September was another phenomenal month for my square meter photography project. There were lots of new species to add to my running total, but I also continue to be inspired by the simple process of trying to find beauty within a tiny space. The month started with a continuation of the Maximilian sunflower flush from August and the myriad insects visiting those blooms. However, as the sunflowers wilted, I continued to find plenty to photograph, including a few species I’d been hoping for and one (a vertebrate – see below) I’d never expected.
The growing season is quickly winding down now, and most of the plants in my little plot are well on their way toward winter dormancy. Cold wet weather has greatly reduced the number of insects moving around, and even on warm days, the numbers are pretty low. I’m going to keep photographing through the end of the year, but I’m guessing my species totals aren’t going to change much. Right now, I’m enjoying photographing fall colors, and waiting for the first frosts and snows to bring some highlights to the browning leaves and stems.
With the tremendous help of several smart people, I’ve put together a reasonably good summary of the species I’ve found within the plot so far. Counting a few from October as well, I have now photographed 98 different species of plants and animals in that square meter of prairie – all in 2018! And yes, I’m really really hoping I can find at least two more…
That species list includes 12 plant species, 21 flies, 15 beetles, and 14 bees, along with butterflies, moths, mantids, spiders, ants, bugs, hoppers, aphids, barklice, grasshoppers, mites, and katydids. Many thanks to Julie Peterson, James Trager, Mike Arduser, and Jim Kalisch for their identification help.
I’m really hoping this project will help raise awareness of and interest in prairies among people who might not otherwise think twice about an ecosystem they assume is just a bunch of grass. Additionally, I’m hoping people will see how accessible the diversity and beauty of prairies can be. I didn’t go looking for the best quality prairie in central Nebraska for this project – I chose the closest example of a restored (planted) prairie to my house. Once I chose the spot, I just sat down and started paying attention. Anyone can do the same thing in any prairie anywhere.
If you think this project might be helpful to your own efforts to convince your friends or neighbors that prairies are interesting, feel free to send them to the web page I’ve created for the project. I’m exploring several other ways to expand the reach of this effort, so stay tuned for more information on those, but for now, I’ve tried to synthesize the project within a single web page.
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)
Please join me for a moment to appreciate a fly that eats rotting vegetation and looks like it is wearing a gas mask while doing it. Oh, it also has gorgeous decorative wings and likes to blow bubbles. Yep, you read that correctly.
Delphinia picta, a picture-winged fly, comes across as eccentric, to say the least. Its appearance, alone, is remarkable. The wings are distinctively shaped and patterned, and its long face really does look like it’s wearing a gas mask. Though small (about 7mm in length), it’s a species that will catch your eye if you glance its way.
Both the adults and larvae of D. picta feed on rotting vegetation. Mama flies lay their eggs in rotting vegetation, the larvae hatch out and feed on the same rotting vegetation, and after they pupate and become adults, they keep feeding on that same rotting vegetation – or a suitable subsitute. It must taste good. Oh, adults have also been documented eating the fermenting poop left behind by tree-boring long-horned beetles. You know, for a change of pace.
The aforementioned bubble blowing behavior appears to be a result of the fly regurgitating a little of its most recent meal (likely rotting vegetation) and holding it as a bubble protruding from its mouth. This might be used as part of a mating ritual (hubba hubba) or as a way to evaporate some of the liquid from its food for easier digestion. Or maybe both.
I looked all over online for a common name for this terrific species, but I couldn’t find anything besides Latin. That seems unconscionable to me. If there ever was a fly that deserved a nickname, this is it. Let’s see if we can come up with one, shall we?
Since picta means painted, that seems like an obvious component of any name we choose. Since it prefers (did I mention this already?) to eat rotting vegetation, we could potentially call it the “Painted Compost Fly”, but I don’t love that.
I guess we could just go with “painted fly”, but that’s too plain for such an interesting species. I think we’ve got to include something about its diet. I have a suggestion, but I don’t know if it’ll catch on. I looked up synonyms for rotting and decaying and one of the more fun options is putrefying. That’s a word we can work with. See what you think of this option:
One of my favorite aspects of my square meter photography project has been the chance to closely follow the lives of individual organisms over time. For example, I’ve closely followed the progress of the two butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants within the boundaries of my square meter plot. The plants bloomed beautifully back in late June, which was great, though fewer pollinators visited the flowers than I had hoped. Perhaps correlated with that, only one seed pod was produced between those two plants. Since then, I have been watching that one pod very very closely…
This week, that pod finally opened up, giving me the long-awaited chance to photograph some milkweed seeds within my plot. As it turns out, it’s a good thing I was vigilant, because that pod opened up and emptied itself out out very quickly. Within only a few days, the pod went from tightly closed to completely devoid of seeds.
