This post was written and illustrated by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows. Olivia is an excellent scientist and land manager, as well as a great writer. In this post, she shares a recent experience with, and some interesting trivia about, a cute furry animal.
We had a visitor in the front yard the other day, which gave me a great opportunity to take some pictures of a mammal I don’t often get to see. This woodchuck (Marmota monax) has been spotted around our crew quarters here on the Platte River Prairies for a few weeks now, and appears to have taken up residence in our wood pile. I finally managed to spend some time watching it from the safety of the living room while it foraged in the yard for dandelion leaves.
I haven’t had many experiences with woodchucks, also called
groundhogs and whistle-pigs. (As an aside, I didn’t realize they were one in the
same until I was in college. I have a friend Jessica, who’s probably reading
this, who was there when I made the connection and exclaimed “Wait? You’re
saying how much wood would a woodchuck chuck and Groundhog Day are the same
thing?!”, and likes to bring it up whenever she can.) In fact, I’ve probably
seen more yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota
flaviventris), a close cousin to woodchucks, while travelling in the Rocky
Mountains than our local woodchucks. I remember hearing a few whistling while
walking in the woods around my hometown in Iowa, but other than that, this may
be the first one I’ve ever seen, especially this close!
Unfortunately, the other experience I have with these
mammals, and one that I’m sure many readers also share, is of their digging
habits. My parents recently had one removed from their backyard because it was
busy burrowing under their garage. Apparently they are also pests in gardens,
which doesn’t surprise me since I watched the one in our yard munching happily
away on dandelions for several minutes. I’m inclined to find ways to cohabitate
peacefully with native animals that sometimes cause problems or destruction to
human structures, and a quick Google search turned up a lot of advice on how to
discourage woodchucks from taking up residence around your home or eating your
gardens. But I’m not going to talk any more about that (though like many
perceived “pest” species, the destruction they cause is likely inflated),
because I think this woodchuck is adorable, and I was inspired to look up more
information about them!
So here’s an informal list of some fun facts I dug up:
The name does not actually refer to woodchucks
chucking wood, but comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which means “digger”
Baby woodchucks are called chucklings!
They are really big squirrels! (Family
Their incisors grow 1/16” per week
They can climb trees and swim
They enter true hibernate over winter, surviving
on stored fat instead of making food caches
Their dens often provide homes for other animals
like small rodents, reptiles, skunks, red foxes, and cottontails
Woodchuck burrows have “bathroom” chambers
The origins of Groundhog Day began in 1886, when
an editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper
wrote that the local groundhogs hadn’t seen their shadows, and therefore spring
would be early
Their bodies drop to 37 degrees during
And their heartbeats slow to 5 beats per minute!
They have a top speed of 8 mph
They are for the most part solitary, with males
only hanging out with females during the breeding season and females taking
care of their young
They can eat a pound of food per sitting (a lot
for a creature that weighs at most 15 lbs)
I have a complicated relationship with smooth sumac. It’s a native prairie shrub and a long-term and important member of the grassland plant community. On the other hand, it is often more abundant than I’d like, especially in smaller prairie fragments – altering habitat structure, shading out other plants, and offering protective and nurturing conditions for encroaching trees. I don’t want to eradicate smooth sumac, but it can spread over large areas, and seems to be getting better at doing so as the climate changes.
In the fall, however, my relationship with smooth sumac gets a lot rosier. I can’t think of any prairie plants that have a more striking autumn plumage, especially against a backdrop of golden grasses. Photographing sumac leaves in the fall has become an annual tradition for me – one I very much enjoy. The only problem is that I’m constantly trying to find new ways to photograph this plant, for which I already have a big library of images. This year, I focused on a couple plants that leaves that weren’t just uniformly red. One of those plants had leaves that seemed to be in various stages of their green to red transformation, and the other had patterns I can’t explain, but am very much entranced by.
As soon as sumac drops its leaves our relationship will deteriorate again. I’ll look upon the same plants I photographed this week with a sharp and wary eye, watching closely to see if they are trying to take over one of my favorite prairies. For now, though, they sure are pretty, aren’t they?
