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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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:
The name does not actually refer to woodchucks
chucking wood, but comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which means “digger”
Baby woodchucks are called chucklings!
They are really big squirrels! (Family
Their incisors grow 1/16” per week
They can climb trees and swim
They enter true hibernate over winter, surviving
on stored fat instead of making food caches
Their dens often provide homes for other animals
like small rodents, reptiles, skunks, red foxes, and cottontails
Woodchuck burrows have “bathroom” chambers
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
Their bodies drop to 37 degrees during
And their heartbeats slow to 5 beats per minute!
They have a top speed of 8 mph
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
They can eat a pound of food per sitting (a lot
for a creature that weighs at most 15 lbs)
Bison are pretty tough. At our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and at many other sites in the upper Great Plains, bison make it through the winter without any supplementary feed. They just eat cured grasses, grow a thick coat, and plow through snow and ice as needed. Bison don’t need humans to help with calving, and they protect their babies very effectively from predators. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that animals like that would be completely unfazed by a little rain.
Yesterday, some of our Nebraska staff took a trip up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Loess Hills of Iowa. Land steward James Baker led us on a very scenic hike before a band of cold rainy weather moved in. We then piled into some trucks with James and Director of Stewardship Scott Moats and went to visit the resident bison herd. The bison were peacefully grazing as we drove up, despite the pouring rain. When we stopped, a small group came over to check us out. Here are a few photos of those rugged bison, who didn’t need to huddle in dry and heated pickups to stay comfortable.
P.S. In case you had any doubt about my nerd qualifications, here’s one more piece of evidence. As I was working up these photos (in the backseat of a truck heading back to Nebraska) yesterday, I was looking closely at the streaks of rain captured by my camera. Based on the size of a bison calf’s eye and the length of the rain streaks closest to those eyes, I estimated that my camera captured about an inch of raindrop fall during the 1/250 of a second the camera’s shutter was open. Now, I’d want to do some actual measuring of bison calves’ eyes to check this, but based on that rough estimation, those raindrops were falling about 250 inches per second. Now, if I convert that number to miles per hour, I get 14.2 mph. A quick online search found that raindrops are estimated to fall at about 20 mph. I was pretty close!! I mean, given that I don’t really know how big a bison eye is or how close those raindrop streaks were to that eye… (NERD)
I spent much of this week in northern Nebraska, attending various events and staying at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. It rained much of the time, but I caught a break in the clouds Monday evening and happened upon the bison in our east herd as the sun was going down. I spent about an hour and a half tagging along with them as they moved slowly toward the setting sun. If you haven’t spent much time with bison, one of the things you notice immediately is how quiet they are. Apart from some contented grunting, the primary sounds I heard as I accompanied them was the crunching of their hooves in the grass and the sound of them tearing mouthfuls of food from the prairie. It was very peaceful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the sun going down over the hills.
Last week, I
attended a science and stewardship conference of The Nature Conservancy in
Madison, Wisconsin. It was an inspiring
and thought-provoking week. There were a
lot of topics that will provide fodder for future blog posts, but I wanted to
start with an issue that came up in several sessions. The topic had to do with setting appropriate
objectives for conservation strategies, and for land management in
particular. In short, it’s really
important to make sure we’re not setting objectives that are focused on
strategies rather than outcomes.
illustration of what I mean. If I was
planning a vacation for next summer, I probably wouldn’t start with the
following question: “What mode of transportation should I take on my vacation
Clearly, it’s tough to answer that question without knowing more about the ultimate objectives of the vacation. Where do I want to go? What time of year am I going? How many people are going with me? If I’m planning to travel from Nebraska to Ireland, I probably won’t be able to do that by bus. I could conceivably travel by motorcycle (if I had one) to the Rocky Mountains, but probably not if I was going during the winter or planning to take little kids with me.
silly to start by thinking about how to get somewhere before deciding where to
go, but as land managers, it’s easy to fall into exactly that mindset. We sometimes set objectives about using fire
or grazing, for example, instead of first defining the outcome we want and then
thinking about what tools and strategies might get us there (which may or may
not include fire or grazing). In this
post, I’ve provided examples of how this trap can present itself, both to
managers of conservation land and private landowners, and some thoughts about
how to avoid the trap.
research has helped us understand the kinds of fire and grazing patterns under
which North American prairies developed.
For example, in many places, we have a pretty good idea how often a particular
site burned, on average, before European settlement. We also have reasonably good information on
the presence, abundance, and behavior of historic grazers. Based on that information, a land manager
could decide that the best management for their prairie would be to reinstate,
as closely as possible, the timing and intensity of historic fire and grazing
that site likely evolved under.
