Total Eclipse on the Prairie

Well, if you’re expecting photos of the sun with the shadow of the moon in front of it, I’m sorry to disappoint you.  I figured every other photographer in the world would be taking that photo, so I zigged when they zagged.

We were really fortunate that our Platte River Prairies were right smack in the middle of the path of totality for this year’s solar eclipse, and despite some high clouds here and there, we ended up with a very nice clear view of the eclipse.  We hosted a viewing event for about 150 of our good friends, and it was a truly magical experience.  I don’t really have a lot to say about the science of the eclipse (I was mostly trying to enjoy the experience, not analyze it) but thought I’d share a few photos of what the experience was like on the ground.

Standing around watching people look at the sun through goofy glasses was an experience in itself…

My brother-in-law, Austin Bontrager is an amateur astronomer and greatly enhanced our experience by giving an introductory presentation and then setting up his telescope with a camera and live feed of the sun we could watch on a big monitor. Seeing the eclipse happen on an image of the sun the size of a basketball was extraordinary – especially the chance to see sun spots and solar flares at the same time.

This kid had the best eclipse mask of the day.

Despite quite a few people at the event, everyone was able to spread out and find their own personal piece of prairie to watch from. It really didn’t feel crowded at all.

As we neared totality, we got the 360 degrees of sunset color we’d heard about. It was truly amazing.

Once the moon had completely covered the sun, it was safe to look at it without protective glasses. We had a little more than 2 minutes before the signal sounded to put our glasses back on, and the first bright beam of sunlight came bursting out again.

The two minutes or so of totality blew by really fast. There wasn’t really much time to pay attention to whether insect sounds changed or evening flowers opened. We were all too busy just soaking in the experience.

We had visitors from around Nebraska, as well as from states like Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, and others. Based on our first experience with a total solar eclipse, Kim and I are already talking about trying to travel somewhere in the patch of totality to see the 2024 eclipse…

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Photo of the Week – August 18, 2017

A few years ago, with technical and financial help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, we fenced out the pond at our family’s land and installed solar-powered livestock watering facilities.  It was something I’d wanted to do since taking over management of the land, and I was excited to see what positive impacts might result.  As expected, keeping cattle out of the pond has really transformed it.  The water is much less muddy and vegetation has grown up around and in the water, creating some really nice wetland habitat.  Taking advantage of the new habitat conditions are hordes of dragonflies, damselflies along with many other invertebrates, frogs and water birds.  In addition we find tracks of other wildlife all around the edge of the water.

Here is the shallow end of our pond last week, with lots of blue mud plantain, along with arrowhead, pondweed, and other wetland vegetation.  We’ll still use cattle to manage habitat conditions, but now we can let them in when we want to, and for specific purposes, rather than having them stomp around the pond all the time.

One small but really pleasant surprise has been the establishment of a little plant called blue mud plantain (Heteranthera limosa).  It’s an annual emergent wetland plant that is pretty common around Nebraska but it’s gorgeous and I’d never seen it on our land before this year.  All of a sudden, it’s taken over much of the shallow water areas of our wetland and I couldn’t be happier.  It’s not a rare plant, and I have no idea how valuable it might be for wildlife or pollinators – I’ve just always thought it was a pretty little wetland plant and I was excited to find it at our place.  I spent a little time photographing it last week and came away with wet elbows, wet knees, and some nice images of this great little plant.

Blue mud plantain in all its glory…


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Down A Deer Vetch Rabbit Hole

A single observation recently led me down a pleasant rabbit hole of data, plant species trends, and unanswered questions about interactions between climate, grazing, fire, soils, and other factors.  Read on if you want to follow me down that hole…

The journey started because I noticed an abundance of deer vetch (Lotus unifoliolatus) in one of our restored prairies this year.  Deer vetch (also known as American bird’s-foot trefoil, though not the bird’s-foot trefoil you’ve probably heard of) is a native annual legume that likes sandy soils.  It’s a neat little plant and we target it during seed harvesting efforts to ensure that it shows up well in our restored prairies.  I first noticed a lot of deer vetch in the portion of prairie that was burned and intensively grazed all of last year, so I figured it was responding to that grazing.  But then I found even bigger patches of it in the other half of the same prairie where there had been no fire and only very light grazing.  Interesting…

Deer vetch, aka American bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus unifoliolatus – formerly Lotus purshianus)

This prairie was established on former cropland in 2000, using a seed mix of about 180 different prairie and wetland species.  It is one of our showiest sites, in terms of flower abundance and color.  Below are a couple photos of from the portion of the prairie that was burned in the spring and intensively grazed all summer (as part of a patch-burn grazing system).  You can see from the images that most of the grass was grazed pretty short all season.  Many of the wildflowers in the burned patch were also grazed, but some still managed to bloom and set seed.  I apparently didn’t get any photos from the unburned/ungrazed side of the prairie last year, so you’ll just have to squint at these and imagine them with taller grass and more blooming flowers…

In 2016, the west half of this restored prairie was burned and then grazed intensively all season. This August 2016 photo shows that most of the grass was very short, though at least some wildflowers were ungrazed.

