Photos of the Week – July 1, 2022

Event Reminder:

July 9 field day at the Platte River Prairies. Details here.

My son John will be a college senior this fall, so I was happy to accommodate his request to kayak the Niobrara River again this summer. He drove up and met me at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week and I took a day off from a week otherwise occupied with meetings, tours, and data collection. It was a terrific day.

Here’s John kayaking on the Niobrara River.
Stairstep falls on The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve is a popular stop for people floating the river. John has seen it a couple times but wanted to see it again, so while he hiked up the stream a little bit, I played around with some photography (1/2 second exposure at f/22 if you care about that kind of thing).

I debated whether or not to take my camera on the trip (as opposed to just using my phone for photographs) and eventually decided to take both my camera and my tripod. John convinced me that he didn’t mind if I stopped to do some photography, so that pushed me over the edge. I wrapped the camera and a few lenses in a waterproof bag and we set off down the river early in the morning.

As it happened, the light was magnificent most of the day, so I was really glad to have my camera and John was very patient with me whenever I stopped to photograph him and other subjects (he should be used to it by now). We saw lots of great wildlife and scenery, including waterfalls, steep sandy cliffs, woodlands and grasslands, bald eagles, turkey vultures, waterfalls, shorebirds, deer, and more. Apart from some photos of John and a couple waterfalls, I didn’t photograph any of that stuff. As per usual, I focused on subjects smaller than my thumb. The majority of my expedition photos, therefore, do a horrible job of reflecting the landscape and the fauna most people associate with the Niobrara River.

Of course, lots of other people have captured photos of the river, woodlands, waterfalls, and big charismatic wildlife of the Niobrara, so I don’t feel obligated to repeat that. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, I assume you have a more sophisticated palate and will enjoy seeing photos of big eyed toad bugs, damselflies, wolf spiders and tiger beetles. I hope so, anyway, because that’s what you’re getting from here on.

I only saw this big eyed toad bug because it scooted away from me as I was photographing a caddisfly larva (see below). I didn’t know what it was at the time but got some quick help from Bugguide.net earlier today. Click on the photo if you’re having a hard time seeing the little shaver.
Here’s an angle that gives you a better look at the bug. How about that camouflage?? Apparently big eyed toad bugs are predators that hunt along sandy riverbanks, which is exactly where this one was.
A few caddisfly larvae ended up in my kayak – I think they came in with some grass I tore off the bank to ‘enhance’ the backrest on my kayak. After showing one to John, I kept a couple others until we stopped for a break later and photographed this one on a rock along the edge of the river. If you’re not familiar with them, caddisfly larvae are easy to identify because they live in little stone tubes, a little like tiny hermit crabs.
Pond weed (Potamogeton) floated in patches in calmer patches of the river and in side channels and pools.

We stopped for lunch on a long rocky island with a mucky wetland embedded within it. As I grabbed my sandwich, I heard some cricket frogs calling and wandered over to the wetland to see if I could spot one. Before I knew it, I was belly deep in muck and water photographing beautiful little amphibians. John enjoyed watching the whole escapade and even took a couple photos of his crazy old man. They ended up being a couple of the best action photos of me in recent history, I think.

A loony photographer bothering frogs along the Niobrara River. Photo by John Helzer.
The author of this blog showing off the latest in river mud fashion while trying not to let muck or water from his clothes run down his arms and onto his camera. Photo by John Helzer.

Blanchard’s cricket frogs come in a variety of color patterns. We saw both green and tan frogs in the same vicinity and some of both were very accommodating photo subjects. If you’ve never heard them, their call sounds like someone clicking two rocks together. Actually, their calls sound like that whether you’ve heard them or not. I was surprised to hear them still calling this late in the season, but what do I know?

A green cricket frog.
A tan cricket frog.
The business end of a green cricket frog. I watched one catch a fly but missed the money shot. Oh well.

While I was lying the mud, I saw damselflies both mating and laying eggs, so I belly-crawled around for a while trying to get photos of both behaviors (successfully). As I was doing that, I also saw some common whitetail dragonflies zipping around. Suddenly, a female dropped down low and started repeatedly tapping the tip of her ‘tail’ on the surface of the water. I took a couple quick photos with my macro lens and then slowly squished my prostrate body closer as she continued for a minute or so. I eventually managed some decent shots of the egg-laying behavior, including a couple that showed a male dragonfly hovering above her and defending both her and his territory from potential interlopers. Really cool stuff.

Mating damselflies.
A female common whitetail dragonfly laying eggs while a male keeps a close eye on her from above. She hovered there for a least a minute, apparently laying dozens of eggs. The male fought off other dragonflies several times, including a few of different species, which might have just been coming to see what was going on.
John found this little wolf spider and her egg case (barely visible attached to her abdomen) in his kayak and wanted me to photograph it. I was happy to oblige, and she sat nicely for just long enough to get a few nice shots before running for cover.

As we pulled our kayaks out of the water at the end of the trip, there were scads of little tiger beetles running around on the sand beach. I, of course, grabbed my camera and as I looked at them through my macro lens, quickly realized there was a lot of sex happening on that beach. In fact, every single tiger beetle we saw was coupled up, endeavoring to make more tiger beetles. I snapped a couple photos and then we gave them some privacy.