Patch-burn grazing is often described, for example, as “mimicking historic fire and grazing patterns.” Mob grazing advocates trumpet (though I’m skeptical) that their system replicates the way bison moved across a landscape. Some in the Upper Midwest region of North America point to research showing high populations of indigenous people and scarce evidence of abundant bison and argue that their prairies should be managed only with fire. We can argue about all three of those examples – and many more – but the bigger point is that none of those arguments should determine our management strategies. Again, we shouldn’t be setting objectives about the strategy we want to use without first identifying the outcome we want.
To make a
clunky return to my vacation travel analogy, it would be silly of me to choose
horseback as my preferred mode of transportation across the Great Plains to the
Rocky Mountains just because it’s what worked several hundred years ago. Today’s landscape is broken up into countless
fenced off private land parcels, which would make cross-country horse travel
difficult, to say the least. In
addition, there is a pretty nice set of modern opportunities (roads and vehicles)
I can take advantage of nowadays.
Likewise, our prairies exist within a different world today, with a new set of challenges and opportunities. Mimicking historic disturbance regimes won’t necessarily keep prairies in good shape in a world with habitat fragmentation, massive invasive species pressure, climate change, nitrogen deposition, and other factors. And speaking of good shape, our first and primary concern should really be to define what “good shape” is, right? Are we managing for plant diversity or a few rare plants? Are we trying to sustain diverse bird populations? Habitat heterogeneity? Is ecological resilience the goal? If so, what are the factors driving resilience, and how to we sustain those? There are countless reasonable goals for land managers to choose from, many dependent upon scale, but those goals should be based on the outcome we want.
I feel it’s important to say this here: I am a big proponent of both fire and grazing as management tools – you can find myriad examples of that by searching through my previous blog posts. However, while I think combining fire and grazing can create some fantastic results, those strategies/results don’t fit all objectives. More importantly, your particular site may or may not respond well to those kinds of fire and grazing combinations.
your primary objective is to provide habitat for as many species of grassland
birds as possible. First, you’ll need a
pretty big swath of land – many bird species have minimum habitat size
requirements. Assuming you’ve got
sufficient land, the major factor grassland nesting birds respond to is habitat
structure. Some birds prefer tall thatchy
structure, others like short/sparse vegetation, and others want something
in-between. A reasonable outcome-based
objective might be that you want to provide all three of those habitat types
across your prairie each year (and you’ll want to make sure the habitat are
being successfully used by a diverse bird community). Perfect.
Now, how will you create those habitat types?
spring fires can create short habitat structure that some birds really like to
nest in. However, some bird species
(e.g., grasshopper sparrows) usually like short habitat with a little more
thatch in the ground layer than is usually found in recently burned
prairies. Also, while burned areas are
short and unburned areas are tall, it’s difficult to create in-between
height/density habitats using only fire.
This is where other tools such as mowing and grazing might be
helpful. Mowing can reduce the height of
tall vegetation and create short or mid-height structure that grasshopper
sparrows, meadowlarks, and other species prefer. Grazing can do the same and can have the advantage
that cattle or bison are selective grazers, eating some plants and leaving
others. This can create structure with
both tall and short vegetation mixed together and can also help suppress
grasses and allow for greater expression of forbs (broadleaf plants) –
something birds such as dickcissels often prefer.
trying to create optimal bird habitat, then, fire, mowing and grazing might all
be useful tools to consider. It’s
important to understand how each tool can be used to affect habitat structure,
as well as the potential risks of using each (fire can sometimes kill
aboveground animals and stimulate invasive plants, grazers can sometimes target
vulnerable plants and create issues via trampling). With all of that information, you can start putting
together strategies that employ the right tools, and then test those strategies
against the OUTCOMES you desire. Notice
that the process I’ve just described is independent of the kinds of historic
fire returns for your area or whether or not you think grazing was a significant
factor in the evolution of regional plant communities. Define your objective by the outcomes you
want and test/adapt strategies based on that objective.
At my family prairie, we aren’t using prescribed fire because we’ve been able
to use grazing to meet our objectives of habitat heterogeneity and increasing
plant diversity, and we use loppers/herbicide to successfully control woody
invasion. In small prairies where
preserving particular plant species is the objective, a strategy using only
fire or mowing could be most appropriate.
If that small prairie has rare insects or reptiles that are especially
vulnerable to fire, maybe mowing is the best tool. Regardless, the right tools and strategies
depend upon the outcome-based objective.
and farmers who manage prairies, this same objective setting process should
apply, but of course those prairies also have to help provide sufficient income
to keep a family or business thriving.
