Photo of the Week – July 21, 2016

Lately, I’ve had some great opportunities to photograph big charismatic animals like bison and cute mammals like prairie dogs.  During the same period, however, I’ve also managed to make the kind of photographs I’m most drawn to – images of little things like flowers and bugs.  Since  much of what I’ve posted lately (the dung beetles post notwithstanding) has been bigger wildlife, I decided to share a selection of more close-up views of prairies today.

Black-eyed Susan from beneath. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) from beneath. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Prairie cicada at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Prairie cicada at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Katydid nymph on upright prairie coneflower. Platte River Prairies.

Katydid nymph on upright prairie coneflower. Platte River Prairies.

Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula). Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Broad sweeping vistas and big stompy animals add drama to prairie landscapes, but most of the complexity and function actually happens at a very small scale.  Sometimes it’s nice to just pause and enjoy the little things.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Crappy Job But Somebody’s Got To Do It

Oh man, there are so many choices for titles when writing a blog post about dung beetles…

While my wife and I were hiking around the Niobrara Valley Preserve a few weeks ago, Kim spotted a couple dung beetles rolling a ball of bison dung through the Sandhills.  It was really fun to watch them and it was my first good opportunity to photograph dung beetles in action.  The light was nice and the beetles seemed fine with me watching them.  As it happened, once I started following the first pair with my camera, I ended up seeing two other pairs of beetles within a few yards of the first.  I wish I’d had the time to follow them longer and see where they went with their booty.

Dung beetles with bison dung at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Dung beetles with bison dung at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Dung beetles don’t often get a lot of attention, but when they do, it’s the “rollers” that usually get it.  In fact, there are three general categories of dung beetles: rollers, dwellers and tunnelers.  Dwellers just live inside manure piles (ick).  Tunnelers burrow beneath manure piles and bury some of it for their larvae to feed on (boring).  But ROLLERS!!  Rollers make a neat round ball out of manure and roll that ball across the ground for our enjoyment.  (Oh, and also so they can find just the right place to bury it and lay eggs with it.)

Essentially, rollers, dwellers, and tunnelers are all doing the same job: they feed on manure and help break it down and return it to the soil.  Clearly, however, dung beetles that roll poop balls across the ground do that job in the most entertaining way!

The strength and agility of these beetles was pretty amazing to watch. They moved their ball over and through grass litter and other obstacles without too much trouble. It was particularly impressive since only one beetle seemed to be doing the work while the other just rode along on the ball (maybe providing counterbalance?).

The strength and agility of these beetles was pretty amazing to watch. They moved their ball over and through grass litter and other obstacles without too much trouble. It was particularly impressive since the ball had to weigh many times more than the beetles and only one beetle seemed to be doing the work while the other just rode along on the ball.  I couldn’t tell if the beetle on the ball was providing counterbalance to help get over obstacles or if it was just along for the ride.

To be serious for a moment, there are apparently 50 or so species of dung beetles here in Nebraska, and they really do play a really important role in converting manure into productive soil.  Strong populations of dung beetles can also break down manure piles before parasites on cattle and bison can lay their eggs in them – helping to control those parasite populations.  Ironically, chemical treatments used to reduce parasite loads in livestock can be hard on dung beetle populations because the pesticides remain in the manure.  Even more ironically, some  people are now advocating the introduction of dung beetles from other continents to bolster declining populations of beetles in U.S. pastures.  Humans sure are silly sometimes.

On the other hand, we don’t roll big balls of poop around…

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Photo of the Week – July 14, 2016

One of the great things about working for The Nature Conservancy is that I get to do a lot of bison watching.  Just in the last couple weeks I’ve had several opportunities to get close to bison at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Even better, I was able to share those experiences with my wife and daughter.

Here is a selection of bison photos from the first half of July…

During a light rain, a young bull pauses amongst golden prairie clover (Dalea aurea) and purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia). The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.

During a light rain, a young bull pauses in a patch of wildflowers, including golden prairie clover (Dalea aurea) and purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia). The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Young bull

A different young bull (and a different herd) in a patch of lemon scurfpea (Psoralidium lanceolata).

ENPO160703_D011

This quizzical-looking bull is probably a couple years older than those in the previous photos.

This year's calves are already starting to get darker coats.

This year’s calves are already starting to get darker coats.

Cow

Calves didn’t tend to stray too far from their mothers, at least while we were nearby.

One bison had two stick insects and kept trying to shake them off by "shivering"

One bison had two stick insects on its back and kept trying to shake them off by “shivering” violently.

