Called It!

Few things are as satisfying and comforting as learning and observing the rhythms of nature. The more I learn about prairies, and the more familiar I get with individual sites, the better I get at predicting what I’ll find when I visit. Sometimes, I rely on data to anticipate what flowers will be blooming or animals will be active. Usually, though – and this happens more each year – I get a kind of unconscious notion that turns out to be accurate.

For example, during the spring, I’ll often arrive at a prairie and think, “Hey, the upland sandpipers should be back about now.” More often than not, that thought will be shortly followed by the far off ‘wolf whistle’ call of an uppie, loudly proclaiming to other sandpipers that it’s back and ready to party. I’ve also developed a pretty accurate sense of when migratory butterflies will arrive in the spring, when various summer wildflowers will open their blossoms, and when fuzzy caterpillars will start crossing the road in the fall.

I share all this, not to brag, but to gain your admiration. Wait, that’s not what I meant. No, really, I share this because I know many of you follow nature in similar ways and understand how nice it is to be able to anticipate what you might find when you visit a prairie. Surprises are also fun, of course – discoveries of a species you’d not seen before or spotting a species at a different time than you’d expected – but it’s comforting to know that everything is right on schedule.

All that is preamble to a story about my experience of accurately predicting where and when I’d find the two-lined planthopper last weekend.

I photographed this two-lined planthopper (Acanalonia bivittata) this weekend at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

Two-lined planthoppers are pretty common, but because of their diminutive size and excellent camouflage can be hard to spot. In fact, it took me more than 20 years of frequent visits to Lincoln Creek Prairie (on the east side of Aurora, Nebraska) before I finally noticed my first one. That initial discovery came during the year I was conducting my square meter photography project, an effort that greatly augmented my observational skills. My first two-lined planthopper sighting was outside my square meter plot, but I found one within the plot shortly thereafter.

This summer, I discovered and photographed the nymphal stage of the two-lined planthopper, though I didn’t know that’s what I was looking at until I sent the photos to Bugguide.net. The nymphs look like they recently wandered through a pile of lint and picked some up along the way. What look like white strands of hair or fuzz are actually waxy secretions. You can easily mistake these planthopper nymphs for woolly aphids. In fact, that’s what I thought they were at first, but once I had them magnified through my macro lens, I could tell they were something else.

I photographed this planthopper nymph back in mid-July. At the time, I had no idea what it was, but Bugguide.net graciously revealed its identity.

Both adults and nymphs insert their mouthparts into plant stems to feed on the liquid therein. They feed on a wide variety of plants, so aren’t really considered a pest (unless you just dislike all insects, I guess, but who would do that?). Any damage they might cause to agricultural or horticultural plants is likely to come via the transmission of disease as they move from plant to plant.

Another two-lined planthopper from my weekend foray.

As I left the house Sunday morning, I hadn’t yet decided which prairie I was going to. About 30 seconds later, my brain spoke up and said something like, “Hey, I’ll bet those fun planthoppers that look like little leaves are around now – this seems like the time of year you’ve seen them at Lincoln Creek in the past.”

That was enough to swing the vote, so I headed to Lincoln Creek Prairie. And I’m not kidding when I tell you that the first photograph I took that morning was of a two-lined planthopper. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it? I walked into the tall dewy grass and almost immediately spotted the tiny little leaf-like creature on the stem of a stiff sunflower. Over the next hour, I photographed other tiny creatures too, but I kept coming across planthoppers – more than I’d ever seen in one day before.

A double! Maybe there were so many two-lined planthoppers around, there weren’t enough stems for each of them to have their own (that’s not true). I have no idea of these were flirting with each other or just happened to end up on the same stem, but it took me forever to find an angle where I could get the eyes of both of them to be sharply focused…

I don’t know what, exactly, triggered my mind to think about two-lined planthoppers that morning, but it was sure nice to see them when I arrived at the prairie. There would have been plenty of other subject matter for my camera if they hadn’t been there, of course. However, aside from the pleasure that comes from seeing that nature is still on schedule, finding those planthoppers meant that I got to say – initially to myself, but now also to you –

“Called it!”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized 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.

11 thoughts on “Called It!

  1. I love trying to predict the arrival of the phoebes, eastern meadow larks and killdeer in winter. Don’t always get it right but getting closer each year. Thanks.

  2. Yes, you are an excellent magnifying glass (thanks Ron). And your writing is factual, fun and well put together.

  3. Reading your blog regularly reminds me of how much I am missing in my own home garden, just for lack of looking carefully and patiently. Thank you! And thanks for consistently sharing some of the finest nature photography I have ever had the privilege of looking at.

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