September was another phenomenal month for my square meter photography project. There were lots of new species to add to my running total, but I also continue to be inspired by the simple process of trying to find beauty within a tiny space. The month started with a continuation of the Maximilian sunflower flush from August and the myriad insects visiting those blooms. However, as the sunflowers wilted, I continued to find plenty to photograph, including a few species I’d been hoping for and one (a vertebrate – see below) I’d never expected.
The growing season is quickly winding down now, and most of the plants in my little plot are well on their way toward winter dormancy. Cold wet weather has greatly reduced the number of insects moving around, and even on warm days, the numbers are pretty low. I’m going to keep photographing through the end of the year, but I’m guessing my species totals aren’t going to change much. Right now, I’m enjoying photographing fall colors, and waiting for the first frosts and snows to bring some highlights to the browning leaves and stems.
With the tremendous help of several smart people, I’ve put together a reasonably good summary of the species I’ve found within the plot so far. Counting a few from October as well, I have now photographed 98 different species of plants and animals in that square meter of prairie – all in 2018! And yes, I’m really really hoping I can find at least two more…
That species list includes 12 plant species, 21 flies, 15 beetles, and 14 bees, along with butterflies, moths, mantids, spiders, ants, bugs, hoppers, aphids, barklice, grasshoppers, mites, and katydids. Many thanks to Julie Peterson, James Trager, Mike Arduser, and Jim Kalisch for their identification help.
I’m really hoping this project will help raise awareness of and interest in prairies among people who might not otherwise think twice about an ecosystem they assume is just a bunch of grass. Additionally, I’m hoping people will see how accessible the diversity and beauty of prairies can be. I didn’t go looking for the best quality prairie in central Nebraska for this project – I chose the closest example of a restored (planted) prairie to my house. Once I chose the spot, I just sat down and started paying attention. Anyone can do the same thing in any prairie anywhere.
If you think this project might be helpful to your own efforts to convince your friends or neighbors that prairies are interesting, feel free to send them to the web page I’ve created for the project. I’m exploring several other ways to expand the reach of this effort, so stay tuned for more information on those, but for now, I’ve tried to synthesize the project within a single web page.
Hi everyone. You’ve probably noticed a little different look to the blog this week. I’m fiddling around with the format, hoping to create a better reading experience, especially for those of you reading this on your phones. I’m not done messing around yet, but am at the point where some feedback would be helpful.
If you have a few minutes, I’d sure appreciate it if you could look back over the last several posts and then answer some quick questions about how those look and feel to you. I’ll do my best to create a format that works for as many people as possible. Even if you just answer the first question (about which device you use) that would be tremendously helpful.
Please answer the questions that apply to you and the device(s) you use. If you want to provide more specific feedback, please leave a comment on this post (if you can figure out how to do that in this new format!) If you read this via email, you might have to click the post title to open it in a browser before you can comment.
Thank you very much for the help on this. I appreciate your feedback and your patience as I muddle through this process.
Bison are pretty tough. At our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and at many other sites in the upper Great Plains, bison make it through the winter without any supplementary feed. They just eat cured grasses, grow a thick coat, and plow through snow and ice as needed. Bison don’t need humans to help with calving, and they protect their babies very effectively from predators. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that animals like that would be completely unfazed by a little rain.
Yesterday, some of our Nebraska staff took a trip up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Loess Hills of Iowa. Land steward James Baker led us on a very scenic hike before a band of cold rainy weather moved in. We then piled into some trucks with James and Director of Stewardship Scott Moats and went to visit the resident bison herd. The bison were peacefully grazing as we drove up, despite the pouring rain. When we stopped, a small group came over to check us out. Here are a few photos of those rugged bison, who didn’t need to huddle in dry and heated pickups to stay comfortable.
