Photo of the Week – October 11, 2018

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

I have a complicated relationship with smooth sumac.  It’s a native prairie shrub and a long-term and important member of the grassland plant community.  On the other hand, it is often more abundant than I’d like, especially in smaller prairie fragments – altering habitat structure, shading out other plants, and offering protective and nurturing conditions for encroaching trees.  I don’t want to eradicate smooth sumac, but it can spread over large areas, and seems to be getting better at doing so as the climate changes.

In the fall, however, my relationship with smooth sumac gets a lot rosier.  I can’t think of any prairie plants that have a more striking autumn plumage, especially against a backdrop of golden grasses.  Photographing sumac leaves in the fall has become an annual tradition for me – one I very much enjoy.  The only problem is that I’m constantly trying to find new ways to photograph this plant, for which I already have a big library of images.  This year, I focused on a couple plants that leaves that weren’t just uniformly red.  One of those plants had leaves that seemed to be in various stages of their green to red transformation, and the other had patterns I can’t explain, but am very much entranced by.

These variegated leaves stood out among others in a small sumac patch, caught in the middle of their color transformation from green to red.
This is a closeup of the above leaf/leaflets.
I have no idea why these leaflets had these magnificent patterns, but I sure like ’em.
Again, a closer view of the same leaflets.

As soon as sumac drops its leaves our relationship will deteriorate again.  I’ll look upon the same plants I photographed this week with a sharp and wary eye, watching closely to see if they are trying to take over one of my favorite prairies.  For now, though, they sure are pretty, aren’t they?

New Look, Same Blog

Hi everyone.  You’ve probably noticed a little different look to the blog this week.  I’m fiddling around with the format, hoping to create a better reading experience, especially for those of you reading this on your phones.  I’m not done messing around yet, but am at the point where some feedback would be helpful.

 This is just a random damselfly nymph photo from this past summer to give you something interesting to look at.  (I think it was likely coming out of the water to transform to its adult body – which is pretty cool!)

If you have a few minutes, I’d sure appreciate it if you could look back over the last several posts and then answer some quick questions about how those look and feel to you.  I’ll do my best to create a format that works for as many people as possible.  Even if you just answer the first question (about which device you use) that would be tremendously helpful.

Please answer the questions that apply to you and the device(s) you use.  If you want to provide more specific feedback, please leave a comment on this post (if you can figure out how to do that in this new format!) If you read this via email, you might have to click the post title to open it in a browser before you can comment.

Thank you very much for the help on this.  I appreciate your feedback and your patience as I muddle through this process.

Chris

A Bubble-Blowing, Rotten Plant-Eating, Gas Mask-Faced Picture-Winged Fly

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 pictaon a sunflower at Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

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.  

Delphinia picta can be distinguished from other similar species by the pattern on its wings, the dark-colored top of its abdomen, and its long gas-mask-looking face.  

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.

Any fly with a face like this deserves a good nickname.

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:

The Painted Putrefly.  

Yes?  No?  Can you do better?

Please Take Alex’s Survey!

Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Fellows, is conducting a survey to help us improve visitor experiences at our Platte River Prairies.  If you’ve ever visited the Platte River Prairies to hike, volunteer, attend one of our field days, or for any other purpose, please consider taking the survey.

If you’ve never come to the Platte River Prairies, but you think you might someday, your input would also be welcome.  The survey is designed for both former and future visitors.  Please tell us what would make your experience better.  (Also, check out this page to find out more about our public trails).

You can take the survey by clicking HERE.  And thank you.

This photo was taken earlier this summer along one of our hiking trails, and shows the Derr House in the background.

Photo of the Week – September 6

Well, August was an awesome month for my square meter photography project.  An unbelievable number of insects visited my little plot of prairie during the month, many of them drawn by the abundant and very charismatic Maximilian sunflowers.  After a lot of sorting and decision-making, I ended up with well over 150 high quality photos from the month.  I’m sharing 18 of those with you here.

I started this project with the hope of inspiring people about the beauty and diversity of prairies.  What I didn’t expect was the degree to which I, myself, have been inspired and affected by the project.  The diversity of life I’ve recorded has been amazing, but the process of slowing down, focusing in, and appreciating what I find in a tiny space has become a powerful experience for me.  Rather than feeling like I’m missing other photographic opportunities by returning over and over to the same little spot, I actually find myself wishing I was there when I’m not.

Anyway, I hope you’re enjoying these updates along the way.  I’m working on some ideas for how to share the entire project after the year is over.  If you have suggestions along those lines, please feel free to share them!

