as stark as I’d expected, I’m still looking forward to our next effort later this summer – especially because all I have to do is photograph the results of the hard work Marissa and Seton are doing!

If you’re interested, here is a short 1 minute drone video showing the excavation process.  You can also check out Seton’s science website here.


Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Photo of the Week – June 14, 2018

I took advantage of some nice light to take quite a few photos this week.  Here is a small selection of unrelated images.

Goatsbeard, aka yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius) is a non-native plant that has become naturalized in our prairies. It appears to be innocuous, and potentially beneficial, at least as an additional resource for pollinators. It’s also gorgeous, especially as it greets the morning sun.

Prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) has very intricate white flowers arranged on a vertical stalk. It is a perennial species, but becomes much more abundant in some years than others, and I’m not sure what regulates those cycles.

Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) is an annual native grass that can become abundant in wetlands when plant competition is suppressed. The unique texture of the pastel-colored seedheads can make it look like a patch of foxtail barley is in motion, even when it isn’t.

A small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii) explores a showy milkweed plant (Asclepias speciosa).  They feed on nectar and milkweed seeds, but can also act as scavengers and predators when food is scarce.

Prairie spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) in restored prairie, with serrate-leaf primrose (Calylophus serrulatus) in the background.

Serrate-leaf primrose up close.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Favorite Little Predators

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while are probably familiar with my minor obsession with crab spiders.  I have an awfully hard time passing up the opportunity to photograph them when I spot them.  Because I spend much of my work time looking at plants, I see a lot of crab spiders, sitting stoically in ambush, waiting for unsuspecting prey.

As it happens, I’ve already found and photographed a few crab spiders this week.  One, in particular, was a lot of fun to watch.  I spent most of Monday collecting plant data (in a walking boot, which is frustratingly slow, but a great deal better than crutches).  Though it was windy, there were periods of nice light, thanks to some passing diffuse clouds.  During one of those periods, I spotted a yellow crab spider crawling up a dead grass stem.  I paused to see what it was going to do, reaching slowly for my camera.  When it got to the top of the stem, it released a long burst of silk into the wind, and soon thereafter starting crawling along that silken thread to another grass stem a few feet away.

A crab spider prepares to pull itself along a long thread of silk it had just released into the breeze.  I got to watch it travel between several tall perches this way over the period of a couple minutes.

By this time, I had my camera out and was crouched low, trying not to spook the spider as I crept toward it.  It worked its way up its new grass stem and repeated the process of spooling out more silk.  This time, I got lucky, catching a brief pause in the wind just as the spider prepared to follow its new travel line to another plant.  I squeezed off several shots with my camera and managed to get at least one that was sharp.  As I watched it make its way along its high wire, the wind kicked back up and the harsh mid-day sun reappeared from behind a thin cloud.  I wished the spider well and went back to counting plants in my plot frame.  I sure like crab spiders…

When I got back to town Monday night, I had a few minutes and figured I’d take a quick trip to my square meter plot to see what was happening there.  A few high clouds were moving toward the sun so I hobbled down the short trail toward my plot, hoping for a few minutes of decent light.  As I was nearing a patch of plum and other shrubs, I saw a bumblebee land on a high branch.  I just about kept walking, but something was odd – it looked like the bumblebee was carrying something in its mouth.  Just as my mind starting to put things together, the bee took off again and landed a little closer to me.  I froze and reached slowly for my camera, having just recognized that the bee wasn’t a bee at all.

If crab spiders are my favorite invertebrate predator to photograph, robber flies are surely my second favorite.  Though tiger beetles are pretty awesome too.  Oh, and assassin bugs!  Also praying mantises…  But I digress.  I really like robber flies, and what I had thought was a bumblebee was actually a robber fly species that mimics bumblebees, and it was carrying a small beetle it had just caught.  I’ve read about these but had never gotten close enough to one in real life to have a chance to photograph it.

