Photos of the Week – August 22, 2019

The Fellows and I traveled to Wisconsin this week for the annual Grassland Restoration Network workshop, which – this year – was being hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. I’ll write more about the workshop in a future post, but for now, I’ll share a few photos from our last evening in Madison.

Greene Prairie at the UW Madison Arboretum.

Despite looking forward to the workshop itself, my top priority for the trip was to revisit Greene Prairie, a site that has mesmerized me since I first saw it in 2004. Henry Greene began work on his prairie in 1943 and ended up hand-planting 130 species over the next couple of decades. It was painstaking work, laid out in great detail and brought to life by a man who, by all accounts, had a very prickly personality. We couldn’t find a window of time to visit his site during the workshop, but as soon as our last field trips ended on the last evening of the workshop, the Fellows and I headed to Greene Prairie, accompanied by Sarah Bailey and Gerry Steinauer.

Ambush bugs (Phymata sp) mating and feeding on a bumblebee. If you look closely, you can see the same three insects (plus another bumblebee) in the photo above this. If you’re having a hard time deciphering what you’re seeing here, the bumblebee is dead and is impaled upon the proboscis of the paler-colored ambush bug (female), which is underneath the darker colored ambush bug (male).

We saw a lot of great restoration work during our few days in Madison, but there is something about the aesthetic at Greene Prairie that makes it stand out. During my previous visits, I’ve tried to puzzle out what draws me so strongly to it. It’s not the presence or abundance of any particular species, including some rare species, as well as lots of charismatic wildflowers. I think it’s the overall structure and look of the site that I find so attractive. Many of the restored prairies we walked through during this (and other) trips are tall and nearly impenetrable to pedestrian traffic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely different from the prairie structure I’ve become used to here in Nebraska. The Greene Prairie, while it has plenty of tall plants, also has large areas dominated by a matrix of shorter plants like prairie dropseed. Even where many of the plants are tall, the spacing between them makes the prairie easy to walk and see through.

Gayfeather (Liatris) was nearly done blooming, so we missed the peak color of that species, but rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) and some of the Silphiums were still going strong.
We were surprised to find a few prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) in bloom during August. (Edit – Steve Packard graciously informed me that this is likely Phlox glaberrima).

There’s a lot more I could say about the Greene Prairie, but honestly, it’s been a long week and my communication energy is pretty depleted. I never feel like my photos represent the site well, but they’ll have to be sufficient for now. I’ll try to come up with a good synthesis of this week’s workshop to share next week. In the meantime, enjoy these photos!

More Silphiums and Eryngium.
This photo shows a prairie dropseed-dominated patch of prairie, with lots of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) scattered around. It’s a completely different habitat structure than most of what we saw in other restorations around the Madison area. Some of that is the maturity of the site, some of that is the near absence of big bluestem and other tall grasses, and there are other factors I probably don’t fully comprehend. Ecologists from the area tell me prairie dropseed was probably much more prominent than big bluestem in many eastern tallgrass prairies.
I’m enraptured by prairie dock, with its giant leaves and strikingly tall flowering stalks. I sure wish we had it in Nebraska. Here is a leaf with a grasshopper silhouetted against it.
I don’t know which fern this is, but it was draped prettily on the grasses and sedges beneath it.
Prairie dropseed was in full bloom around the site.
It was apparently mating season for ambush bugs this week. I saw several pairs of them during our short hike.
What’s not to like about Greene Prairie? I’m very grateful to Mike Hansen and all the other staff at the Arboretum who are striving to keep this and the other beautiful areas of the Arboretum in good shape. I look forward to my next visit!
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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.

12 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – August 22, 2019

  1. Thanks for another wise post. That Phlox pilosa looks a lot like Phlox glaberrima. As for prairie structure, yes, there’s a lot to be said for the more compact structure that seems to go with maximum biodiversity. Thanks for bringing some Nebraska perspectives east.

  2. Please consider yourself welcome to visit some of our wonderful remnant prairies, like Moely Prairie and Walking Iron Prairie, next time you’re in the area, Chris. My wife and I have been enjoying your insights and photographs.

    • Thanks! I did get to see a beautiful sand prairie/savanna remnant at Walking Iron on one of our field trips. It was great to see it, and also reminded me of Nebraska – at least in terms of the little bluestem and more sparse vegetation. Gorgeous site with a lot of potential for more. Lars from Dane County showed us around and talked about all the past and future work going on. Very impressive.

  3. After one of your recent blog posts,

    https://prairieecologist.com/2019/07/01/chiggers-are-the-worst/

    I am curious if anyone got chigger bites at the conference. I tucked my pants into my socks and did not get any chigger bites. I only notice one other person tucked their pants into their socks. I did not get any chigger bites even though I did not spray bug spray on my pants. Although, my boots always have some residual on them and my socks had a little that persisted through the laundry.

      • On the tour of Green Prairie (B) we walked through savanna that was full of mosquitoes. I sprayed the areas above my waist (sides of my head, neck, arms, shirt). There were so many mosquitoes, I knew if I did not spray myself I would get bit while trying to shoo the other mosquitoes away. I offered bug spray to others in the group, but no one took me up on the offer. Maybe half a dozen people sprayed themselves with what they had brought, but 2/3 to 3/4 of the group went without bug spray. It makes me wonder what they know that I don’t know. Of course, once we got into Greene Prairie the mosquitoes were not as much of a problem because of the breeze.

  4. Great pictures! I photographed ambush bugs mating on goldenrod that had also caught a bee. I knew the bee was snared by another insect but I had no idea what I was looking at! thanks to you, I know now!

  5. I saw the phlox at Greene Prairie and it is Phlox glaberrima as Stephen mentioned in his comment. It is interesting that there are no records for this species from Dane County (where the Arboretum is located) but there are records of it for the three most southeastern counties in Wisconsin.

    Since the Greene Prairie is such a great place, maybe someone in Nebraska should be creating something similar. Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is native to several counties in the state including Lancaster. The University of Nebraska at Lincoln should have someone who would be interested in doing such a monumental and lasting project.

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