P.S. In case you had any doubt about my nerd qualifications, here’s one more piece of evidence. As I was working up these photos (in the backseat of a truck heading back to Nebraska) yesterday, I was looking closely at the streaks of rain captured by my camera. Based on the size of a bison calf’s eye and the length of the rain streaks closest to those eyes, I estimated that my camera captured about an inch of raindrop fall during the 1/250 of a second the camera’s shutter was open. Now, I’d want to do some actual measuring of bison calves’ eyes to check this, but based on that rough estimation, those raindrops were falling about 250 inches per second. Now, if I convert that number to miles per hour, I get 14.2 mph. A quick online search found that raindrops are estimated to fall at about 20 mph. I was pretty close!! I mean, given that I don’t really know how big a bison eye is or how close those raindrop streaks were to that eye… (NERD)
Please join me for a moment to appreciate a fly that eats rotting vegetation and looks like it is wearing a gas mask while doing it. Oh, it also has gorgeous decorative wings and likes to blow bubbles. Yep, you read that correctly.
Delphinia picta, a picture-winged fly, comes across as eccentric, to say the least. Its appearance, alone, is remarkable. The wings are distinctively shaped and patterned, and its long face really does look like it’s wearing a gas mask. Though small (about 7mm in length), it’s a species that will catch your eye if you glance its way.
Both the adults and larvae of D. picta feed on rotting vegetation. Mama flies lay their eggs in rotting vegetation, the larvae hatch out and feed on the same rotting vegetation, and after they pupate and become adults, they keep feeding on that same rotting vegetation – or a suitable subsitute. It must taste good. Oh, adults have also been documented eating the fermenting poop left behind by tree-boring long-horned beetles. You know, for a change of pace.
The aforementioned bubble blowing behavior appears to be a result of the fly regurgitating a little of its most recent meal (likely rotting vegetation) and holding it as a bubble protruding from its mouth. This might be used as part of a mating ritual (hubba hubba) or as a way to evaporate some of the liquid from its food for easier digestion. Or maybe both.
I looked all over online for a common name for this terrific species, but I couldn’t find anything besides Latin. That seems unconscionable to me. If there ever was a fly that deserved a nickname, this is it. Let’s see if we can come up with one, shall we?
Since picta means painted, that seems like an obvious component of any name we choose. Since it prefers (did I mention this already?) to eat rotting vegetation, we could potentially call it the “Painted Compost Fly”, but I don’t love that.
I guess we could just go with “painted fly”, but that’s too plain for such an interesting species. I think we’ve got to include something about its diet. I have a suggestion, but I don’t know if it’ll catch on. I looked up synonyms for rotting and decaying and one of the more fun options is putrefying. That’s a word we can work with. See what you think of this option:
One of my favorite aspects of my square meter photography project has been the chance to closely follow the lives of individual organisms over time. For example, I’ve closely followed the progress of the two butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants within the boundaries of my square meter plot. The plants bloomed beautifully back in late June, which was great, though fewer pollinators visited the flowers than I had hoped. Perhaps correlated with that, only one seed pod was produced between those two plants. Since then, I have been watching that one pod very very closely…
This week, that pod finally opened up, giving me the long-awaited chance to photograph some milkweed seeds within my plot. As it turns out, it’s a good thing I was vigilant, because that pod opened up and emptied itself out out very quickly. Within only a few days, the pod went from tightly closed to completely devoid of seeds.
While many of the seeds were blown well out of my little plot, a handful got stuck on adjacent plants, giving me the chance to photograph them. Here are some photos of those seeds as they were coming out of the pod or after they got hung up within the borders of my plot.
This post was written by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year. Olivia is an excellent scientist, with strong expertise in plants and plant communities, as you’ll be able to see from this post.
As a biologist with broad interests, I can usually find something to love in all living things, but I’ll admit that plants have a special place in my heart. This is probably a good thing, since I’ve spent the majority of my education and professional life cultivating my knowledge of plants. I’ve found that they are often underappreciated and often overlooked, which is a shame, because plants are some of the most amazing organisms out there (in my humble opinion).
