Photos of the Week – June 17, 2022

The Hubbard Fellows (Brandon and Emma) went with me this week to The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch in the far northwest corner of Nebraska. It’s a property I don’t visit nearly often enough, and every time I go I promise myself I’ll go back again soon. I’m not very good at keeping that promise so far but I’m going to keep trying.

Rocks, prairie, and sky. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 800, f/16, 1/500 sec.
A big rock formation surrounded by prairie – including some crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), which fortunately doesn’t seem to be spreading too far. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 800, f/15, 1/500 sec.
Prairie in evening light. The stream in the valley is the Niobrara River – far smaller than it is further east where it has been designated a National Scenic River. Nikon 18-300mm lens @95mm. ISO 800, f/11, 1/500 sec.
Brandon Cobb wanders off to explore and do some photography. Tokina 11-20mm lens @19mm. ISO 800, f/18, 1/400 sec.

Cherry Ranch is located south of Harrison, Nebraska in the ‘high plains’ – at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s a mixture of shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie that receives an average of 15-16 inches of rain per year. The upper reach of the Niobrara River flows through the ranch, providing moisture for some wet meadows in the bottom of its valley, but most of the surrounding prairie is high and dry, with lots of exposed sandstone formations.

I’m an ecologist, not a botanist, so I try to keep up with plant identification but can get quickly out of my comfort zone when I stray too far from the Platte River Prairies and my family prairie. I know more 99 percent of the plants I see along the Platte and about 90-95% in the Nebraska Sandhills, but that probably drops to something around 65 or 70% in the panhandle. The diversity of little plants on the rock outcrops at Cherry Ranch and similar sites are even more difficult, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love looking at them.

However, while I think my plant identifications in these photos are right, I’m certainly not guaranteeing any of them.

Purple locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) and stemless hymenoxis (Tetraneuris acaulis) on a rocky hill top. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 800, f/14, 1/320 sec.
Stemless hymenoxis blooming in a rocky spot. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 800, f/14, 1/320 sec.
Stemless hymenoxis in late day light. Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/200 sec.

We caught both a sunset and a sunrise at the ranch this week, taking advantage of some nice photography light (though it was windy). I took several thousand photos and ended up with about 130 that I really liked. It wasn’t just a photography trip, though, so we spent quite a bit of time talking ecology and management with Travis Krein and his ranch hand Lee. Travis manages the place for us and is one of those people who is more impressive the longer you talk with him.

The first thing we looked at with Travis was a stretch of the river where he and Lee have been experimenting with cattle grazing to suppress invasive cattails – something that was Travis’ idea to try. (It’s working well and we talked about some potential variations to try next.) We also had long conversations about bird habitat, invasive species, fencing and grazing approaches, and lots more. I came away feeling both awed at his knowledge and a little more insecure about mine.

Sunrise light hits the rock outcrops. Tokina 11-20mm @18mm. ISO 400, f/18, 1/40 sec.
I think this is something in the Cryptantha genus but don’t know what species. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/80 sec.
Clustered cancer root, aka clustered broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata) is a neat little native parasitic plant that doesn’t make its own chlorophyll. Nikon 10.5mm lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.
I think this is desert sandwort (Eremogone hookeri) but I wouldn’t guarantee it. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.
I’m thinking standing milk-vetch (Astragalus laxmannii) on this one. Beautiful plant! Tokina 11-20mm lens @16mm. ISO 400, f/16, 1/200 sec.
Mixed-grass prairie. Nikon 18-300mm lens @50mm. ISO 400, f/16, 1/200 sec.

It was pretty windy for insects, so I didn’t get to look for bumble bees as I’d hoped, but we still got to see some wildlife. There were mule deer and pronghorn around, as well as nighthawks, lark buntings, grasshopper sparrows, and lots of other birds. A big common snapping turtle was warming itself up along the banks of the river and I spent some time photographing a colony of cliff swallows nesting on a sandstone cliff. It was a treat to see cliff swallows nesting somewhere other than the underside of highway bridges, which is where most of them seem to hang out these days.

Cliff swallows nesting on the exposed face of a cliff. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 500, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Crested beardtongue (Penstemon eriantherus). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/16, 1/500 sec.
Emma Greenlee walks through a patch of needle-and-thread grass. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/640 sec.

Cherry Ranch is a working ranch with no infrastructure to host the public, so it’s not open for hiking or other uses. I’d like to find a way to facilitate some visitation at some point in the future because it’s obviously a gorgeous site, but it’s tricky given the remoteness of the place and a lack of nearby staff. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to get out there more often and share photos and stories with you as a meager substitution.

If you like the look of this landscape, though, there is a lot of public land in the panhandle that’s worth visiting. Chadron State Park, Fort Robinson State Park, Toadstool Geological Park, the Ogalala National Grasslands, and the Wildcat Hills are just a few examples. Those sites contain a combination of grasslands, badlands, ponderosa pine ridges, and other habitats that many would be surprised to know exist at all, let alone exist in Nebraska. I highly encourage you to explore them!

A tiny wasp on exposed sandstone. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/16, 1/800 sec.
A common snapping turtle basks in the sun along the Niobrara River with a spider on its head. Nikon 18-300mm lens @270mm. ISO 800, f/18, 1/320 sec.

Don’t forget about the upcoming events at the Platte River Prairies in July! The first will be a public field day on July 9 for anyone who wants to learn more about prairie and wetland ecology. The second is a workshop on conserving fragmented prairies on July 25-26 that is aimed at biologists working in grasslands. Both are free of charge but we’re asking for people to RSVP. Information can be found in the embedded links within this paragraph. Hope to see you there!

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.

8 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – June 17, 2022

  1. Lovely area. Thanks for sharing. Question about grazing cattails: are these oxbow areas that have filled in with cattails? Or are they along the stream itself? Are the cattle being fenced out of the water or do they have access to it? Hope you will share the approach sometime.

    • Hi Patrick – in this particular case, they’re grazing cattails that are in the river itself (which is about 15 feet across). In fact, Travis and Lee are thinking one of the reasons the cattails have increased is that the water is flowing more slowly because of cattail invasions downstream. The current strategy is that the cattle are being fenced into 35-40 acre blocks for fairly short periods of time (a few weeks) using electric fence. Those blocks contain meadow with the river bisecting it. The cattle graze down the meadow first and then get into the river to eat the cattails (but also seem to dislodge quite a few of them too, based on the number of floating cattails seen in eddies downstream). Then they get moved out of that area and into the next. That kind of short-term grazing doesn’t seem to show any degradation of banks or water quality that we can see and really makes a huge difference on water flow, amount of open water, and plant diversity. Still lots to learn, though.

      • Interesting – thanks! Quick follow-up: a prevailing view is that cattail infestations are a symptom of increased nutrient load. Could that be playing a role here, perhaps from upstream sources, or are cattails just becoming more invasive?

        • I don’t know, but the sites we’ve been looking at recently don’t seem like places with high high nutrient loading. They are far from row crops and confinement so I think a lot of it is that the hybrid between the native broadleaf and non-native narrowleaf cattails are just really invasive.

  2. Thankyou for the lovely photos! They look entirely real, not ‘ fakey-digitized-colorized’. I feel almost as if I had my own visit, and a breath of fresh air. Aaah! The kind hearted box elder bug commenters are another very enjoyable bonus. We can use more Live and Let Live being shared. 🐝

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