This beetle is feeding on the leaf of a Maximilian sunflower plant.
There was only one stiff sunflower plant in my little plot, surrounded by many more Maximilian sunflower plants. I tracked the progress of that stiff sunflower plant, anticipating the diversity of insects I would find on its flowers.  However, as soon as that sunflower bloomed, it was attacked by a horde of little beetles. I will admit being emotionally affected by that attack…
Once Maximilian sunflowers started to bloom, they drew insects like huge magnets, including lots of these little hover flies (aka flower flies and syrphid flies)
It wasn’t just the flowers that attracted insects. Early in the month, I found this cavity with something shiny and brown inside it. I never figured out what was in there, and didn’t want to bother it since it was inside my plot.
A few weeks after the previous photo, I found another cavity in another Maximilian sunflower stem. Same kind of insect? I have no idea.
Soldier beetles were astonishingly abundant this month, both on sunflowers and elsewhere.
While soldier beetle abundance was on the upswing, Japanese beetle abundance was declining. I haven’t seen one in a couple weeks now.
Many of the insects I’m finding are really really tiny, including what I’m pretty sure are itsy bitsy wasps. If you look very closely, you can see one silhouetted against this flower.
Another example of tiny insects – I only saw this little fly because I was photographing the leaf axil of Indiangrass and the fly entered the frame.
I had seen this plant hopper species elsewhere in Lincoln Creek Prairie, and was thrilled to finally catch one in my plot.
This aphid was feeding on a Maximilian sunflower before it flowered.
The smoke from western wildfires created hazy skies last month, but that haze made for some nice photo light, including a photo of the sun itself.
I thought this plant hopper (?) was just an empty exoskeleton until it started moving while I photographed it. Astonishingly cool.
Sunflowers weren’t the only bloomers in August. Grasses were also in full bloom, including this big bluestem plant.
Indiangrass started blooming right at the end of the month, and this hover fly took advantage of the easy access pollen.
This hover fly was resting between flowers on a dewy morning.
After seeing them all over the prairie around me, I finally found a mantis inside my plot. This one is the European mantis.
While I was following the above European mantis around the plot with my camera, I came across this Chinese mantis, also in the plot. Two mantis species in the same day!

 

Counting Gayfeather Stems Out Of Scientific Curiosity – Year 2

Science doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult.  In fact, the essence of science is really just a way to satisfy our curiosity about the world.

There is great value in rigorous science, with sufficient replication and statistical power to merit publication in peer-reviewed journals.  That kind of science moves us forward as a scientific community, and provides checks and balances to make sure we don’t go too far down the wrong path.  At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the kind of science that any naturalist or land manager can use to answer basic questions about how the world works.  An observation triggers a question, and more observations help answer that question.

I photographed this dotted gayfeather at our family prairie the other night. When I noticed it flowering, I knew it was time to revisit my project from last year.

Exactly one year ago, I posted the results of about a half hour’s worth of data collection on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) plants.  I had noticed that plants in one part of one of our restored Platte River Prairies seemed to have a lot more flowering stems than in another part of the same prairie.  It was pretty easy to walk around and count enough stems in both patches and see if my observation could be confirmed by data.  It was.  Gayfeather plants growing in the half that had been burned and grazed intensively during the previous year had many more flowering stems than those growing in the half that hadn’t been burned and was only lightly grazed.

This photo was taken back in 2017, and shows a huge dotted gayfeather plant in an area where the previous year’s burning/grazing had reduced grass competition.  You can also see an abundance of yarrow and stiff goldenrod that seemed to respond positively to the less competition.

At the time, I speculated that perhaps the reduced competition from grazed/stressed grasses had allowed the dotted gayfeather plants an opportunity to produce a lot more flowering stems.  You can read last year’s post for more details on my hypothesis, if you like, but in that post I’d promised to revisit the site again in future years to see if patterns of stem abundance fit my guess.

Well, I kept my promise yesterday, and the results are very interesting!

The number of stems per plant in the east half of the prairie didn’t really change between 2017 and 2018.  That half was has been largely ungrazed for the last couple years but was burned this spring and is currently being grazed pretty intensively.  The west half is where I noticed many more stems per plant in 2017 (the year after it was burned and grazed).  However, in 2018, the number of stems/plant in the west half came way down to match that in the east.  My initial hypothesis is supported!  (The error bars here represent 95% confidence intervals, for those of you who care about that sort of thing.)