Mating tiger beetles. After looking at the University of Nebraska’s tiger beetle page, I think they might be sandy stream tiger beetles (Cicindela macra) but I’d love to be corrected. I hope that’s right, though, because John and I had been laughing earlier in the day about animal names that were nice and descriptive of either their appearance or call (red-winged blackbirds, eastern phoebe, etc.).

If you’ve not floated the Niobrara River, I highly recommend it. You can find lots of information at the National Park Service’s website, but the land along the river is private – including most of the south bank of the most popular stretch, which is owned by The Nature Conservancy (part of the Niobrara Valley Preserve). There are numerous outfitters that can help organize kayak, canoe, or tube trips at very reasonable prices, and most also offer camping if you want to stay the night before and/or after your trip. If you want to avoid crowds, avoid weekends. We floated on a Thursday and only saw one other group of people all day.

If you go, you’ll probably see bald eagles, mergansers, and lots of other larger animals. However, if you’re really fortunate and are willing to look closely, you might even see some truly spectacular creatures like big eyed toad bugs and cricket frogs. Even if you miss those little wonders, you’ll still get to float down a gorgeous river past lots of waterfalls. That’s not so bad.

Defense or Revenge or Both?

Event Reminders:

July 9 field day at the Platte River Prairies. Details here.

Conserving Fragmented Prairies workshop July 25-26. Deadline for registration is July 1 (Friday).

I’m at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve this week. Yesterday morning, I went for a sunrise walk in the prairie. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular to photograph, which almost always leads to fun discoveries.

As the sun rose, I walked toward it and spotted a few adult antlions making short flights in front of me. After a few unsuccessful tries, I found one that let me creep into photo range and captured a few nice images of it backlit against the morning light. For the next few minutes, I found and photographed grasshoppers, bees, and milkweed beetles.

Adult antlion. This creature somewhat resembles a damselfly but has a longer and heavier body and more club-shaped antennae. And a different head shape with smaller eyes, but that’s harder to see from a distance…

My next discovery was a group of ants tending to aphids on the flower head of fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala). Ants often ‘adopt’ groups of aphids like this, protecting them from predators and harvesting the sweet droplets of honeydew the aphids excrete from their hind ends. I took a few photos and then looked a couple other primrose flowers/buds nearby and was surprised to see ants and aphids on all of them. That’s when the morning suddenly got much more interesting.

Ants tending aphids on fourpoint evening primrose.

As I was looking at some primrose flowers that had just opened up and watching the ants move around their aphid ‘flock’, an antlion flew in to the flower, presumably looking for nectar and/or pollen. It landed on the lip of the flower and scrambled briefly for a foothold.

Antlion landing on the flower to feed.

As soon as it hit the flower, though, it immediately attracted the attention of the ants working with the aphids. Those ants, lightning-quick, swarmed the antlion and attacked it from multiple directions. It was brutal and difficult to watch. The antlion futilely tried to use its legs to dislodge ants but it didn’t stand a chance.

Antlion being swarmed and attacked by ants.

My assumption is that the ants were defending their aphids from danger. Antlion adults feed on nectar and pollen, but at least some are also predators. It makes sense that ants would see this antlion as a threat to the aphids, though I wonder if they knew what it was or just responded to the sudden incursion. Maybe they would have attacked any other creature making a similar approach.

I know it didn’t happen this way, but I also like to imagine the ants might have recognized the antlion as the adult form of the creature that creates the funnel-shaped depressions in sand or other loose soil on the ground. Antlion larvae create those holes and then lie in wait at the bottom of them with only their poison-injecting mandibles exposed. Ants are common victims of antlion larvae because they can slip into the hole if they get too close, sliding inescapably down to the deadly waiting jaws of the larva.

Again, there’s surely no way those ants recognized the antlion adult as the grownup version of that horror-pit-dwelling nightmarish creature. If they did recognize it, though, the attack might have felt that much better as they exacted some measure of revenge upon a creature that likely consumed a number of their kind earlier this year.

As an observer to the event, I felt conflicted. Everyone involved was doing their job and no one was at fault in any way. There was no reason for me to interfere, but that antlion did look awfully pitiful in the jaws of all those ants. After a minute or so, I couldn’t take it any longer, so I took a piece of dried sunflower stem from nearby and lifted the antlion away from the flower. I tried to push some of the ants off of it but their jaws were so tightly clenched, I couldn’t move them. Sadly, I lifted the antlion back to the flower and let the ants finish their work.

This was the third time this year I’ve seen ants farming aphids. Each time, I’ve seen a cluster of ants on a plant and then upon closer inspection spotted the aphids. If you’ve not seen this phenomenon before, just keep your eyes out for multiple ants and take a closer look when you find some. When you find some, you can watch the ants scrambling around, tapping the aphids, and occasionally looking around menacingly for threats.

A couple times, while photographing the ants above, one would stop and turn to face me, lifting its head and torso off the plant toward me. It might have been just trying to get a better look at me, but after seeing what happened to the antlion, I also imagine it might have been issuing a warning. If so, message received!