Photos of the Week – March 27, 2020

I spent a lovely 45 minutes lying in the mud this week.

Spring hasn’t sprung very dramatically around here, at least in most ways. A few plants are greening up and some migratory birds are moving through, but I haven’t yet seen any spring flowers in the prairies I know best. However, some of the invertebrate world is slowly becoming active – especially in wet areas.

The prairies around here are still mostly brown, but there’s a little bit of green – including this black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) rosette at our family prairie.
This raccoon skull was lying near the edge of the wetland. I’m not sure where the rest of the animal went…

I took a trip to our family prairie on Wednesday this week (by myself) and spent most of my time down by the wetland. There is a kind of drain/slough that carries water from the hills to the south into the wetland/pond. The water level had dropped recently, exposing mud along the edge. At first glance, there wasn’t much activity going on, but once I prostrated myself in the mud, things started to happen.

The drain that brings water from the hills to the south into our wetland.

Of course, one of the things that happened was that water and mud started to seep through my clothes – especially around my knees, elbows and stomach. More interestingly, I started to notice movement of small creatures. The first were little spiders, which I think were juvenile wolf spiders. They were only about 1/2 inch in diameter (including legs) and very speedy, but I managed to get a couple good photos of them. Once I was dialed into the world of small creatures, I saw more and more. Over a 45 minute period, I was able to find and photograph a surprising number of creatures, especially given how barren the landscape around me appeared at first glance.

A juvenile wolf spider (I think?)
I think this is a shore fly (Ephidridae) but would be glad to be corrected.
Dung fly?
This tiny little beetle climbed to the top of this stick and looked like it was going to launch itself into the air but changed its mind and climbed back down again.
An ant found itself marooned on a small mud island, surrounded by water. That made it easier to photograph, but I felt bad about its isolation.
I built a bridge for the ant and let it get back to shore.
My favorite discovery of the day was this marsh ground beetle (Elaphrus sp), which I initially thought was a tiger beetle I didn’t recognize. It was only about 3/8 of an inch long, though, which was pretty small for a tiger beetle.
The sparkly finish on the beetle’s elytra and the indented pattern were mesmerizing. I tried to keep track of it for as long as I could as it meandered in and out of cover along the muddy bank.

Those photos don’t show everything I saw, including millipedes and a bunch of really tiny insects I couldn’t identify, but also killdeer and shovelers (ducks) out on the wetland itself. While spring isn’t making itself obvious yet, at least in terms of spring wildflowers, it was really uplifting to see so much activity, even if seeing it required me to lie down in the mud. I hope you all can find opportunities to safely get out and see what’s going on in small natural areas near you as well.

Be safe, everyone.

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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 – March 27, 2020

  1. The phrase, “…mud luscious and puddle wonderful..” popped into my head as I enjoyed your essay and pictures. Checked it out, and it’s a line of a poem by E.E. Cummings that begins, “In spring, when its mud luscious and puddle wonderful..” Thanks, as always, for sharing some of the sometimes familiar small world of an Iowa childhood.

  2. I love your bridge-building project. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes, ““We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.” I think helping an ant along is pretty darned merciful, too.

  3. That ant looks like one of the ants here (in northern Oklahoma) In summer, they feast on the aphids on the leaves of the bur oak. Will someone kindly identify the ant? Thanks.

  4. my 6 yr old daughter had a very good eye and found some very tiny little white ? eggs amongst the backyard grass, so we took them and put them into a plastic tank with some more grass and waited. They turned into caterpillars and we put some leaves for food in the box. Then they made cocoons, which she thought would become ‘butterflies’. Well they turned into Moths!’
    Well she kept all of her ‘pieces’ of this and then presented them at her grade school ‘Science Fair’ while attending the first grade. She Won the Science fair because of her keen eye, determined curiosity and ability to tell the whole story to the judge.
    Wow, you never know what the mind and eye of a young child will turn up. Many a time she told me, “Dad Don’t Throw that AWAY!” How right she was.

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