On the horizon

I take a lot of photos of flowers and small invertebrates.  This will come as no surprise to those of you who frequent this blog.  I try to throw in a bison or landscape photo just often enough to keep you hooked, but quickly revert to my fixation on photographs of bees, grasshoppers, flowers, and – of course – crab spiders.  I try to justify my obsession by explaining how important all those little organisms are to the functioning of prairie ecosystems (and they are), but the truth is that I just like close-up photography better than wildlife and landscape photography.  Today, I’m not even trying to hide that from you.  This would be a great time to click away to something else if you don’t want to read a lot of words about photographing little things in nature.

When I first entered the world of close-up (or macro) photography, I remember both reading and hearing about “distracting horizon lines” and being cautioned to avoid including the horizon in the background of close-up photos.  It’s true that concentrating too much on a subject and ignoring what’s behind it is a major issue for macro photographers.  It’s also true that including a bright stripe of sky on top of a darker stripe below can pull the viewer’s eye away from the intended subject of a photo.  However, as with most photography rules, making exceptions can sometimes lead to more interesting images.

Here’s a very nice photo of prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) in the Nebraska Sandhills.  It was taken in beautiful early morning light and has a nice clean background.
Here’s the same larkspur plant, photographed from a slightly lower perspective so that the horizon shows toward the top of the image.  Now, the image is no longer just a photo of larkspur – it’s a photo of larkspur in a prairie.

Over the last several years, I’ve more often found myself playing around with horizon lines behind my close-up photo subjects.  What I’ve found is that contrast and definition matter a lot.  If the boundary between land and sky is out of focus and very gradual, it can become a pleasing addition to a photo – one that adds depth and context, as well as visual interest.  That’s very different from the starkly contrasting bright/dark line that we’re often warned about including behind close-up subjects.

Adding a fuzzy horizon behind close-up photo subjects is often just a matter of lowering the camera an inch or two.  It’s not always a smart choice, but I’ve been trying to at least consider it as an option when I’m in the field.  If I’ve got a subject that isn’t flying or crawling away from me, I’ll usually start by following the rules to get a safe, traditional image.  Then I’ll lower the tripod slightly and see how that looks.  More and more, I end up liking the second choice better.  It’s a good thing I’ve learned not to follow the rules this bozo espoused in a macro photography guide published on this very blog.  What a dope.

This larkspur photo was taken just a few feet away from the one above.  I think it’s my second favorite larkspur photo. 
This is my favorite larkspur photo.  Not only was the light sublime, the intricate blossoms lent themselves beautifully for this composition.  I also love the way the background transitions gently to sky, providing context for the image.  It was well worth an extra moment or two to shorten the tripod legs and aim the camera a little more upward.

So, go break some rules.  Have fun, take chances, experiment!  Unless any of my kids is reading this.  In that case, follow the rules.  And go clean your room.  As long as you’re living under my roof, young man…

Photo of the Week – November 10, 2018

A goatsbeard (Tragopogon dubius) seed hanging on the flower stalk of hoary vervain (Verbena stricta).  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Despite being a little slow to fully embrace it a dozen years or so ago, I’ve become very grateful for the world of digital photography.  One of the best perks, of course, is that it costs nothing but sorting time and storage space to take lots and lots of photos.  When I was shooting slide film, I was very selective about how many photos I took because I knew it cost me about 33 cents each time I clicked the shutter.  As a result, I didn’t take as many chances as I would have liked, and often didn’t take enough images of a particular subject to get what I really wanted.  

Today, I don’t mind taking way more photos of something than I think I’ll need to make sure I’m happy with the final result.  A great example of the benefits of this strategy occurred back in June of this year.  I had finished spending some time at my square meter photo plot, and was doing a quick meander through the rest of the nearby prairie when I spotted a goatsbeard seed that had gotten caught on the flowers of a hoary vervain plant.  I liked the color and texture the seed/flower combination, so I stopped to photograph it.