I knew the fly wasn’t likely to sit for long so I didn’t bother with a tripod and just hand held the camera as I crept toward my quarry.  Trying to stabilize my camera and cursing the wind, I started shooting like crazy as I got close (thank you digital photography!).  I had about 5 seconds within reasonable range of the fly before it took off and flew out of sight.  Out of the roughly 10,000 photos I took during that 5 seconds (ok, maybe 20), I got exactly one that was sharp.

A bee-mimic robber fly (Laphria sp.) at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

I’m an unabashed fan boy when it comes to insects, spiders, and other invertebrates, but can you blame me?  How could anyone not love a predatory fly that looks nearly identical to a bumblebee?  All robber flies are voracious predators that can snag flying insects out of the air and neutralize them with toxic saliva.  The saliva also liquefies the innards of the fly’s prey, allowing it to just suck its dinner out of the convenient container made by the hapless insect’s shell.  Those qualities alone make robber flies plenty endearing – or terrifying, if you’re a tiny insect.  Adding a near-perfect disguise to the mix, allowing them to cozy up to unsuspecting pollen feeding insects is really unfair.  But, wow, it’s cool!

I got one more look at the bumblebee mimic on my hike back out from my photo plot, but it didn’t stick around for photos the second time.  Fair enough.  Just getting the opportunity to spot the fly-that-would-be-a-bee was enough to make my day.  Photographing it was icing on the cake, and also gave me the chance to share the whole experience with you.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | 7 Comments

Photo of the Week – June 9, 2018

This week’s featured photos include three small creatures.  One is a beetle (I have no idea which kind) that was barely visible to my naked eye.  A second is a nymph of a praying mantis – probably a Chinese mantis.  The third is the most exciting to me, which is a burrowing owl nesting in our Platte River Prairies this spring.

This tiny beetle was perched on one of the flowers of false gromwell, aka marbleseed (Onosmodium molle) last week.

A praying mantis nymph hunting on a milkweed plant.

I was able to get barely close enough to this owl for a photo by using my pickup as a photo blind. I still had to crop the image a little to make the owl as prominent as it is in the photo, but I wanted to stay far enough away that I didn’t discourage it from nesting.

Burrowing owls occupy burrows of other animals as nesting sites.  These tiny owls are about the same size as an American robin, but their wingspan can be up to 8 inches wider.  They have a fascinating habit of spreading animal dung around the entrance to their burrow to attract dung beetles – one of their favorite foods.

We usually see a few nesting pairs of burrowing owls up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve each year, and they can be found elsewhere in the Sandhills and western Nebraska, especially within prairie dog towns.  However, their populations are in decline across most of their continental range, and it’s uncommon to see them outside of landscapes of mostly intact grasslands.

In this case, this owl and its mate are using a badger hole for a nesting site.  As far as I know, this is the first burrowing owl pair that has nested in one of our Platte River Prairies during the 21 years I’ve been working here.  As you might expect, they are nesting in a site we burned this spring and that is being grazed fairly intensively by cattle.  On its own, this pair of owls doesn’t equate conservation success, but it’s one more piece of evidence that makes us feel good about our work.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Seeing Through the Eyes of Your Camera

Do you often get frustrated by your photographs?  Does it seem like your camera can’t seem to capture a scene the way your eyes can?  If you think about it, the differences aren’t surprising; your camera doesn’t see the world like you do.  Whether you take pictures with your phone or with a high end digital SLR camera, the images your eyes see and the photographs your camera captures won’t be the same.  That’s not a bad thing, it just means you have to understand what your camera sees and how it works so you can create images that make you happy.

Here’s a good initial example of what I’m talking about.  Both our eyes and our camera see the world through a lens.  However, the lens in our eyes is very different than camera lenses, even a “normal” camera lens, which is supposed to capture scenes with a perspective close to what we see.  If you can let go of the idea that a camera should see what you see, there are some nice advantages to using camera lenses to view the world.  Even a phone camera can zoom in and out, providing a range of focal lengths, all of which provide a perspective that can be helpful, though different from what your eye sees.

