Hubbard Fellowship Applications Are Being Accepted NOW!

Applications for the next round of Hubbard Fellowships with The Nature Conservancy of Nebraska are being accepted from now until September 8, 2017.  This is a one year position aimed at recent college graduates  – with undergraduate or graduate degrees in natural resources, conservation biology, wildlife biology, or related fields.

The Fellowship is designed to give Fellows a very well-rounded set of experiences and skills that will jump start their conservation careers.  Fellows work on land management and restoration projects, develop and carry out independent projects, attend numerous conferences and other events, visit with and learn from Conservancy staff and partners, and get valuable experience in conservation planning, communications, marketing, budgeting, fundraising, and other aspects of conservation organizations.  They also play important roles in communicating conservation messages to a wide array of audiences.  Supervising the Hubbard Fellowship program has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m excited to keep the program moving forward.

Please click here for more details about the Fellowship.

To apply, click here and then hit the green “view positions” button and search for job # 45644.

The Fellowship runs from January to December 2018 and is based at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, though considerable time will also be spent at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and the Omaha Field Office.

Please forward this to anyone you think might be interested.

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Photo of the Week – July 20, 2017

Wow, this was a hot week.  About the time I stopped hiking hills and collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve yesterday, my truck’s thermometer said it was 111 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sure, it was really hot, but I figured the truck was probably estimating a little high until Kim said she looked at the official weather report from Valentine (nearby town) and it said the high recorded temperature there was 112 degrees.  That’s pretty hot for northern Nebraska.

One of the reasons I was trudging through the hills in the heat was to look for lizards, but I’m pretty sure they were smarter than I was and were hanging out in cool shady places, because I didn’t see any after about 11 am.  The insects in the prairie seemed less affected by the heat, however, and I saw lots of them, including quite a few gorgeous red assassin bugs.

These assassin bugs didn’t seem to be affected by the extreme heat. I spotted them near where I parked my truck on a hill and they were still there over an hour later when I finished walking my transects.

Wasps also seemed to be particularly abundant this week, especially on the blossoms of sand milkweed and other wildflowers.  I enjoyed looking at the diversity of wasp species, but my enthusiasm diminished very suddenly when one of them (I’m pretty sure) stung me in the back.  I think it must have gotten itself wedged between my pack and my back.  It wasn’t MY fault it got stuck there, but I now have a large ugly welt anyway.  Man, that hurt!  A lot.

The day before I got stung, I spotted a wasp (probably not the same one) in a patch of bare sand, and thought about photographing it.  I glanced down at my bag just long enough to extract my camera, but when I looked back the wasp had moved a few feet and was now grappling with one of those red assassin bugs.

Just because the wasp is on top of the assassin bug doesn’t mean it was getting the upper hand, as you’ll soon see.

Actually, grappling is probably a misleading term because it looked like a pretty one-sided battle.  After a half minute or so, the assassin bug flipped the wasp over and it was clear who was winning.

Getting stung by a wasp on a super hot day wasn’t fun, but this wasp was having a worse day than I was having.  You can see the assassin bug’s proboscis inserted into the abdomen of the wasp, and the bug’s toxin is apparently pretty fast-acting because the wasp was done twitching by this point.

I photographed the scene quickly and then got up to leave.  I must have moved too suddenly for the assassin bug’s liking, though, because it took off and flew a few yards away, leaving the wasp behind.  Even after I kept moving away and left the area alone for a few minutes, the assassin bug didn’t return, so I came back and took one final photo of the dead wasp.  I’m hoping maybe the bug returned to finish its meal later.  I feel bad…

The dead wasp.

I think the wasp pictured above is a male, though I’m not confident of that.  I don’t see a stinger, anyway.  While I was driving home yesterday (with the air conditioner blasting pleasantly), I wondered to myself whether or not assassin bugs can tell male wasps from female wasps.  Apparently wasps can tell the difference, so it doesn’t seem completely crazy that other insects could as well.  It would sure be handy to know whether you’re about to attack a stinger-wielding female or an unarmed male…

Everyone thinks about this kind of thing while they drive, right?

