Photo of the Week – March 22, 2018

It’s always inspiring to hang out with other conservation photographers, especially when they’re really good at what they do.  As I mentioned in my last post, I recently spent an early morning in one of our crane viewing blinds and got to see a whooping crane right out in front.  My two companions that morning were Michael Forsberg and Melissa Groo, both of whom are incredibly talented and accomplished wildlife photographers, as well as passionate and effective advocates for conservation.

Also?  They have really really big lenses.  Like, intimidatingly large lenses.  And when there is a whooping crane hanging out on the other side of the river from you, a big lens is sure handy.  As a result, you should check out both Mike and Melissa’s individual Instagram accounts to see the photos they got from that morning.  I know Mike has already posted the amazing shot he took of the whooper stretching its wings, which turned out looking like a white angel in the midst of a dull gray mob of birds.  I don’t think Melissa has posted any photos yet from that morning, but she did post a shot of the same bird in a nearby field from a few days before.  (Check out their other work as well, you’ll be glad you did.)

Melissa’s lens was so big, you can’t even see Mike or his lens, which are right on the other side of her.

Good for them.  Seriously.  They had the right equipment for the job on that morning and were able to capture powerful images they’ll use for good purposes.  Me?  Not so much.  I spent my morning capturing the “atmosphere” of the morning, and enjoying my overall good fortune.  After all, I was hanging out great people, and looking at one of the few whooping cranes left in the world, along with four or five thousand sandhill cranes.  I was doing just fine.

The closest sandhill cranes were quite a ways from our blind, and the whooping crane was near the far bank of the river.  It’s not in this particular photo, but even if it was, you probably wouldn’t be able to see it!

With my cute little 18-300mm lens, I concentrated on capturing the overall feel of the morning, rather than individual birds.

Am I jealous that when I go out to take pictures, my entire photography kit, including the vehicle I’m driving, cost less than one of the lenses Mike and Melissa were shooting with?  Well, maybe just a little bit.  But mostly, I’m glad they’re successful enough to afford those lenses.  This is what they do, and they need to have the right tools for the job.  There are only about three or four days a year when I wish I had a longer lens.  The rest of the time, I’m usually looking down toward my feet for photo opportunities, not across a broad river channel, and I’m perfectly happy with that.  After all, it wouldn’t make any sense to have all conservation photographers capturing the same kinds of images, right?  Somebody has to chase little bugs around prairies, and I’m more than happy to help fill that role.

Speaking of photos near my feet, I’ve had a couple opportunities to practice my own brand of conservation photography in the days since my whooping crane morning.  I had a very pleasant walk through one of our recently burned prairies a couple nights ago.  Then, yesterday, I enjoyed an hour or so photographing prairie plants on what might be the last frosty morning of the winter.  Until my favorite subjects (bugs and flowers) start becoming more available, I’m feeding my appetite with whatever else I can find.

The prairies we burned a couple weeks ago have been popular feeding spots for hordes of sandhill cranes looking for underground invertebrates to feed on. Did I photograph those cranes on our burned prairies? No, I just found and photographed a dainty little down feather one of them dropped.

The brown scorched leaves of this shell leaf penstemon plant might give you the impression that it’s dead, but it will actually thrive this coming season because the cattle grazing in this burned prairie will help suppress its major competitors – grasses – growing nearby.

This penstemon leaf reminded me of a fish…

A frosty sunflower seed head. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Indiangrass seedhead and frost.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to incorporate photography into my regular job.  It’s something I’m passionate about, and something I feel is critically important in order to help people understand and feel connected to nature.  I don’t often travel far from home to photograph nature, but I’m sure glad others do.  For example, I’ll likely never get to see the Arctic or Antarctic regions of this world, but I feel a strong connection to those places because of the photographs of people like Paul Nicklen.  In my own small way, I hope I can provide that kind of connection between people and the prairies I love – despite my tiny little camera lenses…

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

When Is A Whooping Crane Not A Whooping Crane?

