Photo of the Week – November 16, 2017

Most of us don’t think about ants very often unless they’re marching across our kitchen counter (or up our leg).  That anonymity isn’t their fault, it’s ours.  Ants play major roles in ecoystems, and their biomass in prairies can rival that of bison, so if we’re not paying them sufficient attention, that’s on us.

Ants on upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska

I took the two ant photos in this post at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in June of this year.  As is usually the case, I spotted the ants only because they happened to be crawling around on some flowers I was looking at.  Ants are often spotted on flowers, especially those that have easily accessible nectar that helps satisfies ants’ attraction to sweets.  While they don’t usually do much good as pollinators, ants might provide some protective services for plants by helping to keep herbivores away.

Ants spend most of their time underground, of course, where it’s easy for us to forget about them.  When they’re not in their tunnels, they still aren’t all that visible unless we’re looking for them.  Regardless, they are major predators in prairies, collaborating with each other to take down prey much larger than they are.  In addition, ants are scavengers, major forces in nutrient cycling, and important seed dispersal agents for some plant species.  Ants can also steal food and workers from each others’ colonies, “herd” aphids and harvest their honeydew and meat, and are themselves an important food source for other animals.  We should probably stop ignoring them.

Golden early morning light shown on this ant as it crawled down the stem of an upright prairie coneflower plant.

Most prairies probably have around 30 species of ants living in them, which is more local diversity than is found in grassland nesting birds, which we pay infinitely more attention to.  In addition, if we lost all our grassland birds tomorrow, it would be sad, but I’m pretty sure it would have much less impact on prairie ecosystems than if we lost our ants.

Let’s try to keep them both around, shall we?

 

Here are some previous posts I’ve written about ants if you feel like reading a little more about them:

https://prairieecologist.com/2011/01/03/the-density-of-ants-in-prairies/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/05/20/ants-in-the-sun/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/08/18/killer-thistles/

Advertisements
Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Little Blue Butterflies

The “tails” on the backside of the wings set the eastern tailed-blue apart from other relatives in our area

Though it’s one of the more common butterflies in this part of Nebraska, the eastern tailed-blue doesn’t get much attention.  One reason is that it is pretty small.  With a wingspan of about an inch, it isn’t much bigger than the white clover flowers it’s often feeding on in our yard.  Its name comes from the protrusions on its wings that set it apart from other blues (butterflies in the subfamily Polyommatinae).  The name “blue” comes from the striking color on the dorsal side of the wings of males.

An eastern tailed-blue displaying its incredible blue color while sitting on my finger.  I found this male in my yard and it was either too weak, tired, or sick, to fly away when I picked it up.  It provided an unusual look at the dorsal side of the wings of this species.

Blues rarely show the dorsal (top) side of their wings except in flight.  The rest of the time, all we get to see are the pale undersides of the wings, highlighted by dark spots and splashes of orange – the size and arrangement of which help distinguish species from each other.  There are several species of little blue butterflies found around here, including the Melissa blue and Reakirt’s blue, but 95% of what I see in the Platte River Prairies and in my yard are eastern tailed-blues.

The Melissa blue has much more orange on the ventral side of its wings than the eastern tailed-blue.  The endangered Karner blue, found only in a few isolated places in the eastern U.S. is a subspecies of the more widespread Melissa blue.

The eastern tailed-blue is far from the only tiny butterfly hiding in plain sight in prairies and yards across the country, but it’s an easy one to find if you start looking.  It’s also one you can feel confident identifying in front of friends and colleagues – assuming you can get close enough to see its little tails…

…the tails can sometimes be hard to see when the wings are completely closed…

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 10, 2017

I was back at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week to help with a little bison work and a board meeting.  My wife was able to come with me, and we stayed an extra night so we could do some hiking Saturday morning before heading home.

A burned eastern redcedar overlooks a what is a majestic landscape, even during the dormant season.

Kim and I decided to hike up the bluffs north of the river where the 2012 wildfire transformed an overgrown savanna of pines and cedars into a burgeoning grassland/shrubland dotted with burned tree skeletons.  Autumn is well established along the Niobrara River, and there have already been several hard freezes and some light snows.  Despite that, we found plenty of color and texture to enjoy while we wandered, as well as a couple very pleasant surprises.

Smooth sumac and yucca are two of the more common plants north of the river, and both still provided color, though the sumac leaves had all fallen.

