Photos of the Week – May 6, 2022

Today’s post includes a raft of photos I’ve taken over the last month that didn’t really fit into the themes of other posts. I’ll include commentary with some and not with others. Enjoy!

Robust camel cricket (Udeopsylla robusta) at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/400 sec.

These first two photos are from the Platte River Prairies. We came across the cricket (above) during some plant identification practice with the Hubbard Fellows. It’s the first time I’ve noticed a camel cricket along the Platte, but I’m sure they’re common. This one happened to be in the middle of a large patch of open sand on a cold and windy day, so it was easier to see.

I like the photo of sand dropseed (below) because it highlights the ‘flags’ I point out to people as an easy way to identify this species from a distance. After sand dropseed blooms, it wraps its flower in a long papery sheath while its seeds develop. When we harvest seeds of this species for our restoration work, we’re basically clipping long tubes off the tops of the grasses, within which are thousands of tiny seeds. As autumn progresses, the sheaths (those we don’t harvest) open up and drop their seeds. The remains of those sheaths then flutter in the wind all winter and spring, making the species stand out among others.

Banners of last year’s sand dropseed plants (Sporobolus cryptandrus) at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/640 sec.
Grasshopper nymph with tiny ant attached to its foot. Gjerloff Prairie (Prairie Plains Resource Institute). Nikon 105mm macro lens with Raynox dcr-250 macro attachment. ISO 320, f/20, 1/250 sec.

Last week, I shared some wildlife photos, including some from Gjerloff Prairie. Here (above and below) are two I didn’t include. The grasshopper nymph above was feeding on prairie dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata) when I spotted it. As I photographed it, I noticed something sticking to its front foot but didn’t think much about it. Later, when looking through images on my computer, I realized it was an ant! It appears dead and I don’t really have an explanation for why it’s there. The wildflower below is (I think) Platte milkvetch, a charming little plant that grows on the tops of dry loess ridges at Gjerloff Prairie.

Platte milkvetch (Astragalus plattensis). Gjerloff Prairie (Prairie Plains Resource Institute). Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 320, f/22, 1/160 sec.

These next four photos were taken last weekend in the Flint Hills of Kansas. My wife, Kim, was running in a 50 mile race on Saturday and I was, once again, her crew. 50 miles of running, especially when a 35 mile wind is in your face during the second half, takes up most of a day, so I had plenty of time to wander around the landscape on my own. Since it’s a mostly privately-owned landscape, I stayed on or near the road, but still managed to capture a few images that depict the prairie.

Steer in burned prairie – Kansas Flint Hills prairie. Sigma 100-400mm lens @195mm. ISO 500, f/9, 1/320 sec.
Scissor-tailed flycatcher in the Kansas Flint Hills. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/600 sec.

If you’re familiar with the Flint Hills, you may know that a common ranching strategy is something called ‘early double stocking’. The system involves a spring burn and then grazing with yearling cattle for the first half or so of the growing season. Animals are then pulled off in time for grasses to grow back during the late summer and fall so the site can be burned again the following spring. Cattle gain a lot of weight during a short period because of the highly nutritious grass production following a burn.

The early double stocking system seems to work well for ranchers in terms of livestock production and it also helps protect against brush encroachment, which is a major threat in the region. Unfortunately, if too many ranchers use the same strategy, it doesn’t leave much unburned habitat for wildlife that need that, and any species vulnerable to April fires are affected across huge swaths of the landscape. It’s impressive to see the pro-prescribed fire culture in the Flint Hills, but from a conservation standpoint, I’m glad there seems to be a gradual shift toward a little more heterogeneity the application of fire.

Cattle grazing Flint Hills Prairie in Kansas. Sigma 100-400mm lens @100mm. ISO 640, f/5.6, 1/2500 sec.
Ornate box turtle on a gravel road in the Kansas Flint Hills. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, f/20, 1/250 sec.

The last two photos (below) are show a western meadowlark that was singing right outside my viewing blind at the Niobrara Valley Preserve in mid-April when I was photographing sharp-tailed grouse. As with the grasshopper photo earlier, it wasn’t until I got home and looked at images on a large screen that I noticed something about the meadowlark’s feet. In some photos, it was perched on both feet, but in many, it was standing on only its left foot and seemed to have its right tucked up against its body.

This is interesting for a couple reasons. I assume it was doing this as a way to keep its right foot warm on a cold and windy morning. Maybe it rotated which foot it held against its warm body and I just happened to photograph it only when it was hiding its right? Or maybe only its right foot was particularly cold. More fascinating to me is its ability to balance on one foot on a branch while singing on a windy morning. It seemed effortless – the bird certainly wasn’t wobbling around. I know birds don’t weigh much, but I was still impressed.

Western meadowlark. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/800 sec.

It was a rainy week across much of Nebraska this week, bringing much needed relief from the drought conditions across most of the state. Even the three inches we got didn’t come anywhere close to ending those drought conditions, but it sure made everyone feel better. It’ll also be great for the wildflowers blooming during the next few weeks – and all the bees and other insects who rely on them.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – May 6, 2022

  1. Can you elaborate a little on the “gradual shift” you are seeing toward “heterogeneity” in the application of fire in the Flint Hills? Spring burning seems to be the norm down there.

    • I would agree with Patrick. I have been living adjacent to the Flint Hills area in Kansas since the 1960’s and in the last decade, the spring burn frequency and number of acres burned per year has increased dramatically. They also appear to be burning later in the spring as well, which is more detrimental to species coming out of hibernation. Rotational burning has almost disappeared and they are now burning the same areas on an annual basis, year after year. Previous year growth needed for habitat by a large variety of species is being destroyed at a rapidly increasing rate. I have particularly noticed a significant loss in the number and diversity of herpetofauna in these annually burned areas. Great for cattle grazing, but definitely not a sustainable practice for the health of these prairie ecosystems.


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