Photo of the Week – July 24, 2014

I’m definitely a better close-up photographer than a landscape photographer.  Part of that is just the way my mind works – I tend to look down instead of up when I walk around a prairie.  I can always find an interesting flower or insect to photograph when the light is good for photography, but I have a harder time constructing an interesting composition or the larger landscape.  There are so many things to think about with landscape photos; foreground, background, sky, leading lines – or not… ack!  As a result, when the light is pretty, I usually look around for something small and interesting.

However, there are days and places where even I can take good landscape photos, and yesterday was a perfect example.  I got up early enough to drive the 35 minutes between my house and our Platte River Prairies before sunrise.  I’d been eyeing the prolific blooming of fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) in the sandhills on the edge of the river valley.  It’s been several years since we’ve seen a big explosion of primrose flowers, and this year’s seemed even more spectacular than the last one.

At the first glimpse of the sun, I knew it was a going to be good morning.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

At the first glimpse of the sun, I knew it was a going to be good morning. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Before the sun popped over the horizon, I wandered around and pretended there was enough light to make good photographs, knowing that I was only shooting because digital photos are free…  Once the sun appeared, though, things got serious.

Goodness gracious

Fourpoint evening primroses all the way to the horizon.

How can you not take great photos when you’re surrounded by big yellow flowers, the sky is filled with gorgeous clouds, and the light is coming in low and warm?  I scurried around with my camera and tripod, trying composition after composition, and liking each one more than the one previous.  The biggest difficulty was trying to come up with photographs that really showed the size, scope, and abundance of the flowers in real life.  My wide angle lens felt insufficiently wide for the scene.

More primoses

More primroses

I ended up with hundreds of photographs of primroses.  I stayed up late last night trying to go through them and pick out a handful to use for today’s post.  I felt good when I narrowed them down to 20, but that’s way too many for one blog post – especially when they all look about the same…  I went to sleep dreaming about fields of yellow.

ENPO140723_D018

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This morning, I managed to narrow it down to the photos you see here, but it was painful.  Stop by sometime and I’ll show you the others…!

The ecology behind the photos

So why are there so many fourpoint evening primroses this year?  Across the sandy prairies of Nebraska, fourpoint primrose is having a good year, though maybe not as good of a year as sunflowers had last year.  Fourpoint evening primroses are biennial plants, so they typically germinate and form a rosette (just leaves, no vertical stems) in their first year of life and then bloom and die in their second – leaving behind many thousands of seeds to kickstart the next generation.  They are not strong competitors with grasses, so fourpoint primroses can’t germinate in years when the vegetation is dense.

Ok, I did take a FEW close-ups too.  Every day, the primose opens a new row of buds as the previous days' flowers wilt.  Judging by the unopened buds at the tops of these flowers, we'll be seeing yellow for a while yet.

Ok, I did take a FEW close-ups too. Every day, the primrose opens a new row of buds as the previous days’ flowers wilt. Judging by the unopened buds at the tops of these flowers, we’ll be seeing yellow for a while yet.

The year 2012 was the most severe one-year drought on record for our area.  That weakened the grasses in our sandhills prairie.  Coincidentally, however, we also burned and grazed those hills in 2012.  As a result, by July, the hills were covered in very short brown grass and not much else because the plants had given up and gone dormant in the face of intense grazing and no soil moisture.  It looked pretty tough.  We had better moisture in 2013, and the grasses started their slow recovery, but there was a lot of open space between them that was colonized by annual plants (such as annual sunflowers).  However, another major colonizer was fourpoint evening primrose.  Unlike the sunflowers, however, the primrose plants didn’t bloom last year – they bided their time and soaked in the sun, water, and nutrients made available by the low density of plants surrounding them.  Then, this summer – 2 years after the drought – they made their move and exploded onto the scene with resplendent glory.  Or something.  Anyway, they sure are pretty.

We’ve had lots of rain this year, and we’re not grazing those sandhills this year, so the grass is getting pretty dense beneath the primrose flowers.  That means we won’t see many primroses next year or the year after.  That’s ok, they’ll wait – and when the time is right, they’ll be back.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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14 Responses to Photo of the Week – July 24, 2014

  1. Malia Robinson says:

    Stunning! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Your first landscape is especially nice!

  3. John Ragsdale says:

    I really enjoyed seeing your landscape pictures and they caused me to smile. Not the least of reasons why is that they reminded me of the frustration the person who does my printing experiences when I present him a landscape image with the horizon smack in the middle. Your pictures are more evidence that the admonition to avoid putting the horizon in the middle should not always be followed.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Rules are meant to be broken – especially in art! I struggled with horizon line placement, actually, because both the ground and sky were equally strong. I tried a lot of variations, but ended up with these as my favorites… For now. When I put more sky in the photo, the primrose landscape got flat and lost its depth. When I put less sky in, I missed the sky because it was so beautiful. Don’t listen to your printer – make the images you like.

  4. Absolutely beautiful. Those who say Nebraska is “boring” or is somehow lesser because we don’t have mountains, oceans, or other natural features should be shown these pictures.

  5. Here are some photos by a TNC ecologist in Nebraska. You might enjoy them.

    I visited this prairie this year when the sandhill cranes were migrating, when the ground was all crunchy and brown and the wind still had a bite to it, when your presence had just begun to fill my every thought. Stunning how landscapes transform in just a few short months.

    I love you, Tina

  6. Bob Stine says:

    It seems to me that you have that composition thing nailed. Jus’ sayin’. :)

  7. What beautiful pictures! I just love wild flowers and these yellow beauties are amazing. Thank you for sharing them with us.

  8. Jim in IA says:

    Life can be so unfair when nature poses many great varieties of scenery and we have to choose which is the best picture. :-)

    Thanks for your lesson on making those hard choices. It was almost like being there.

  9. rudy says:

    Breath takingly Beautiful……….many thanks.

  10. James McGee says:

    Hmm, biennials do well two years after a drought? That must be why the yellow and white sweet clover are so abundant, and so much work, this year.

  11. Oops, sorry, this obviously was meant for someone else. I must have hit reply instead of forward. Sorry!

    On Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 11:36 AM, Tina Casagrand wrote:

    > Here are some photos by a TNC ecologist in Nebraska. You might enjoy them. > > I visited this prairie this year when the sandhill cranes were migrating, > when the ground was all crunchy and brown and the wind still had a bite to > it, when your presence had just begun to fill my every thought. Stunning > how landscapes transform in just a few short months. > > I love you, > Tina > > > On Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 11:11 AM, The Prairie Ecologist <

  12. James C. Trager says:

    Along with Tina – We all love you, Chris! :)
    And wow! That sunrise landscape is simply surreal, as well as stunningly beautiful.

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