It’s fun to speculate about the series of events that led to this sumac leaflet becoming impaled on this yucca leaf.

One of the best discoveries of the day was the first ponderosa pine seedling I’ve seen since the 2012 fire.  It was right up on top of the ridge.  I’m hopeful that we’ll find more in the coming years.

As bark peels from pine skeletons, bark beetle galleries are revealed. Interestingly, I didn’t see any on eastern red cedar – only on pine.

We were shocked to find a little patch of Campanula (harebell) still in full bloom on November 4. It was sheltered in a fairly steep draw, but must have survived temperatures well below freezing several times during the last month.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Seedy Survey

Are you involved in grassland restoration work in North America?  If so, I hope you’ll consider taking a survey from my friend and colleague Marissa Ahlering of The Nature Conservancy.  Marissa is trying to better understand the use of locally sourced seed in restoration work.  It’s a short survey (10-15 minutes) and your help would really help move the science of restoration forward.

Nelson Winkel, Platte River Prairies land steward, stands behind a pile of prairie seed. Most of our seed these days is harvested from our own prairies, but not everyone has the ability to harvest their own. Figuring out how to obtain seed that matches restoration objectives can be tricky.  (Ok, full disclosure, Nelson is actually KNEELING behind this pile to make it look bigger…)

Participation from anyone involved in grassland restoration, from policy makers to on-the-ground practitioners, would be helpful. You can read more about the survey and enter your responses by following THIS LINK.

Please forward this to any colleagues it might apply to.  Thanks for your help!

Posted in Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Prairies as Placeholders

Ecologically speaking, grasslands might be considered a “transitional community”.  In the absence of fire and/or drought, grasslands tend to progress toward a shrubby, and eventually woody ecological community.  For as long as prairies have existed in central North America, they have been restrained from making that transition to woodland by periodic drought and frequent fires ignited by both lightning and people.  While I consider prairies to be their own distinct ecological community, the fact remains that they are always trying to turn into something else.

Flint hills prairie in Kansas is constantly moving toward shrubland, held back largely by frequent prescribed fire.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that modern human society also seems to view grasslands as transitional.  During a lecture here in Nebraska this week, Dr. David Briske, professor of rangeland ecology at Texas A&M University,  highlighted this phenomenon as part of his (much broader, and excellent) presentation.  If you think about it, humans are always trying to turn prairies into something else.

Prairies tend to be a placeholder until we can come up with something more useful to do with land.  We can plow up the prairie and raise crops in the soil.  We can cover the prairie with asphalt and concrete and create places to live and travel.  We can plant trees in the prairie to make it look better and provide better habitat for the wildlife species we most value.  We can come up with all kinds of replacements for prairie.

Mentzelia and Sandhills prairie.  The Sandhills is a great example of the subtle beauty of prairies, but also a landscape with a strong emotional pull for those of us who appreciate grassland.

There is certainly a need for cropland, and for houses, roads, and other developments that allow us to inhabit prairie landscapes.  I guess it’s even ok to plant a few trees around those developments to provide shade, shelter, and fruits/nuts (though we tend to take that WAY too far.)  However, I think it’s clear that the reason most prairies are “transitioned” to something else is that we don’t really see them as important in their own right.  “Surely,” we say, “we can come up with something better than THAT.”

So how do we change people’s minds about prairie?  We can make lots of arguments about carbon sequestration, water filtration, and pollinators, but we’ve been making those arguments for a long time and haven’t made much progress.  In fact, we continue to lose prairie at an alarming rate – not just here, but around the world.  Helping people understand the functional value of prairie is one thing, but we’re always going to be competing against the functional values of the alternatives (cropland, housing, roads, woodland, etc.) and so far, those alternatives are clearly more popular.  We’ve got to get people to appreciate prairies for what they are.

Bison are charismatic creatures and can be great ambassadors for prairie.  Unfortunately, only a small percentage of publicly-accessible prairies have bison, and they aren’t creatures you can easily (safely) get close to.

Katydids are easy to find in prairies, but lack some of the overt charisma of bison – at least until you get to know them a little better.

Sharing photos that highlight the beauty of prairie is a great tactic (feel free to use these), but those photos are most valuable as the first component of a longer process that ends with people hiking out into actual prairies to learn about them personally. It’s easy to dismiss grasslands as unimportant when you only see them as wastelands of grass that stand between you and the mountains or forests you really want to see.  It’s harder to dismiss them once you’ve gotten to know them a little better.

