Photo of the Week – April 7, 2016

Look, more timelapse photography…

A photo taken by a timelapse camera mounted high on a windmill looking over bison-grazed prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve in Nebraska.

A photo taken by a timelapse camera mounted high on a windmill looking over bison-grazed prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in Nebraska.

I’m nearing the end of the process of going through all the images from the last three years of timelapse work at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  My eyes are very tired, but it’s been a lot of fun.  The overwhelming story told by the images is one of hope and resilience following the big wildfire of 2013.  Prairies are well built to take drought, wildfire, and grazing in stride – they have been doing so for thousands of years.  Even grasslands in the Nebraska Sandhills (12 million acres of vegetated sand dunes) have shown themselves to be tough and adaptable.

Last week, I showed how timelapse was helping us track erosion at the Preserve, and also posted a number of aesthetically pleasing images from a timelapse camera.  Today, I’m presenting two very short slideshows showing more visually striking images from two timelapse cameras set up to watch the Sandhills prairie.  The first is from a fenceline between bison-grazed prairie on the left and cattle-grazed prairie on the right.  Don’t read too much into any differences you might see between those two grazing treatments – the grazing systems on each side are very different from each other and are testing different ideas.  Grazing intensity has been higher on the cattle side of the fence recently, but that changes annually, and the bison side has areas of high intensity too (depending upon where we’ve burned most recently).

If you are reading this via email, you may not see the slideshows.  If so, click on the title of the blog post at the top of the email to view the post through a web browser.  The same, apparently, can be an issue with other videos embedded in posts, so if you didn’t see the videos in my last blog post on timelapse photography, try looking at them through a web browser and that should fix the problem.

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The second set of images was taken from the south side of the same bison pasture (about 12,000 acres in size) as the one shown above.  The camera was mounted on a tall windmill to give a broad view of the prairie, starting with a photo from April 2013, the beginning of the first field season following the wildfire.  Even though bison don’t tend to hang around windmills and other water sources as much as cattle do, the grassland closest to the windmill still gets heavier use than areas further away.  This creates a plant community with higher numbers of opportunistic plants (aka pioneer species, weedy species, short-lived species, etc.) and short/patchy habitat structure.  Further from the windmill, however, (as seen in the first slideshow above) much of the grassland has grown tall and lush following the fire.  Both the tall/lush and short/patchy habitats are valuable.

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Timelapse photography has helped us watch the Niobrara Valley Preserve change over time following the wildfire, but it has also highlighted the incredible hour to hour changes in the way prairies can look.  Lighting conditions, clouds, snow, vegetation height, flowing plants, and a host of other variables make prairies incredibly dynamic, and fascinating to watch. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to look through all the timelapse images from the last three years, and I hope you enjoy looking at some of the highlights.

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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 – April 7, 2016

  1. Paul says:

    Great stuff Chris!! Thanks for sharing these and your evaluation of the post fire habitats. You even caught a bit of a rainbow!

  2. Awesome pictures that tell a cool story. Also proves that bison do indeed result in more rainbows at a site. Good to get this confirmation.

  3. Joanne says:

    Great way to start the day – looking at beautiful pictures of my “homeland” Thanks Chris, for sharing

  4. Patrick says:

    Hi Chris, just curious how the extent of the wildfire has affected plans for prescribed burning on the preserve. I guess what I’m asking is how long do you intend to wait before burning some of these areas again?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Patrick, the wildfire took out a lot of cedar trees we were needing to get out, so in that way, it’s helped us move forward in our control efforts and we can focus our prescribed fire-for-cedar-control efforts in places outside the wildfire boundary. That’s been helpful. In the open grasslands where cedars are either small or not abundant, we’re still using fire in the same way we were previously – to drive grazing intensity, prevent cedar encroachment, manipulate habitat, etc., so it hasn’t really changed much. On the north side of the river, we’re waiting to see when fire might be necessary. So far, the density of herbaceous growth hasn’t been high enough to “require” fire to allow light penetration, and we haven’t seen cedars coming back yet. We’re hoping to get some pine regeneration, but prescribed fire would probably be counterproductive for that – that will lead to an interesting and ongoing set of discussions about how to manage that portion of the Preserve.

      • Patrick says:

        Thanks for your answer, Chris. I would be surprised if the pines could get re-established before he cedars. I guess a follow up question would be whether you would feel it necessary to knock down the standing timber north of the river before you would run a burn through it to avoid getting snags on fire that could spread embers. I face a similar potential dilemma with patches of standing dead cedars.