Along the Central Platte River in Nebraska, there is an annual congregation of hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes during the month of March.  For about two decades or so, there has also been a single whooping crane that appears to arrive and depart with those sandhill cranes.  There are various theories about why the whooper hangs around with sandhill cranes instead of its own kind, but most of us assume it is unaware of, or possibly uninterested in other whooping cranes.  We’re not really sure where it goes during the rest of the year, but it always shows up when the sandhill cranes come through each spring.

This whooping crane has been hanging out with sandhill cranes for about 20 years or more – assuming it’s the same bird each year.  It certainly stands out in a crowd, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, it’s not the crowd it’s supposed to be hanging out with.

It’s kind of a sad situation, but does give visitors to this part of the state an improved chance of seeing a whooping crane.  Most whoopers migrate through this area later in the spring, after the sandhill cranes (and the crowds that come to watch them) have left.  A fairly small percentage of whooping cranes stop at the Platte each spring, and those that do stop are usually just here for a night or two, making it unlikely that many people will see them.  By contrast, the “lonely” whooper often stays for a few weeks or more, making it pretty accessible to grateful crane watchers.

As I was driving out for an early morning crane tour last weekend, I was thinking about the lonely whooping crane.  It had been hanging around near our viewing blinds along the river’s edge over the last week or two.  I knew there was a good chance we’d see the whooper on the river in front of our blinds (and we did!) but I was also thinking about something else.  What if the whooper left the river while we were in the viewing blind and landed in the grassland between the blind and where our vehicles were parked?  Since it’s a federal crime to disturb an endangered bird, we might be stuck in the blinds for a few extra hours, waiting for the whooping crane to leave.

When we first snuck into the blind, it was mostly dark, and most of the cranes were still asleep. We thought we saw something white in the sea of gray, but we had to wait until the light got a little stronger before we were sure of what we were seeing. The other two photographers with me had lenses longer than my arm (more on that later this week). This shot was taken with my puny little 18-300mm lens and then cropped liberally to make the whooper look bigger than a little white dot.

That discomforting thought led me down a rambling philosophical journey as I drove (did I mention it was early in the morning?) about whether or not that lonely bird should actually count as a whooping crane.  By law, of course, it does count, and there’s no question about that.  But what about in an existential sense?

The endangered species act is supposed to help populations of rare species recover, right?  We’ve added layers of protection for the remaining individuals of those rare species so they can survive and reproduce, increasing the size of their population.  But what if an individual is separated from its kind and doesn’t even recognize what it is?  If our lonely whooping crane has no chance of ever interacting with other whoopers, let alone reproducing, how should we categorize it?  Whooping cranes in zoos are physically removed from the wild population, but still have the potential to breed and create more whoopers, which could potentially be returned to the wild at some point.  The lonely whooping crane doesn’t seem to have that possibility.

After it woke up and stretched a little, the whooper wandered slowly upstream a quarter of a mile or more before we lost sight of it. It seemed to be walking completely alone – not following other birds. The sandhill cranes didn’t seem bothered by it, but also didn’t seem to interact with it in any way.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not saying the lonely whooping crane isn’t important, and I’m not advocating that it be somehow removed from its protected status under the law.  I just found it interesting to think about what it means to be part of a species.  Do you have to be a contributing member?  Is reproduction the way animals pay dues to their species?  If our lonely whooping crane isn’t really a whooping crane, what is it?

I can’t emphasize enough how early it was in the morning when I was thinking about this.  I often do my best thinking while driving, but I’m not sure this counts.  Also, I honestly feel grateful to have the opportunity to see whooping cranes (including this one) fairly regularly during their migration, and I probably shouldn’t take that for granted.  However, being grateful doesn’t mean I can’t allow my mind to wander into the realm of whooping crane existentialism, does it?

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , | 25 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 16, 2018

Ok, here’s a little nature puzzler for you.  In today’s post, I’m including three photos from 2017 that have something in common.  Are you sharp enough to figure it out or will you need someone to point it out to you?  (Hint, the answer is not that they are all animals, live in prairies, or have legs and eyes, though all of those are true.)

These red beetles are often found feeding on milkweed plants.

This speedster was photographed in the Nebraska Sandhills.

This beetle is one of many insect species that often feed on the pollen of sunflowers.

