Photo of the Week – September 22, 2016

I was looking through some photos from earlier this year and found one that I’d meant to post back in June but hadn’t.  I like it, and even though it’s a few months late, I hope you like it too.  Better late than never, right?

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) and morning dew drops in the Nebraska Sandhills

Prairie spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) and morning dew drops in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Spiderwort is a gorgeous prairie wildflower with a name that might sound off-putting to some.  Of course, other common names for the plant include snot weed and cow slobber (both related to the clear sticky goo that comes out of the leaves when you break them).  Maybe spiderwort isn’t so bad, huh?

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Zen of the Prairie

This post is written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Katharine hails from Vermont, but came to us with broad experience from across much of the country and a strong interest in restoration ecology.  As you can tell from her writing, she is bright and introspective, and a keen observer of the natural world. 

During the hottest part of the summer, I found myself drawn outside late one night by an almost strobe-like flashing outside. Upon walking out onto the lawn, I saw two massive storm systems, one to the west and one in the north. Both were lit up with the almost constant flare of purplish lightning from within and around the heavy clouds. There was no thunder to be heard at that point, and the night was still; even uncannily quiet considering the diversity of life surrounding me in the prairies and river bottoms. The only readily apparent signs of animal life were fireflies dancing by the hundreds over the lawn and in the prairies across the road.

As I sat on the grass watching the lightning and the fireflies and enjoying the comparative drop in temperature, I looked up and realized I wasn’t as alone as I had assumed. On top of a nearby telephone pole sat a great horned owl, silhouetted dramatically by the lightning. We both stayed in our respective positions for some minutes, me watching the storms and the owl presumably watching the world of small rodents and prey that lay entirely beyond my perception. It sat perfectly still, until it almost lazily spread its wings and dived across the road into the vegetation. I found myself wondering if this predator had similar awareness of the storm as I did, and if it did, did it care in the least? Did the storm impact its life and hunting habits in any way, or did it take it all in stride (or wingbeat) as business as usual?

Upon reflection, I think that, in the long run, it sometimes doesn’t matter what storm is about to hit. The larger than life scheme continues on, and is affected less than we might initially think by those disturbances that throw off our normal, comfortable rhythms. Prairies embody this resilience in perhaps more ways than the ecosystems in which I’m used to spending time. In forested Vermont, land becomes more valuable as wildlife habitat as disturbances wane and the trees mature over decades. The Pacific northwest temperate rainforests progress similarly across an even longer time frame. The balance of the deserts in which I’ve spent the most time are even more fragile. Once burned or pushed out by invasive vegetation, native plant communities are hard pressed to recolonize, especially with the increasingly drier climate trends in those regions.

Prairies, however, march to an entirely different drummer (the drumming of prairie chicken wings, maybe?). They thrive on complex patterns of multiple types of disturbance. Grazed short? Not a problem, those species will redistribute their energy pathways and wait for the opportune time to regrow. Burned to the ground? Different species will return for the first time in a few growing seasons with renewed vigor. The annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) on the Platte River Prairies hasn’t gotten this far by maintaining stability; H. annuus and a myriad of other annual “weeds” come and go as the opportunities of the moment so allow them. Even the severe drought of 2012 didn’t hold the prairie community back significantly; plant populations suffered losses for a time before building up their numbers again.

Prairie plants emerging from the ground following a prescribed fire. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

Resilient prairie plants emerging from the ground following a prescribed fire. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

I have a tendency to overanalyze and get caught up worrying about potential outcomes at the expense of the moment’s opportunities. Like other aspects of my life, this is a work in progress. That hot summer night, from the thought processes inspired by watching the nonchalance of that great horned owl in the face of the massive power and potential destruction of the storm, I realized that the prairie has some valuable life lesson to offer in those regards. It’s okay to experience setbacks, even ones that at the time seem overwhelming. The time for recovery and much of our growth is after those stormy times that can knock down everything beneath them, and not so much in the presence of stability. It’s okay to feel like you just watched all your efforts go up in flames; those efforts have roots underground that will survive and come back when times change. It’s okay when it feels like the world is not giving you much to go on, rain will return and there will be newer, more lush growth than before.