Even in those cases, however, it’s still important to start with
outcome-based objectives. Those
objectives can include a certain amount of needed income but should also include
specific habitat or other ecological objectives. Once you’ve decided, for example, that you
really want to manage in a way that provides a certain amount of quail habitat
or provides consistent pollinator resources through the season, you can look
for ways to accomplish that while still providing the needed income. When a conflict between income and habitat
objectives arises, you can make the decisions that make sense to you, but at
least you’re making those decisions with all the information needed to fully
consider the options.
plenty of reasonable prairie management objectives to choose from, but they
should be based on outcomes rather than on tools and strategies. Employing more frequent prescribed fire is
not a good objective. However, using
more frequent prescribed fire might be a great strategy to reach a particular
outcome. (It could also be a terrible
strategy, depending upon your objective.)
Don’t fall into the trap of choosing your transportation method before
you know where you want to go.
P.S. I’m sure some of you are thinking it, so let me address what might appear to be a weakness of my vacation transportation analogy. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to start vacation planning by deciding that you want to take a cruise ship or motorcycle if the OUTCOME you really want is to ride on a ship or motorcycle. If you don’t care where you go, the destination isn’t the outcome, it’s just a by-product of your mode of travel. Fine. But I think you understand what I was trying to say, right? Sure, you could argue that conducting prescribed fires could be your objective if all you want is a legal way to light things on fire and watch them burn. If that’s your objective, though, you’re not managing prairies, you’re lighting things on fire – and there’s a big difference. Ok? Ok.
Hello from Wisconsin! I’m spending this week in Madison, Wisconsin with about 250 colleagues at a conference for scientists, land managers, and other conservation staff of The Nature Conservancy. It’s been a fantastic conference, but also an awful lot of time spent with crowds of people – something that drains me after a while. As I write this, I’m holed up in my hotel room, grabbing a little peace and quiet before heading to supper.
Because I’ve been busy with the conference all week, I haven’t done much photography (and I really miss my square meter plot!) but I did manage a few photos during our Tuesday field trip west of Madison. We had a few minutes to wander after arriving at our first stop, and I stopped to admire numerous Argiope spiders on their webs. Even after our tour leader started talking, I wandered around the edge of the group – staying within earshot – and looked at some more spiders. I hope I didn’t come off as rude, but the spiders were really pretty, and a few let me get within photo range.
Not long after I took these photos, the sunlight became too intense for good close up photos so I rejoined the tour group and behaved myself. There is great conservation work going on in the Military Ridge area, with a great set of partners working together. It is one of the best remaining landscapes in Wisconsin for grassland birds, and still has fairly stable populations of regal fritillary butterflies and other species. Eric Mark with The Nature Conservancy is doing some grazing work to manage bird and butterfly habitat, and is working hard to build ties with the local community. The local chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts is doing some tremendous prairie restoration work, converting brome fields to diverse prairies. Those and other partners, including state, federal, and non-profit organizations, seem to have a strong and positive working relationship.
Earlier this week, we spent a few days collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. It was a quick trip up and back, but we still managed to see quite a bit of wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn, grouse, lizards, monarch butterflies, lots of grasshoppers and bees, and much more. We also found ourselves close to bison a few times, and I managed to get some decent photos of them. Here is a selection of those bison shots.
This post is by Olivia Schouten, one of this year’s Hubbard Fellows. In this post, she writes about the importance of bison and cattle dung in prairie ecosystems – a topic you might not think much about on a daily basis.
When walking through a prairie, or anywhere for that matter, I think most people tend to avoid piles of refuse left behind by critters. While not the most pleasant things to encounter, smell, or step in, scat is an essential part of any ecosystem that many creatures are more than happy to encounter, and in many cases specifically seek out.
While conducting flowering plant surveys at our Niobrara Valley Preserve, I walked through an area of the pasture recently visited by the bison herd and found a couple of organisms making use of the bison pies. First, I found an ornate box turtle square in my path, digging furiously into a half-dried bison pie. Its long, sharp claws efficiently broke away chunks of the pie, revealing to the turtle beetles and other invertebrates attracted to the scat for their own purposes. I think I even heard a crunch when the turtle found something tasty amongst the poo. Considering the number of piles left behind by the bison, I realized just how great a resource these bison pies are to animals like this turtle, as they attract a buffet for easy pickings.
Not long after moving on from the turtle, I found some critters making use of the actual bison scat. Dung beetles are iconic coprophages (excrement eaters), rolling their balls of poop along to feed their larvae, and we have several of our own species right here in Nebraska! These common tumblebugs (Canthon pilularius) had excavated a nice round ball of bison pie, ready to be transported!
Tumblebugs are just one of several species of scarab we have here in Nebraska that make use of animal excrement in much the same way. This colorful rainbow scarab (Phanaeus vindex) visited a cow pie here at the Platte River Prairies.
Here is a very short video clip of the box turtle and tumblebugs feeding.
So next time you come across a pile of poo, consider stopping for a look! You never know what interesting things you’ll find!