Given the level of expertise within this blog’s readership, I figure someone will come up with the answer a few minutes after I post this.  If you think you know the answer, please put it in the comments section.  I’ll keep an eye on the comments and reply when someone’s got the answer I’m looking for.  Have a great weekend!

(If you are subscribed via email and just read posts from your email messages, you might have to click on the title of the post to see it in a web browser and view the comments.)

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Properly Portraying the Power of Prescribed Fire

At a recent Nebraska conference, Shelly Kelly of the Sandhills Task Force made a point worth some serious consideration.  She told a roomful of wildlife biologists that if they want reluctant ranchers to seriously consider using prescribed fire, using photos of big scary flames in presentations and social media posts is probably counterproductive.  Instead, Shelly suggested sharing more photos of fires that are clearly under control, with people calmly working around them.  Even better, she suggested, we should share photos of green grass beneath the skeletons of dead invasive trees, showing the positive results that follow fire.

We got our first prescribed fires of 2018 done last week.  This photo captures some of the 5 minutes or so of intense fire following about an hour of boring backing fire lines on one of those burns.

I appreciate her point.  Most of my favorite prescribed fire photos are the ones I took during the big head (wind-driven) fire at the end of a burn – when the flames are high and there’s lots of color and action.  Visually, those images are certainly more powerful than photos of a small fire backing slowly into the wind during the early stages of a burn.  However, it’s important to remember that “powerful” might not be the attribute to lead with when talking to a skeptical audience that fears the potential negative consequences of fire.

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think we need to stop showing people powerful images of fire – we should just try to provide appropriate context for those images.  After all, the power of fire is why it’s so valuable as a management tool.  It can take some pretty tall flames and a lot of heat to kill eastern red cedar trees, for example.

Context is important.  Posting an image of huge flames and a towering smoke column on Instagram or Facebook with a short caption like, “Woo Hoo!!  We had a great burn today!!” will probably get lots of likes from experienced fire folks.  However, someone unfamiliar with prescribed fire might look at that same image and assume it was taken by a reckless pyromaniac who was endangering the public and him/herself.  As a result, that person might be much harder to turn into a prescribed fire supporter.

Expounding a little in an image caption can help quite a bit.  Something like, “Here’s an image from the finale of today’s controlled burn.  After two hours of slowly burning out a boundary around our fire unit, we were able to send this hot fire through the prairie to kill lots of invasive trees before it ran into what we’d burned earlier and put itself out.”  Or whatever – you get the idea.

We start each burn with a small test fire in the downwind corner . That gives us a chance to see how the fire and smoke are going to behave before we commit to the whole enchilada. If we don’t like what we see, we can easily shut down and wait for a better day.  Last week, we had dry conditions, but wind speeds were low enough that we could burn safely.

Even better, we should probably share broader series of images showing the entire process of the fire, including the boring backing fire that sets the stage for that big finish.  Photos of a nice straight firebreak, with black on one side and unburned grass on the other, can help drive home how careful, competent, and effective we are.  After posting a few shots of people in yellow suits laying down lines of small flame inside neat boundaries, it’s probably ok to slide in a couple photos of flaming infernos and torching cedar trees.  It might be smart to include at least one more photo after those flashy shots, though, showing that everything turned out well in the end…

In this photo, we’re laying down a band of water along the edge of a mowed strip surrounding our burn unit, and Olivia is lighting the grass just upwind of that wet and mowed line.

With both a wet line and a mowed firebreak to catch it, Alex lit a line of fire that we allowed to back into the wind. Several vehicles with water followed behind to make sure the flames stayed inside the unit.

Eventually the backing fire created a wind band of black that acted as a catcher’s mitt when the big fire ran into it later.

Once the black lines were prepared, we ignited the upwind portion of the unit and allowed fire to roar through the unit until it hit the black and was extinguished.

These lines of fire are safely inside wide bands of black that have already burned.

Olivia watches the last of the smoke dissipate as the fire burns itself out.