This is what the prairies say to me when I find myself getting caught up with questions from the past and the unknown outcomes of the future. May the unhurried resilience of the prairies help us to sit back, relax a little and enjoy the present for everything that it has to offer. After all, this is the only place we can ultimately ever truly be, and the only time in which we grow.

Thanks for reading! I will leave you all with a sketch I adapted from one of the remarkable photographs of Michael Forsberg, from his book On Ancient Wings (page 104).

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Cranes over the Platte River – adapted from a photo by Michael Forsberg.  (That strange “S” in the sky is from the impression of the manufacturer’s watermark on the paper, in case anyone was wondering why I decided to invent a new type of cloud.)

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CORRECTION to Photo of the Week

Earlier today, I posted about my very fortunate encounter with a hawk in the Nebraska Sandhills.  At the time I took the photos, a couple biologists with me identified the bird as a juvenile ferruginous hawk, and I (being mostly a bug and flower kind of guy) went along happily with their identification.  After I posted the photos, however, several people correctly pointed out the features that indicate that it was actually a juvenile red-tailed hawk.  I’ve edited the post to reflect the correct identification and added a brief clarification as well.

Thank you to those of you who responded (and did so politely!) to let me know of the error.  Although I’m pretty good at identifying most prairie birds, I have certainly never claimed to be an expert at hawks, especially the buteos (broad-winged soaring hawks).  In fact, and this is particularly ironic, because of the abundance of red-tailed hawks around here, I usually just call everything a red-tailed hawk unless it’s clearly a Swainson’s or rough-legged hawk, because those are the only other two I can identify!

Here is an additional photo of the RED-TAILED HAWK.  Regardless of species, it was a pretty amazing experience to get so close to such a large and beautiful bird.

This bird is obviously a juvenile red-tailed hawk, judging by its band of spots across its belly and the lack of feathers on its legs.  Any prairie ecologist worth his salt would recognize it as such...

This bird is obviously a juvenile red-tailed hawk, judging by its bill size, band of spots across its belly and the lack of feathers on its lower legs. Any prairie ecologist worth his salt would recognize it as such…

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Photo of the Week – September 16, 2016

NOTE: This post originally misidentified this hawk as a juvenile ferruginous hawk, but after some helpful comments from readers and confirmation from a couple other experts, I have edited the post to make it clear that it is, indeed, a red-tailed hawk. 

A juvenile ferruginous hawk

A juvenile red-tailed hawk in a prairie dog town.  Garden County, Nebraska.

As I’ve said many times, I am not a wildlife photographer.  I stalk insects and flowers, and try to take a few scenic photos, but I don’t have the equipment, time, or patience to be a real wildlife photographer.  Thus, I don’t have a lot of photos of birds, deer, or other wildlife.  The few photos I do have of those wildlife species come from opportunities I don’t really deserve, but am lucky enough to get anyway.  For example, I posted about an evening photographing prairie dogs back in July when, for no good reason, a prairie dog and her pups let me get within about 15 feet of them with my camera.

Last month, on a trip to the Nebraska Sandhills, I got another inexplicable chance to photograph wildlife without really trying.  I didn’t set up a photo blind weeks beforehand, crawl into it in pitch darkness, and spend fruitless day after fruitless day waiting for a red-tailed hawk to land in the right place at the right time.  Nope.  Instead, I saw a hawk and drove over to get a closer look.

I drove slowly, watching for signs of agitation so I could stop before it flew off.  There was no agitation.  The hawk just stared at me as I drove within 25 feet or so, BACKED UP in a half circle to get a better angle, drove a little closer, GOT OUT OF THE VEHICLE, crouched down next to the vehicle, and took some photos.  It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, it shouldn’t have happened, but it did.  As a result, here are some photos I took of a red-tailed hawk this summer…

Ferruginous hawk

The red-tailed hawk staring at me as I knelt on the ground with my camera and took its picture from 15 feet away.

