It’s ‘The Prairie Naturalist’ Too

My current job title is “Director of Science”, which I have to admit is a pretty cool title. It’s almost as good as the best job title I’ve ever held, which was “Land Steward”. I’ve worked hard to get my current job title, but also to shape the job description that goes with it. Specifically, throughout my career, I’ve fought to keep myself in the field, where I’m consistently able to explore and study prairies up close.

All the photos in today’s post are from the last couple of weeks, and illustrate minor discoveries of sorts that I’ve made while acting as a naturalist. In this case, I’ve been keeping track of the kinds of insects that visit spiderwort plants, and the vast majority are flies. As a result, seeing this bee feeding from spiderwort was noteworthy. Ok, it’s not an observation that will change the world, but it was interesting, nonetheless.

I’ve fought those battles because my sanity and well-being depends upon the sense of discovery I get whenever I’m in a prairie or other natural area. I recognize that I’m really fortunate to have been able to shape my career as I have, but even if I had to work outside of the arena of conservation, I’d still find time to be a naturalist. Heck, even now, I’m in the field during the majority of my work time, but I still spend a lot of my off hours in prairies.

I’m guessing most of us in the conservation arena got here because we were inspired by outdoor experiences as kids or young adults. I remember collecting snails in the road ditch across from my house when I was 6 or 7 years old, for example, and regularly riding my bike to the fishing pond across town when I was in 3rd grade. My aspirations for college were to get a degree and become a park ranger in a remote place where I could somehow get paid for exploring nature (like many people that age, I didn’t have a very realistic idea of what jobs are like).

I’ve seen many butterfly species feeding on minerals left behind by evaporation around mud puddles, etc. but I’d never seen a regal fritillary doing so until I spotted a couple along the trail at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas.

There is certainly a lot more to my job duties than simply “exploring nature”, but I will defend that facet of my job vigilantly. I encourage everyone else in conservation to do the same. Not only does spending time as a naturalist help keep us inspired and energized, it’s how new discoveries and forward leaps in natural history happen. Despite the wealth of knowledge we have about the natural world, there are still gargantuan gaps in our understanding. Many times, we don’t even know what questions need to be asked, let alone how to answer them. As a simple example, I direct you to a short post written by Katharine Hogan, our Hubbard Fellow a few years ago about something I’ve noticed as well. We don’t yet know why all those silken strands sometimes appear in prairies, but I bet the answer will be a doozy when we find it!

I first learned about clustered broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata) while at the Cedar Point Biological Station in college. It’s a parasitic plant, and I was told at the time that it pulls nutrients from fringed sage (Artemisia frigida). I spotted several last week at Cherry Ranch in western Nebraska, and most were next to sage, but not all of them. I went looking for more information and found that its host plant selection is much broader than I’d previously thought. Aha!

Aside from the scarcity of natural areas in many places, it’s never been an easier time to be a naturalist, and it’s a pursuit open to anyone, of any level of experience. First of all, of course, there’s no requirement to identify what you see in order to enjoy finding it. However, if you do want to learn what species you’re admiring, there are now countless digital resources to help you, in addition to the standard books and experts that have been around forever. In addition, not only can you easily share discoveries with friends and potential friends through online communities, your discoveries can contribute to the growth of global scientific knowledge through programs like iNaturalist, Journey North, Bugguide, and many others.

Everyone knows that convergent ladybird beetles (and other species) feeds on aphids, right? Well, just yesterday, I spotted this one clearly feeding on pollen, so I went in search of more information. It turns out pollen and nectar are both important sources of food when aphids aren’t readily available. I certainly wasn’t the first to discover that, but it’s the kind of discovery that can be made by any of us if we’re observant.

The old adage about stopping to smell the roses applies just as much today as ever. It’s what makes life worthwhile. When I’m working in the field, I frequently interrupt what I’m doing to follow a trail or check out a spider web. I feel no guilt about that at all. First of all, I consider it part of my job to increase my experience and skill as a naturalist – and to pursue opportunities for scientific discovery. And second, it’s a tiny investment in my job satisfaction and energy level, from which my employer will reap many benefits. I would encourage everyone reading this to carve out your own naturalist time, regardless of whether that happens at work or not. Besides being good for you, it will be good for the world too.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Chelsea’s Sandhills Fire Day

This post was written by Chelsea Forehead, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year. Chelsea and Mary had a busy spring, including quite a few prescribed fires around the state. In this post, Chelsea writes about helping a Sandhills rancher with a successful burn to kill eastern red cedar trees.