I’ll try to follow my own advice about fire communications in the future, and you can remind me when I forget.  It’s absolutely appropriate to celebrate the power (and let’s face it, the beauty too) of fire by taking and sharing photos.  However, we should also celebrate and share the care and strategy that go into making those powerful fires safe and effective.

Be safe out there.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 9, 2018

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to dedicate this post to a friend of mine who’s going through a difficult time right now.  Ernie Ochsner is an extraordinarily talented artist from here in Aurora whose paintings and photographs have inspired me for years.  More importantly, talking to Ernie always makes me feel better about the world.  He is incessantly curious, thoughtful and kind.  I’ve seen very little of him in recent years – my fault, not his – and I’ve missed his energy and conversation.

Whenever I see a sky like this, I think of Ernie and his artwork.

Ernie is a first rate explorer of both landscapes and philosophy; he chases skies and truths.  Some of the most thought-provoking discussions of my life have been with Ernie, largely because his explorations have given him an expansive view of life and spirituality, and he is excited to share what he’s discovered.  However, many of our conversations have started by him asking, “Did you see that sky last night?”   Every time I look out my window and see gorgeous clouds and light above town, I assume Ernie is out with his camera, trying to find a foreground to put in front of that sky (and he usually is).  His landscape photographs are wonderful, and his paintings are sublime.  There’s no mistaking an Ernie Ochsner painting – he has a distinctive and beautiful style, characterized by colors that jump off the canvas.

I tend to look down, rather than up, as I walk prairies with a camera.  However, when a sky is striking enough that it causes me to lift my head and gaze at it, I often think of Ernie.  Today’s post includes photos of some of those skies.  I hope they give both Ernie and you some joy.

Niobrara Valley Preserve in the spring.

Bison, sandhills, and sky.

Early morning light at Konza Prairie in Kansas.

Showy evening primroses in the Platte River Prairies.

Plains sunflowers along a fenceline in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Gjerloff Prairie, one of Ernie’s frequent haunts – owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute, which Ernie has been part of from the beginning.

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 2, 2018

Over the last three days, I’ve given three presentations and led a workshop.  I think I’m running out of words.  There’s no question I’ve run out of the desire to be around people.  I say this in defense of what is going to be a late and very short post at the end of this long week.

I scanned quickly through my February photos tonight and found two that are very different in scale.  One from early February is a close up of a grazed plant in the snow.  The other is a shot of Sandhill cranes that have been pouring into the Platte River this week as part of their annual migration.  I hope you enjoy this very brief (and admittedly lazy) overview of February on the Platte River of Nebraska.  I’m going to bed.

Some kind of plant that was nipped off by some kind of animal. Stiff goldenrod? Rabbit? Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Sandhill cranes on a mostly frozen Platte River this week.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Thawing Frozen Bugs; The Grand Experiment

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about seeing insects frozen in ice, and speculated about how they’d gotten there and whether or not they might still be alive.  Several of you encouraged me to chip them out of the ice and thaw them out, apparently under the impression that I walk around with an ice axe in my camera bag.  Nevertheless, it was a fair point.  Why speculate aimlessly about something that’s relatively easy to test – especially since it wasn’t the first time I had speculated on the same topic?  (See this post from 2014 and this one from 2011.)  For my 2014 post, I actually did pull a beetle out of the ice and watched it thaw.  It was dead.

Yesterday afternoon, I went out to our family prairie with two of our boys.  Daniel needed to do some video work for a school project, and Calvin wanted to continue working on a project he’d started over the weekend, which seems to involve propping sticks against a tree.  Anyway, two boys wanted to go to the prairie – what am I going to do, say no?  We went.

The boys had a great time playing on the ice while I was looking at dead bugs.  I should maybe reevaluate my life choices.

It was about 60 degrees when we got to the prairie, and while the wetland was still frozen enough to walk on, the top of the ice was melting.  Scattered about the wetland and a nearby livestock watering tank were numerous insects that had been frozen yesterday but today were sitting in shallow puddles of water on top of the ice.  Ah ha!  No ice axe required today!  I grabbed a ziplock bag from my pack (an item even more essential to a naturalist than an ice axe) and starting scooping up cold insects and enough water to keep them in.