The hawk didn’t appear to be injured in any way, and I saw it fly and land in the spot where I photographed it.  The only justification I can come up with for its behavior is that it was a young bird, but even that doesn’t really make sense.  Even a young bird should be afraid of a noisy vehicle driving toward it and a funny looking bipedal creature emerging from the vehicle holding some kind of black object.  I hope the hawk changed its attitude toward strangers before meeting a coyote, for example, that wasn’t quite as innocuous as a surprised and grateful photographer.

 

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The Value of the Water in the Nebraska Sandhills

The Nebraska Sandhills is an incredible landscape of nearly 12 million acres of prairie.  Most of the Sandhills consists of privately-owned ranches, and the majority of that land is conservatively managed by ranchers trying to make a living on top of vegetated sand dunes.  Sandy soil, rough terrain, and drought-prone climate all present major challenges to ranchers, as well as to the plants and animals living in Sandhills prairie.  On the other hand, the Sandhills rewards all its inhabitants with one very important and abundant resource.

Groundwater.

Exposed groundwater in the valleys between sand dunes creates some of the most beautiful and valuable wetlands in North America.

Exposed groundwater in valleys between sand dunes creates some of the most beautiful and important wetlands in North America.

Very little of the rain that falls on the Sandhills runs off.  Instead, it percolates down into the sandy soil where most is taken up by roots of thirsty plants.  A significant portion of that water, however, makes it past the root zone of those plants and adds to the water table below.

Gr

A shallow water table makes it easy for windmills to pump water into tanks (and overflow ponds) for livestock and wildlife to drink from.

Large wetlands and shallow lakes are abundant across many parts of the Sandhills where the water table is higher than the surface of the ground, and those wetlands provide habitat for a broad array of wildlife and wetland plants.  Groundwater also seeps out of the ground and flows into myriad streams and rivers, which provide even more habitat.  Those streams also carry water through and out of the Sandhills and into larger rivers such as the Niobrara and the Platte.

Springs pop out of the Sandhills in numerous locations, creating small streams that supply water to fish, wildlife, and plants, as well as to larger rivers. This stream is already 5 feet wide less than 50 yards from its source in the background of this photo.

Springs pop out of the Sandhills in numerous locations, creating streams that supply water to fish, wildlife, and plants, as well as to larger rivers. This stream is already 5 feet wide less than 50 yards from its source in the background of this photo.

The Niobrara River

A long stretch of the Niobrara River has been designated as a National Scenic River and as people canoe, kayak, or otherwise float down it, they are rewarded by the sight of hundreds of small waterfalls adding water to the river from the Sandhills just to the south.

Smith Falls, perhaps Nebraska's most recognizable water fall, flows north out of the Sandhills into the Niobrara River.

Smith Falls, perhaps Nebraska’s most recognizable water fall, is a large example of the many waterfalls along streams feeding Sandhills water into the Niobrara River.

Platte

As the Platte River makes its way to the east, water from the Sandhills adds to its flows via many streams and rivers.  That water then joins the Missouri River and makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Trumpeter swan

Trumpeter swans are one of many wildlife species that thrive in Sandhills lakes and wetlands.  The relatively consistent water in those wetlands is a critically important resource for migratory birds as well.

As fresh water continues to become more and more scarce and valuable to the world, pressure will increase to draw water from places of abundance, including the Nebraska Sandhills.  Already, proposals are being bandied about to capture and transport water from the Sandhills to human population centers or to help cover irrigation water shortages in far away places.  The water in the Sandhills already contributes to society by helping to grow forage for one of the most important livestock production regions in the world and supplying water to downstream sources where it is used for irrigation, drinking water, navigation, and recreation.  Also, of course, Sandhills water plays a huge role in supporting migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, along with a vast array of other wildlife species.

Unfortunately, the future of the water resources in the Sandhills will probably rely on whether or not water is viewed primarily as a resource to be mined, transported, stored and put to work.  Here in Nebraska, we are frequently told that water flowing out of our state is “wasted,” and should instead be captured and used for something productive.  A dry river bed is a sign that we’ve used our water efficiently.