The above graph shows averages based on counts of 58 and 63 plants from the east half of the prairie in 2017 and 2018, respectively.  In the west half, I counted 53 plants in 2017 and 43 in 2018 – it was harder to find flowering plants in 2018, making me wonder if some didn’t bloom or if they were just hidden in the dense grass (or both).

The west half of the prairie, was burned/grazed in 2016 and had very high numbers of  gayfeather stems/plant in 2017.  It was completely rested from grazing last year and is only getting very light grazing pressure in 2018.  As a result, grasses have recovered very well, and now grow pretty thickly around the dotted gayfeather plants.  My prediction was that as grasses recovered, the number of gayfeather stems would decrease.  They did.  In 2017, I was finding a lot of plants with stem numbers in the 20’s and 30’s, and one gigantic plant had 51 stems!  In the same area a year later, I found one plant with 21 stems and all the rest had 10 or fewer (most had 3 or fewer).

In the west half of the prairie, grasses have recovered after two years of near complete rest, and dotted gayfeather plants now have a lot more competition for light and space.  Most plants had only a few flowering stems, and based on how hard I had to look to find them, I wonder if many didn’t even flower this year.

Meanwhile, the east half was burned this spring and has been getting pretty intensive grazing all season long.  Cattle have been mainly focusing on grasses like big bluestem and Indiangrass.  It’s pretty similar to the way the west half was grazed in 2016, though this year’s high rainfall has let some grasses grow faster than the cattle can eat them.  As a result, the overall grazing intensity – and the stress on grass plants – won’t be quite as strong as it was when the west half was grazed in 2016, but I’m hoping it will be enough that grasses will be much less competitive in 2019.  If so, and if my hypothesis is right, I should see gayfeather stem numbers go way up in 2019 in this area.

In the east half of the prairie, this year’s burn has led cattle to graze grasses fairly intensively.  Those grasses should be much less competitive next year, and I expect to see gayfeather plants produce a lot more stems per plant.  We’ll see if I’m right in about a year.

So far, I’ve invested about 2 hours worth of time on this project.  That includes about 30 minutes of data collection each year (walking around and counting stems on all the plants I encountered) and about the same amount of time entering the data and creating a graph.  Despite that, I’m gaining confidence that my initial hypothesis about grass competition and gayfeather stem numbers was on the right track.  A year from now, if gayfeather stem numbers increase dramatically in the east half (burned and grazed this year) and stay about the same in the west, I’ll be pretty confident in my answer.

Now, my results aren’t going to cure cancer or likely change the world in any measurable way.  I probably won’t submit my results to a peer-reviewed journal (although I might actually submit a “note” if the results warrant it).  On the other hand, I’m learning a lot, and what I’m observing is a small clue to a larger puzzle.  I’ve got years of much more rigorous data showing that short-lived wildflowers respond very positively after grazing reduces the vigor of competing grasses.  That wildflower response, however, has mostly been from the germination of new plants that fill in while grasses are weak and then die out again as grasses retake their previous territory.

My observations of dotted gayfeather are giving me some intriguing insight into how long-lived perennial plants might respond to the same reduction of grass competition.  It appears likely that at least some long-lived plants are able to take advantage of that lighter competition by producing many more stems, leaves, and flowers.  That increase must certainly benefit pollinators, and maybe other organisms that feed on gayfeather.  Is it also important to the long-term survival of the plants?  Good question!  The plants sure create a lot more seeds when they make more flowers.  It would be really interesting to know if the plants also produce a bonanza of new buds at their bases (those buds are what allow them to grow new stems in the future).

Regardless of whether more flowering stems has long-term benefits of the plant itself, the phenomenon sure provides an abundance of resources for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

Remember – this whole story started because I happened to notice a lot of flowers in one part of our prairies and took 30 minutes to count them.  That kind of cyclical curiosity and observation is the foundation of science, and is the reason we’ve learned what we have about the world around us.  Who knows – maybe my little gayfeather project will lead others to build upon my observations with a more rigorous project that will lead to greater understanding of plant communities, competition, and response to grazing and other stresses.  Whether it does or not, I’m already getting what I wanted out of the project – I’m having fun, learning something new, and stimulating my brain to come up with more questions about the prairies I love.

What are you seeing?  What kinds of questions are tickling your brain as a result?  Do you have a spare hour or two to explore a little further?  Think of what all of us could be learning with just a little bit of time and effort!

Admirable, Abundant, and Adaptable, But Not Aggressive

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.

Marestail is an annual/biennial plant with tiny flowers and fluffy wind-blown seeds. Marestail is abundant across much of Nebraska this year, including in this flat area at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

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.