A cell phone photo of a couple insects on the frozen surface of a livestock watering tank.

When we got home, I dumped the bag of pond water and insects into a shallow bowl.  The following is a series of observations as I conducted this important scientific research project.

A bowl of bugs on my kitchen counter.

February 26, 2018

6:05 pm – Dumped 18 insects into a bowl, having collected them from thawing water on top of the ice at our prairie.  (No ice axe required, thank you.)  Initial observation: the insects appear to be motionless.  Some are floating, others are submerged.  Water is still very cold.

6:31 pm – Added a little warm water to the bowl.  Some of the insects moved as I dumped the water in, but seemed to settle back into stillness as the water calmed.  Brief movement considered inconclusive as to the status of insects as living or dead.  More data needed.

7:48 pm – Water is about room temperature now.  Wondering if the floating are the same that were floating earlier?  Probably.  A couple stray legs seem to be lying around on the bottom of the bowl.  If those insects are soon to be alive and kicking, it appears they’ll have fewer legs to kick than they had last fall.

A stray leg.

8:33 pm – Of the 18 insects I collected and put in the bowl, 18 still appear to be motionless.  Fighting boredom (me, not the insects).  Must remain vigilant in order to complete this project for my readers.

9:07 pm – Nothing to report.

10:15 pm – I’m pretty sure several of these insects are actually flies, and not aquatic insects at all.  Wondering if I should remove those from the dataset so as not to bias the overall survival rate.

Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.  Oh? What’s it doing?  Nothing.  (Not a funny joke at all.)

10:56 pm – So tired.  Can’t keep my eyes open much longer.  Have decided to call it a night and hope not to lose any insects that reanimate during the night and fly off.  Will cover the bowl to be sure. One of the water boatmen has a certain look in its eye – just waiting for me to go to sleep so it can make its escape?  Better seal the bowl tightly…

February 27, 2018

6:15 am – Woke up and immediately remembered the insects.  Hoped none had eaten each other or escaped.  Scurried out to the kitchen and did a quick count.  All 18 insects accounted for.  None seem to be moving.  Sleeping after a busy night of swimming?  Swished the water around a little, and got some movement, but didn’t seem to be the result of any self-propelling motion by the insects.  Hopes diminishing.

7:10 am – Have decided that maybe the water temperature needs to be higher in order to break diapause.  Added hot water to the bowl.  Awaiting developments.

7:15 am – Trying to fix breakfast and school lunches.  Need counter space.  Re-evaluating this entire project.

7:23 am – Adapted Monty Python sketch running through my head…  “These bugs are no more!  They’ve ceased to be!  They’ve expired and gone to meet their maker!  They’re stiffs!  Bereft of life, they rest in peace!…These are EX-BUGS!”

Figure 1. Number of dead bugs compared to number of live bugs.  Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.

7:24 am – Ok, I’m calling it.  Experiment over.  These insects are dead, folks.  Of the 18 frozen insects removed from the surface of the ice, 18 died.  This evidence strongly supports the suggestion that insects found embedded near the surface of frozen wetlands are, in fact, dead.  This follows the findings of Helzer (2014) who similarly found a frozen beetle to be dead upon thawing.

Pining for the fjords?  Nope.


Ok.  I’m going to clean out that ziplock bag now and get it back in my camera bag.  I don’t want to be left without it when the next scientific opportunity presents itself.

Posted in Prairie Animals | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 23, 2018

Before I start this post, here is an important disclaimer.  I am not someone you should take advice from regarding aphids.  I don’t know much about the life cycle of aphids, I don’t know much about their potential to cause damage to crops or other plants, and I don’t know anything about whether or not you should control aphids in your garden/farm/prairie.  Ok?  Ok.

Aphids on whorled milkweed in our yard.

I think aphids are among the most interesting looking creatures in prairies.  I’ve also found them very tricky to photograph.  First, of course, they’re stinking small, which adds a degree of difficulty.  Second, they usually appear in big herds (which I assume is the proper term for a large number of aphids – please don’t tell me otherwise), and it’s hard to decide where to focus.  Regardless, I keep trying to photograph them because they’re just awfully cute.  One of these days maybe I’ll get an image I’m actually satisfied with.