While many of the seeds were blown well out of my little plot, a handful got stuck on adjacent plants, giving me the chance to photograph them. Here are some photos of those seeds as they were coming out of the pod or after they got hung up within the borders of my plot.
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.
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.
One of the most striking plants in our prairies this time of year is pitcher sage, also known as blue sage (Salvia azurea). It’s tall, of course, but more importantly, as the surrounding prairie is dominated by green-becoming-gold grasses and big yellow flowers, pitcher sage stands out simply because it is starkly and unabashedly blue.
A few weeks ago, I posted a photo of a bee that specializes on pitcher sage, but there are many more insects commonly seen on the plant. Last week, I spent about 45 minutes in our Platte River Prairies, photographing pitcher sage and as many visitors as I could.
I initially pulled my camera out because there were several monarch butterflies flitting around a patch of pitcher sage. While chasing them around (and, as always, being thankful no one was watching me), I came across quite a few other insects – some of which I managed to photograph.
In addition to being tall, striking, and beautiful, pitcher sage is also pretty good at withstanding drought. During late August of 2012 – a year of extreme drought, pitcher sage stood out against a background of brown dormant grass, blooming just like it does every year. Not only did it provide some welcome color when many other plants were wilting, it gave all the insects pictured above, and many others, something to eat when they needed it most.
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.
During the last month or so, I’ve had several people tell me how aggressive marestail (horseweed, aka Conyza canadensis) is, and how this is a particularly bad year for it. One person suggested marestail should be added to Nebraska’s noxious weed list. This week, Olivia and I drove from our Platte River Prairies to the Niobrara Valley Preserve – right through the center of our state – and I tried to document what is certainly a summer of abundance for marestail.
Here are a few things you should know about marestail right off the bat. First, it is native to Nebraska and most of North America. It acts as an annual plant in states to the east of us, but acts as a biennial here, usually germinating in the fall and blooming the following summer. In its native habitats (including grasslands), marestail is a colonizer of bare ground, filling spaces between plants left open by disturbances like grazing, trampling, animal burrowing, drought, or fire. Because marestail loves open soil conditions, it isn’t surprising that it has become a weed in crop fields. It has garnered special attention lately because it has a strong ability to become resistant to herbicides, including glyphosate, which it started showing resistance to way back in 2006.
In other words, marestail is a tough native plant that has always scraped out a living when and where it can. However, it’s not a plant that can push other plants around. Instead, it sits in the soil (as a seed) and waits for a time when surrounding plants are weakened and abundant light is hitting the soil. Then it pops out of the ground and tries to grow, bloom, and produce as many seeds as it can during its short window of opportunity. In any particular year, marestail can be found here and there in most Nebraska prairies, especially those in the western 2/3 of the state. However, it also seems periodically to respond to certain weather patterns and exhibit a flush of abundance across a larger region – as it is doing this year. Many short-lived plants do the same thing, each with its own individual preferences for weather patterns. Many Nebraskans might remember the huge sunflower party across the Sandhills back in 2013, for example, following the big drought of 2012.
Whether it’s sunflowers or marestail, huge regional flushes in abundance don’t last long. By 2014, annual sunflower numbers in the Sandhills had returned to normal – patches of yellow flowers here and there, around livestock tanks and fence corners, and wherever else there was open soil to grow in. Marestail will do the same thing in 2019. That pattern of boom and bust is not evidence of an invasive plant. Instead it characterizes a plant that is too weak to compete most of the time and has to take ultimate advantage of the few windows of opportunity it gets. When it is abundant, marestail isn’t stealing resources from other plants, it is taking resources that weren’t being used. I don’t know for sure what weather patterns led to rampant marestail germination last fall, but I’m sure this year’s abundant rains have played a big role in the survival of a large percentage of those seedlings.