This wasp hung out on a yucca pod just long enough for me to photograph it.

I’m definitely a generalist, rather than a specialist, when it comes to ecology and natural history.  I know a little bit about a lot of species rather than a lot about a selected group.  If I had to narrow myself down, though, wasps would be a group of organisms I’d like to study.  I mean look how cool the blue one above is!  Or maybe I could study assassin bugs.  They’re pretty amazing too.  Or moths…  Or grasshoppers…  Or flea beetles?

Maybe I’d better stick to being a generalist.

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Prairie Noise

I just finished a great but very long day at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  We were collecting sweep net data and counting flowering plants to evaluate the impacts of various fire and grazing treatments.  There was a lot of action in the prairie – an up close encounter with a pronghorn mother and twins, coyotes calling to each other just over the hill, 5 species of prairie clover blooming, wasps and bees everywhere, and loads of robber flies and assassin bugs going after those wasps, bees, and other insects.

However, what was most noticeable in the prairie today was the sound of cicadas.  The really loud incessant sound of cicadas.  They were calling to each other from perches on grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs, and flushing in front of us all day as we moved through the grassland.  The cicadas were most abundant and noisy in the depressions between hills, where they were protected from the moderate breeze.  I snuck up on one to get some video of it and then realized that I hadn’t yet figured out how to use the video function on my new camera.  After that cicada flew away unphotographed, I figured out the video function and then stalked a few more cicadas until I found one that let me get close enough to get both photographs and videos of it.

Often incorrectly called “locusts”, cicadas are pretty common during the heat of the summer, and they come in a variety of species.  As with many other animals, the males make loud sounds to attract females.  When a bunch of them are calling simultaneously, the sound can be incredibly loud, especially for such small insects.  Here’s a quick video from today:

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Photo of the Week – July 14, 2017

We had a great time at the Grassland Restoration Network meeting at Konza Prairie this week.  The long-term research going on there is phenomenal, and we were blissfully overwhelmed with knowledge and data about prairie ecology.  I will try to synthesize some of that information into a blog post or two, but it might take me a while to digest it and figure out how to share it.

Compass plant at sunrise

In the meantime, one of many highlights of the trip for me was the hour or so of early morning photography I managed to squeeze in right around the headquarters of Konza Prairie.  As the sun came up, I wandered around prairie full of compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), a plant that sorta looks like, but isn’t, a tall sunflower.  There were lots of other plants and animals around too, but compass plant was clearly the star of the show, standing at least three or four feet taller than the surrounding vegetation and blooming audaciously.  It was hard to point my camera toward anything else.  As a result, today’s post is a kind of tribute to compass plant…

A blooming compass plant is surrounded by the huge beautiful leaves of non-blooming companions.

This tree cricket was one of many creatures, including lots of bees, enjoying the pollen of compass plant flowers.

Dickcissels were using compass plant as singing perches, but occasionally seemed to be feeding on them as well (or maybe just trying to get the sticky rosin off their feet – I couldn’t really tell.

Few of our prairies in central Nebraska have compass plant – we’re on the far western edge of its range. It’s too bad. Compass plants add a great architectural structure to prairies that the sunflowers and other tall plants in our prairies don’t quite achieve.

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Spider Watching

I think this is a juvenile Argiope spider.  With its legs fully spread, it was about the diameter of a quarter, and its web was about the size of my hand.

During a brief stop at our family’s prairie this morning, I noticed a small spider on its web, and set up my tripod to see if I could photograph it.  Just after I got a couple nice photos, a grasshopper nymph blundered into its web, and the spider leapt into action.  I tried to get pictures of it as it was quickly wrapping the little grasshopper, but I only managed one – it was moving quickly, and there was some vegetation in the way.