Sore legs and blistered feet brought the satisfaction of another mission completed. The dust from over 400 miles of travel and the smell of burnt grass and cedar that had settled on our protective gear was lifted into the air as I hung each set – helmet, radio harness, fire shelter pack – back on its hooks in the shed. The scent of prescribed fire – a mix of sweat, ash and fuel – brought back the excitement I felt during our most recent burn. Despite the still-lingering exhaustion from working hard in hot smoke I ached for another chance to help fill the prairie’s next prescription. I smiled and sighed as I put the drip torches back where they would await their next call to action, standing at attention all the while. The red canisters of fuel once seemed heavy and intimidating, even dangerous. After seven burns I felt an admiration for them, the kind one feels for the tool most trusted to assist with hard work.

A drip torch sits in the grass during a temporary pause in ignition.

The adventure that would spark my romance with prescribed fire began one Wednesday as Mary, Olivia, Nelson and I packed our things into Bubba, our trusty diesel truck. As we headed north, things tucked strategically around the water pump in the bed of the pickup, I was filled with gratitude and excitement. While I have had many such moments thus far in my fellowship, this one was especially invigorating. My coworkers and I were a squad of prairie guardians on the move, called to assist other such units in preserving breathtaking bits of habitat nearly three hours away.

Bubba the truck, full of equipment and supplies.

Our journey brought us to the home of a rancher near Thedford, Nebraska. This prescribed burn would cover an area similar to previous burns, around 416 acres, but held a slightly different significance. Since the land was privately owned, we would complete the mission with the help of local ranchers. They were keepers of Sandhills prairie for whom prescribed fire was a treatment still in the clinical trial phase. The encroachment of cedars threatened the suitability of their lands for grazing, but using fire was a method of tree removal they weren’t very familiar with. The confidence and excited energy of participants in yellow Nomex mingled with the curiosity and uncertainty of those in plaid shirts and baseball caps. Together we ate from pizza boxes piled on the hoods of pickup trucks. With all our bellies and water bottles filled, our newly formed team headed out in a caravan of UTVs and rancher rigs to the staging area of the burn unit.

The line of vehicles heading toward the ignition point.

After some discussion about the fickle nature of the light winds that evening and a subsequent change in location for the burn’s ignition, the trucks and UTVs lined up in their respective positions. Each member of my squad from the Platte River, a land with much less variable topography, would be lighting the fire. Carrying drip torches on foot through hills steep enough to challenge the engines of diesel trucks seemed daunting, but I was excited to work up a sweat in the name of prairie conservation. Even more exciting was the potential to show the local ranchers that prescribed fire was a feasible and effective way to conserve their land for grazing while also maintaining a high-quality habitat for the wildlife of the Sandhills prairie.

As Mary and I climbed the steep hills of the parcel, dragging lines of hot flames behind us, the ranchers laying the wet line ahead of us were learning on-the-fly about how much water is needed to contain such a blaze. They were eager to learn and open to suggestion – “How are we doing? How’s this pace for you?” My experience with previous prescribed burns made me confident in my ability to give them some pointers. The fact that they were asking me for such advice was endearing and profound. A few hours earlier we had been total strangers. Now we were united to address a common concern, however different our reasons for that concern may have been.

Mary, doing some interior ignition, widening the black.

Night had fallen by the time Mary and I brought our lines of fire to meet those of Nelson and Olivia. By completing the ignition of the perimeter from both sides we were able to shift our efforts to monitoring the fire’s behavior as flames closed in around the hilly pasture. Keeping an eye on the parcel was hard to avoid. Its peaks and valleys were striped with glowing flames and dotted with torching cedars. While there had been stressful moments during the four-hour execution of the burn, the apprehension of the ranchers had evolved into enthusiasm for prescribed burning. It was clear that they felt right at home with work that was difficult, demanding, and a bit dangerous. As we discussed our experiences that night, the energy was one of a team who had just won the big game. Exhausted but exhilarated, we chatted for a while, smiling through our soot-smudged faces.

The crew gathers to watch the fire burn itself out.

While I learned so much about the efforts that go into conserving high-quality prairies during each burn this spring, the connection with private landowners created during that Sandhills experience taught me the most. Though the ranchers admitted that burning that night was the most fun they’d had in a while, their willingness to use prescribed fire on their own land would depend on the results. I knew a reduction in cedar density in the burn unit was likely and felt proud knowing I played a part, however small, in sharing conservation-friendly management techniques with a wider audience. In a state where most of the land is privately owned, having such an audience was a profound opportunity.