These two bulls seemed to tolerate each other pretty well. That might change later this month as mating season gets underway.

These two massive bulls seemed to tolerate each other pretty well. That might change later this month as mating season gets underway.

My daughter and I tried several times to find bison during our weekend at the Preserve. Finally, as were running out of time and ready to give up and head home, we crested a hill and about 100 bison were spread out in the valley below us.

While Kim and I had no trouble finding bison on our visit, my daughter and I tried and failed several times to find bison during our weekend at the Preserve. Finally, as were running out of time and ready to give up and head home, we crested a hill to find about 100 bison spread out in the valley below us.

A valley full of flowers and bison was a pretty great way to cap a trip to the Sandhills.

 

 

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Welcome to the Fourth Class of Hubbard Fellows!

Many of you have followed this blog enough to be familiar with our Hubbard Fellowship program and the experiences they’ve had with us during the last several years.  In June, our fourth pair of Fellows, Katharine and Eric, joined us here in Nebraska and have been quickly and enthusiastically learning about prairies and conservation.  Both of them have written a brief introduction of themselves, and you’ll hear much more from them over the next 11 months.

Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

From Katharine:

Greetings! I’m Katharine Hogan, and I am very excited to join The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska for the 2016-2017 Claire M. Hubbard Conservation Fellowship. I’m coming to this opportunity as a northeasterner who developed her love of nature while growing up in the mountains of Vermont. My summers and free time were spent horseback riding in the woods, swimming, gardening, forming what was then an unconscious but deep attachment to the natural world, and building the foundations for my future professional passions.

I am part of the fourth generation of my family to choose conservation as a profession. Whether this is generational conditioning or some genetic preference not yet understood, I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that I’ve always gravitated towards any science that required spending long hours outdoors studying nature directly. I remember as a teen deciding in part to pursue environmental science over other science fields due to a fear that they might require spending too much time indoors! This isn’t necessarily a fair summary of those fields, but ultimately I completed a B.S. and in 2014 an M.S. in Environmental Science from Taylor University in northeastern Indiana.

As a lifelong northeasterner relocating to a strikingly different ecosystem and culture, my interest in exploring more of the country post-college was piqued, leading me after graduate school to work first performing native plant restoration at North Cascades National Park in Washington state. Here, I learned firsthand how the world of conservation and land management far eclipsed what I could have possibly grasped in school, fell completely in love with the unforgiving wilderness, and essentially felt like I’d stumbled upon an entirely different world than I expected. However, it still provided everything I had been looking for in my hopes of developing a career in which I could do work that was both needed by the world and fulfilling for me to complete.

The lessons learned in Washington and at subsequent opportunities in vegetation monitoring in Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho created individual and collective experiences I couldn’t have dreamt of if I had chosen any other profession. I’ve been lucky enough to have learned and seen more of this beautiful country than I would have thought possible even three years ago. But here is where we come to the beauty of this Fellowship! Even having learned so much about different ecosystems and aspects of conservation, here in Nebraska there will be countless other opportunities to expand my knowledge of and appreciation for nature, all while contributing to the conservation of the beautifully intricate prairies on the Platte River and across the state. There will be new challenges around every corner, I’m sure, and I can’t wait to take them on, and see what I can contribute and accomplish by the end of the year. I have a feeling it will fly by and leave me looking for more at the end of it, so I suppose I’d better get busy! Thank you all for reading!

Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.

Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.

From Eric:

It is great to finally have arrived at the Platte River Prairies. I can still distinctly remember leaning over my chainsaw last December, the snow and cold driving though my face shield, wondering how I was going to find work that kept me on the prairie. The evening I pulled in earlier this June to begin a year as a Hubbard Fellow, a warm Great Plains wind swirled the grasses, cattle stood staring at the fence line, the bobolinks and bobwhite whistled away. With a change from the cold unknown to warm, welcoming opportunity, you can rightly imagine I am happy to be here.

I am from Minnesota; subjectively, but to my mind irrefutably, God’s country. I have basked in the state’s diverse, and rich natural heritage my entire life, living and recreating in and around our iconic waters and forests. It has only been relatively recently that I was enlightened to the wonder of the prairie. After returning home from Maine where I received my undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College, I worked for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota. Over the last couple years I have been blessed to work in some incredible restored and remnant prairies in Western parts of the state. (If you haven’t, check out Chris’s blog post from the Grassland Restoration Network last year at the Bluestem preserve in Hawlsey, MN to get a taste of the region and the work being done there.) As a result of weeks of work in the grass, long days spent cutting back woody plants and trees, wrestling with invasive grassland plants, and harvesting prairie plant seed, I am now a prairie person.  I can’t say exactly what it was or is that ties me to prairies, and the components of that interest seem to be changing day by day, but it’s there.