        • Chris Helzer says:

          We’ve talked about the idea of knocking the trees down but we have enough space out there to contain embers that we don’t feel it’s necessary, and worry erosion issues from the equipment disturbance might cause more problems than we’d solve. Plus there is obviously some habitat value to those dead standing trees. In your case, the dead cedars are a different issue because of your landscape. I don’t know what the right answer is though!

  5. James McGee says:

    I found the following lecture about the damage grazing has caused to prairies in Missouri. I think it is time to take a hard look at patch burn grazing management. Prairies do not take grazing in stride. What you are managing is no longer the original prairie ecosystem, but a range land consisting of what has survived decades of intense grazing pressure. It makes me wonder if “The Prairie Ecologist” is still an appropriate title for your blog.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      You are free to stop reading if you feel my credibility is low.

      • James McGee says:

        You should know that one of the big reasons I became interested in prairies is a book called “Tall Grass Prairie” by John Madson and Frank Oberle. There are multiple photos of Niawatha Prairie in this book. Seeing Niawatha Prairie not just over grazed, but turned into raw dirt, in the above video made me feel sick. I value your knowledge considerably and I apologize that my previous comment made after viewing this video was not constructive. I realize The Nature Conservancy has to balance “Protecting Nature, Preserving Life” etc. with paying taxes and getting along with neighbors. Some of the properties owned by TNC in Nebraska are in the center of the state range of Platanthera praeclara and Lilium philadelphicum. The 1913 “Flora of Nebraska” called both these species common. Without divulging locations please tell us how some of the more sensitive species are faring under patch burn grazing management. If my comment was totally off base then I would like to know.

  6. Chris Helzer says:

    I don’t know of any sites that are being patch-burned in Nebraska where those two species are or were present, so I can’t tell you how they’re doing. I do have extensive data showing long-term survival of plants that are seen as decreasers under grazing, but those data extend only to my sites, not everywhere. I will not comment on Missouri prairies and the conversations between naturalists/ecologists there except for this: Photos are not data, and need to be carefully used and interpreted. I’ve seen some of those prairies before, during, and after that kind of intensive grazing and could have taken beautiful photos of the after, from which no one would have guessed they’d been grazed at all. I’ve also talked to site managers of some of the prairies you probably saw photos from and got very different stories about the recovery after that grazing. Collecting data on plant impacts from that grazing is very difficult and there are several efforts underway to try to do that. I wish them luck and am waiting to hear what they find. Those who were against the idea of grazing the prairies may look for (and highlight) potential problems, and those who were pro-grazing will likely do the opposite. Both can make strong cases, but it’s difficult to know what the full story is (There are people I know and respect very much on both sides of that discussion). I’m staying out of it because I don’t know the sites well enough to wade in. Also, I’m not advocating that patch-burn grazing (or grazing, for that matter) be used everywhere. I am trying to get people to see grazing as something other than the chronic overgrazing that is often associated with cattle. Grazing is not grazing is not grazing, and most (all?) prairies have had some degree of grazing in their history, either by bison or cattle. They’ve also had droughts, floods, and many other things that they’ve survived and bounced back from. I also am advocating that prairies are more than just collections of plants. If prairies are managed only for plants, we risk losing a lot of other species, some of which may influence long-term survival of plants too. Small prairies are their own challenge (as I’ve written about) but in larger prairies, I think we have an obligation to try to manage for the entire prairie community. How to best do that varies by site and objectives and we all still have a lot to learn. Mostly, I’m trying to contribute to conversations that move us forward in efforts to maintain biodiversity and ecological resilience in prairies. Those conversations work best when all of us are honest and open with each other and are willing to listen to ideas that contrast with our own.

    • James McGee says:

      If you watch the video you will see data has been presented. It is very compelling and they discuss insects and not just plant. However, I agree with you that in large sites we have an obligation to try to manage for the entire prairie community. It is not a fair comparison when your sites do not possess some of the species in the region which are more sensitive to grazing. However, every good scientist leaves a control when doing an experiment. The question then becomes … What amount of acreage do you feel is appropriate to be left ungrazed as a control? Also, is it possible some of the species that are sensitive to grazing are no longer present because of past land use history? Would you have any interest in trying to get these species established on your sites? An answer to these questions would likely be too long for a comment. I suggest you save your response for a future blog post.

  7. Jan Madsen films says:

    Great shot

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