Here’s another August 2016 photo of the intensively grazed portion of the prairie. Note the grazed Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) plant near the lower left corner of the image. That species and rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) are two of the favorites of cattle at our sites.

As it happens, I collect data from this particular site every other year as part of a project looking at how plant communities respond to management within our prairies.  To collect the data, I walk back and forth across the prairie and lay down a plot frame at regular intervals.  I list all the plant species that occur within that one square meter plot frame each time I set it down.  The data allow me to look at trends in individual species populations and at how species diversity/richness changes over time.  Here is the data for deer vetch, which confirms my observation that it is having a particularly good year.  In 2017, it showed up in about 35% of my sampling plots.

The relatively steady increase of deer vetch over time made me wonder if other short-lived plants were acting the same way.  I pulled out some of the more common annual and biennial species at that prairie and graphed them out.

In order, the species on this graph are: small peppergrass, six-weeks fescue, annual sunflower, yellow woodsorrel, black medic, and deer vetch.

Clearly, not all the short-lived plants were following the same trend as deer vetch, but it was striking to see how many had a peak in abundance in 2013, the year after our severe 2012 drought.  That makes sense since the drought was pretty hard on perennial grasses and other strong competitors in the prairie.  It created space for opportunistic plants to exploit.  However, not all of the short-lived plants followed the same pattern of response to the 2013 drought.

The plants listed on this graph are marestail, downy brome, and white sweet clover, though I lump downy/Japanese brome and white/yellow sweet clover together in my data.

None of the three species in the above graph show any noticeable response to the drought.  Instead, they each seem to be on their own path.  Marestail has declined significantly since the early days of the prairie’s existence, but had a resurgence (for some reason?) in 2015.  Sweet clover has been persisting at relatively low levels during the entire life of the restoration, and annual brome has been on a steady increase, much like deer vetch.  We’re far enough east that our average annual rainfall (25 inches/year) keeps annual brome from being problematic, so I’m not concerned about that increase, but I was curious whether or not deer vetch and annual brome were filling a gap left by the decline of other species.

Next stop on the rabbit hole journey coming up…

The species in this graph’s legend are Canada wildrye, big bluestem, Indiangrass, short-beaked sedge, and Kentucky bluegrass.

Thinking maybe declining grass dominance might explain the rise of deer vetch and annual brome, I looked at how the populations of perennial grasses are doing at the site.  In most cases, they are on an upward trend.  The above graph shows some of the more abundant perennial grasses and sedges in the prairie and the graph below shows some of the less abundant species.  (There are many more grass species not shown because they don’t appear often enough in my sampling plots to see patterns.)  A glaring exception to the overall pattern is Canada wildrye (Elymus canadensis) which seems to be following the same pattern as it does in most of our restored prairies – it is very abundant when the prairie is young and then gradually declines to about 30% occurrence after 10-15 years.

These less abundant (but still common) grasses are: Scribner’s panicum, switchgrass, little bluestem, tall dropseed, and smooth brome.

By this point, I’d kind of forgotten why I’d started my journey, but after looking at annual plants and perennial grasses, it seemed logical to look next at perennial wildflowers.  Some of those species have also been pretty steadily increasing over time, and may or may not be leveling off in recent years.

Plants listed in the legend are western ragweed, wild bergamot, woolly yarrow, and stiff sunflower.

Other perennial wildflowers have had much less predictable paths, with big jumps between sampling periods, during which they (at least) doubled their level of occurrence in my sampling plots.  Interestingly, those jumps happened in different years for each species.  Having data only from every other year makes it tricky to interpret these patterns, but it seems clear that each of these species is responding a little differently to factors such as climate, fire, grazing, and/or competition from other plants.

These species are Illinois bundleflower, hoary vervain, stiff goldenrod, and heath aster.