With my interest in prairies firing on all cylinders, I eagerly look forward to this upcoming year in Nebraska with the Nature Conservancy. I anticipate and aim to make it an opportunity that can help me translate my interests in grassland restoration and management into a portfolio of skills and knowledge that can be applied pragmatically and effectively for prairie conservation. With several weeks under my belt, I can already report that I have learned a great deal both about prairie ecology, and how we, as prairie scientists and enthusiasts, can begin to tackle the complex, and entangled issues that threaten the species, places, and livelihoods we care about.

Whether it is at volunteer events, conferences, or a chance encounter somewhere between some bluestem, I look forward to meeting many of you over the course of the next year. One of the things that has struck me most over the last couple years is the uniquely intense passion that people who work and/or have an interest in prairies possess. It has and continues to inspire me. So even if we never meet, I hope we can find ways to connect, and continue to find ways to learn about and work for prairies.

Finally, I just want everyone to know how welcoming the neighbors have been. On the first morning of being at the Platter River Prairies I opened my front door, and standing at the base of the steps was a hen turkey. That bird stared me right in the eye and clucked a couple notes before strutting off down the driveway- a great Platte River Prairie welcome.

 

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A Conciliatory Gift from the Mammal Community?

Maybe it was because my daughter was with me.  Maybe it was just one brave (or not very bright) individual.  Or maybe the prairie dogs and otters got together and decided to throw me a bone.  Regardless, my daughter and I had a pretty cool experience watching prairie dogs this past weekend.

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

You might recall earlier posts I’ve written about attempts to photograph prairie dogs and otters.  In fact, I know many of you recall them because you ask me about them when we meet in person.  Let’s just say it hasn’t usually gone well.  (Examples one, two, and three, but see also four.)

Last weekend, however, my daughter and I were enjoying a weekend together at the Niobrara Valley Preserve before she leaves for college.  We canoed the river and explored the prairies, and generally had a great time.  The biggest highlight, though, was when we stopped at the small prairie dog town in the east bison pasture.  As we drove the truck into the edge of the town, I was telling her that we wouldn’t likely get a very good look at any of the dogs, so she should look at them in the distance and enjoy the view of them scurrying into their holes.  Based on much previous experience, I told her, “They never let you get very close.”

I drove slowly, hoping to give Anna a decent, if distant, look at a few prairie dogs before they dove for cover.  The first one we saw followed the expected pattern.  The second one, however, kept looking at us, so I slowed the truck even more, figuring I’d give Anna another few seconds to see the prairie dog that way.  The prairie dog just kept looking at us, so I stopped the truck completely.  Not only did the prairie dog stay aboveground, she(?) had three pups nearby that kept feeding and exploring almost as if we weren’t there.

Black-tailed prairie dog pups. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Here are two of the three pups hanging around the burrow.  The third was 15 feet away, feeding.

As Anna and I sat there for a few minutes, I pulled out my camera and took a few photos. For some reason, the prairie dogs seemed largely unconcerned about us.  Eventually, I decided to take a big chance and slowly backed the truck around so that we were a little closer and so that the light was a little better for photography.  The prairie dogs just watched us nonchalantly as we moved.

We watched and photographed them for a few more minutes, savoring the chance to be so close.  I tried a little video but couldn’t hold the camera still enough to make it work well.  Very slowly, I opened the truck door, hoping to set up a tripod behind the door and take video through the open window.  I figured this would likely be the last straw for the prairie dogs, but we’d had a good look already, so it was worth a try.  …Still no response from the prairie dogs.

One thing led to another, and about 15 minutes later, I found myself lying prone on the ground, about 10 feet from the mother(?) prairie dog, photographing her while she alternatively foraged and stood on her hind feet looking alert.  (I’m not sure she understood that while in “alert position” she was supposed to be watching for things like ME CREEPING SLOWLY UP ON HER.)  Eventually, I ran out of both battery and memory card space, and retreated to the truck.  As we turned around and drove away to look for the bison herd the prairie dogs in more distant parts of the town barked warnings and ran for their holes.   You know, as prairie dogs always do…

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

She’s sitting in alert position, but I’m not sure what she’s watching for since she didn’t seem to be concerned about the big creature stalking her with a camera.