There will be important and difficult conversations in the future about what counts as a productive use for water.  Does water have to float a barge, irrigate a crop, or flush a toilet in order to be useful?  Do fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, and aesthetic beauty also factor in?  More importantly, what are the ramifications of removing water from Sandhills land and rivers that people, wildlife, and natural processes already rely on?  It may be that our aspiration to engineer changes to the world exceeds our ability to predict the impacts of those changes.  Let’s hope not.

Wetland

A pool of wasted water stagnates uselessly in a Sandhills wetland…

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Photo of the Week – September 8, 2016

Back in late June, a group of us were at the Niobrara Valley Preserve collecting data.  During the evening, a storm rolled in from the west.  Against all common sense and safety, I went up on a hill above the Niobrara River to photograph the approaching lightning.

Lightning over

Lightning over the Niobrara River.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Lightning photography seems much more complicated than it actually is.  Mostly, you just point the camera toward a storm, open the shutter of the camera for a while, and hope lightning strikes within the frame before you have to close the shutter again.  The photos here were taken with exposures between 3 and 8 seconds each.  And, of course, I took about 200 photos (I’m guessing, but that’s probably close) and ended up with a handful of shots with lightning bolts in them.

Lightning

More lightning over the Niobrara River.

Lightning

Even more lightning.  Actually, this photo came before the other two, sequentially, which is why the lightning looks skinnier (it was further away).

They say photography is mostly about being there, and that’s certainly the case with these photos.  Unfortunately, lightning can be awfully dangerous (I was once knocked down by a nearby lightning strike while trying to get off the top of a mountain and really don’t want to repeat that).  Eventually, safety concerns overrode the urge to capture a great image and I skedaddled for shelter.  A more dedicated photographer would have stuck around for the lightning to fill the frame.  On the other hand, I’m still alive to write this post.

There’s something to be said for that.

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Hubbard Alumni Blog: Volunteer Findings

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows from June 2015 through May 2016.  He’s working for Montana State University Extension now, but has returned to write a follow up post on the topic of his Hubbard Fellowship independent project.  You can see what he’s up to in Montana by following his personal blog.  

Hello again! I’m writing from beyond the Fellowship because my final month as a Hubbard Fellow was a whirlwind and I didn’t find time to write a blog post that did the experience justice. First, I want to say that it was the best career-building experience that I could have possibly had. The Fellowship taught me diverse and useful job skills, taught me how to network within a wide conservation community, and transitioned me from a recent graduate to a young  professional. Second, I want to summarize what I learned from my fantastic experience working on the Platte River Prairies’ volunteer program.

Phone Interviews: During my fellowship I conducted 11 phone interviews with other land stewardship volunteer coordinators, mostly in prairie ecosystems. Overall, these coordinators were impressively competent and offered lots of wise advice and great ideas. Here is a very summarized list of what I found.

  • Word-of-mouth is the best form of recruitment, which means volunteer events really need to be enjoyable and meaningful if you want volunteers to bring their friends.
  • Trainings allow volunteers to take on more advanced tasks such as herbicide application and chainsaw use, thereby accomplishing much more work. Several programs also train their volunteers to lead workdays and offer the opportunity to volunteer independently outside of formal workdays. Trainings also promote retention by providing learning opportunities and showing volunteers that they’re valued. Pairing new volunteers with experienced ones is also an efficient way to train.
  • Communication between staff and volunteers is essential. The volunteer coordinator must provide clear and specific instructions and locations and always be reachable by phone to answer questions.
  • Retention is crucial for building efficient volunteers and a productive volunteer program. The longer a volunteer has been volunteering, the better he/she knows the site and tasks. This takes time, but regularly offering quality workdays is the first step towards identifying and developing dedicated volunteers.
  • Ways to promote retention:
    • Treat committed volunteers with the same levels of respect and expectations as paid staff.
    • Integrate staff and volunteers as much as possible.
    • Build a sense of community through formal and informal social opportunities.
    • Provide opportunities to gain skills and knowledge.
    • Express gratitude regularly and at formal events.