Many of the wildflowers shown in the above two graphs are species that I’d expect to thrive under patch-burn grazing.  With the exception of stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) and heath aster (Aster ericoides), they are plants that cattle don’t particularly care to eat.  The plant species I watch most carefully under this kind of management are those that are favorites of cattle.  The graph below shows those species maintaining very steady population numbers.  None of them are super abundant, but they’re holding their places very well.

Species here are white prairie clover (purple prairie clover shows a similar pattern but is slightly less abundant), Canada milkvetch, and rosinweed.

Prairie clovers (Dalea sp) are certainly enjoyed by cattle, but rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) must taste like brownies to our cattle – they are grazed down to the ground wherever they grow, regardless of whether they’re in the burned or unburned portion of the prairie.  Because of the affinity cattle have for species like this, we periodically exclude cattle from our prairies for an entire growing season, giving those plants a chance to bloom and produce seeds, buds, and rhizomes.  This is actually one of those years in which we’ve excluded cattle, and it’s nice to see abundant flowers from both the rosinweed and milkvetch.

Canada milkvetch is blooming prolifically this year in the absence of cattle – it is shown here in the same area that was grazed intensively all last year and grass vigor is still suppressed.

Here’s Canada milkvetch in the area not grazed hard last year – the grasses are much taller here…

Of course, looking at how individual species are doing made me wonder how all those trends add up at the community level.  Here is a graph showing how the average species richness (number of species) at the square meter level has changed over time.

This graph shows the average number of plant species found in square meter plots each year. In our part of Nebraska, 10-12 plant species per meter is a very respectable number.  It appears we may have reached a saturation point for species density in this site, though there is still variation from year to year.

Looking through all of these data, I see two main themes.  First, I see a restored prairie that is still finding its identity, even after 17 years.  Some plant species are still increasing in their abundance (including many not shown here). I expect many of those trends to level off within the next several years as those species find and colonize all the little patches of prairie where they are well adapted to growing.  That would fit with what seems to be a plateau in terms of species richness per square meter.  I don’t see any plant species (including those not shown here) that have disappeared from the site, and only a few short-lived species that have declined precipitously over time – and even those still appear to remain embedded within the community, able to proliferate whenever the right conditions appear.

Second, I see positive signs of ecological resilience in the way many of these plant species have quickly increased and decreased their population sizes over time.  Sometimes I can tell what conditions (fire, grazing, drought) might have led to those population changes, but other times I can’t.  Regardless, the ability of a community to flex and adapt as conditions change is a key component of ecological resilience, and it’s really great to see that within a restored prairie.


……..What was I talking about again?

Oh yeah, deer vetch.  Yep, deer vetch is doing really well this year.  Thanks for asking.

One last photo of the area burned and intensively grazed in 2016. Rosinweed (yellow flower in the foreground) can be seen blooming throughout the site, along with many more opportunistic plants such as the pink-flowered wild bergamot.

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Photo of the Week – August 11, 2017

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that I take a lot of photos of insects, especially on flowers.  For some reason, my eyes just gravitate toward flowers in search of little invertebrates.  Over the last couple weeks, though, I’ve made a concerted effort to take at least a few photos of few flowers that didn’t have insects.  As it turns out, flowers are kinda pretty all on their own.

Here are a few.

Illinois tickclover (Desmodium illinoensis). Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Entire-leaved rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Velvety gaura (Gaura parviflora). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Roundheaded bushclover (Lespedeza capitata). Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Rocky mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

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Miscellaneous Sightings

One of the best perks of my job is simply that I get to be outside enough to see a lot of interesting ecological phenomena.  Today, I thought I’d share a few vignettes from the last couple weeks.

Monarch caterpillar (finally) on common milkweed.

Last year, we set out to count monarch caterpillars on our sites, hoping to compare numbers between various management treatments.  We were stymied by the fact that there were almost no caterpillars to be found anywhere, let alone enough to make comparisons.  This year, I assumed the numbers would be better, but since finding eggs and caterpillars in May from the early migrants from Mexico that arrived this spring, I haven’t seen any caterpillars until this week.  And I only found one this week.  Whoopee.

Dodder flowers on Maximilian sunflower. Platte River Prairies.

Dodder is a fascinating parasitic plant that wraps its plastic twine-looking self around prairie plants like sunflowers and goldenrods and more.  Later in the season, the orange twine dries up and disappears, leaving only the fuzzy spirals of flower/seed heads on the stems of its host plants.  If you didn’t see both of them together, you might never guess the twine and fuzzy spirals were from the same plant.  This week, dodder is in transition, with both flowers and twine at the same time.