Black-tailed prairie dog. TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Clearly unconcerned about me, the prairie dog continued to move around and eat.

This short video shows two clips.  If it doesn’t show up correctly, try clicking on the title of this blog post to open it in a web browser.  The first was shot from behind my truck door and shows the mother and pup interacting.  The second was shot later while I was lying on the ground and shows the mom feeding.  Clearly, despite how close I was to the prairie dogs, they weren’t very worried…

I have no idea why this particular prairie dog family was so accommodating, but Anna and I were certainly grateful for the time we spent with it.  I’ll try to head back to the dog town in the future and see if I can find them again.   It shouldn’t be hard if they’re the only ones still aboveground when I drive up to the town.   Alternatively, it’s very possible that a hungry coyote, hawk, or other predator will beat me to it…  While it would be great for photographers and kids if all prairie dogs were easy to get close to, it probably wouldn’t work out well for the species.

Now if I can just find a family of otters…

Anna took this photo of me with her phone. It shows how crazy close the prairie dog let me get. Sure, I was being slow and following the rules of good wildlife stalking, but still...

Anna took this photo of me with her phone. It shows how crazy close the prairie dog let me get. Sure, I was being slow and following the rules of good wildlife stalking, but still…

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Photo of the Week – July 7, 2016

I bet you won’t be surprised to learn that this particular grasshopper feeds primarily on this particular plant…

Hypo

A cudweed grasshopper stares at me as I slowly edge toward it with my camera.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

The coloring of the cudweed grasshopper (Hypochlora alba – aka sagebrush grasshopper, greenish-white grasshopper, mugwort grasshopper) could not be more perfect as camouflage when it sits on cudweed sagewort (Artemisia ludoviciana – aka white sage, Louisiana sagewort).  This small flightless grasshopper is known to feed on other plants, but primarily eats cudweed sagewort, a plant that has relatively few other herbivores.

I’ve been seeing this grasshopper for years, but had never been able to photograph it until last week at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  For some reason, I’ve always seen them when I didn’t have a camera, was busy doing something else, or when the light wasn’t right for photography.  Last weekend, everything finally came together, including a grasshopper that was patient enough to allow me to stick a camera in its face without hopping away.  (This was not the first one I attempted to photograph…)

Grasshopper

A side view of a Hypochlora alba female.

This might be the most impressive camouflage I’ve seen in an invertebrate, but it’s far from the only example of little creatures matching its environment well.  Here are a few other posts I’ve done on well-camouflaged bugs.

A Dandy Little Predator

An Inchworm in Disguise

Photo of the Week – November 28, 2014

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More Than One Milkweed

I recently wrote an article for NEBRASKAland magazine about milkweed and the surprising number of milkweed species that can be found in Nebraska.  (See the most recent online issue here).  In total, there are seventeen species known to the state, and only a handful look anything like most people’s mental vision of milkweed – tall, with broad oval leaves and big pink flowers.  Milkweed can be found in habitats ranging from wetlands to woodlands to dry sandy prairies, and can have flower colors of green, white, and orange (and, of course, various shades of pink and red).

Growing concern over monarch butterflies has raised awareness of milkweeds and their importance, but milkweeds are far more than just monarch caterpillar food.  They have an incredible (in the sense that it doesn’t seem possible) pollination strategy, host an array of insect species that have evolved to handle the toxic latex produced by milkweed plants, and are among the most important nectar plants to many butterflies and other pollinators.  We’re still learning about the relative value of each milkweed species as monarch caterpillar food, but there is no question about their overall beauty and diversity.

This is a great time of year to find many different milkweed species in bloom.  See how many different milkweed species you can find in your favorite natural areas.

Here is a series of milkweed photos I’ve taken over just the last couple of weeks.

Common

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)- the species most people envision when they think of milkweed.

Sullivant's

Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) looks much like common, but the leaves are waxy smooth and completely without fuzz.  It is a much less common species in Nebraska.

sand

Sand milkweed (Asclepias arenaria) is common on dry sandy hilltops in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Green milkweed

Green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) is common in the mixed-grass portion of Nebraska, but also many other places.  It’s creamy whitish-green flowers hang downward from the stems.

Narrowleaf

Narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla) has very long slender leaves.  

Whorled

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) is small, with tiny skinny leaves that whorl around the stem.

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Photo of the Week – July 1, 2016

I often tell people, “I’m not an insect expert, I’m an insect enthusiast.”  I don’t spend nearly enough time immersed in the vagaries of invertebrate taxonomy and biology to know much more than some interesting trivia about most species.  This week provided a couple great examples of my lack of expertise.