Aphids on stiff goldenrod at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.

The milkweed plants in our backyard prairie garden often have pretty big herds of aphids roaming around them, especially by late summer.  Maybe I should be upset or worried about that, but I’m just not.  I’m not trying to make money from those milkweed plants, and I’m not hoping to eat them.  Sure, I’d be pleased if monarchs laid their eggs on them, but I have the plants mainly because I enjoy looking at them, and I enjoy seeing what kinds of little creatures I can find on and around them.

I hear that some kinds of aphids can be really problematic on some kinds of garden and farm crops, and I don’t doubt that.  I harbor no ill feelings toward people trying to control the population of aphids on crops.  However, in the prairies I work with, and in our family’s prairie garden, aphids are welcome.  I enjoy watching ants farming aphids, I like the different colors of aphids I find, and I like the fun little spikes coming out of their butts.

A particularly nice aphid herd on butterfly milkweed in my prairie garden.

If you’re waiting for some kind of profound or pithy statement on the ecological value or impact of aphids, you’re not going to get it from me.  I just like aphids, and as I was trying to figure out what image or images to use for this Photo of the Week post, I stumbled across a few recent shots of aphids.  Did I mention how cute they are?

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged | 14 Comments

Measuring Our Influence as Conservation Scientists

I am a conservation scientist.  Like any other scientist, I develop and test hypotheses, trying to figure out how the world works.  Once I learn something, I publish my results in academic journals where other scientists can evaluate and build upon what I’ve learned.  Because I’m a conservation scientist, however, I also need make sure the people who directly impact prairie conservation (ranchers, land managers, policy makers, etc.) get my information and use it to improve the way grasslands are managed and restored.  If I fail to influence the actions of others in positive ways, I fail as a conservation scientist.

It doesn’t matter how much we learn about employing prescribed fire effectively if we’re not able to help others use the lessons we learn.

In science, keen observational skills and creativity often spark innovations, but rigorous collection of data is required to see whether a great idea actually makes sense or not.  While I’ve had some good ideas, I’ve also come up with plenty of grassland management and restoration strategies that turned out to be duds.  In each case, I learned a little more about prairie ecology and our land stewardship improved as a result.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done over the years to develop new and better ways of restoring and managing prairies.  I know those strategies are effective because I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time testing them, through both observation and rigorous data collection.  My computer is full of spreadsheets and graphs showing how prairie species and communities respond to various treatments.

I’m also proud of the work I’ve done to share what we’ve learned with others, but until recently, I’ve done very little to evaluate the effectiveness of that work.  I’m not alone – most of my colleagues in the world of conservation science do a great job of measuring the natural world and its responses to human activities, but do very little to evaluate whether their work is actually influencing conservation.  It’s fairly ridiculous when you think about it.  We would never think of devoting ourselves to a new invasive species control technique without testing its effectiveness, but for some reason we’re satisfied to rely on blind optimism that our outreach strategies are changing the world.

Come on, folks!  We’re scientists!  We love data, and we’re good at developing and testing ideas.  Why do we apply that passion and aptitude to only part of our work?  Why aren’t we testing whether our ideas are reaching the intended audience and influencing on-the-ground conservation work?  How can we adjust and improve our outreach strategies if we don’t have any data to work from?

To be fair, measuring outreach impacts requires a very different kind of scientific approach than most of us are comfortable with.  Instead of counting plants or observing behavior of birds, bees or bison, we have to assess the attitudes, motivations, and actions of people. Many of us took our career paths because we prefer the company of birds, bees and bison to people, but that doesn’t give us leave to just ignore people altogether – especially when the success or failure of our work hinges upon their actions.

Fortunately, we don’t have to work alone.  There are lots of scientists who are already good at studying people, and many of them are happy to work with us.  I’ve had very enthusiastic responses from those I’ve asked advice from, and their input has been very helpful.

We should probably take some of the energy we spend studying animals and put it towards studying the way people respond to our outreach efforts.

