Photos of the Week – March 12, 2021

I don’t know why I keep trying. There’s just something about wildlife photography that lures me in. Sitting in a small blind, concealed from wild animals you’d never otherwise get close to, and coming home with fantastic photos and a good story to boot? Sign me up!

Except it never works that way for me. I build a blind, lie uncomfortably in it for hours, and nothing comes near. I nap, I work on my laptop, I listen to podcasts – all of which I could do more effectively and enjoyably in a more comfortable setting. And for what? Nothing.

This week, I sat in two different uncomfortable blinds, waiting for sandhill cranes that never materialized. The first was along the edge of the Platte River. I army crawled to the blind in the darkness last Saturday morning. It is in a spot that frequently has thousands of roosting sandhill cranes. The river levels looked great for crane roosting too – exposed sand all over the place, including near the bank where my blind was hidden. As I entered the blind, though, and took my first look at the river, it was clear this wasn’t going to work out. First of all, I could see the river – all of it – an nice view, unobstructed by any birds. Upstream, I could see the vague white of a horde of snow geese, but just as I was trying to decide if I was going to stay or go, the horde lifted noisily into the sky and left. I left too.

Look how well my blind is hidden! (click to see a bigger version of the photo) Fat lot of good it will do…
The inside of my blind during my most recent fruitless wait for wildlife.

My second blind is along the edge of a small creek where we’ve been seeing sandhill cranes hang out during the day. We’ve known for years that they use the creek, but don’t really know much about what they’re doing there or why they choose to do it in a wooded area that is so different from the open treeless sites where they normally hang out. My brain told me the way to figure it out would be to hide in a small uncomfortable blind and watch them. My brain is stupid.

I’ve made two attempts to use that blind in the last week. The first time, I had to retreat during my approach because there were cranes in front of the blind. The second time, I got in and sat there for three and half hours while nothing happened. Will I try again? Probably. Did I mention my stupid brain?

Here’s the thing, though. When I stick to my lane as a naturalist and photographer and just look for interesting stories among invertebrates and flowers, I have great luck. This week alone, while getting skunked by sandhill cranes, I found and photographed two great insects without working hard at all.

The first was in my yard. After getting home from not photographing cranes from my blind, I wandered back to our prairie garden to see what might be moving around in the warm sunshine. There were several different insect species around, but the most abundant was a bunch of false milkweed bugs (Lygaeus turcicus). In fact, they were so abundant, I spent a minute trying to count how many were in a square foot and got over 20. Many of them were mating with each other, while others were just crawling in and out of the stems and leaf litter. A few seemed to be feeding on something. I wondered what they were eating.

False milkweed bug (Lygaeus turcicus) in my prairie garden. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/250 sec at f/14.

Lying on my belly in the warm sun (comfortably) and hoping, as always, my neighbors weren’t watching me, I inched close enough to a few bugs to get photos. Many of them spotted me and ran away, but that was fine – there were plenty more around. I even managed to get a few good photos of one holding and feeding (through its long proboscis) on a seed.

Using a combination of experience and context clues, I figured out that the bug was feeding on the seed of a false sunflower seed. That made sense since this was happening in the part of our garden where we have a lot of false sunflowers and the plants drop a lot of seeds. I glanced around and saw a few other bugs with the same kind of seeds. Later, I looked online and learned that false sunflower seeds are a favorite food of false milkweed bugs. An irony, of sorts, since it is one unfairly named species eating another. (It’s not the fault of either the bug or the plant that an uncreative person named them after another similar-looking species that happened to have been named first.)

A false milkweed bug feeding on a false sunflower (Helianthus helianthoides) seed. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, 1/200 sec at f/14.

My second success came while on a hike with Kate and Sarah, our Hubbard Fellows. We were exploring the sandy hills along one of our Platte River Prairie hiking trails and stopped at a small area of bare ground. I was going to point out some interesting aspects of the exposed soil. Instead, we all got to enjoy a great look at one of the most colorful insects in the state – the festive tiger beetle.

Festive tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris) eating a caterpillar (leaving the head for last). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/250 sec at f/14.

The beetle was very accommodating and sat nicely for photos. I figured that was because it was eating something, but even after it finished its meal, it hung around for a few more minutes. Maybe it was feeling satiated and happy? Or just warming itself in the sun? Either way, the presence of three people staring at it didn’t seem to bother it at all.