Early in the week, I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  While walking one morning, I noticed a longhorn beetle on a white prairie clover flower.  I felt pretty good about recognizing it as a longhorn beetle, and was even able to remember part of the genus (“Typo something, I think”).  I also noticed a small weevil on the same flower.   “Cool!”

Long

Longhorn beetle (Typocerus confluens or Typocerus octonotatus) and a weevil on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A few steps away, I saw another white prairie clover flower, and sure enough, there was a longhorn beetle on that one too.  And another weevil.  This second longhorn beetle had a different pattern on its back from the first one, so I assumed it was a second species.  “Nice,” I thought, there’s a good example of insect diversity – two different beetle species feeding on the same flower.

long

Another longhorn beetle on another white prairie clover flower.

A few steps away from that second flower was a third one, and it had a longhorn beetle on it as well.  The third beetle looked different than both the first and the second ones.  (Oh, and there was a weevil on the third flower too.)

beetle

A third longhorn beetle.

As I walked away from the white prairie clover patch, I started composing a blog post in my head about insect diversity.  Something about how important it is to have lots of different species within each group of animals so that if one species suffers from a disease or some other malady, there are others that can cover the role it plays in the natural world.  Blah blah blah.

When I got back to WiFi, I emailed my longhorn beetle photos to Ted MacRae (an ACTUAL insect expert) who is generous enough to help me with identification of beetle photos.  (Check out his fantastic blog here.)  I asked him what species these three beetles were so I could name them in my upcoming blog post.  When I got his reply, my blog post idea went out the window.  They weren’t three different species at all – they were all the same one!  (By the way, Ted couldn’t tell for sure from my photos which of two possible species they were.  He said he’d need to see the “last ventral abdominal segment” of each to be sure.)

Now, how is an insect enthusiast supposed to keep up when three beetles of the same species don’t even have the common courtesy to look like each other??   I’m ok with the occasional oddball.  With flowers, for example, it’s not uncommon to see one white flower out of a big patch of purple spiderwort or vervain flowers.  Fine.  Genetics provides a few quirks now and then.  But I only saw three longhorn beetles, and none of them had the same color pattern on their back??  I give up.

Oh, and the weevils?  Don’t even ask.  I don’t know.  They all look the same to my eye, but what does that mean?  They’re probably three different species that just happen to be feeding on the same flower.  That would be about right.  Geesh.

So then yesterday, I was in our Platte River Prairies and noticed a crab spider on a black-eyed Susan flower.  It was a pretty spider (you have to admit that) so I stopped and photographed it.

crab spider

Crab spider on black-eyed Susan flower.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

After I photographed the spider, I gave the other flowers nearby a quick look, and sure enough – there were crab spiders on several of those too.  Now, here’s the thing: the other crab spiders might have been different species, or they might not.  I’m not even going to guess.  They had different patterns on their abdomens but were generally the same color.  The first one was much broader, but that’s likely because she’s a female, and that’s how it works with spiders.  The other two might be different species or they could be from different growth stages and the patterns might be different for that reason.  Or, apparently, THEY COULD JUST LOOK DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON OTHER THAN TO BE CONFUSING.

crab spider

Another crab spider.  

spider

One more crab spider

I could email photos of the crab spiders to a friend who occasionally identifies them for me, but I’m not going to.  I’m choosing instead to simply admire the aesthetics of these fascinating little creatures, and appreciate some general trivia about crab spiders (for example, their front two sets of legs are extra long for capturing ambushed prey, and some species of crab spiders can change color to match the flower they sit on).  After all, I’m an insect enthusiast, not an insect expert (or a spider expert).  So there.

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Photo of the Week – June 24, 2016

I don’t often photograph sunrises and sunsets.  I’ve got file folders full of color slides from my early years of photography, many of which are trees, grain bins, and other objects silhouetted against the purple or orange sky of sunrises and sunsets.  They’re very nice, but I’m tired of them.  These days, when the sky lights up with color, I’m usually trying to capture the reflection of that colorful light on prairie wildflowers, grasses, and insects.

Last week, however, while I was in the Nebraska Sandhills, I was climbing up a steep hill just before sunrise and noticed a band of haze along the horizon.  Knowing that the sun would appear huge and red as it rose through that haze, I found a nice vantage point, got out my telephoto lens and waited.  And then I photographed the sunrise.  No silhouettes; just a simple celebration of a spectacular prairie landscape.