I managed to get this shot when the spider paused briefly while wrapping the grasshopper nymph. The image is a little fuzzy because I was shooting through some grass leaves, trying not to disturb the action.

However, once it had its prey stabilized, the spider slowed down and I was able to watch and photograph it for the next 10 minutes or so as it waited for the nymph to become sufficiently paralyzed.  When I finally had to leave, the spider hadn’t yet started to feed.  Instead, it was perched above the nymph with two legs resting on the nymph like it was feeling for a pulse.  Every time the nymph twitched, the spider quickly pulled its legs back as if it had touched a hot stove.  Very carefully, I pulled my tripod away and left the spider to its meal.

This was shortly after the spider finished the wrapping process. You can still see the silk attached to its spinnerets (near its rear end).

…waiting for the grasshopper to stop kicking… I assume spider got to eat it eventually, but I had to get to work.

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Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017

When photographing invertebrates, I can split most critters into two categories: those that hunker down and those that flee.  Those that hunker down are awfully nice because I can set up and photograph them thoughtfully, playing with various angles and compositions for each individual.  The ones that flee are a completely different matter, and I often end up chasing lots of different ones around, hoping to get close enough for any kind of photo and/or find one that is slightly less skittish then most.  Of course, all of this is on a continuum; even insects that end to hunker down can be pushed past their comfort level and eventually hop, drop, or fly away.  Learning where those thresholds are for various invertebrate species has been really helpful over the years.

Katydid nymph on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) earlier this week.  Katydids are usually pretty easy photo subjects.

Katydids and grasshoppers tend to be hunkerers, especially if I catch them in the middle of a meal.  Often, if they’re feeding on a flower, for example, they’ll slide around to the far side of the flower when I get close.  That’s actually nice because it lets me finish my approach while they’re not looking directly at me.  Then – and here’s a little trick you’re welcome to use – I can reach my hand out to the other side of the flower and they’ll slide back toward me to get away from my hand.  Sometimes, of course, they’ll hop off the flower when they see my hand, but usually they seem reluctant to abandon their food.  In most cases, I can repeat the hand trick at least 3 or 4 times before it starts making them nervous.

…and another one on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

Other invertebrates that tend to hunker and allow photographs to be taken include stink bugs, aphids, and caterpillars.  Crab spiders (one of my favorites) fall into this category too, but they can sometimes be a little touchier than katydids and others to the hand trick.  Sometimes, it works well, but some crab spiders can be more difficult to lure onto the side of a flower where I’m at.  If I can approach slowly enough that they don’t move away in the first place, that’s always the best.  Once they hide beneath or behind the flower, it seems like about 50% of them will either drop off the flower or refuse to be baited when they see my hand.

…and another one.

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so at our family prairie photographing insects because the wind was fairly calm and there were some nice diffuse clouds creating nice lighting conditions.  During that hour, I concentrated on two different subjects; katydids and damselflies.  The katydids, as per usual, were pretty accommodating, and the main challenge was the slightly swaying flowers they were feeding on.  The damselflies were a whole ‘nother story, and I ended up chasing them around quite a bit to get a few decent photos.

A damselfly rests briefly on an ironweed (Vernonia sp.).

Damselflies definitely fit into the category of insects that flee.  The nice thing about damselflies and dragonflies (as opposed to bees, moths and butterflies, for example) is they tend to be territorial.  That means that when they fly, they don’t usually go far.  Sometimes, if I’m patient, they’ll return to the same perch I flush them from.  That said, they can still be really difficult to get close to.  Staying low to the ground (keeping my head below the horizon line) seems to help, especially if I can avoid having my shadow pass over them.  A slow and steady approach usually works best, but it’s far from foolproof.  During the vast majority of attempts, they fly off just as I get in photography range.