During late summer, marestail flowers and produces seed heads, helping it stand out from the surrounding vegetation.

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.

Call me crazy, but I think marestail adds an attractive texture to the grassland this year.

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.

Marestail might not have big showy flowers, but it can still be an attractive part of a landscape, especially if you know it isn’t dangerous.  If you’re still not a fan after reading this, just squint your eyes and pretend it’s a funny-looking grass.

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?

Apply Now for the Hubbard Fellowship!

We are now accepting applications for the 6th class of Hubbard Fellows with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.  Application deadline is September 21, and the position will run from February 2019 through January of 2020.

This has been one of the most satisfying programs I’ve ever been involved with.  The opportunity to supervise and mentor young, bright future conservation leaders is incredibly energizing, and fills me with hope.  If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about the Fellowship, you can click here or just go to the Hubbard Fellowship tab at the top of this blog’s home page.

Current Fellows Alex and Olivia (left), along with TNC staffer Amanda Hefner and former Fellow Katharine Hogan prepare themselves to collect data at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

The Hubbard Fellowship program is designed to help recent college graduates get comprehensive experience with a conservation organization and give them a big leg up toward their career.  The hope is to bypass the need to spend several years working short-term seasonal jobs to gain a variety of experiences by giving them all those experiences within one position.

Fellows become an integral part of our land management and restoration team – harvesting and planting seeds, killing weeds, clearing trees and brush, fixing fences, helping with bison roundups, and much more.  They also collect data and interact with a number of scientists and research projects.  Beyond that, however, they are also very active in communication and outreach, leading volunteer work days and sandhill crane viewing tours, speaking to various audiences, writing blog posts and newsletter articles, and helping with our social media presence.  They get a chance to learn about and help with fundraising, see how budgeting and financial management works, and become active participants in conservation strategy meetings and discussions.  Fellows attend our statewide board meetings, are active participants in our statewide strategy meetings and workshops, and attend multiple conferences in and out of the state.

On a tour during a statewide conservation conference, Dillon and Jasmine pause to contemplate their futures.

Beyond those experiences, Fellows also develop and implement an independent project that both fits their particular interests and fills a need for our program.  Those projects have included field research, social science research, enhancing our volunteer program, developing educational materials, and more.  Those projects give Fellows in-depth experience within a topic of interest, but also a substantial accomplishment to point to as they move toward graduate school or apply for permanent jobs.

Evan collects insects for a research project being conducted by a visiting scientist from Kansas State University.

We are looking for motivated, future conservation leaders who want to live and work in rural Nebraska and become an integral part of our conservation efforts for a year.  The application process includes a short essay and letter of reference, in addition to a cover letter and resume.  All materials must be submitted by midnight on September 21, 2018.  Housing is provided for the Fellows, right in the middle of our Platte River Prairies, west of Grand Island, Nebraska.

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.  Thanks!

Katharine and Eric explore a waterfall at the Niobrara Valley Preserve during a staff canoe trip down the Niobrara River.

2018 Grassland Restoration Network, September 5 and 6 – Register Now!

It’s time again for and annual Grassland Restoration Network – one of my favorites.  If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve read about the workshops and some of the lessons I’ve gleaned from them.   If you’re active in prairie restoration – especially as a strategy for conservation – you would probably enjoy attending.  This will be a rare year in which I won’t be able to make the workshop, which is a bummer, but it sounds like it will be a great one.  It’s being held September 5 and 6, and is hosted this year by the Forest Preserve District of Kane County and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory – about an hour west of Chicago.

If you’re interested, you can read more details and find a link for registration HERE.

Photo of the Week – June 22, 2018

This week, I’ve been feeling grateful that I have places close to home where I can chase little creatures around with my camera.  Of course, insects and spiders live just about everywhere, but between my backyard prairie garden and the small restored prairies on the other side of my small town, I’m set up pretty well.  During the last five or six days, I’ve had some really nice light to work with, and have managed to capture quite a few images of tiny prairie animals, either in my yard or across town.  Here are three of those:

I’ve been trying to get a good photo of a lynx spider like this one for years, but the little buggers have been too quick for me. For some reason, this one was sitting still on a milkweed leaf at Lincoln Creek Prairie this week, and stayed still while I crept close enough to take its picture.
This stilt bug, and/or others like it, have been hanging around on the black-eyed Susan flowers in our backyard this week.  Stilt bugs feed on nectar, and some species may be at least occasionally predatory as well.
A Reakirt’s blue butterfly hides among the flowers of lead plant. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.