Wide angle lenses do just what their name implies – they give you a broad field of view.  You can include a lot of scenery in your image, though most of it will look a lot smaller in the photograph than it appears to your eye.  Wide angle lenses can capture a broad landscape, but they can also be helpful in showing your subject (flower, animal, etc.) embedded within its surroundings.

A wide angle lens helped me capture a relatively close-up photo of this yellow ladies slipper plant while also showing the woodland context around it.

The opposite end of the field-of-view spectrum is a long-focus lens.  Long-focus lenses work like binoculars, allowing you to better see objects that are far away, which is obviously handy for photographing things like birds.  While they magnify, however, long-focus lenses also greatly compress a scene, making near and far things look like they’re closer together than they are.  Long-focus lenses are great for wildlife photography, but they can also create very interesting landscape images.  They don’t, however, create images that look like what you see in real life.

While long-focus lenses can be great for wildlife photos, they can also help condense expansive landscapes, which ironically helps emphasize the size of those landscapes.

Macro lenses provide magnification of small objects, allowing you to see insects, flowers, or other small subjects in ways your naked eye never could.  You can count the hairs on a spider’s leg or the scales on a butterfly’s wing.  However, at close magnification, the depth of field (what’s in focus at various distances from the lens) is very shallow.  The same thing happens when we peer closely at objects with our eyes, but our brain compensates for that and we don’t notice as much as we do when looking at an image taken with a macro lens.

Macro lenses open up a tiny world to exploration, and help you see details of small creatures and other tiny subjects you might not otherwise pay attention to.

A second major difference between your camera and you has to do with light intensity.  A camera’s sensor (or film in the old days) can only record a limited range of light intensity.  On a bright sunny day, the camera can see details in the shadows, but at the expense of the bright sky becoming completely washed out.  Alternatively, the camera can record the color and details in the bright sky but all shadows become completely black.  This can result in images that seem jarring to us because although our own eye has similar limitations, our brain interprets what comes through our eyes in real time.  We can alternately look at shadows and highlights as we scan across a scene, and our brain stitches it all together.  A still photo can only capture one or the other extreme of intense light.

Understanding that your camera can’t record the entire range of light intensity lets you make decisions about what’s most important for each scene you’re recording.  You can tell the camera to prioritize for bright or dark areas.  Generally speaking, on bright days you’ll want to “shoot a little dark”, meaning that you tell the camera to capture detail in the bright portions of the scene at the expense of losing detail in the shadows.  With processing software, you can often recover some detail in shadows, but it’s nearly impossible to do the same in washed out highlights.

The intense light created by bright midday sunshine is too much for a camera to handle. Shadows can turn completely black and/or highlights get washed out, often making images that aren’t very aesthetically pleasing.  Working in photoshop, I was able to recover some detail in the shadowy foreground, but the overall contrast of the image is still too much.

You can reduce frustration regarding light intensity by shooting when that intensity is lower.  Mornings and evenings are great for this.  When the sun is near the horizon its light is less bright than when it is high in the sky.  During those periods, your camera can capture the entire range of intensity from bright to dark, creating nice evenly lit images.  Bright overcast days can also be great, especially for close-up photography, because the light is strong enough to illuminate your subjects but not so strong that it creates distracting shadows.  However, landscape photos taken on bright overcast days usually result in a sky that is uniformly (and annoyingly) bright white or gray.  Again, you can adjust for that if you know it’s going to be an issue, and just minimize the amount of sky shown in the image.

The soft and warm quality of early morning light boosted the color in these flowers without creating starkly contrasting shadows.

In addition to understanding limitations regarding the range of light conditions a camera can handle, it’s also important to understand how your camera reads light and makes automated decisions about how to adjust for lighting conditions.  Modern cameras all have internal light meters that read a scene, and if you let them, will decide how to create an image based on that reading.  You can adjust settings for that meter so that it either reads a particular part of a scene or averages across the whole thing.  Both can be useful in certain situations.