When short-lived plants like marestail and sunflower (along with ragweed, gumweed, and many more) are in the middle of a short-term explosion in your prairie, you could choose to fight them. You could, for example, mow them off, trying to prevent them from making seed. However, that’s a lot of work, and the plants will do everything they can to regrow and still produce seed – it’s what they do, and they only get one year to do it. Even if you do keep them from going to seed, there are many thousands of seed already in the soil, ready to spawn the next generation of plants whenever they get the chance. You could also spray short-lived opportunistic plants with herbicide, but I wouldn’t recommend it. First, you’ll likely kill the surrounding plants (the ones that normally out-compete marestail and sunflower) and just trigger another explosion of opportunistic plants the f0llowing year. Second, with most short-lived plants, by the time they’re big enough that you notice them (especially by the time they’re flowering) herbicide treatments just make them produce seed more quickly, so are counterproductive.
The smartest choice is to just sit back and marvel at these periodic phenemona, knowing you’re watching a short-term and harmless event. Marestail, of course, doesn’t have the wide aesthetic appeal of sunflowers (though not everyone likes sunflowers either), but it has its own distinctive charm. I think it adds an attractive texture to the landscape, but I’ll admit I’m a little odd. Regardless of whether you find it attractive or not, it’s here, and it’ll be here whether you like it or not.
Fighting back against these periodic flushes of marestail and other opportunists is expensive and futile, and usually results in weakening the plant community that normally keeps them in check. Most importantly, remember that, at least in grasslands, marestail doesn’t steal resources from the plants you like, it just takes what they can’t use. What’s to dislike about that?
Former Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos came back for a visit last week and the two of us wandered around with our cameras for a couple hours on a wet foggy Saturday morning. (Quick reminder – applications for the next round of Hubbard Fellows are being accepted NOW – click here for more information.)
It was a beautiful morning, and we spent the bulk of our time in a prairie Evan had helped create while he was working for us. Despite its young age (3rd growing season), the prairie already has a lot going on. Plant diversity is looking good and invertebrates seem to be colonizing nicely. Among those colonizers are a lot of spiders, and a foggy morning is a great time to see and photograph spider webs. I spotted webs of several different species, but ended up photographing mostly webs created by a couple different species of (I think) longjawed orb weavers (Tetragnatha sp.). I photographed much more than just spiders during those couple hours, but some of the longjawed orbweaver shots ended up being my favorite images of the day.
The following three photos were taken within a minute or so of each other. I couldn’t decide between them, so have included all of them. I’m curious to know if any of you have strong preferences between them. I think I like the first and third best, though the second is really nice too. See what I mean?
The pose of this spider is common among many skinny long-legged spiders. When inactive, or in the presence of a potential threat, they cozy up to a grass leaf or plant stem and almost seem to melt into it. This one was in its hiding pose when I first spotted it. Judging by the dew droplets still affixed to its legs, I’m guessing it spent the night in that pose, but I’m not sure.
Between the first and second photo, I carefully held out my hand near the web and the spider shifted slightly away from it, moving a little more toward my camera, and into the light. This is a really handy trick for slightly repositioning insects and other invertebrates for photos. It always works spectacularly, except when it fails even more spectacularly and the subject hops, drops, or otherwise flees.
As I was photographing the spider in its new, more illuminated position, it suddenly stretched out its legs – as if it was yawning. I squeezed off a couple quick shots before it returned to its original position.
The chance to photograph spiders on dew-covered webs always feels like a gift. The conditions have to be just right – including near-zero wind velocity. Late summer seems to be the time when an abundance of spider webs corresponds with an abundance of calm foggy/dewy mornings. On those mornings, I tread carefully through prairies, trying hard not to blunder through webs, but knowing I will anyway. I find most webs by looking toward the sunlight so that the glowing backlit dew-covered orbs stand out against a darker background.
Most webs are close to the ground, surrounded by tall vegetation, making them nearly impossible to approach without jiggling the web, and either breaking it or scaring the spider away – or both. To add to the difficulty, most spiders sit on the downward slanting side of their web, with their eyes facing down and away from the sun. I always like to feature the faces of invertebrates when I can, but it’s not always possible to find a camera angle that works with web-weaving spiders.
The first three photos above were taken of webs that were along a restored wetland swale, where vegetation was relatively thin and I could fairly easily slide my tripod close to the spiders. The last three were of a web that was placed at nearly head height – something I don’t see very often.
Oh, I did take photos of Evan too, but he wasn’t covered in dew and sitting on a glistening orb-shaped web, so he didn’t make the cut for this blog post.