A male brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis) perches high in the prairie, hoping to find and mate with an emerging queen of its species.

A few years ago, I found out about a fun behavior by male brown-belted bumblebees.  As colonies start producing queens for the next year, males spread out across the prairie and wait for those queens to enter the world.  The males sit on tall perches for hours, scanning for big females.  Once they see one, they (and all the other males who spot her) race to be the first to mate with her.  This week, they were at it again.  I’m really glad to have been clued into this really cool phenomenon.  Otherwise, I’d probably just see the bees and assume they were resting.

Finally, I’d like to thank those who helped with and attended our field day last Saturday.  The forecast didn’t look promising but the rain cleared out right before the event started and we ended up having fantastic weather.  The attendance was lower than hoped because of the forecast, but we still had people from at least 7 states and U.S. territories and we all learned a lot about prairie ecology and invertebrates.  Big thanks to presenters Julie Peterson of University of Nebraska Extension, Rae Powers of Xerces Society, and Sarah Bailey of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, along with Kayla Mollet and Katie Lamke from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Hey Ed, your mom caught a toad.

Julie Peterson (pink shirt, blue hat) shows attendees an insect.

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Photo of the Week – August 3, 2017

Quick note on this Saturday’s Field Day.  We will be there rain or shine, and have indoor presentations , if needed, if rain keeps us from seeing insects outdoors during part of the day.  Please come join us for this free event!

A painted lady nectars from lanceleaf blazing star in the Platte River Prairies this week.

All of a sudden, painted lady butterflies have exploded onto the scene here in central Nebraska.  They are fluttering around all the flowers in our yard and are abundant in our prairies as well.  Painted lady butterflies are migratory, but this latest flush isn’t due to a new set of arrivals from further south.  Instead, a new batch of adults has just emerged after spending the last several weeks as caterpillars in prairies and other locations – including soybean fields.

In soybean fields, the caterpillars are known as thistle caterpillars and feed on the leaves of the bean plants.  According to my father-in-law Orvin Bontrager, a long-time agronomist, they don’t usually do enough damage to impact yields, though the damage can look a little scary to farmers.  For the rest of us, there’s nothing scary about these welcome accents to wildflower patches everywhere.  Here are a few more photos from this week of painted ladies in my yard and nearby prairies.

…on black-eyed Susan in our yard

…on whorled milkweed in our yard

…on rosinweed in the Platte River Prairies

…on Flodman’s thistle (native wildflower) in the Platte River Prairies


(Fun fact – painted lady butterflies are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia.  They also some make migratory flights that make monarchs look like amateurs.  Speaking of monarchs, they inhabit a larger slice of the earth than you might be aware of too…  Don’t get me started, I could spout insect trivia all day!)

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Popular Sunflowers

Plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) is an annual plant that responds quickly to bare ground in the Nebraska Sandhills.  They pop up after fire, intensive grazing, pocket gopher activity or something else allows light to hit the soil.  At times, they can be widespread, as they were the year after the 2012 drought. More often, they are found scattered about the prairie in patches of sparse vegetation.  They have started to bloom in earnest over the last couple of weeks, adding beautiful accents to the summer prairie.

Last week, I spent an hour photographing sunflowers and the wide variety of small creatures I found hanging about on them.  In just one hour, I spotted a pretty incredible abundance and diversity of invertebrates within an area smaller than my backyard.  Sunflowers, especially annual sunflowers, are considered by some to be weeds, but these native wildflowers play really important roles in prairie ecology.  Their seeds are extremely valuable as food sources for many wildlife species and their young leaves and flower buds/blossoms are quality forage for other species, including cattle.  During this time of year, the abundant and accessible pollen and nectar of the flowers is what seemed to be attracting the invertebrates I saw.  Here is a selection of photos displaying some of those sunflower visitors.

A variety of grasshopper, katydid, and tree cricket species are all commonly found feeding on the flower parts and pollen of sunflowers.  Weevils, long-horned beetles, and other beetles are also frequently seen.

Weevils and other beetles (including the one at the top right of this photo) were also present on many of the sunflowers I saw.

Hover fly

As a small female bee (Perdita albipennis) was gathering pollen from this sunflower, a male zipped in and began mating with her. She dragged him around and just kept foraging…

Wasps, like this paper wasp, were crawling around the stems and leaves of the sunflowers, apparently gathering extra-floral nectar that was also attracting abundant ants.