Plants, in most places, not only form the basis of the food chain, but also provide the structure of habitat. A forest with towering trees is very different than an open grassland or a sparsely vegetated desert, and the animals that live there respond accordingly. Plants are eaten, trampled underfoot, exposed to the whims of the weather, and just generally beaten down by the world around them, all on top of competing with each other for resources and space. But while plants have it rough, they are also really good at persisting.
Trees are an excellent example of just how persistent plants can be. I was reminded of this earlier in the summer when I came across a grove of cottonwoods in one of our Platte Prairies while searching for musk thistles. At first glance I thought one of the cottonwoods had recently fallen and the leaves hadn’t died back yet. On closer inspection, however, I realized that the tree had probably fallen years ago, and instead of dying, the parts of the trunk that now contacted the earth had sprouted roots and continued on living. Branches had grown up from the trunk,and now looked essentially like three trees, all connected by the same fallen trunk.
Trees are clearly hard to kill, as anyone who’s tried to cut down a deciduous tree in your yard knows. Once the tree is cut you have to treat the stump with herbicide, otherwise the still-living roots will simply sprout again. Nearly every tree we cut here on the Platte to keep our prairies open needs to be treated with an herbicide. While it would be nice to not have to use chemicals in our stewardship work like this, that resilience of trees can also be a blessing. After the wildfire at our Niobrara Valley Preserve a few years ago, much of the forest along the river was killed. However, the oaks along the slopes are re-sprouting from their roots, as only the tops of the trees had been killed in the blaze. Because of this, these forests have a jump start on regenerating after the devastation of the fire.
Since I found that cottonwood looking for musk thistles, it’s probably worth talking about them and their own resilient strategies. As a biennial, these plants only have one chance to flower and produce seeds, so they produce thousands of them at a time. And they can fly. That’s not great for us, considering they are considered noxious weeds here in Nebraska, but as a strategy for this plant it certainly pays off.
But wait, there’s more! Even when uprooted or sprayed with herbicide, if the flowers on a musk thistle plant have been pollinated, they will still produce seeds! So when we control this plant, we not only cut off the root just under the ground and pull it out, we have to collect any flowers, or else nothing will actually have been controlled. This persistent ability of musk thistles makes things more difficult and time consuming for us to control, but you have to admit that it’s a cool adaptation, and in its native habitat, likely very useful.
So far these examples relate back to land management, and how the difficulty in killing plants affects our ability to effectively manage invasive plants in prairies. But we rely on these same tenacious qualities in our native prairies species as well. Chris talks a lot about the resilience of prairies on this blog, and a lot of that depends on the persistent nature of individual plants.
Consider big bluestem, a favorite of both cattle and bison. It can be cropped down again and again to within an inch of the ground over a growing season, but while such trauma might kill another plant, big bluestem holds on until the herd moves on and it gets a break, coming back taller and stronger the next year, until it’s back to full strength within a few years. In addition, even in those years that it’s hammered by grazing, big bluestem will find a way to flower, since all that short and weak vegetation around them makes for a good place to put out seeds.
Other plants may just find that conditions in a certain year aren’t for them. Maybe it’s too dry, or too cold, or the grasses around them are just too tall. Perennial prairie plants don’t let that stop them, as many will simply take a break, growing very little above ground for a year, relying more on stores of energy in their roots than anything else. To some, it may seem like those plants have died and disappeared from a field. But just wait, when conditions become favorable, most of those plants will show up again, just as strong, and benefiting from that strategy of waiting it out through the hard times.
Now, just because plants are tough doesn’t mean they’re invincible. If put under too much stress even the most stubborn plant will eventually die. Knowing how plants are able to persist can help us more effectively target those plants we don’t want, but also help ensure that our desirable plants always have a chance to let their persistent nature shine!
I spent much of this week in northern Nebraska, attending various events and staying at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. It rained much of the time, but I caught a break in the clouds Monday evening and happened upon the bison in our east herd as the sun was going down. I spent about an hour and a half tagging along with them as they moved slowly toward the setting sun. If you haven’t spent much time with bison, one of the things you notice immediately is how quiet they are. Apart from some contented grunting, the primary sounds I heard as I accompanied them was the crunching of their hooves in the grass and the sound of them tearing mouthfuls of food from the prairie. It was very peaceful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the sun going down over the hills.