If we’re going to save the prairie we have left, we’ve got to move beyond purely functional/utilitarian arguments and get people to also see the cultural and aesthetic values of prairie.  Because the beauty of prairies can be subtle, it often takes a while for those unfamiliar with it to understand and appreciate that beauty.  As a result, those of us that know and love prairies have a deep responsibility to spread that appreciation to as many people as we can.  I’m not saying we have to go door to door, though maybe that wouldn’t hurt…  (“Have you heard the good news?”)

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , | 22 Comments

Photo of the Week – November 3, 2017

While at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week, I hiked around in the former pine savanna on the bluffs north of the river.  I’ve always enjoyed the patterns found in the bark of ponderosa pine trees, especially after a fire.  Because of the big 2012 wildfire that swept across the Niobrara Valley Preserve, we have thousands of dead ponderosa pines, and (among other things) that means lots of great bark patterns.

Ponderosa Pine Bark pattern. Niobrara Valley Preserve

Not only are pine bark patterns interesting to look at, it’s also fun to try to find images of familiar objects in them.  It’s a little like cloud watching, but instead of gazing dreamily into the sky, you stare at dead burned trees.  It’s probably not for everyone, but one perk is that you don’t get a crick in your neck while doing it.

I didn’t see any particular picture in the first photo shown here, but I did in the next two.  I’m curious to know if any of you see what I see, or if you see something completely different.

So far, people have seen a giraffe, a scorpion, and a happy turkey in this one…

 

This one brings to mind a couple different Looney Tunes cartoons for me.

It’s probably a good thing I don’t live at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Among all the other things that would distract me from getting work done, I might spend too much time just wandering around looking for pictures in tree bark…

Posted in Prairie Photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

A Hopeful Metaphor for Prairie Managers

Recently, I listened to a conference presentation by Doug Ladd, the Director of Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Missouri, and one of the smartest people I know.  Doug talked about the importance of conserving biodiversity, habitat diversity, essential ecological processes, and irreplaceable habitats and species, and stressed the need to better connect people with nature.  It was an excellent talk, and I could spin many of his points into entire blog posts.  For now, however, I want to focus on one short phrase he uttered, which relates to something I often think about.  The phrase was “There is no endgame in conservation.”

The importance of that phrase might not strike you immediately, but for those of us who dedicate much of our lives to prairie conservation, it’s an idea we need desperately to come to terms with.  No matter how much time and effort we put into restoring or managing prairies, we won’t ever reach a place where we can stop and just let nature handle the rest.  Many people harbor the romantic notion that if we could make prairies big enough and provide them with their full complement of species – including everything from soil microbes to bison, we could step away and the system would run itself without human intervention.  Unfortunately, that’s just not the way it works.  Nature relies on people just as much as we rely on nature, and it’s really not even fair to mention nature and people as if they are two distinct entities.

Even in places like the Nebraska Sandhills, with roughly 12 million mostly contiguous acres of prairie, the role of humans is still critically important and necessary.

Because there is no endgame in prairie conservation, we need to develop an appropriate mindset. Most importantly, we have to be able to look at the future without despair.  As an example, it’s easy to look at many grasslands and wonder how we can possibly deal with all the invasive species threatening the site today, let alone all the new ones that will inevitably join them.  It can feel like trying to hold back a river with a garden hoe.  Issues like habitat loss and fragmentation, nitrogen deposition, and climate change just make the picture even more bleak.  Knowing that our prairies won’t ever be able to stand on their own might seem the same as knowing that we can never win.  All we can do is stave off loss for as long as possible.  That’s seriously depressing.

Since this is the life I’ve chosen for myself, I’ve thought a lot about the idea that there is no endgame in conservation, and I’ve come up with a metaphor that makes me feel a lot better about it.  I don’t see myself as a hopeless defender of prairies, trying to stave off inevitable destruction.  Instead, I see myself as part of a long series of mechanics.  I inherited the prairies I work with from prior mechanics, and someday I’ll hand those prairies off to future mechanics.  As such, my job isn’t to save the prairie, it’s to keep it running until the next mechanic takes over.  The metaphor applies to an individual manager and a single prairie, but it also applies to each generation of conservationists and the earth we’re all working to maintain.  Success is being able to hand off a functioning prairie, biome, or earth to the next generation of mechanics.