The seed was barely attached to the flower in one place, and a gentle breeze caused the seed to slowly rotate around on that fulcrum.  In my head, I had only a vague concept of the image I was trying to capture.  There was something about the fuzzy, webby texture of the seed and the strong vertical arrangement of the flower stalk, but…  As the seed shifted around, I just snapped away – kind of like trying to refine an idea by just talking it out.

Just when I was starting to get frustrated by not getting what I wanted, the breeze picked up just for a second and blew the seed into a new position, where it hung for a few moments.  That was it!  I slid my tripod a few inches closer and got exactly the shot I had been searching for the whole time.  It’s become one of my favorite photos from this year, both because of its simple beauty and because I had to wait for it to happen.

This is definitely the image that captured the essence of what attracted me to the tiny scene in the first place.

Square Meter Photo Project – October

Lead plant (Amorpha canescens) leaflets were already turning colors by early October.

Activity within my square meter plot definitely slowed down during October, but I still managed to find lots of photographic opportunities.  I added a few more species to my list (110 now!), but the theme of the month was much more about change than discovery.  Plants I’d become intimately familiar with during the season were steadily changing colors and dropping leaves and seeds.  As a result, the overall density of the vegetation within the plot dropped dramatically, leaving behind a lot of sunflower stems decorated only by a few withered, dangling leaves.  Tall summer grasses are still there, but some have been broken off part-way up, and others look pretty fragile.  On the other hand, there is a new layer of green growth closer to the ground, consisting mostly of Kentucky bluegrass and a few sedges. 

The fungal (?) spot on this grass grabbed my attention early in the month., especially with the other varied colors of grass leaves behind it.
Toward the end of the month, the same grass leaf had changed quite a bit, as had those in the background.
This leaf has some spreading fungal growth as its chlorophyll slowly breaks down.
This stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) leaf curled beautifully before dropping completely a few days later.
Wilting Maximilian sunflower leaves
Wilting Maximilian sunflower leaves.
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), early in the month, before it lost its color.
Sideoats grama seeds.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds got really fluffy as they dried.
I watched this hole left by a stem-boring moth larva (I’m told) most of the season.  I wonder if something else will move into it over the winter?

Instead of buzzing with activity, the plot was a lot quieter in October.  During the late summer, there was no shortage of insects, and the challenge was to find species I hadn’t yet photographed this year.  In October, the challenge was to find anything moving at all, other than leaves or seeds dropping or drifting through the air.  I sat quietly, trying to watch the entire plot closely, waiting for something to move, since movement was about the only way to detect most of the well-camouflaged critters I found.  The stink bug below is a great example of that – an insect I saw only when it fluttered from one stem to another and started crawling upward.  Several times, I looked down at my camera and then had to search for it again, even though I knew it was within a few square inches.

This stink bug was a new species for the list, and a welcome surprise when I saw it crawling up a stem.
It wasn’t a new species for the list, but this fly was nice to see.  It didn’t stay long.
I actually spotted this tiny crane fly (new species!) before it moved, for which I was impressed with myself.  Of course, it took me about 15 minutes before I realized it was right in front of me…

I was excited to see the first snow of the year in mid-October, and the forecast predicted sunny skies and calm winds for the next day.  However, the snow ended around noon, and by an hour later, it was clear that most of the snow was going to melt that afternoon.  So, even though the sky was still pretty dark and cloudy, I went out to capture what I could of the snow before it all disappeared.

I was able to capture a few photos of the first snow of the season before it all melted away.  (October 14, 2018)
Remnants of the first snow on a switchgrass flower.
More melting snow.
This hover fly (not a new species for the list) wasn’t shivering, but looked like it wanted to, while waiting for the first snow of the season to MELT ALREADY.

I’m planning to keep visiting my square meter plot through the end of January and complete a full year cycle.  I’ll probably go less often in the coming months, mostly waiting for frost or snow to create new photographic opportunities.  Apart from that, I don’t anticipate much change in the appearance of the plot or the species within it. 

However, I still feel drawn to visit now and then, especially when the light conditions are nice.  You never know – maybe I can catch a bird stopping by to feed on the last of the sunflower seeds, or maybe a milkweed seed will get caught within the plot as it drifts past.  What if I’m not there and I miss it?!