Last week, I
attended a science and stewardship conference of The Nature Conservancy in
Madison, Wisconsin. It was an inspiring
and thought-provoking week. There were a
lot of topics that will provide fodder for future blog posts, but I wanted to
start with an issue that came up in several sessions. The topic had to do with setting appropriate
objectives for conservation strategies, and for land management in
particular. In short, it’s really
important to make sure we’re not setting objectives that are focused on
strategies rather than outcomes.
illustration of what I mean. If I was
planning a vacation for next summer, I probably wouldn’t start with the
following question: “What mode of transportation should I take on my vacation
Clearly, it’s tough to answer that question without knowing more about the ultimate objectives of the vacation. Where do I want to go? What time of year am I going? How many people are going with me? If I’m planning to travel from Nebraska to Ireland, I probably won’t be able to do that by bus. I could conceivably travel by motorcycle (if I had one) to the Rocky Mountains, but probably not if I was going during the winter or planning to take little kids with me.
silly to start by thinking about how to get somewhere before deciding where to
go, but as land managers, it’s easy to fall into exactly that mindset. We sometimes set objectives about using fire
or grazing, for example, instead of first defining the outcome we want and then
thinking about what tools and strategies might get us there (which may or may
not include fire or grazing). In this
post, I’ve provided examples of how this trap can present itself, both to
managers of conservation land and private landowners, and some thoughts about
how to avoid the trap.
research has helped us understand the kinds of fire and grazing patterns under
which North American prairies developed.
For example, in many places, we have a pretty good idea how often a particular
site burned, on average, before European settlement. We also have reasonably good information on
the presence, abundance, and behavior of historic grazers. Based on that information, a land manager
could decide that the best management for their prairie would be to reinstate,
as closely as possible, the timing and intensity of historic fire and grazing
that site likely evolved under.
Patch-burn grazing is often described, for example, as “mimicking historic fire and grazing patterns.” Mob grazing advocates trumpet (though I’m skeptical) that their system replicates the way bison moved across a landscape. Some in the Upper Midwest region of North America point to research showing high populations of indigenous people and scarce evidence of abundant bison and argue that their prairies should be managed only with fire. We can argue about all three of those examples – and many more – but the bigger point is that none of those arguments should determine our management strategies. Again, we shouldn’t be setting objectives about the strategy we want to use without first identifying the outcome we want.
To make a
clunky return to my vacation travel analogy, it would be silly of me to choose
horseback as my preferred mode of transportation across the Great Plains to the
Rocky Mountains just because it’s what worked several hundred years ago. Today’s landscape is broken up into countless
fenced off private land parcels, which would make cross-country horse travel
difficult, to say the least. In
addition, there is a pretty nice set of modern opportunities (roads and vehicles)
I can take advantage of nowadays.
Likewise, our prairies exist within a different world today, with a new set of challenges and opportunities. Mimicking historic disturbance regimes won’t necessarily keep prairies in good shape in a world with habitat fragmentation, massive invasive species pressure, climate change, nitrogen deposition, and other factors. And speaking of good shape, our first and primary concern should really be to define what “good shape” is, right? Are we managing for plant diversity or a few rare plants? Are we trying to sustain diverse bird populations? Habitat heterogeneity? Is ecological resilience the goal? If so, what are the factors driving resilience, and how to we sustain those? There are countless reasonable goals for land managers to choose from, many dependent upon scale, but those goals should be based on the outcome we want.
I feel it’s important to say this here: I am a big proponent of both fire and grazing as management tools – you can find myriad examples of that by searching through my previous blog posts. However, while I think combining fire and grazing can create some fantastic results, those strategies/results don’t fit all objectives. More importantly, your particular site may or may not respond well to those kinds of fire and grazing combinations.
your primary objective is to provide habitat for as many species of grassland
birds as possible. First, you’ll need a
pretty big swath of land – many bird species have minimum habitat size
requirements. Assuming you’ve got
sufficient land, the major factor grassland nesting birds respond to is habitat
structure. Some birds prefer tall thatchy
structure, others like short/sparse vegetation, and others want something
in-between. A reasonable outcome-based
objective might be that you want to provide all three of those habitat types
across your prairie each year (and you’ll want to make sure the habitat are
being successfully used by a diverse bird community). Perfect.
