Photo of the Week – March 31, 2016

Many of you remember previous posts about the wildfire that swept across the Niobrara Valley back in July 2012.  About half of The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve burned during that event.  Through some funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund and assistance from Moonshell Media, we set up an array of timelapse cameras to document the recovery of our site from that fire.

I’ve spent much of this week looking through many thousands of images from those cameras.  The cameras (when they are working properly) take one photo each daylight hour.  Between April 2013 and today, that is approximately 14 billion images – or so it seems through my weary and bloodshot eyes.  As I’ve been poring through these photos, looking for stories they can tell us, one thing that keeps my fire stoked (so to speak) is the periodic discovery of dramatic light and/or scenes captured by the automated cameras.  Today, I’m sharing a selection of those accidental masterpieces taken by one particular camera that was set up to peer downstream from near the top of the bluff north of the Niobrara River.

April 2013, just before the first growing season following the wildfire. The ground was still bare and punctuated by the skeletons of ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees killed by the fire.

April 2013, just before the first growing season following the wildfire. The ground was still bare and punctuated by the skeletons of ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees killed by the fire.

When we set up this camera, my hope was to watch the re-greening of the hills beneath the dead ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees and maybe catch a nice sunrise or two.  Both objectives were achieved, along with some other really gorgeous photographs – some of which happened only because the camera malfunctioned.

October 2015. This image caps off the third growing season of recovery from the wildfire. Bare slopes formerly underneath an overgrown canopy of pine and cedar trees

October 2015. This image caps off the third growing season of recovery from the wildfire. Bare slopes have grown a covering of grasses, shrubs, and other plants.  Many of the plants seen here are annuals, yet to be replaced by perennials, but those are slowly spreading on the slopes as well.  A number of yucca, sumac, and other shrubby plants have regrown from their bases and we are waiting to see how that transition continues.

August 2015. A beautiful foggy morning.

August 2015. A beautiful foggy morning.

May 2013. This photo wasn't supposed to have been taken because the camera was only meant to shoot during daylight hours. However, the controller somehow decided to take this photo at 9:13pm and it is a beautiful one.

May 2013. This photo wasn’t supposed to have been taken because the camera was only meant to shoot during daylight hours. However, the controller somehow decided to take this photo at 9:13pm and it is a beautiful one.

November 2015. A serene photo taken in the middle of a snowstorm.

November 2015. A serene photo taken in the middle of a snowstorm.

December 2013. This is one of the few sunrise photos we got that had much color in the sky.

December 2013. This is one of the few sunrise photos we got that had much color in the sky.

August 2014. Annual sunflowers dominate the foreground of the image, as they and other annual plants cover the hills in the background.

August 2014. Annual sunflowers dominate the foreground of the image, and they and other annual (and some perennial) plants cover the hills in the background.

August 2014. A foggy morning with the same sunflowers seen in the previous photo.

August 2014. A foggy morning with the same sunflowers seen in the previous photo., but taken a week earlier.

June 2015. Flowering stalks help highlight the abundance of yucca on a cloudy summer evening.

June 2015. Flowering stalks help highlight the abundance of yucca on a cloudy summer evening.

January 2014. A hazy sunrise on a cold winter morning.

January 2014. A hazy sunrise on a cold winter morning.

March 2014. Fog, frost, and a sunrise through silhouettes of trees make this my favorite photo of the three years of timelapse images fromthis camera.

March 2014. Fog, frost, and a sunrise through silhouettes of trees make this my favorite photo of the three years of timelapse images from this camera.

So, there you go.  A beautiful series of images that also show what happens following a wildfire.  Ecological processes don’t stop after a fire, they just shift into a different gear.  We have done nothing to aid or enhance the recovery of the woodland at this site.  To this point, we’ve just been watching for signs of trouble – invasive plants that might take advantage of the situation, serious soil erosion issues, etc.  There hasn’t yet been any reason to step in and act.  Plants and animals are thriving on the slopes shown in these photos, though the composition of those communities has changed pretty dramatically – and continues to change.

Ecological resilience is about the ability of natural systems to absorb shock and keep functioning.  The pine woodland is gone from these hills, and it will probably take many decades to show up again because they are pretty far away from unburned pine woodland that could provide seed.  In the meantime, we will do our job as land stewards and try to facilitate the most biological diversity we can, using the primary tools available to us – prescribed fire and grazing to manipulate plant competition and habitat structure, and spot-treatment (as needed) with herbicides to control invasives.

We hope to keep these timelapse cameras going for at least several more years.  Hopefully, that will help us continue documenting the amazing resilience of nature, and the specific stories playing out at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  If nothing else, we should be at least get some more beautiful, if accidental, photographs to enjoy.

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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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13 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 31, 2016

  1. stankewich says:

    Chris,

    Absolutely stunning! Incredibly grateful for your thoughtful posts!

    Thank you!

    Shawn

    On Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 2:00 PM, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: “Many of you remember previous posts about the > wildfire that swept across the Niobrara Valley back in July 2012. About > half of The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve burned during > that event. Through some funding from the Nebraska Environmenta” >

  2. Bill Kleiman says:

    Thank you for sharing. I love repeat photography and I appreciate the challenge of getting it done.

  3. Paul says:

    We are trying to use “photo posts” and “same location, same directions, same time of year” to photographically demonstrate changes on some of our oak woodland restoration projects here in central Illinois. The cameras you have do a great job, and will indeed be interesting to follow in the coming years. Thanks for sharing these Chris! PB

  4. Jim Ruebush says:

    What a nice series.

  5. appreciate the time you spend sorting through all those images to find these few special, spectacular ones to share with us

  6. Kelly Haller says:

    Hi Chris,
    Great photos. I was interested to know what brand and model of camera you used. Thanks again,

    Kelly

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Kelly. They are Canon SLR cameras, but the important part is the controller system, which is custom built by Moonshell Media. They built the controllers (including solar panels) and installed all the cameras for us. You can find contact information for them at moonshellmedia.com

  7. Ron Thompson says:

    Great pix Chris, keep them coming and thank you!

  8. Ian Burt says:

    Beautiful photos.

    Wouldn’t some of the pine seeds from the previously unburned forest have survived the fire? Jays and other corvids have been shown to bury caches of pine seeds in Canada’s boreal forest – wouldn’t a portion those survive fires?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      My understanding is that ponderosa pine cones/seeds don’t survive fire very well (this is hearsay…). I’m hopeful we’ll get some regeneration from seed caches or from seeds brought in from nearby trees, but we haven’t seen any of that yet.

  9. Gay Gilbert says:

    Thanks for this post….wonderful to see the progress of recovery…….do you think climate change will have an impact on the recovery, ie perhaps it will be too warm for pine trees? Thanks, Gay Gilbert

  10. Pingback: Photo of the Week – April 7, 2016 | The Prairie Ecologist

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