Photo of the Week – November 2, 2018

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) leaf.

I can’t believe November is already here, but our prairies are certainly transitioning from fall colors to winter dormancy.  There are still a few hearty insects hanging  around, but it’s getting much harder to find them.  Wildflower seeds are also disappearing – being blown off seed heads or consumed by birds, mice, or other animals.  Here are four photos from the last week.  No particular theme, just images that struck my fancy during a few quick prairie walks.

A fuzzy “woolly bear” caterpillar.
Seeds of tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum).
Milkweed bug nymph on common milkweed seeds.

Name that thing!

I’m curious to see if anyone can identify the subject of this photo.  If you think you know, put your guess in the comments section below and I’ll try to keep an eye out and chime in when someone gets the right answer.

I’ll give you six clues.

  1. It is neither animal nor mineral.
  2. It is smaller than a bread box.
  3. It poses no known danger to humans.
  4. It will never call you to solicit money or votes.
  5. It did not appear in any Star Wars movies. 
  6. It was photographed within my square meter photography plot.

Speaking of my square meter photography plot, I’ve just updated my web page for that project.  You can click here (or on the Square Meter Photography Project tab in the menu at the top of this blog’s home page) to find out how many species I’ve photographed within that plot as of today.  The number has gone up, both because I continue to find more species and because I’ve had more help identifying and separating species from each other.

Photo of the Week – October 25, 2018

As a photographer, I tend to gravitate toward small subjects, even when I should probably be paying attention to what else is happening around me.  I spent the first couple days of this week at our Niobrara Valley Preserve, helping with the annual roundup of our west bison herd.  I was up close and personal with more than 400 bison, surrounded by a sweeping landscape of prairie and river.  As a result, here are some close-up photos of leaves I found during a break in the action.  

Bur oak leaves near the corral.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come back from a bison roundup, only to share photos of leaves.  In fact, it’s been almost exactly two years since I last did it.  To be fair, I have also posted lots of photos of bison and bison roundups, and you can use the handy search function on this blog page if you’d like to see those.  Today, though, you get to look at leaves.  Or not – there’s plenty of other things you can look at on the internet.  Go ahead, I won’t mind.

More bur oak leaves.

Anyone still here?  Ok.  For those of you who didn’t wander off to look at kittens or John Travolta memes, here are some more leaf photos.  During some down time, I wandered toward a nearby stream.  I first stopped to photograph oak leaves tenuously hanging onto branches (a few dropped every time a gentle breeze came up).  Then, I made my way down to the water and got my knees wet along the edge of the stream as I photographed leaves in or near the water.

A bur oak leaf in wet sand…
Some of the most interesting photos came from leaves just barely submerged under the clear water.
This cottonwood leaf had clearly been in the water recently, probably after one of the recent rains we’ve had.
A pair of underwater cottonwood leaves.
Half of a hackberry leaf.
I think this is my favorite of the bunch.  These willow leaves seemed perfectly situated in the shallow rippling water.

Ok, I actually did take some photos of bison, the people working with them, an elk that wandered nearby, and a few other things.  Maybe I’ll post some of those sometime, but people and bison all kinda look alike, don’t they?  Leaves on the other hand…!

A New Prairie Ad Campaign?

Nebraska announced its new tourism slogan last week (“Honestly, it’s not for everyone”), which is a self-deprecating approach many people appreciate and many others don’t. Personally, I like it.  If it works, it’ll be a win for humor and gentle self-mockery.  If it doesn’t, it’ll be a win for those of us who don’t want a lot more people crawling around here anyway.  I mean, what if some of them decide they want to MOVE here?  Good grief.

The new Nebraska slogan made me think that prairies probably need a better advertising campaign too.  If you ask most people to envision beautiful natural areas, they’re likely going to think about forests,  mountains, oceans, etc.  Prairies are going to be pretty far down that list, if not absent altogether.  As a result of this, we prairie advocates often feel a little insecure and defensive when trying to explain why prairies might be worth some consideration.