Volunteer Survey: I also sent out a survey to collect feedback on our volunteer program. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Helping prairies was the strongest motivation for volunteering, followed by learning and getting outside.
  • More satisfied volunteers were more likely to volunteer in the future and had higher past attendance.
  • There was significant interest in volunteering independently on their own schedule (78%).
  • Distance was the factor discouraging attendance most frequently mentioned (37%).

My own conclusions:

Working with volunteers was the most rewarding work I’ve done in a long time. There are many excellent conservation organizations that significantly expand their stewardship capacity by effectively engaging volunteers, but it takes time, dedication, and the right personality to do so. Regularly holding enjoyable and meaningful workdays is the first step; creating opportunities to grow into new responsibilities is often the second. Last, it is almost always necessary for there to be at least one staff person dedicated to managing the volunteer program in order for it to flourish. With time, it’s possible to create programs that accomplish a lot of work while inspiring a passion for conservation in many people.

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A milkweed sprouts from the prairie that volunteers helped seed last winter.

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Photo of the Week – September 1, 2016

Two weeks ago, I posted about Yellow Season in prairies.  That annual phenomenon continues, and at our family prairie this week, stiff goldenrod was front and center.  Pollinators and pollen-eating insects seemed to approve.

Eastern-tailed blue

Eastern-tailed blue butterflies were abundant on stiff goldenrod flowers.  They were tricky to photograph, however, because at the slightest hint of danger, they flew from the flower and onto a nearby grass leaf where they sat facing directly away from the sun.  I’m not sure if that was always a risk aversion tactic (hard to see them in the shadows when their wings weren’t catching sunlight) or also a heat management tactic (turning their giant solar panel wings away from the sun to cool off).

Blister beetles were enjoying meals of goldenrod pollen, but it's not clear whether they were actually pollinating flowers.

Blister beetles were enjoying meals of goldenrod pollen, but it’s not clear whether they were actually pollinating flowers.  Some beetles eat parts of the flowers themselves, not just the pollen.  I couldn’t tell if blister beetles were doing that or not.

Cucumber beetles

Cucumber beetles (here) and soldier beetles (not shown) were also all over the place.  Not much pollen sticks to these smooth beetles, so they probably don’t carry much from flower to flower.

Moths of various species were numerous, but wary, quick, and thus difficult to photograph.

Moths of various species were numerous, but wary, quick, and thus difficult to photograph.  This is the only one I caught.  (You can also see a bit of a soldier beetle in the lower left corner of the image.)

Gray hairstreaks were even more abundant than eastern-tailed blues this week.

Gray hairstreaks were even more abundant than eastern-tailed blues this week.  They also held still better, which was nice.  You can see the long tongue at work on this one.

Bee flies have a rigid

Bee flies are part of a family of flies called Bombyliidae, and and many have a long rigid proboscis and feed on pollen and nectar.  Unlike a butterfly tongue, the fly’s proboscis doesn’t retract, so it just sticks straight out as the bee fly zips around.  The best nickname I’ve heard for these creatures is “beewhal” (get it?  it’s like “narwhal” but for a bee) which is just tremendous.

Often, when I post lots of pollinator pictures from a prairie walk, I also include a photo of a crab spider laying in wait. This week I couldn't find a single one! However, there was this big Chinese mantid, which will have to do.

Often, when I post lots of pollinator pictures from a prairie walk, I also include a photo of a crab spider laying in wait for an unwary insect. This week I couldn’t find a single one! However, this big Chinese mantid was lurking about amongst the goldenrod plants, so that will have to do.

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That Predator Just Killed My Predator!

I spent last week in the Nebraska Sandhills, possibly the greatest grassland in the world.  Last week’s trip was one of several I’ve gotten to make around that landscape this summer.  It’s been great to see a much wider swath of the Sandhills than I have in previous years, and my appreciation for the area has grown even stronger than before.

The big sand tiger beetle (Cicindela formosa) has been eluding me this summer, but I finally get a good set of photos of one eating a recently captured ant.