Now, how will you create those habitat types?
spring fires can create short habitat structure that some birds really like to
nest in. However, some bird species
(e.g., grasshopper sparrows) usually like short habitat with a little more
thatch in the ground layer than is usually found in recently burned
prairies. Also, while burned areas are
short and unburned areas are tall, it’s difficult to create in-between
height/density habitats using only fire.
This is where other tools such as mowing and grazing might be
helpful. Mowing can reduce the height of
tall vegetation and create short or mid-height structure that grasshopper
sparrows, meadowlarks, and other species prefer. Grazing can do the same and can have the advantage
that cattle or bison are selective grazers, eating some plants and leaving
others. This can create structure with
both tall and short vegetation mixed together and can also help suppress
grasses and allow for greater expression of forbs (broadleaf plants) –
something birds such as dickcissels often prefer.
trying to create optimal bird habitat, then, fire, mowing and grazing might all
be useful tools to consider. It’s
important to understand how each tool can be used to affect habitat structure,
as well as the potential risks of using each (fire can sometimes kill
aboveground animals and stimulate invasive plants, grazers can sometimes target
vulnerable plants and create issues via trampling). With all of that information, you can start putting
together strategies that employ the right tools, and then test those strategies
against the OUTCOMES you desire. Notice
that the process I’ve just described is independent of the kinds of historic
fire returns for your area or whether or not you think grazing was a significant
factor in the evolution of regional plant communities. Define your objective by the outcomes you
want and test/adapt strategies based on that objective.
At my family prairie, we aren’t using prescribed fire because we’ve been able
to use grazing to meet our objectives of habitat heterogeneity and increasing
plant diversity, and we use loppers/herbicide to successfully control woody
invasion. In small prairies where
preserving particular plant species is the objective, a strategy using only
fire or mowing could be most appropriate.
If that small prairie has rare insects or reptiles that are especially
vulnerable to fire, maybe mowing is the best tool. Regardless, the right tools and strategies
depend upon the outcome-based objective.
and farmers who manage prairies, this same objective setting process should
apply, but of course those prairies also have to help provide sufficient income
to keep a family or business thriving.
Even in those cases, however, it’s still important to start with
outcome-based objectives. Those
objectives can include a certain amount of needed income but should also include
specific habitat or other ecological objectives. Once you’ve decided, for example, that you
really want to manage in a way that provides a certain amount of quail habitat
or provides consistent pollinator resources through the season, you can look
for ways to accomplish that while still providing the needed income. When a conflict between income and habitat
objectives arises, you can make the decisions that make sense to you, but at
least you’re making those decisions with all the information needed to fully
consider the options.
plenty of reasonable prairie management objectives to choose from, but they
should be based on outcomes rather than on tools and strategies. Employing more frequent prescribed fire is
not a good objective. However, using
more frequent prescribed fire might be a great strategy to reach a particular
outcome. (It could also be a terrible
strategy, depending upon your objective.)
Don’t fall into the trap of choosing your transportation method before
you know where you want to go.
P.S. I’m sure some of you are thinking it, so let me address what might appear to be a weakness of my vacation transportation analogy. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to start vacation planning by deciding that you want to take a cruise ship or motorcycle if the OUTCOME you really want is to ride on a ship or motorcycle. If you don’t care where you go, the destination isn’t the outcome, it’s just a by-product of your mode of travel. Fine. But I think you understand what I was trying to say, right? Sure, you could argue that conducting prescribed fires could be your objective if all you want is a legal way to light things on fire and watch them burn. If that’s your objective, though, you’re not managing prairies, you’re lighting things on fire – and there’s a big difference. Ok? Ok.