You also need to understand that when you let the camera make decisions about exposure based on its light readings, it will try to create an image with a neutral medium tone (not too bright, not too dark).  That’s perfect in many situations, but if you’re trying to take a picture of white snow on a bright day, leaving the camera on automatic will result in a disappointing photo of very medium toned gray snow.  Likewise, automated photos of sunsets will create images of starkly black silhouettes against a medium toned colorful background.  That can be really nice, but if you want to see any details in the foreground, you’ll have to override your camera to do so.  Learn how to adjust the exposure settings on your camera (including camera phones) so you can both adjust them in situations where you know your camera will have a different artistic vision than your own.

There was a huge difference in light intensity between the dark shadows and still bright sky immediately after this sunset.  In order to expose correctly for the sky and maintain the orange color (and show the texture of the river) I had to allow the shadows to go completely black.  If I’d set the camera so that details were visible in the shadows, the sky would have washed out completely.

We tend to see the world in video format (unless you walk around with your eyes closed and just quickly open and close them periodically, which I guess could be fun too).  Still photos capture a brief moment in time, and that in itself can make photographs seem a little unreal.  A camera’s shutterspeed is the amount of time light is allowed into the camera to hit the sensor.  Fast shutterspeeds freeze motion while slow shutterspeeds create blur.  Both can be useful, depending upon your artistic vision.  Your eye and brain see images continually, so you don’t have to think about shutterspeed, but it’s an important factor in photography.

A fast shutter speed froze the falling water in this photo of Smith Falls in northern Nebraska. A slower shutter speed could have been nice too, letting the water appear blurry as it moved through the frame.

Similarly, we don’t spend much time thinking about where our eyes should focus as we explore the world.  While our eyes can only focus at one distance at a time, we can scan scenes and shift focus so smoothly, we don’t notice that it’s even happening.  A camera, however, is capturing still images and needs your help deciding what part of a scene most needs to be in focus.  When photographing people, we usually want faces to be in focus, and many modern cameras are pretty good at identifying and focusing on faces automatically.  Apart from that, however, the default of most cameras is to focus on something near the center of the field of view.  That’s great unless your intended subject is near the edge of the frame and out of focus when you look at the resulting image.  Learn how to change the settings on your camera to direct where it focuses.  That way you’ll know where it will try to focus automatically and how to step in and change that when needed.

In this wide-angle image, it was important to have the white blossoms near the top left of the frame be in focus.

The fact that cameras don’t record exactly what our eyes see do isn’t really a disadvantage.  It’s only frustrating if you have unreasonable expectations.  Camera lenses let us capture images we’d never be able to see with our own eyes, but those images are no less “real” – they’re just different.  If you can understand and control your camera, you can create beautiful and impactful photographs that capture a sense of place or a moment in time.   Just remember that your images (and those of others) also represent an interpretation of that place or time, one that is created by a camera and its operator.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Photo of the Week – June 1, 2018

I ran into a couple mysteries this week.  I enjoy mysteries, whether they get solved or not, but I’m wondering if maybe we can crowd source answers to both of these.  Stay tuned to the comments section for potential answers, and add your own suggestion if you have one.

First, when I was out at our family prairie last week, I found something interesting along the edge of our wetland.

Mystery #1. Who ate this bullfrog on top of this fencepost and left the remains hanging there afterward?

Something is helping us control our invasive bullfrog population, which I’m grateful for, but I’d like to know who to thank!  What kind of creature would pick up a full sized bullfrog, move it to the top of a nearby fence post and eat it?  The remains of another frog were on the next post over from this one, so it’s not an isolated event.  I’m thinking it has to be a bird, and a large one at that.  Herons like to eat frogs, but as far as I know, they leave the remnants floating in the water.  Do hawks eat frogs?  Owls?  Osprey?