The big sand tiger beetle (Cicindela formosa) has been eluding me most of this summer, but I finally got a good set of photos of one eating an ant.  Clicking on this and other photos from this post will give you a larger and more clear image to look at.  It’s worth it.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of Sandhills blowouts as habitat for species that thrive in bare sand.  I’ve been trying to document and photograph as many of those creatures as I can this summer.  Some of the most difficult to photograph have been tiger beetles.  These incredible predators run very quickly along the sand in search of small insect prey, but can also fly easily when they see me or other scary things approaching.  It’s been fun to chase them around, but the vast majority of attempts to photograph them end in them flying away just before I’m close enough.

One of the species I’ve been unable to photograph so far is a beautiful metallic blue tiger beetle called the sandy tiger beetle, aka Cicindela limbata.  You can read more about this critter in a great blog post by Ted MacRae.  I had seen and admired the beetle, but was running out of time to photograph it before my trip ended.  Finally, I spotted it again, and started stalking it.  (I should mention that I was doing this while 7 other people were watching and waiting for me, semi-patiently, so we could move to another location.)

I edged close to the beetle, but (as usual) just as I got almost within photo range, it took off and flew about 15 feet away.  I let out a small sigh and starting creeping toward its new location.  This time, it took off when I was still five feet away.  However, just as the tiger beetle left the earth, a big gray robber fly streaked up from the ground nearby and knocked the beetle right out of the air.  It was like a ground-to-air missile attack, but much faster.  The two tumbled back to the sand together, the tiger beetle firmly in the clutches of the robber fly.

The robber fly and tiger beetle landed upside down right after the initial attack.

The robber fly and tiger beetle landed upside down after the initial attack.  For scale, the tiger beetle is about 1/2 inch long.

As I watched, the robber fly got back to its feet and struggled to keep a hold on the beetle.  Though I couldn’t see it happening, I knew the fly was also injecting the beetle with toxic saliva to immobilize it.  Eventually, the saliva would also liquefy the innards of the beetle so fly could consume the resulting beetle soup.

Upright again, the robber fly tried to hang on to the beetle while injecting it with toxic saliva.

Upright again, the robber fly tried to hang on to the beetle while injecting it with toxic saliva.

The robber fly had to periodically readjust its grip as the tiger beetle struggled to escape.

The robber fly had to periodically readjust its grip as the tiger beetle struggled to escape.

Within a few minutes, the beetle seemed to stop moving.  Having taken approximately 10,000 photos of the scene (from the perspective of my waiting colleagues), I grudgingly got up off the sand and backed slowly away to move on to our next site.  I still don’t have a stand alone photo of C. limbata, but I’ll get one someday.  In the meantime, I feel like I had a front row seat for a miniature version of the kind of predator/prey attack usually seen in nature documentaries from the Serengeti.  I can live with that.  As I’ve said numerous times before, I’ve got a pretty good job…

A final look at these two magnificent predators.

A final look at these two magnificent and beautiful predators.

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Photo of the Week – August 18, 2016

There is an unmistakable look to late summer prairies, and that look is YELLOW.  Sunflowers, goldenrods, and Silphiums (compass plant, cup plant, rosinweed) are all front and center this time of year.  The visual dominance of yellow flowers is obvious as I look back through some of my favorite prairie photos from this week.

Cup plant in restored tallgrass prairie at Deep Well Wildlife Management Area west of Aurora, Nebraska.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in restored tallgrass prairie at Deep Well Wildlife Management Area west of Aurora, Nebraska.

A black blister beetle and another small beetle feed on the same Missouri goldenrod flower head.

A black blister beetle and another small beetle feed on the same Missouri goldenrod flower head.

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).

Compass plant.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium).

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium).

During yellow season, anything that's not yellow really stands out - especially when it's tall and BLUE. Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea).

During yellow season, anything that’s not yellow really stands out – especially when it’s tall and BLUE. Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea).

I wonder if anyone has gone through all the prairie flower species to see which color is most common (I’ll be someone has).  It has to be yellow, doesn’t it?  Purple, pink, and white are in the running, but I bet yellow wins pretty easily.

No complaints here.

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