Photos of the Week – September 16, 2022

If you’ve been reading my recent posts, you know that our Platte River Prairies, along with most of Nebraska and the larger region, is in the middle of a drought. The Platte River is mostly dry, groundwater levels and soil moisture are low, and a lot of prairie vegetation is dry and brown. But not everywhere is showing evidence of the drought.

One of our restored wetlands, which we call the Sandpit Restoration, always seems to resist drought impacts. It is located along a creek that goes dry upstream of the wetland, but water starts flowing again right before it hits the wetland restoration site. Regardless of regional rainfall or groundwater levels, I’ve never seen the wetland itself without standing water. It’s almost as if it draws from its own independent (and apparently rich) water supply. As a result, it’s a nice place to hang out when everything else is dry. Nice for me, but even nicer for animals and plants that require wetland habitat!

Sunrise over the Derr Sandpit Wetland Restoration earlier this week. Tokina 11-20mm lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/100 sec.

The 25 acre Sandpit Wetland is the result of about 10 years of staged restoration work that restored an old sand and gravel mining site to a meandering stream channel and adjacent wetlands. Most of the work was pretty simple – just taking out trees and pushing piles of spoil sand into the lake to reshape the habitat. The results have been really great in some ways. We’ve taken advantage of the constant ‘wetness’ of the place and birds, turtles, amphibians, freshwater mussels and wetland plants really thrive in the new shallow water and moist soil habitats.

Nut sedges (Cyperus sp.) and nodding beggarticks (Bidens cernua). Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/125 sec.

On the other hand, the connection to the upstream creek and the downstream Platte River has some negative implications. Invasive plants are constantly moving downstream into the restored site, making it nearly impossible to keep up with them. Invasive fish, including mosquito fish and common carp dominate the aquatic community, along with largemouth bass, green sunfish, and a few channel catfish. None of the really neat minnows and other small native fish you’d expect to see are present, despite that habitat conditions looking ideal for them.

Despite those challenges, it’s a special place and there’s more than enough good to outweigh the bad. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that since I’m no longer the one who has day-to-day responsibility for trying to manage the invasive species issues! I just get to wander down to the water and enjoy the cardinal flower, dragonflies, and shorebirds (while conveniently avoiding eye contact with purple loosestrife, Phragmites, cattails, reed canarygrass, carp, mosquitofish, etc. I did just that earlier this week before starting some nearby fieldwork.

A spider hangs out next to its web (and two captured mosquitos) along the edge of the water. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/9, 1/100 sec.
Hover fly on nodding beggarticks. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/80 sec.
More nodding beggarticks. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/200 sec.

Cody and his stewardship crew (our Hubbard Fellows and a seasonal technician) spend a lot of time knocking out the big patches of invasive plants without eradicating the nice areas of diverse native vegetation. Since the invasives are constantly being wiped out and recolonizing, much of the area is dominated by short-lived opportunists like beggarticks, annual sedges, and other rushes and water plants that are good at popping up quickly. Other places seem to resist invasion and have more developed plant communities with lots of perennial wildflowers, as well as prairie cordgrass and large populations of rhizomatous sedges and rushes.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and sunrise. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/500 sec.
Cardinal flower. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/60 sec.
Cardinal flower. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/60 sec.

This week, the lobelias and nodding beggarticks were hogging the spotlight. A frustratingly stiff morning breeze made photography challenging, but I still managed to capture some of the gorgeous floral color. There wasn’t any dew to hold insects in place for me, so between that and the breeze, the number of insect photos was lower than what I’d hoped but I tried my best with them.

Narrowleaf cattails (Typha angustifolia) invading the wetland and preparing to spread hordes of seed to further that invasion. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/200 sec.
Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/9, 1/200 sec.
Grasshopper nymph on blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/8, 1/250 sec.

After spending a lot of time in brownish prairies, it was really nice to be in a place where I had to wear waterproof boots and got my knees and elbows wet when I got down close to the ground for macro photos. Lush green vegetation was all around me, and despite the inclusion of some plants I’d rather not acknowledge, it still felt good. After a while, I finished my wetland photography and climbed just a few feet up in elevation into the adjacent prairies, where I was quickly returned to drought conditions again. There was beauty there too (as seen in my last post) but it was very different than the opulent moisture of the restored wetland. I may never understand why that site stays so wet but I sure am glad it does.

Bumble bee roosting overnight on blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/80 sec.
More blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/100 sec.
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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.

8 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – September 16, 2022

  1. Nice photos. I’m surprised that cattails are regarded as invasive. They can spread aggressively, however they are considered native to North America.

    Here in Indiana the cattails are becoming rare. They’re being outcompeted be the phragmites.

    It’s ok to make eye contact with the cattails.

    • Our native broadleaf cattails are almost nonexistent anymore. They’ve been replaced by invasive narrowleaf and hybrid (narrowleaf x broadleaf) cattails which form dense monoculture across broad areas. I’d be surprised if the same hasn’t happened in Indiana. But phrag is also a pain here, too.

  2. Curious whether there have been any conversations about blocking fish passage to try to restore native minnow and fish populations (or at least exclude carp and catfish?).

    • The topic has come up. One issue is that the site floods frequently and significantly, which would make it really difficult to block fish passage. I also don’t think the cost of doing so would be worthwhile for the size of area we’re talking about. It’s a cool site but we have a lot of cool sites that need help too and only have so much capacity to work on each one. This wetland is providing a lot of good habitat for birds, river otters, turtles, frogs, etc. I think we’ll have to be happy with that for now.

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