Photo of the Week – June 14, 2019

The far western end of Nebraska bears little resemblance to the visual image most people have of Nebraska. A combination of geologic forces and climate have joined to create a landscape that appears desolate and/or beautiful, depending upon one’s individual aesthetic. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of wide open space, maybe because I lived there for part of my childhood. As is true across the state, the panhandle is mostly privately-owned, though there are some prominent exceptions within the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills landscapes, as well as the Oglala National Grassland.

Our staff stands on an escarpment at Cherry Ranch with Travis Krein, the rancher who leases the property from us for grazing. Travis is a smart and thoughtful rancher, who has been a strong partner for us over many years.

The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch, south of Harrison, Nebraska, is a prime example of the beauty and remoteness of the panhandle. The roughly 7,000 acre site supports populations of swift foxes, lark buntings, burrowing owls, and many other wildlife species. Plant communities include sedge meadows and mesic prairie down low and western mixed-grass prairie at higher elevation, much of which is dominated by threadleaf sedge, aka blackroot sedge (Carex filifolia), along with a strong diversity of grasses and wildflowers.

Dwarf Indian plantain (Castilleja sessiliflora) was thriving in large populations on some of the rockiest hilltops.

The site is also bisected by the upper reaches of the Niobrara River, which is considerably smaller there than it is as it passes through our Niobrara Valley Preserve, nearly 200 miles downstream. Most spectacularly, the ranch is characterized by a number of rocky escarpments, which provide both stunning views and distinct plant communities. The site is not currently open to public access, but hosts a number of research projects, as well as a working cattle operation.

The Niobrara River winds aimlessly through the landscape at The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch.

A small group of staff visited Cherry Ranch this week to discuss management with our lessee and explore/photograph the various habitats of the site. We had a great trip, full of wildlife and plant observations, the highlight of which was two gallivanting badger cubs that let us watch them for a few minutes. I was disappointed that we didn’t find a prairie rattlesnake, but that sentiment wasn’t unanimous. We spent part of an early evening on the site and then returned the next morning to catch the sunrise. The Fellows will likely have stories and photos to share in the near future, but here are a few of the photos I took during the visit…

Drone photography is really helpful for showing the scope and beauty of the grasslands at the Cherry Ranch.
Cattails are getting a little thicker than we’d like in a few stretches of the river, so we’ll be using some flash grazing by cattle to periodically thin them out. Travis has had success with that in the past, as have many others across the state, including our own experimentation in the Platte River Prairies.
Mary, one of Hubbard Fellows, waits for the sunrise atop one of the rocky ridges.
Early light.
Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) was one of many spectacular flowers blooming at the site. Uncharacteristically, I found myself photographing the landscape much more than individual plants and insects this trip.
I’m pretty sure these are gumbo lilies (Oenothera caespitosa), but there are a lot of Oenothera species out west, though not nearly as many as there are Astragalus species, especially on rocky outcrops!

Photo of the Week – March 28, 2019

I photographed flowers this week! Ok, they were just flowers on the little speedwell plant (Veronica polita) that grows as a weed in our yard, but still. Flowers! My photography brain muscles were starting to atrophy and it was great to flex them a little.

Those flowers were a nice sign of spring. I’ve never understood why people point to the arrival of robins as a indication of spring since there are migratory flocks here during most of the winter, but it’s hard to argue with blooming flowers as a harbinger of seasonal change. It’ll be a while before most prairie flowers start to bloom, but the tiny blue blossoms in our garden are a great step in the right direction.

The other significant sign of spring in our yard this week was the big ol’ Woodhouse’s toad Kim spotted as she was cleaning up the landscaping around the edge of our house. The toad must have just recently emerged from its winter burrow because it still had dirt on top of its head. I was so excited to have a small animal to photograph that I took (no exaggeration) 270 photos of the toad as it sat cold and motionless in our yard. As a favor to you, I’ve winnowed that batch of photos down to the five that I’m including here. She’s just so pretty…

In this photo, you can see the nictitating membrane (a kind of transparent third eyelid) toads can use to protect their eyes from hazards.

Cooler temperatures, and maybe even a little snow this weekend, will set us back a little, but spring is still coming… In addition to the flowers and toad, Kim also heard chorus frogs calling this week. Oh, and of course, the Platte River is full of migratory sandhill cranes – here for their annual spring staging event. Before we know it, prairies will be greening up and we’ll start to see and hear all kinds of activity again. Just…another…few…weeks…?