Square Meter Photo Project – September

Maximilian sunflower dominated the plot at the beginning of September.

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.

Bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) on Maximilian sunflower.
Indiangrass in full bloom.
This damselfly was curling its long abdomen up above its head.  I caught it half way into its curling motion.
Maximilian sunflower against a cloudy sky.
A bold jumper (jumping spider) stops to look at me for a moment.
A metallic sweat bee (Augochloropsis fulgida) on Maximilian sunflower.
This Cope’s gray tree frog was the only vertebrate I managed to photograph all year (in my little plot).  It really made my day when I spotted it!

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 spooked this milkweed bug off the butterfly milkweed plant in my plot and then spotted it a few minutes later crawling up a sunflower.
Wilting Maximilian sunflower blossoms.
An Arabesque orbweaver dangles on a silk thread.
Can you spot the tiny black beetle?
A syrphid fly on a dried Maximilian sunflower leaf.
This monarch was warming up and drying off when I arrived at my plot one morning.
This is a photo I showed earlier this month, but it was worth an encore.  Butterfly milkweed seed hanging on its pod.
A Maximilian sunflower leaf drying out as Autumn nears.

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.

This entry was posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography and tagged , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

9 thoughts on “Square Meter Photo Project – September

  1. A great project, Chris. I’ve tried similar such efforts in the past but have not managed to consistently stick with it over an entire year as you have. In going through the images of your plot’s biota, I found myself puzzling over things I would have expected but didn’t see represented. Thrips? Crickets? Greater numbers and diversity of grasshoppers? Spiders and mites? Were there groups of organisms (these or others) that you were surprised at there under-representation?

    • Ah, Peter, yes yes yes. I was really surprised by the lack of orthoptera in general, but it’s a tall thatchy prairie that wasn’t burned this spring, and that hinders grasshopper abundance, for sure. Thrips are pretty small and the plot was thatchy enough I probably just didn’t see them. And you just reminded me that I DO have a photo of a mite! I need to add that to my list! I was really surprised not to see more crab spiders and that I had so few visitors on the butterfly milkweed blossoms. And there weren’t many butterflies in general, at least in the plot. On the flip side, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of fly and bee species and felt lucky to capture two mantid species, the monarch, and tree frog. I hope to continue visiting the plot over the next few years, and it’ll be really interesting to see what I get after a burn and through time in general. The other thing to remember is that I wasn’t capturing and photo documenting species, just photographing the ones I saw and was able to photograph before they jumped/flew/crawled away. So there were species that I missed because I wasn’t fast enough (including some kind of small mammal that had a tunnel through the thatch in the center of the plot…). That said, I didn’t see that many species that I didn’t manage to photograph either right then or at a future time.

  2. This has been a great project, and makes a compelling presentation. I have recommended it to students and adult enthusiasts who can devote some time to regular observation.
    One question about the wasps in your collection page. Are you sure the one on the right isn’t a Hyleaus bee? More angles would help.

    If our yard reboot works next year I will try to do this myself, though it will be a more highly managed space of course.

    • Thanks Terry. No, I’m not at all sure it’s not a Hyleaus bee. I’m still waiting for my wasps to be officially identified, so I’m guessing at this point. You could very well be right. I hope your yard reboot works and you enjoy your own project!

  3. Love this idea And am enjoying your pictures/story.. But can you count the organisms in the soil? Even if you only count species bigger than bacteria, single cell algaes, you should have several more species.

    • It’s an excellent point. Yes, absolutely, I could get a lot by looking at the soil. Two main problems. First, my camera doesn’t capture those tiny things very well, and second, I don’t want to disturb the plot by digging around. Broadly speaking, my vision for this project was to capture things someone could see if they just sat down and looked. I’m not trying to capture all the diversity there, just the diversity that’s easily observable.

  4. Pingback: Best of 2018 – Part 1 – The Prairie Ecologist


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