To understand my metaphor, you have to move away from the idea that most mechanics are only able to keep a particular car, for example, running for a certain period of time before it inevitably dies and goes to the scrap heap. While that is the way it usually works, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  Imagine starting out in 1908 with a brand new Ford Model T automobile and giving a series of mechanics the charge to keep the vehicle functional forever.  For a while, keeping the car running just means replacing fluids and parts that break or wear out.  Eventually, however, there will be needed updates to parts, and even changes to the overall design of the car, so it can be adapted to keep up with a changing world.  Over time, because of changes in road design, safety and fuel efficiency rules, and needs of drivers, the car will have to be made to drive faster, brake more efficiently, use different fuel, and evolve in numerous other ways.  As each generation of mechanic finds innovative ways to keep the vehicle on the road and running well, the vehicle will be continually and repeatedly transformed.  Today’s version of the vehicle would be nearly unrecognizable to the mechanic who first worked on the Model T.  Very few original parts would remain, but today’s version of the vehicle would still perform the same essential function of transporting people and/or goods from place to place.

Prairies and other ecosystems are both easier and harder than cars to maintain over time.  On the one hand, prairies are infinitely more complex than cars, and come with many more challenges (though auto mechanics might argue that last point).  On the other hand, prairies consist of networks of living organisms, which can adapt as individuals and as communities to evolving challenges.  That inherent adaptability means that the prairie manager’s job is really to help the prairie maintain its resilience – its ability to retain its essential functions – as the world changes around it.

Just as the vehicle in my mechanic metaphor is constantly transforming, prairies and other ecosystems have to do the same, and land stewards have difficult choices to make as those changes occur.  As an example, many of today’s prairies have numerous and abundant species that weren’t even on the continent a few hundred years ago.  A profusion of introduced plants have entered the scene, some of which are apparently innocuous, and others that have dramatically changed the balance of power within plant communities.  In addition, white-tailed deer have become superabundant across most prairie regions, pollinator populations are crashing, and many other changes to animal communities have severe impacts on ecological processes.  Belowground, non-native earthworms and pill bugs are just two examples of species that have fundamentally altered the soil fauna in ways we don’t really understand.  Habitat fragmentation, high levels of nitrogen deposition, and a rapidly changing climate all combine to further drive important transformations in prairie species composition.

Yellow bedstraw (Galium verum) is a yellow flowered plant that seems to be invading low meadows in portions of the Nebraska Sandhills.  Making decisions about whether and how to address invaders like this can cause a lot of anxiety for land managers.

Fortunately, our job as land stewards is not to prevent our prairies from changing; our job is to help prairies preserve their character and function as they change, and then hand those prairies off to the next generation of stewards.  How do we do that?  We can manage for plant diversity and habitat heterogeneity to maintain ecological resilience.  We can prevent or suppress invasive species that have serious negative impacts on that resilience and diversity.  We can enhance the viability of small isolated prairies by restoring adjacent habitats and making those prairies larger and more connected.  As time goes by and conditions change, prairies will transform in ways that might make them nearly unrecognizable to land stewards of previous generations.  Rather than a sign of failure, those transformations are a sign of success, as long as they preserve the components and processes that are characteristic* of prairies.  After all, a 2017 Tesla Model 3 is a far cry from the 1908 Ford Model T, but which would you rather drive through today’s world?

*Defining the essential characteristics of prairies is something we don’t discuss nearly enough.  It seems like a simple enough exercise to outline what makes a prairie a prairie, but if you believe that, give it a shot…

Prairies like this are surely very different today than they were in the past or than they will be in the future. Change is good and healthy, as long as we can preserve the essential components and processes that define and sustain prairies and prairie communities.

Posted in Prairie Management | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 27, 2017

I spent much of this week at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  During most of that time, photography was difficult because of bright sunlight, no clouds, and strong winds, but the place was still beautiful.  Most of the colorful leaves had already fallen from the sumac, ash, oak, and cottonwood trees, and I only found a few asters that still had flowers.  Regardless, there was plenty of life to be seen.  I spotted a kangaroo rat in my headlights as I drove down the lane to the headquarters my first night.  Bald eagles were wheeling above the river, and I saw red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and northern harriers hunting as well.  Flocks of other birds went here and there, either migrating through or just moving nomadically in search of food.  During a couple evening walks, the relative quiet was broken by high-flying squadrons of sandhill cranes passing overhead.