I tried to come up with a promotional approach that captured all of that angst and emotion in one neat little package.  For better or worse, here’s my proposed new slogan for prairies:

Prairies: Forests without all the pesky trees.

My slogan, of course, builds upon the famous saying, “Can’t see the forest for all the pesky trees.”  It’s a profound and thought-provoking saying, though it doesn’t go far enough.  It should really say, “Can’t see a dang thing for all the pesky trees.”

I suppose if you grew up in forests, you’d get used to not seeing sunsets, approaching storms, horizons, or anything else more than a stone’s throw away.  Maybe forest people develop a sense of direction that doesn’t rely on seeing the sun?  They probably take a lot of Vitamin D supplements too.

To those of us in prairie country, forests can feel incredibly confining, and claustrophobic.  There must be some advantages of hanging out where you can’t see past the next tree.  I just can’t think what they might be.

ANYWAY…here are a few examples of the kinds of advertisements we could distribute with my proposed new slogan…









I recognize that this slogan might not appeal to everyone.  On the other hand, I’m providing it for no cost, which is a lot cheaper than Nebraska’s new slogan.  If you don’t like it, you’re free to ignore it.  If you do like it, you’re free to steal it and use it yourself.  Or just share either this post, or individual images from it, with people you think might find it appealing.  Maybe don’t send it to any foresters…

(Regular readers of this blog will recognize that this post is written with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, but for the rest of you (especially my forester friends), please be assured I’m not a tree hater.  I’m actually a big fan of trees; just not when they’re in my prairies.  I even enjoy walking through forests – for brief periods – especially when there’s a clear trail to follow so I don’t get lost…)


Photo of the Week – October 19, 2018

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds at our family prairie last weekend.

This is the season of flying fluffy seeds.  Asters, thistles, blazing stars, milkweeds, and other late season flowers are sending their seeds into the air, a few of which might actually land in a place where they can germinate.  Each of those seeds is attached to a filamentous structure, variously called a pappus or coma, depending upon the species of plant.  Those fluffy structures catch the wind and allow the seed to travel many miles, in some cases – though most land within a few meters of their origin.

Seeds that can float on the air are a nice adaptation for plants, but they are also attractive photographic subjects.  Over the last week, I’ve photographed the seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in some local prairies.  Here are a few of those photos for your Friday enjoyment.

Common milkweed seeds lined up inside their pod, nearly ready for launch.
A common milkweed seed temporarily hung up on big bluestem.
The coma of this milkweed seed got stuck and was drifting lazily in the breeze, having become separated from its seed.
Tall thistle seeds.  Many of these get eaten by insects before they get a chance to fly away, but at least one of these managed to escape – so far.
Dotted gayfeather seeds, backlit by the autumn sun.

Crab Spider Tent

A crab spider and silk webbing at our family last weekend.

A few of us took a short trip out to our family prairie last weekend.  My daughter was back from college for the weekend and wanted to see what was happening in the prairie, so we did a little canoeing (tight circles in the small pond), hiking, and exploring.  Later, I found myself photographing dotted gayfeather seeds, and while I was looking for more of those plants, I stumbled upon a grass leaf that was bent funny with some kind of white silk holding it in that position.  I had actually walked past the grass leaf before my brain finally registered the fact that I should go back and examine it.

Looking more closely, I could see enough of the creature inside to identify it as a crab spider.  It had been raining quite a bit during the previous couple weeks, so my first thought was that the crab spider had made itself a little rain shelter.  (Crab spiders don’t make webs, but like all spiders, do make silk and use it for various purposes.).  However, my better guess was that it was a nest and that it might contain a bunch of spider eggs.  I photographed it for a few minutes, taking lots of photos, since the breeze was making it hard to keep the spider in focus.

A tiny spiderling, accidentally photographed.

Later, when I was looking through images at home, I was culling all the photos of the spider that weren’t in focus (dang that wind) when I happened to spot something that confirmed my guess.  Right above an unfocused crab spider face, a tiny spiderling appeared – just in one photo, not in any others.  Apparently, this was indeed a crab spider nest, and at least one egg had already hatched.  

The crab spider eventually shifted around and showed its face.