Sunrise over the Sandhillls.  Cherry County, Nebraska.

Sunrise over the Sandhillls. Cherry County, Nebraska.

I’m not sure there’s a better way to start a day.

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In Defense of Erosion

The Nebraska Sandhills region consists of about 12 million acres of sand dunes with a thin layer of vegetation draped across them.  That vegetation has come and gone over the last several thousand years, as long-term climatic patterns have shifted from wet to dry and back.  We are in a relatively wet period (geologically speaking) today, and grassland is clinging to the hills.  For now.

Except where it can’t.  Here and there, throughout the sandhills, particularly on steep hills, sand breaks through.  Most of the time, blowouts are triggered by a combination of topography and some kind of physical disturbance.  A two track road or cattle trail up a steep slope, for example, or a favorite hangout of livestock.  Just as with frayed fabric, once a small hole in the vegetation starts, it tends to spread.  Most Sandhills ranchers see blowouts as a great risk to their livelihood and work hard to prevent them, or to heal them once they start.  Those ranchers are encouraged in that view by watchful neighbors and a long history of agencies and university extension staff warning of the dire impacts of wind-induced soil erosion.

Sandh

Small blowouts dot the steeper hills in the background and a couple larger ones appear in the foreground.  Overall, these make up a tiny percentage of the landscape, but many ranchers see them almost as badges of shame.

big

A very large blowout like this can cause not only a loss of forage for a rancher’s livestock, but also a huge challenge for fence maintenance.

The Sandhills is ranch country, and all but a tiny fraction is privately-owned and managed for livestock production.  Most ranchers are conservative with livestock numbers and grazing strategies, trying to preserve that thin fabric of grass that feeds their livestock, and thus their families.

While there are certainly places that are prone to wind erosion and practices that can accelerate it, the risk of blowout creation and spread has also become a kind of mythology.  In much of the Sandhills, blowouts are actually difficult to create (we’ve tried) and the percentage of a ranch that could potentially be covered by blowouts is very small.

wet

Sometimes, wind erosion digs a blowout deep enough that it intersects groundwater, creating wetlands.

While conservative grazing has helped maintain healthy prairies in the Sandhills, it has also led to a loss of open sand habitat for a group of plant and animal species that depend upon blowouts and similar areas.  Those species are important, but asking a rancher to allow, let alone encourage a blowout, is much like asking a business man to go to work wearing Bermuda shorts with his sport coat.  The peer pressure and social norms associated with blowouts can be more influential than any potential loss of livestock forage they might cause.  Just as farmers judge their neighbors by the weeds in their fields, Sandhills ranchers judge their neighbors by the blowouts in their pastures.

blow

Blowout grass (Redfieldia flexuosa) is one of a select group of plants that can colonize a blowout and begin to stabilize the sand.

penstemon

Blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii) is a federally listed endangered plant that is found exclusively in blowout habitats.  This one is in a blowout that is healing and might not support penstemon populations much longer.

tiger beetle

Many species of tiger beetles can be found in Sandhills blowouts, including several of conservation concern.  These impressive predators hunt small insects in patches of open sand.

lesser earless lizard

Lizards, including this lesser earless lizard and other species, are often seen in and around blowouts, where they can forage in open areas but retreat quickly to cover to escape predation.

Regardless of the social or economic ramifications of blowouts for ranchers, bare sand patches really are important habitats for many prairie species.  The discussions I’ve had with ranchers about the ecological values of blowouts have always been polite, but I can’t say they’ve been met with great enthusiasm.  I understand that, but that doesn’t change the need to continue having those discussions.

spider

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) grows on the edge of a large blowout, surrounded by bare sand and a cast of other plants struggling to survive in the shifting substrate.

It may be that changing climate will render moot our discussions about whether or not to allow or encourage blowouts in the Sandhills.  Eventually, we will experience enough consecutive years of hot dry weather that even the most conservative grazing won’t prevent widespread blowing sand once again.  We can’t predict whether those conditions will arrive in the next few years, or not for many decades.  When they do arrive, both the ecological and human communities of the Sandhills will be glad to have species that are well adapted to open sand.  Plants like blowout penstemon and blowout grass, for example, can help restabilize areas of bare sand, and they also provide food for both livestock and wildlife.

For now, the Sandhills provides a vibrant grassland that supports both humans and wildlife.  That will likely change at some point in the future.  Hopefully, blowout-dependent species will find enough habitat to maintain their populations until we really need them.

…and hopefully no one will feel like they have to wear Bermuda shorts in order to make that happen.

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