The second mystery is a little different, and I’ve already had help solving part of it.  I’ve been walking past a couple New Jersey tea plants recently (on the way to my square meter photography project site).  Each time, I’ve noticed a particular kind of insect hanging around on and near the flowers.  The way the bugs (because they are clearly Hemipterans – true bugs) are sitting poised and apparently waiting for something, I’ve been assuming they are predators.

This bug, and several more like it, have been hanging around on a couple New Jersey tea plants lately.

I recognized the bugs but didn’t know what they were.  They reminded me of leaf-footed bugs, but instead of the flattened “leaf” structure being on their legs, this bug had them on its antennae.  I submitted the above photo to Bugguide and got a quick response, identifying it as a Euphorbia bug (Chariesterus antennator) – a kind of leaf-footed bug, after all.  That was easy, but my next step was to try to learn more about it, and that’s where I got stuck.

I found information on a couple other leaf-footed bugs, but not the Euphorbia bug.  It appears most leaf-footed bugs are plant feeders, with some doing minor damage to crops or garden plants.  Photos of the Euphorbia bug I can find on the internet often show it on Euphorbia plants (spurges), which makes sense, but I can’t find anything that says it actually feeds on spurge plants themselves.  Maybe that’s a favorite plant, but not its only food source?

So, I want to know what Euphorbia bugs eat.  Are they predators that hang out on plants waiting for opportunities to catch prey?  Or are they plant feeders that may or may not prefer spurge species?  While we’re at it, what do their larvae feed on?  Where do they live?  Is there anything else interesting about them?  Mysteries.


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Square Meter of Prairie Project – May, 2018

Back in January, I wrote about a photography project I’m embarking upon this year.  I am trying to photograph all the beauty and diversity I can within a single square meter of prairie.  I chose a little parcel of prairie right here in town so I have easy access to it.  Even on crutches, I can lug my camera gear out to that little square of prairie whenever the light is nice.

Lead plant (Amorphs canescens) leaves were just starting to emerge from buds back in early May.

At the end of May, lead plant leaves were nearly all opened.

My initial idea for the project was to help illustrate how much life happens in prairies, even at a small scale, and to show how dynamic prairies are over time.  I’m still excited about those aspects of the project, but I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how much I’m enjoying the artistic challenge of finding compelling photographic opportunities within a tiny area.

My typical approach to photography is to venture out when lighting conditions are good and wander around widely, looking for something that catches my eye.  When I see a flower or bee that interests me, I’ll stop and photograph it for a while.  Often, I’ll see something else nearby and I might spend 5 or 10 minutes in one spot, photographing a series of subjects.  But that “spot” might be the size of a big living room or so, and I get nervous staying in the same place too long because I’m afraid of missing a better opportunity elsewhere.  Because good photography light is fleeting, I usually keep moving, roaming around and looking for the next great shot.

This tiny insect might be the nymph of a hopper of some kind? It appeared to be feeding on the lead plant leaf.

For this square meter project, I’m forcing myself to go to a single tiny place, stay put, and find multiple subjects to photograph.  I usually arrive and stare down into the space between my four yellow flags, wondering what I’ve gotten myself into – trying not to think about all the great photo opportunities I’m missing while I’m peering into this little square.  No wildflowers have bloomed within my plot yet this spring (there are others nearby), partly because it wasn’t burned this year and there is a thick layer of thatch covering the ground.  What the heck am I supposed to take pictures of?

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) was in full bloom this last weekend.

Magically, however, as I kneel in the grass and concentrate, I start to see more and more.  A lacewing or fly will pop in for a quick visit (usually quicker than I can capture with my camera).  Miniscule ants patrol the area, often following a fairly predictable pattern.  Patterns of light and texture start to pop out of the background, and as I move around the square, looking at it from different angles, I start to really enjoy the challenge of using what is in front of me.  It’s a little like being given a small box of rsndom objects and being told to create a sculpture.  You just work with what you have and try to find beauty.  I’m starting to love it.