The other issue with skittish subjects like damselflies is that when they do land, they often land in places that don’t work for photography.  That can include perches in the middle of a bunch of leaves that partially obscure them from view, or perches with vegetation behind them that overly clutters up the background.  The ideal situation is when they land on a relatively high perch, or at least one with good clear space all around it.  Trying to wait until they land in a favorable location and then watching them fly away just as I get close is an example of why insect photography is not for the impatient.

Eventually, I found a few damselflies that let me get close enough for some fairly intimate portraits.  The end results – nice peaceful looking insects resting on perches – don’t paint an accurate picture of the effort invested, however.  The grass stains on the knees of my pants and the sweat pouring down my face were better indicators of that.

Since I didn’t document the visual aspect of the damselfly photo hunt, here is a quick recap:

Helzer approaches a perched damselfly slowly.  Very slowly.  He creeps through the vegetation, being careful not to even slightly bump any plants because…DANG!  it flew away.  Ok, now he’s spotted another one but it’s not in a good spot.  He’s bypassing that one in favor of another on a higher perch.  He’s getting pretty close this time, but there’s a stray grass stem in the way.  Oh!  It looks like he’s going to try to carefully slide that stem out of the way.  It’s a bold move, but it’s going pretty well and…DANG!  It flew again.  Hmm.  He’s got another one in his sights now, and he’s working his way toward it, staying nice and low, keeping an ironweed plant between him and his subject.  Now he’s leaning around the ironweed…  he looks like he’s in range…. he’s focusing and depressing the shutter…OH NO!!  He lost his balance just a little and as he reached to catch himself the damselfly flew away again.  What a disappointment!

You get the idea…

One of the best parts of owning our own prairie is that I can do this kind of insect photography and not have to worry about anyone watching me.  The only thing I can think of that might make me look more foolish to passers by is when I’m chasing fruitlessly after a flying bee or butterfly with a net, swiping wildly at it while weaving back and forth in its path.  At least when I’m crawling around on the ground with my camera I’m a little more difficult to see from a distance.

Invertebrate photography can be frustrating, especially when I’m chasing insects in the “flee” category, but it’s awfully rewarding when I actually get a few good photos as a result.  Unfortunately, most viewers of my insect photos don’t give me any extra credit for the degree of difficulty of some photos over others.  The katydid shots in this post, for example, were a cakewalk compared to the damselflies, but unless I’d told you, you wouldn’t have known or cared, would you?  But I know, and I feel a little extra pride in these close-up damselfly portraits.

I’m just glad no one documented the process…

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Swarms, Squadrons, and Skies

(See the note at the end of this post about our free Plant Identification workshop this Thursday – July 6, 2017)

Last week, my wife and I were both at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, working with other staff to evaluate some of our fire and grazing treatments.  We finished the bulk of the data collection by Wednesday, but Kim and I stuck around another couple days after the other visiting staff left.  On Wednesday evening, we both felt like spending some quiet time in the prairie by ourselves so we took off in opposite directions.  As it happened, neither of us got to be alone on our hikes.

I took my ATV up into the hills to find a nice place to walk with my camera as the sun went down, and as I was driving up the hill, I felt something me on the top of the head.  It felt like I was driving through tall grass that was slapping me gently as I drove through, but all the vegetation around me was knee high or less.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on until I stopped and got off the ATV.  At that point, I realized I was being swarmed by some kind of tiny insect.

Self portrait with swarming insects

It was an almost perfectly calm evening, and there were myriad hovering swarms of these insects scattered around the prairie – often over the top of fence posts or tall shrubs.  Whenever I came close to one of these swarms, it was like my head was a magnet; the whole swarm would kind of just SHLOOOP over to my head and use it as the center for their wild dance.  It was like having my head inside a bubble full of flying bugs. While I was having this surreal experience, Kim was dealing with the same phenomenon a mile away, as she walked along a two-track road through the bison pasture.