Late day light on ponderosa pine skeletons, burned in the 2012 wildfire.

One evening, I climbed up to the top of the ridge north of the river and photographed the landscape as the sun went down.  By the time I got back down to my truck, it was pretty dark, and I became very aware of how many shadowy places were available for creatures to hide.  I started musing that I still hadn’t seen a mountain lion at the Preserve, even though we know they’re here, and have had several documented recently.  Then I realized that it was less important to think about how many mountain lions I had seen and more important to think about how many lions had seen me!  I’m pretty sure that second number is higher than the first.

Many of the pines killed by the 2012 fire have lost their tops to the wind, but this one was still standing tall and intact.

While cloudless skies make daytime photography difficult, they do have their advantages at night, especially when the wind calms down enough for long exposures (the camera shutter was open about 25 seconds to capture this starry scene).  The light along the horizon is not from the setting sun, but from the closest town of any size (Valentine, Nebraska, population 2700) which was about 25 miles away.

Only a few trees still had their leaves this week, making them stand out in the river valley.

I will be up on the Niobrara again late next week, and I’m really looking forward to it.  Even in the dormant season, there’s always plenty to see.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

EEEEEEK!!

For many of you, the snake photo below will elicit a strong visceral response.  The spider photo below might do the same.  While it varies in intensity, humans seem to have an innate fear of both spiders and snakes.  New research now provides further support for the idea that fear of spiders and snakes is something we’re born with, not something we learn.  The European study showed that 6-month-old infants responded more strongly to images of spiders and snakes than of other creatures, even when those images were nearly identical in terms of color and brightness.  It’s a fascinating study to read, and is available for free by following this link.

This red-sided garter snake is about as harmless as you can get.

This big female wolf spider is impressive, but poses no threat to humans.

I handle both snakes and spiders fairly regularly, but I’ll still admit that my first reaction upon seeing one – especially when it’s a surprise – is to step backward.  Then, my logical brain kicks in and I step forward and pick up the cute little critter to look at it more closely.  I may be instinctively afraid of snakes and spiders, but it’s nice to know my brain has the ability to override that instinct – and I think most people have that same ability.  Dating back to my time working at a nature center in college, I’ve probably helped thousands of people overcome that initial fright response and touch, or even pick up, their first spider or snake.

My kids and I came across this bull snake along a gravel road.  We didn’t pick it up because it was acting aggressively, but we did spend a few minutes admiring it before it scooted off into the grass.

I think it’s important to help people understand that most snakes and spiders are harmless, and that even those few that could potentially pose a danger are not actively trying to attack them.  First, it might help save the lives of snakes and spiders living in and around those people’s houses.  That’s great, but probably won’t affect the fate of the world.  More importantly, however, I hope making people more comfortable with snakes and spiders might also help them feel more comfortable wandering out into prairies and other natural areas.

I’m not sure how many people avoid exploring tall grassy places out of fear, but I’ve definitely met people who fall into that category.  It’s hard enough to convince people that prairies are worth visiting without also having to convince them they won’t be ambushed by a vicious snake or spider.  I take every opportunity to reassure people that our prairies are safe, and try to prove it by going out of my way to catch and admire the snakes and spiders we see while hiking around.  Among my prairie conservation outreach strategies, demonstrating the harmlessness of snakes and spiders is surely not the most impactful, but I figure it doesn’t hurt.  If nothing else, people tend to care more about places they’ve visited, so anything we can to do encourage more visits to prairies seems worthwhile.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of people across the world would find this photo to be beautiful versus creepy (or both?).

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Photo of the Week – October 20, 2017

I’ve written before about the value of native thistles, both to pollinators and other parts of prairie ecosystems.  Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), in particular, seems to be a key food resource for pollinators during the late growing season, including the migration period for monarch butterflies.  Here in the Platte River Prairies, we include native thistles in our seed mixes for prairie restoration work and try to promote them through our management activities.  Here are some photos of tall thistle from last month.

This bee was one of many feeding from tall thistles this fall.

Skippers like this one often feed from thistles, but this one was just resting on top of a half-empty seed head.

While bees get great value from tall thistles, this one got trapped and killed by the sticky substance on the bracts beneath the flowers (which is probably meant to capture nectar-stealing ants).

Tall thistle seed.

More tall thistle seeds.

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