Crab spiders aren’t the only group of spiders that take care of their kids.  Frequent readers of this blog will, of course, remember a previous post of mine showing a mother wolf spider carrying her brood around on her body, and even if you don’t, you may have heard that wolf spiders lug both their egg sacs and newly hatched babies around with them.  Wolf spiders aren’t alone, though, and we’re still learning more about how well various spider species care for their young.  If you’re interested, you can read more in this nice blog post from Biome Ecology.  Otherwise, you can just join me in wishing this particular crab spider’s brood good luck as they disperse and try to find safe places to overwinter.

Olivia and the Whistle-Pig

This post was written and illustrated by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia is an excellent scientist and land manager, as well as a great writer.  In this post, she shares a recent experience with, and some interesting trivia about, a cute furry animal.

We had a visitor in the front yard the other day, which gave me a great opportunity to take some pictures of a mammal I don’t often get to see. This woodchuck (Marmota monax) has been spotted around our crew quarters here on the Platte River Prairies for a few weeks now, and appears to have taken up residence in our wood pile. I finally managed to spend some time watching it from the safety of the living room while it foraged in the yard for dandelion leaves.

I was so excited to see this woodchuck come so close, so I could see the details, from its little ears to the frosted tips of its fur. But while they may look cuddly, woodchucks are known for being pretty feisty and aggressive.

I haven’t had many experiences with woodchucks, also called groundhogs and whistle-pigs. (As an aside, I didn’t realize they were one in the same until I was in college. I have a friend Jessica, who’s probably reading this, who was there when I made the connection and exclaimed “Wait? You’re saying how much wood would a woodchuck chuck and Groundhog Day are the same thing?!”, and likes to bring it up whenever she can.) In fact, I’ve probably seen more yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), a close cousin to woodchucks, while travelling in the Rocky Mountains than our local woodchucks. I remember hearing a few whistling while walking in the woods around my hometown in Iowa, but other than that, this may be the first one I’ve ever seen, especially this close!

One of the yellow- bellied marmots I saw and photographed while in Colorado in August. They look superficially similar to woodchucks, but their ranges don’t overlap, so there’s little risk of mistaking one for the other.

Unfortunately, the other experience I have with these mammals, and one that I’m sure many readers also share, is of their digging habits. My parents recently had one removed from their backyard because it was busy burrowing under their garage. Apparently they are also pests in gardens, which doesn’t surprise me since I watched the one in our yard munching happily away on dandelions for several minutes. I’m inclined to find ways to cohabitate peacefully with native animals that sometimes cause problems or destruction to human structures, and a quick Google search turned up a lot of advice on how to discourage woodchucks from taking up residence around your home or eating your gardens. But I’m not going to talk any more about that (though like many perceived “pest” species, the destruction they cause is likely inflated), because I think this woodchuck is adorable, and I was inspired to look up more information about them!

So here’s an informal list of some fun facts I dug up:

  1. The name does not actually refer to woodchucks chucking wood, but comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which means “digger”
  2. Baby woodchucks are called chucklings!
  3. They are really big squirrels! (Family Sciuridae)
  4. Their incisors grow 1/16” per week
  5. They can climb trees and swim
  6. They enter true hibernate over winter, surviving on stored fat instead of making food caches
  7. Their dens often provide homes for other animals like small rodents, reptiles, skunks, red foxes, and cottontails
  8. Woodchuck burrows have “bathroom” chambers
  9. The origins of Groundhog Day began in 1886, when an editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper wrote that the local groundhogs hadn’t seen their shadows, and therefore spring would be early
  10. Their bodies drop to 37 degrees during hibernation!
  11. And their heartbeats slow to 5 beats per minute!
  12. They have a top speed of 8 mph
  13. They are for the most part solitary, with males only hanging out with females during the breeding season and females taking care of their young
  14. They can eat a pound of food per sitting (a lot for a creature that weighs at most 15 lbs)
I love the black paws and legs of this woodchuck. It looks like she’s wearing gloves!
I could have watched this adorable creature waddling around the yard eating dandelions all day.