I was trying to photograph the beautiful sky and look for flowers or insects, but it was really hard to concentrate with a horde of little critters flying around and crawling about on my head.  They weren’t biting me, but they were awfully distracting.  If I moved fast enough (the ATV was handy…) I could get away from one swarm, but there were so many swarms around, it would just take a few moments after I stopped before another found me.  Once I figured out I wasn’t being attacked, I could relax a little and managed to get some photography done, but I was certainly less focused (ha ha) than normal.

The prairie and sky above it were absolutely gorgeous in the late day light.

I was, of course, also interested in what kinds of insects these were that were swarming around my head, but they were so tiny I couldn’t see them well enough to tell.  I could grab a few of them at a time and look, but I just couldn’t see enough features without some magnification.  They didn’t look like midges, which had been my first guess, but beyond that, I was stumped.  Finally, as I was getting ready to head back to the cabin, I caught a bigger one (a female, I assumed) and it looked a lot like a winged ant.  I took her and few other smaller ones back to the cabin in a little ziplock bag so I could look more closely at them.

The next morning, I pulled the insects out of the bag and used my macro lens to examine and photograph them.  Sure enough, they were tiny ants.

Two of the flying ants that had been swarming around us the previous night.

As I understand it, the kind of nuptial flights Kim and I experienced are often triggered by a combination of temperature and recent rains (it had rained the previous night).  Winged males and a few females take to the sky to chase each other around and mate.  Because of the huge number of flying insects in these swarms, they are an easy target for flying predators like dragonflies and birds.  Sure enough, Kim said she ran across bunch (flock? squadron?) of hunting dragonflies and they did a pretty good job of thinning the horde of ants around her head.  I didn’t think of looking for dragonflies.  Instead, as soon as the light dimmed and closed the photography window I hopped on the ATV and gunned it, enjoying a nice manufactured breeze all the way back to the cabin.

I wish the ants luck with their mating swarms.  We need ants, and if this is how we get more, then I hope they are successful.  At the same time, it’d be nice to have a schedule of when they plan the events so we can plan our quiet evening excursions accordingly…

REMINDER:  On July 6 (THIS THURSDAY!) we are hosting a Plant Identification workshop at the Platte River Prairies.  This is a free event.  Bring your own lunch and water bottle, but we’ll provide snacks and some cold drinks.  You can come and go anytime between 9am and 2pm.  We will have several expert botanists leading hikes through different habitat types and working with you to improve your plant identification skills.  Meet at The Nature Conservancy’s Derr House – 2 miles south of Interstate 80 Exit 300 (Wood River).  Immediately after the highway curves sharply to the east, turn south on the gravel road (Platte River Drive) and you’ll see the TNC sign and big brick house.  Don’t use your GPS, it’ll likely lead you astray.  See you Thursday!

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Photo of the Week – June 29, 2017

Monday night, I spent some time exploring the east bison pasture at the Niobrara Valley Preserve as the sun was going down.  The bison have been concentrating their grazing on the east end of the pasture that was burned in March.  Within that patch, most of the grasses have been grazed, along with the wildflowers they like best.  The sky was pretty spectacular, so I spent time photographing the vibrant green landscape and the bright wispy clouds above it.  When the sun was nearly down, however, I noticed the light illuminating patches of woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica), an annual plant that had just finished its flowering season.  I dropped down to the ground and photographed the backlit plants until the sun finally disappeared.

I ended up with two favorite images from those few minutes.  I like them both for different reasons, so I decided to share them both.

Woolly plantain is not a plant most people would call regal or beautiful, though it certainly has its charm.  Because it’s often overlooked, I like that these photos feature it so prominently.  Woolly plantain is a space-filler, a plant that can’t handle competition.  It grows and flowers only when other plants are weakened enough that it can find spaces between them.  A burned patch of sandy prairie grazed by bison creates perfect habitat for woolly plantain, and these photos celebrate the plantain, the prairie, and all of the processes that link them all together.

…Plus, it was pretty dang cool to be lying on my stomach, watching the sun go down over a huge prairie landscape while a big herd of bison grazed in the distance…

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It’s a WHAT??