Whether you’re a scientist who actively shares your results with your target audience, or someone who relies on others to translate and transmit that information, there are some basic questions we should all be trying to address.  This is far from a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

Defining Audience and Message

What lessons and messages from my work are most important?

Who is the audience for those?

What messengers/media will best reach the audiences?

What are the current attitudes/actions of my audience?  What are the main drivers of those those attitudes and actions?

Who are the credible voices my audience looks to for guidance?

How can I reach those credible voices?

Evaluating Success

Are my messages reaching my target audience?

How many people in that audience am I reaching?

Are my messages changing attitudes and/or actions?

At what scale, and to what degree am I making a difference?

Which messages, messengers, and media are most effective for reaching each of my audiences?

Many of us host field days, at which we can share what we’re learning with others.  How many of us are assessing the effectiveness of those field days and other outreach strategies?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about audiences and messages, and it’s really helped me focus both my research and outreach more effectively.  Recently, I’ve also started trying to answer some of the questions in the above “Evaluating Success” category.  I’m making some progress, but I need to do much more.

I can tell you how many presentations I’ve given over the last two years (40) and how many people were in those audiences (3,447).  I’ve also been keeping track of calls and emails asking for advice on prairie restoration and management.  Unfortunately, while I have a lot of numbers, I can’t easily translate them into acres of improved management or enhanced habitat quality.

I have, however, made at least some progress toward measuring conservation impact on the ground.  Much of that success came from survey work by one of our first Hubbard Fellows, Eliza Perry.  Eliza conducted interviews with some land managers and private lands biologists who had attended field days at our Platte River Prairies.  Among her many findings were that almost all respondents said what they learned from us had influenced their work, and they conservatively estimated that over 330,000 acres of land had been restored or managed differently because of that influence.  Beyond that, Eliza was able to identify key factors that led to our success and suggest ways to improve our effectiveness.

In addition, Eliza surveyed readers of The Prairie Ecologist Blog and I conducted a follow-up survey three years later.  Those surveys helped quantify the demographics of readers (e.g., about 2/3 of respondents have direct influence on prairie management).  The surveys also measured the degree of influence the blog has on readers’ understanding of prairies and approach to managing or restoring prairies (when applicable).  We even got a rough estimate of the number of acres on which management had been influenced by the blog (over 300,000).

Being able to quantify outreach impact, even when the numbers are fuzzy and incomplete, has been really helpful.  It helps me justify my job, for one thing, and assures both me and my supervisor that the time I spend writing, giving presentations, and consulting with others has value.  Most importantly, it helps me assess what is and isn’t working and adjust accordingly.

While it’s still not fully within my comfort zone, I’m trying hard to make sure I’m measuring the effectiveness of our outreach efforts, just as I do our prairie management and restoration work.  I would love to hear from people who are trying to do the same thing, especially if you’ve found effective evaluation strategies.  As more of us focus on measuring the success of our outreach work, we’ll be able to learn from each other and establish some common metrics.  Hopefully, we’ll also become more effective at translating what we’re learning into large scale and meaningful conservation impact!

Posted in General, Prairie Management, Prairie Restoration/Reconstruction | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Photo of the Week – February 16, 2018

Long-time readers of this blog know that I occasionally ask readers to tell me which of two similar photos they like best.  Usually, I don’t really have a favorite, and am struggling to decide which of two nearly identical compositions is better.  Or if I do have a favorite, I don’t say so, in order to not bias the results.

In this case, I have a clear favorite, but no one around here seems to agree with me, so I’m turning to you to prove that I’m right.  Don’t let me down…

Here are the two photos.  Both show a tiny backlit feather atop a prairie plant at Lincoln Creek Prairie here in Aurora.  The photos were taken last month.  That last part is completely immaterial to the choice, but I mention it because my word count on this post seems a little low otherwise.

Photo number 1.

Photo number 2.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with both images.  But the second one is better, right?  Sure, less of it is tack sharp, but it’s more graceful for its softness, and the way the feather leans with the breeze is more attractive than the more upright feather in photo number one.  Right??

If you have a strong opinion, you can vote here.

Thanks for your help on this.  I will adhere to the results of the poll, no matter which way they come back.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 22 Comments