At the time, I couldn’t quite tell what the beetle’s sand-covered prey item was, but when I got home and looked closely at the images, I saw it was a caterpillar. I’ve never seen a tiger beetle eat a caterpillar before – I’ve always thought of them as catching faster prey. It makes sense, though. Why chase after fast prey when there’s a big ol’ slow-moving enchilada right there?

Festive tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/250 sec at f/16.
Festive tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/250 sec at f/16.
Festive tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/250 sec at f/16.

The lesson here, of course, is that I can get good photos and see interesting things when I do what I do best – wander around in prairies with my eyes looking down. It’s only when my brain talks me into trying to be a wildlife photographer that things go badly. You’d think I’d learn. Instead, I’ll probably try to find some time next week to squeeze myself into my uncomfortable blinds again. Stupid brain…

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.

13 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – March 12, 2021

  1. The tiger beetle is beautiful. But I hope you are able to find some cranes to observe one of these times. Persistence pays off, I’m sure. Meanwhile, I’m feeling inspired to take my sketchbook and go sit and observe whatever is going on outside here.

  2. Chortle: Been there. Done that.

    1. Put up trail cams there for a couple weeks. This will give you insights as to their commings and goings.

    2. Invest in longer glass. A 150-600mm lens has a lot of reach.

    3. For your little photographs, look into stacked focus photography.

    Regards

    Sherwood

    On Fri, 12 Mar 2021 at 11:33, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” I don’t know why I keep trying. There’s just > something about wildlife photography that lures me in. Sitting in a small > blind, concealed from wild animals you’d never otherwise get close to, and > coming home with fantastic photos and a good story to boot” >

  3. As I understand it you have to get in, and out of, the blinds when it’s completely dark.
    Some people can wait for days, weeks, months, even years to get the right photos of some rare species.
    Never understood that kind of patience myself. I prefer to walk even if I never get any photos; just some glimpses of animals hurrying away :-)

  4. Great bug picks, though! The tiger beetle is new to me and yes, it’s beautiful. I’m sure you’ll get your Sandhill pics eventually … I’m just amazed that there is so much invertebrate life where you are already in mid-March! Here in northern Illinois, there are daily flocks of Sandhills overhead, but very few bugs (that I can see)…

  5. That tiger beetle is beautiful, and it would make a beautiful brooch. Wearing it to a cocktail party might be an easy way to find congenial conversation partners.

    As for the cranes: I can’t help laughing. I’m sorry you didn’t find them after all that work; your blinds are really cool. But serendipity worked in my favor last weekend.

  6. Sandhill Cranes seem to like the bird feeders at a nature center not too far from my home. You have to be careful that a colt does not bolt out in front of you on the path. It would be easy to trip over them.

  7. I was asked once by a friend to contribute an article about nature photography for as friend’s publication. It’s a long story, but the short of it is that I would have done a wonderful article about the photos I didn’t get. Camera froze in the winter, lens did not attach quickly enough to get the lens I needed, light changed too quickly. I still maintain the great memories of being out in nature. Well worth the time each time . . .

  8. I find if I go out with a specific target in mind…life has other plans. Soooo…go out to your blind, but don’t admit to the gods that you’re looking for cranes. Ask for…ducks. Starlings. Landscapes. Anything but cranes!
    See what happens.

  9. You rendered my own feelings about sitting in a blind quite perfectly here, Chris.
    Nice insect pictures! That was some rather good luck that the tiger beetle cooperated so exquisitely in posing for you. And now, since you talked about how ugly and inappropriate the bug’s name is, I would ask: Might you want to join me, in this relatively broadly influential publication of yours, in lobbying for a more accurate and catchier common name for Lygaeus turcicus? I have long suggested to my captive audiences on my trademark (well, really just tragermark) flower and bug tours that this insect should be called the Heliopsis Bug. Do you like it? We could print big posters to promote it. And … nah, that’s enough.

  10. The tiger beetle is gorgeous! I appreciate being able to enlarge the photos and I’ve been scrolling up and down examining the hairy little bugger. Any ideas on why it’s so hairy — is it a pollinator? Another question: What’s with the two sets of mouth parts? Palps and ??? Thanks for this delightful little diversion today!

    • Well, those are excellent questions. I don’t know the answer to either! Hairs on invertebrates can be important for sensory purposes, defense, temperature regulation, and probably other things I don’t know about. Tiger beetles aren’t pollinators as far as I know – they like hunting and hanging out on the ground in patches of bare soil. The mouthparts are a mystery to me too – they sure are fun to photograph though!

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