We are doing an intensive week of data collection at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week.  Yesterday, while I was leaning over to look at something, an insect landed on my clipboard.  It looked like this (photographed later):

“Interesting,” I thought, “that’s an odd-looking paper wasp…”

Then I peered more closely at it and immediately decided I needed to capture it so I could take it back to the cabin and photograph it.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have any bags or containers to put it in.  All I had was my aluminum clipboard, which has a skinny compartment for storing extra data sheets.  I very carefully nudged the insect inside and carried it back to the truck, where I transferred it to a nice roomy ziplock bag.  When we got back to the cabin, I set the creature on a small sunflower plant and took about 230 (not kidding) photos of it.  Here’s a nice one from the side:

Basically, I was looking at a wasp-looking insect with front legs like a praying mantis.  I’m no entomologist, but I’d never heard of a wasp-mimic praying mantis in Nebraska, so I was confused.  Also, mantids don’t have antennae, and this little critter had two of them, which it waved constantly and rapidly.  What in the world…??

Fortunately, the modern naturalist has Google to fall back on, and once I got on the internet, it didn’t take long to figure out what this was.  As it happens, it’s neither a wasp or a mantid.  It’s actually a wasp mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea) which, by the way, is also not a fly!  I’d heard of mantidflies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in our prairies.  They are fairly closely related to lacewings, and slightly more distantly related to antlions.  Wasp mantidflies can be found throughout much of North America, but either they’re not super abundant on our prairies or I’ve fallen for their mimicry an awful lot.

As I photographed it, the mantidfly didn’t seem at all concerned with me, and started hunting ants – including this one, which it struck at but missed.

One of the constant themes of this blog is my sense of wonder at the kinds of discoveries I get to make just by paying close attention to the natural world around. me.  Mantidflies are certainly no mystery to entomologists, and I’m sure numerous readers saw the first picture and knew immediately what it was.  However, the wasp mantidfly was new to me, and has quickly added itself to the long list of amazing organisms I’ve gotten to know and admire.  Perhaps the greatest joy of being an ecologist/photographer is that I keep finding new species to add to my list on a regular basis, despite having been a professional ecologist for 20 years and a nature enthusiast for my whole life.

What a tremendous world we live in!

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Photo of the Week – June 23, 2017

This is a good year for sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus) in the Platte River Prairies.  Sensitive briar is a spiny perennial legume that sprawls across the ground in dry prairies and has leaves that fold up when touched or blown about by the wind.  It’s an odd plant, and one that is hard to miss when it’s blooming because each plant has numerous pink flower balls scattered across an area about the size of a large bathtub.

A sensitive briar plant blooming on a sandy hill this year in the Platte River Prairies.

Sensitive briar is named for the sensitivity of its leaves to touch, but it must also be sensitive to moisture conditions or something else.  As I was preparing to write this, I scanned through my field notes because I remembered sensitive briar being extra abundant a few years ago as well.  I was right; I’d noted an extraordinary number of plants back in 2011.  In fact, I wrote a blog post about it!  I don’t have any better explanation this year than I did back in 2011 for why this perennial plant seems to ebb and flow so much in abundance.

This katydid nymph was one of many insects enjoying the abundance (and easily accessible pollen) of sensitive briar this year.

Maybe the ebb and flow is mainly about flowering, and many of our sensitive briar plants just don’t bloom every year.  The only thing giving me pause is an experience we once had with a large plot of sensitive briar plants in our seed production garden.  One year, we thought all the plants had died because they didn’t even come out of the ground that spring.  We wondered if they’d been accidentally sprayed or something the previous year.  Fortunately, we didn’t till the plot up and start over because the next year it was filled with mature sensitive briar plants again!  It’s not that I’m looking for more data collection projects to work on, but it would sure be interesting to mark some plants in our prairies and track them over 10 years or so to see what’s going on…

Just one more fun prairie mystery to solve!

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