A tiny ant explores a Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) leaf.  This ant and its colleague were moving up and down the stems and leaves of this plant for several minutes.  I was able to set up my tripod on this backlit section of leaf and just wait for the ant to move into the frame.

Flies have been common within the square meter, but difficult to photograph. This one landed on one of the flags I’m using to mark the plot corners.

I’m shocked that no one has ever written about the value of sitting quietly in nature… (I’m kidding, of course).  Regardless, while it can be a tired cliche, there’s a reason many people have espoused the practice, and it’s been great for me to force myself back into it.  I’m probably more in tune with my natural surroundings than most of my peers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dig in even more.

This stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) leaf was beautifully backlit last weekend.

During my most recent trip to the square, I spent a lot of time appreciating the way light passed through various leaves and made them glow.  It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed or photographed backlit leaves, but I spent much more time enjoying the effect than I usually do.  The pattern of veins and the glowing translucent hairs on the leaf margins were mesmerizing when viewed through my macro lens.  I spent a solid 15 minutes photographing two leaves from different angles and distances.

I’ve always thought common milkweed leaves (Asclepias syriaca) are particularly beautiful when backlit.  This one was no exception.

Now, as I crutch myself down the trail to my little square, I’ve stopped worrying about whether or not I’ll find something interesting to photograph.  Instead, I’ve started getting excited about the chance to sit quietly and search for beauty I would have otherwise missed.  While I’ve found some great photo opportunities along the trail to and from the plot, the vast majority of images – and most of my favorites – from those trips have come from within my four yellow flags.

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Photo of the Week – May 25, 2018

One of the big advantages of a prairie garden is that when good photography lighting conditions appear, it only takes me a few steps to find possible photo subjects.  Since I’m hobbling around on crutches right now, that short distance is an even bigger perk.

Yesterday, I enjoyed a few minutes photographing prairie spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) in our garden.  A couple tiny hover flies (Syrphidae) were visiting the spiderwort flowers as well.  While these flies are usually characterized as pollinators, that might not be completely accurate.  Because they aren’t fuzzy, the flies probably don’t do much pollen transport, and essentially just “steal” pollen from the flowers.  I wonder if they steal enough to have any significant impact?  Regardless, through my macro lens, I was able to watch one repeatedly deploy its tongue as it fed on the bright yellow pollen.

Oh, and there were still some dew drops on the leaves, so I photographed one of those too.

Enjoy your long holiday weekend (if you’re in the U.S.), everyone!



Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Making Species Identification Accessible to the Masses

I was out in a prairie this morning (on crutches) and managed to get a little photography done.  Very frequently, I think about how fortunate I am that most of my photography happens out of sight of the general public, and today was a particularly good example of that.  I was army crawling along the ground with my splinted right foot in a plastic bag to protect it from the dewy grass, dragging a camera and tripod along with me.  Then I had to crawl back to my crutches, sling my camera bag over my shoulder and crutch along to another spot.  I managed to get a few decent photos, but missed a lot of potential insect shots because it takes me too dang long to get my body into place, and even the most patient insects can’t afford to wait for that slow and painful process.

Later, while going through my photos back at home, I grabbed a plant key (“Flora of Nebraska”) to make sure I was correctly identifying the New Jersey Tea I’d photographed.  There are two species in Nebraska, and I can never remember which is which.  As I was reading through the descriptions of the two species, I laughed out loud at the technical terms I had to wade through.  I understand the value of using precise language to describe plant (or animal) characteristics in a dichotomous key (a kind of flow chart used to step through characteristics of various species until you finally figure out which species you’re looking at).  At the same time, the avalanche of technical language that falls upon readers of identification keys also makes identification of species much less accessible to the average enthusiast.

I think I’ve correctly identified the New Jersey tea plant I photographed this morning as Ceanothus herbaceus, but it took a lot of glossary-searching to make my way through the descriptions.

