Photos of the Week – May 6, 2022

Today’s post includes a raft of photos I’ve taken over the last month that didn’t really fit into the themes of other posts. I’ll include commentary with some and not with others. Enjoy!

Robust camel cricket (Udeopsylla robusta) at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/400 sec.

These first two photos are from the Platte River Prairies. We came across the cricket (above) during some plant identification practice with the Hubbard Fellows. It’s the first time I’ve noticed a camel cricket along the Platte, but I’m sure they’re common. This one happened to be in the middle of a large patch of open sand on a cold and windy day, so it was easier to see.

I like the photo of sand dropseed (below) because it highlights the ‘flags’ I point out to people as an easy way to identify this species from a distance. After sand dropseed blooms, it wraps its flower in a long papery sheath while its seeds develop. When we harvest seeds of this species for our restoration work, we’re basically clipping long tubes off the tops of the grasses, within which are thousands of tiny seeds. As autumn progresses, the sheaths (those we don’t harvest) open up and drop their seeds. The remains of those sheaths then flutter in the wind all winter and spring, making the species stand out among others.

Banners of last year’s sand dropseed plants (Sporobolus cryptandrus) at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/640 sec.
Grasshopper nymph with tiny ant attached to its foot. Gjerloff Prairie (Prairie Plains Resource Institute). Nikon 105mm macro lens with Raynox dcr-250 macro attachment. ISO 320, f/20, 1/250 sec.

Last week, I shared some wildlife photos, including some from Gjerloff Prairie. Here (above and below) are two I didn’t include. The grasshopper nymph above was feeding on prairie dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata) when I spotted it. As I photographed it, I noticed something sticking to its front foot but didn’t think much about it. Later, when looking through images on my computer, I realized it was an ant! It appears dead and I don’t really have an explanation for why it’s there. The wildflower below is (I think) Platte milkvetch, a charming little plant that grows on the tops of dry loess ridges at Gjerloff Prairie.

Platte milkvetch (Astragalus plattensis). Gjerloff Prairie (Prairie Plains Resource Institute). Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 320, f/22, 1/160 sec.

These next four photos were taken last weekend in the Flint Hills of Kansas. My wife, Kim, was running in a 50 mile race on Saturday and I was, once again, her crew. 50 miles of running, especially when a 35 mile wind is in your face during the second half, takes up most of a day, so I had plenty of time to wander around the landscape on my own. Since it’s a mostly privately-owned landscape, I stayed on or near the road, but still managed to capture a few images that depict the prairie.

Steer in burned prairie – Kansas Flint Hills prairie. Sigma 100-400mm lens @195mm. ISO 500, f/9, 1/320 sec.
Scissor-tailed flycatcher in the Kansas Flint Hills. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/600 sec.

If you’re familiar with the Flint Hills, you may know that a common ranching strategy is something called ‘early double stocking’. The system involves a spring burn and then grazing with yearling cattle for the first half or so of the growing season. Animals are then pulled off in time for grasses to grow back during the late summer and fall so the site can be burned again the following spring. Cattle gain a lot of weight during a short period because of the highly nutritious grass production following a burn.

The early double stocking system seems to work well for ranchers in terms of livestock production and it also helps protect against brush encroachment, which is a major threat in the region. Unfortunately, if too many ranchers use the same strategy, it doesn’t leave much unburned habitat for wildlife that need that, and any species vulnerable to April fires are affected across huge swaths of the landscape. It’s impressive to see the pro-prescribed fire culture in the Flint Hills, but from a conservation standpoint, I’m glad there seems to be a gradual shift toward a little more heterogeneity the application of fire.

Cattle grazing Flint Hills Prairie in Kansas. Sigma 100-400mm lens @100mm. ISO 640, f/5.6, 1/2500 sec.
Ornate box turtle on a gravel road in the Kansas Flint Hills. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, f/20, 1/250 sec.

The last two photos (below) are show a western meadowlark that was singing right outside my viewing blind at the Niobrara Valley Preserve in mid-April when I was photographing sharp-tailed grouse. As with the grasshopper photo earlier, it wasn’t until I got home and looked at images on a large screen that I noticed something about the meadowlark’s feet. In some photos, it was perched on both feet, but in many, it was standing on only its left foot and seemed to have its right tucked up against its body.

This is interesting for a couple reasons. I assume it was doing this as a way to keep its right foot warm on a cold and windy morning. Maybe it rotated which foot it held against its warm body and I just happened to photograph it only when it was hiding its right? Or maybe only its right foot was particularly cold. More fascinating to me is its ability to balance on one foot on a branch while singing on a windy morning. It seemed effortless – the bird certainly wasn’t wobbling around. I know birds don’t weigh much, but I was still impressed.

Western meadowlark. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/800 sec.

It was a rainy week across much of Nebraska this week, bringing much needed relief from the drought conditions across most of the state. Even the three inches we got didn’t come anywhere close to ending those drought conditions, but it sure made everyone feel better. It’ll also be great for the wildflowers blooming during the next few weeks – and all the bees and other insects who rely on them.

Prairie Referees?