We spent a productive week at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, collecting a mountain of data. Five of us spent our days scrambling across the Sandhills, counting flowering plants, quantifying milkweed populations, and estimating habitat cover. As always, we got to observe far more than what we were focusing on for science. We saw bald eagles, box turtles, a couple different snakes, pronghorn, mice, bird nests, families of northern bobwhites and sharp-tailed grouse, countless kinds of invertebrates, and much more. It was an exhausting, but fulfilling week.
The above photo shows the kind of energy our crew had, though it was also taken just as the week was starting. Hot sun, wet grass, and lots of massive poison ivy patches eventually knocked their enthusiasm down a notch or two, but we all still had a great time. The crew certainly made me feel twice their age (which I am, for at least one of them), and not just because I’m still a little hobbled by my recovering ankle. I appreciated their patience as they waited for me at the end of each sampling grid.
After each day of data collection, I spent the bulk of my evening time trying to build up an inventory of aerial photos and video with our drone. I flew over the river, across open grasslands and prairie dog towns, and among herds of bison. My post from earlier this week showed a small slice of just one evening’s imagery. It’ll probably take me weeks or months to get through all the footage from the last several days, but I do have one tiny video clip to share with you today.
On Tuesday night, I followed a small portion of our east bison herd around for a while. I was skirting the edges of the herd with the drone, trying to get a feel for how close I could get before the bison started to react to the vehicle’s presence. The bison were certainly aware of the drone, but while they edged away when I got too close, they certainly didn’t act frightened or panicked. A few hundred yards from the main group, a lone bison bull was grazing by himself. I decided to test its patience a little (in the name of science, of course). I flew the drone to within 15-20 yards or so of it, and lowered it down to 10 or 12 feet off the ground. Then I just hovered right there while it was eating. (Well, the drone hovered there – I was very safely standing a couple hundred yards away, right next to my truck!)
As I watched through the screen on my controller, the bull glanced up a few times while it grazed, and then eventually raised its head to chew and watch the drone. It chewed and watched for almost a minute. Just as I was getting tired of the experiment and started to push the button to end the video, the bull’s patience apparently ran out.
Oh boy, do I wish I hadn’t hit the “stop recording” button when I did, but you get a pretty good picture of what came next. I don’t know if it would have jumped high enough to hit the drone, but I do know that my suddenly sweaty hands pushed the “UP!!!” button on the controller as fast I could when that bull started its charge. One of the reasons I’m sharing this video is that it’s a great reminder that while bison are incredible and beautiful creatures, they are also unpredictable and dangerous. People die, or are seriously injured, every year on public lands when they ignore the unpredictable and dangerous part of the equation, and try to get too close to these huge animals. Bison aren’t going to chase you down and trample you to death for no reason, but if you invade their comfort zone, they are very capable of defending themselves.
As soon as I flew the drone away, the bison returned to calmly grazing, probably congratulating itself on how easily it had scared away that odd-looking, noisy, and pesky bird. After watching the bull for a while from a distance, I drove slowly closer to it and photographed it as it continued grazing. It was well aware of my presence, but is used to being around pickup trucks. Since I wasn’t coming AT him, he calmly grazed and wandered on his way.
I’m fully aware of how fortunate I am to have my job, and to have access to the places we own and conserve. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone who reads this blog, but even more to people whose financial support allows our conservation work to happen. I wish I could give each of you a personalized tour of our sites, but in lieu of that, I’ll continue trying to do the next best thing – show you the diversity and beauty of those places as best I can through writing and photography. You can also come visit, of course, and hike the trails to see what you can see. In the meantime, stay tuned for more photos and videos.
Information on visiting the Niobrara Valley Preserve can be found here and on visiting the Platte River Prairies here.
This week’s featured photos include three small creatures. One is a beetle (I have no idea which kind) that was barely visible to my naked eye. A second is a nymph of a praying mantis – probably a Chinese mantis. The third is the most exciting to me, which is a burrowing owl nesting in our Platte River Prairies this spring.
Burrowing owls occupy burrows of other animals as nesting sites. These tiny owls are about the same size as an American robin, but their wingspan can be up to 8 inches wider. They have a fascinating habit of spreading animal dung around the entrance to their burrow to attract dung beetles – one of their favorite foods.
We usually see a few nesting pairs of burrowing owls up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve each year, and they can be found elsewhere in the Sandhills and western Nebraska, especially within prairie dog towns. However, their populations are in decline across most of their continental range, and it’s uncommon to see them outside of landscapes of mostly intact grasslands.
In this case, this owl and its mate are using a badger hole for a nesting site. As far as I know, this is the first burrowing owl pair that has nested in one of our Platte River Prairies during the 21 years I’ve been working here. As you might expect, they are nesting in a site we burned this spring and that is being grazed fairly intensively by cattle. On its own, this pair of owls doesn’t equate conservation success, but it’s one more piece of evidence that makes us feel good about our work.