We conservationists are always complaining about how people don’t learn basic natural history anymore.  One of the most important components of that learning process, of course, is identification of species.  Imagine someone who finds a plant they think might be New Jersey Tea, is excited to identify it so they can learn more about it, opens up the Flora of Nebraska, and reads this actual sentence:

“Capsules dehiscing loculicidally into 3 1-seeded lobes, the saucer-like hypanthium fused to it but persisting after the fruits have fallen; seeds reddish brown, plano-convex, the flat side with a low keel.”

Gee, I wonder why people are so bad at identifying species?

There has to be a better way.  Again, I completely understand the need for technical guides for species identification that use agreed-upon and well-defined terms.  But can we either add accompanying language in common English or create translated versions of those identification books that can be read by non-experts?  If we can translate books of literature, can we also translate books of technical jargon?

New Jersey tea in a southeast Nebraska prairie (Richardson County).

I played around with this idea briefly, and it’s a lot harder than you might think.  First, there’s the challenge of deciphering the individual words.  The glossary at the back of The Flora of Nebraska is over 30 pages long, and reading it brings back memories of trying to read dictionary definitions back in elementary school – most definitions require looking up more terms just to understand the initial definition.

Second, the advantage of technical terms is that they have very specific meaning, and that helps reduce the number of words needed to describe a concept.  The Flora of Nebraska describes New Jersey tea flowers as being umbellate, which basically means the blossoms are located on the end of stems arranged like an upside-down umbrella.  Umbellate is a pretty efficient way to say that.  Instead of being able to describe how a species differs from others with a paragraph or two of text, accessible language might require a page or more to say the same thing.  That causes its own problems.

For example, in the above description of New Jersey tea, the seed capsules are described in seven words (“Capsules dehiscing loculicidally into 3 1-seeded lobes”).  Very efficient.  While the words are awfully cryptic to most of us, at least there aren’t very many of them!  Translating those seven words requires a lot more words.  Saying the seed capsules split into three parts, with a seed in each, isn’t too bad.  The bigger challenge is the word “loculicidally” which describes where the split occurs on the capsule, a characteristic that helps separate New Jersey tea from other plants.  The glossary describes loculicidal dehiscence as “dehiscence on the locules rather than along the septations”.  Now we have to define both locules and septations.  See what I mean?  Good grief, this is difficult.

Can you see how these seed capsules are dehiscing on the locules rather than along the septations?  Yeah, I bet you can.

I don’t have a good solution to this.  One answer, of course, is field guides, and those can be great for animals like birds or large mammals.  But field guides don’t work well for all organisms, especially plants, fungi, and many invertebrate groups because there are way too many species to fit them into a field guide, and distinguishing species from one another often requires magnification and characteristics that aren’t easily depicted in a single photo or drawing of the organism.  Field guides can get us so far, but if we want people to learn how to identify more than just the common prairie plants, it would be great to have more extensive guides.

I still think we could do a better job of making comprehensive species identification guides more accessible, but the task is gargantuan.  It’s hard enough to put out a good resource like Flora of Nebraska, with precise and efficient terminology describing each species.  If we ask authors of that kind of publication to additionally provide accessible translations of each description for lay people, we risk never get anything published at all.  At the same time, I hear there are lots of youngish biologists with advanced degrees who are having a hard time finding gainful employment.  Maybe we can put some of them to work as translators.  Anyone want to fund a big endowment to pay for it?  Yeah, me neither.

Regardless, I really do think this is an important issue that deserves some thought.  Not everyone can cheat the way I do, which is to shamelessly send photos and/or specimens to experts who can identify them for me, saving me hours of trying to look up and decipher words like “loculicidally”.

P.S.  I want to be clear that I am not criticizing The Flora of Nebraska or its authors in any way.  That book is a fantastic and invaluable resource, and I use it frequently.  The issue at hand is much broader than any individual publication.  Robert, Dave, and Steve – you guys are heroes for getting that book done.  Thank you.

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