As grassland stewards, our greatest challenge is to maintain the ecological resilience of prairies so they can adapt to and survive a changing world.  That resilience relies heavily upon biological diversity because high numbers of species helps ensure that important roles are filled, no matter what stressors are affecting the prairie.

Unfortunately, managing land for biological diversity is hard.  Of course it is – the natural world is incredibly complex and dynamic.  None of us has the capacity to become familiar with all the species that live at a single site, let alone how they interact with each other.  How can we be expected to make land management decisions that take care of the needs of all those species and their interconnected communities?

Gjerloff Prairie is a diverse loess hills prairie along the Platte River in Hamilton County, Nebraska. Owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute, it thrives under a varied management regime that includes both fire and grazing.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I look at it:  All the species in a prairie are competing with others for space and resources.  Our job is to manage the game such that ensures nobody always wins and nobody always loses.  If we can do that, all those species should be able to persist and keep contributing to the resilience of the prairie.

When my kids were 7 or 8 years old, they started playing soccer in our town’s recreational program and I volunteered to be a coach.  At that age level, coaches also acted as referees during games, chasing clusters of kids around the field and encouraging them – while also teaching and enforcing rules.  By mutual, unspoken consent, the two ‘opposing’ coach/referees also worked to make sure that no team or player was able to dominate the game.  After all, the goal was to make sure all the kids were having fun and were excited to keep playing.

In many ways, that coach/referee role at soccer games was the same role I was playing as a prairie land steward.  At the soccer field, I substituted players on and off the field or shifted them from offense to defense (not that there was much distinction at that age).  I wanted the strong players to score and enjoy themselves, but I didn’t want them to hog the ball so much other players got bored or frustrated.  In the prairie, I was using fire, grazing, mowing, and herbicides to manage plant competition and prevent any species from dominating too much.  I was also trying to create a broad variety of habitat conditions around the prairie so animals could find the resources they needed to compete at their best.

As I’ve learned more about prairie species and ecology, I’ve also improved my ability to recognize and manage competition among ‘players’ in the prairie.  The more plant species I’ve learned to identify, the better I’ve gotten at evaluating their responses to each other and to various management actions.  I’ve also become more familiar with animals beyond birds and other common vertebrates.  As that’s happened, I’ve started to see prairies through the eyes of bees, spiders, grasshoppers, and other creatures.  Improving my understanding of their needs and abilities has made me better at providing what they need to be most successful.

I’m still learning about Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and trying to understand how it plays with others in our local prairies but it doesn’t appear to tolerate being heavy defoliated. While cows don’t ordinarily like it much, they’ll graze it when we manage with patch-burn grazing or similar shifting-mosaic approaches. Over the years, goldenrod seems to become much less dominant under that management.
There are lots of different grasshopper species (well over 100 in Nebraska) and they differ widely in diet and habitat preferences. However, large patches of bare or sparsely vegetated ground can attract abundant grasshoppers, which (in addition to being important and fascinating creatures) are vital food sources for birds and many other animals.

Every land steward manages competition, even if they’re trying to optimize production of one thing (e.g., corn, grass, pheasants, or rare plants).  In that case, though, instead of working to balance competition and keep as many players on the field as they can, they’re playing favorites.  There can be good reasons to do that, but it can also be dangerous if unbalanced competition starts to reduce the diversity and resilience (and thus the consistent productivity and function) of the system supporting that favorite species or group. 

Big bluestem can form dense near-monoculture stands after fire in our local prairies. Grazing after fire can counter that response, however, and encourage strong plant diversity.
Each of the wildflowers and grasses in this prairie respond somewhat differently to fire and grazing management, but an approach that varies management pressure and timing from year to year can help keep all them around (along with a vast network of large and small animals that depend upon each species).

Regardless of management objectives, the more you know about the players in the game, the better manager you’ll be.  If you can’t tell one species from another, you won’t be able to see how the composition of a community changes over time.  If you can’t detect change, you can’t evaluate the impacts of your management decisions.  Once you recognize a species, you can also start to watch what it does, how it interacts with its surroundings, and how its population fares as conditions shift.

Grassland birds like this western meadowlark have fairly well defined habitat needs, but it’s important to think beyond birds, whose presence and abundance is largely determined by prairie size and vegetation structure.
This moth was feeding on – and potentially pollinating – a milkweed flower when this crab spider captured it. Learning about these kinds of complex interactions between species helps managers make better decisions.

None of us will ever become familiar with identities and lives of all the species that live in our sites, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn as much as we can.  Take the time to go to workshops and hang around with people who know what you don’t.  Spend some time wandering the sites you manage instead of just traveling across them to accomplish specific tasks.  Yes, you’re busy; I don’t know any land steward who thinks they have enough time to do everything that’s needed.  Find time anyway.  It matters.

Finally, whether you’re fairly new to land management or an old salt, don’t let incomplete knowledge paralyze you from taking action.  Do your best to balance competition as you understand it and pay close attention to the results.  If you notice any players consistently getting the upper hand, adjust your strategies accordingly.  It’s a long game; we just have to keep as many players in it as we can.