The abundance of herbivores, pollinators, and other insects on the flowers and vegetation of the sunflowers seemed to attract a number of predators as well, including robber flies, spiders, and assassin bugs.

A robber fly perches on a flower bud.

A tiny crab spider.

Assassin bug.

It was hard to see for sure, but I’m pretty sure this assassin bug was feeding on an individual of the same Perdita bee species shown above.

I hope these photos, all taken from a small area and within a short time period, help illustrate the kind of resource annual sunflowers can be in the Sandhills.  I’m sure many other wildflowers host similar numbers of invertebrates, but the height and conspicuous nature of sunflowers make it really easy to see and appreciate their value.

Annual sunflowers aren’t aggressive – they just take advantage of open soil and available root space.  As vegetation recovers from whatever event caused it to become sparse, sunflower abundance diminishes…until they get another opportunity to pop back from seeds and make their contribution to the prairie ecosystem.

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Photo of the Week – July 28, 2017

My daughter and I are on a short working vacation in the Nebraska Sandhills this week, so I don’t have much time to write.  Instead, here are two of my favorite photos from my trip to the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week.

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A metallic green sweat bee (Agapostemon splendens) feeds on purple prairie clover, displaying its long tongue. (thanks to Mike Arduser for identifying this)

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Pollinators and Insect Conservation Field Day – August 5

Here are some more details on our upcoming field day at the Platte River Prairies on Saturday August 5.  The day will run from 9 am to 2 pm and will focus on pollinators and other invertebrates.  We’ll talk about ecology and natural history of invertebrates, but also about invertebrate-friendly strategies for prairie restoration and management.  The format will all be field-based, so our presenters will be talking as they lead hikes around the prairie.

The gray hairstreak butterfly is just one of many insects we should see on August 5. Did you also notice the little beetle next to it? Come learn about both the easily visible and more hidden aspects of the invertebrate world!

Jennifer Hopwood of the Xerces Society will be on hand to talk about pollinator insect ecology and conservation issues.  Julie Peterson, with University of Nebraska extension will be talking about other invertebrates.  They’re both really engaging and have strong expertise, so be ready to see (and catch!) some insects and learn all kinds of new information.

In addition, Sarah Bailey of Prairie Plains Resource Institute (PPRI) will be leading tours of our restored prairies and talking about restoration methods that favor pollinators and other invertebrates.  Sarah and PPRI have restored well over 10,000 acres of prairie in eastern Nebraska in recent years with high diversity native seed mixtures.  I will also be leading tours and talking about how to use fire and grazing management to sustain strong and diverse invertebrate/pollinator populations.

The field day is free and open to the public, and should be useful to nature enthusiasts and their families, as well as conservation professionals.  You can come anytime between 9 and 2 and join in with whatever tours are going on.  Bring your own lunch and water bottles, but we’ll provide snacks and cold drinks as well.  Be sure to bring along whatever other field supplies you need – sunscreen, hat, insect repellant, etc.

The prairies should be putting on a good show – we’ve had some recent rains and the wildflowers and insects are having a really good year.  I hope to see you there!

Location: The Nature Conservancy’s Derr House.  Take the Wood River Exit (#300) off Interstate 80 and head south for two miles.  When the highway curves sharply to the east, take the gravel road that allows you to continue south and you’ll immediately see the TNC sign and big brick Derr House on your right.  Parking is at the bottom of the hill before you get to the house.

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Hubbard Fellowship Applications Are Being Accepted NOW!

Applications for the next round of Hubbard Fellowships with The Nature Conservancy of Nebraska are being accepted from now until September 8, 2017.  This is a one year position aimed at recent college graduates  – with undergraduate or graduate degrees in natural resources, conservation biology, wildlife biology, or related fields.

The Fellowship is designed to give Fellows a very well-rounded set of experiences and skills that will jump start their conservation careers.  Fellows work on land management and restoration projects, develop and carry out independent projects, attend numerous conferences and other events, visit with and learn from Conservancy staff and partners, and get valuable experience in conservation planning, communications, marketing, budgeting, fundraising, and other aspects of conservation organizations.  They also play important roles in communicating conservation messages to a wide array of audiences.  Supervising the Hubbard Fellowship program has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m excited to keep the program moving forward.

Please click here for more details about the Fellowship.

To apply, click here and then hit the green “view positions” button and search for job # 45644.

The Fellowship runs from January to December 2018 and is based at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, though considerable time will also be spent at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and the Omaha Field Office.

Please forward this to anyone you think might be interested.

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