Photos of the Week – September 18, 2020

This week, I met up with producers Ethan Freese and Grant Reiner from Platte Basin Timelapse. They were gathering footage for a video project on Nebraska wetlands and we spent a couple hours wandering through and talking about The Nature Conservancy’s Derr Sandpit Wetland restoration project. My role was to walk around with my camera while wearing a microphone. I took some pictures, talked about the restoration project, and answered questions about wetlands and ecology in general. In other words, it was a very pleasant morning.

Hazy sunrise over a beaver pond at the Derr Sandpit Wetland. Tokina 11-20mm, ISO 320, 1/250 sec, f/8.

This is a wetland restoration project close to my heart. The restoration process took more than 10 years to complete, mostly because we had to piece the funding together bit by bit. Financial support came from Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and even a memorial fund for my mom. That money helped us convert an old sand and gravel mining site to a beautiful mix of stream and wetland habitat.

We started with a long sandpit lake that had a stream entering at one end and flowing out the other. It was surrounded by trees and big piles of sand, and while it was a good place to catch catfish, the habitat value for most other wildlife was pretty limited. We took out the trees and pushed the sand piles into the water. When we were finally done, the stream flowed through the entire site once more, with multiple channels to choose from, depending on the whims of floods and beavers. There are also some isolated wetland pockets, designed to give tadpoles a place to grow up without having to dodge hungry fish.

Beggars-tick flowers (Bidens, sp) submerged in beaver-flooded pool. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/60 sec, f/11.
Beggars-tick flower (Bidens, sp) submerged in beaver-flooded pool. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/60 sec, f/11.

Today, while the site faces a continual inflow of invasive plants from upstream, it also provides a habitat for a wide variety of animals, including freshwater mussels, beavers, lots of water birds, dragonflies, and much more. I’m told it’s a hot spot for river otters as well, though I’m just taking others’ word for that. The plant community is no slouch either, featuring lots of grasses, sedges, and rushes, but also a nice seasoning of forbs like cardinal flower, blue lobelia, beggar-ticks, winged lythrum (Lythrum alatum) and many others. It’s a really special place, and not just because it hasn’t gone dry like most of its neighboring wetlands have during recent droughts.

It was really nice to spend a morning celebrating this particular wetland and its restoration process, along with other wetlands around the state. We talked briefly about the utilitarian values of wetlands (water filtration, space for floodwaters to spread out and slow down, etc.) but I tried to focus most on the fascinating communities of organisms that live in wetlands. I understand how people can view wetlands as stinky mosquito-ridden swamps, but I’d love a chance to tour a wetland with those same people and introduce them to some of the more interesting plants and animals living there. For now, photos will have to do. Here are some more photos from the morning.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

A band-winged grasshopper, well camouflaged on a sandbar left by this spring’s flooding. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/125 sec, f/16.
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) …invasive but beautiful… Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/125 sec, f/16.
Variegated meadowhawk dragonfly. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.
Orbweaver spider hiding on a blade of grass sticking up out of the water. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.
Field mint (Mentha arvensis). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.
Katydid on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/250 sec, f/14.
Grasshopper on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) near the above katydid. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/160 sec, f/16.
Some kind of big skinny fly? For now, I’ll call it the long-legged white-footed fly. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/160 sec, f/20.
Beggars-tick flowers on wetland edge. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.

Bonus Content:

If you’d like to see and read more about this wetland, here are a few links to older posts on the same site.

Some great trail camera videos by Karen Hemberger

Timelapse photos of the site from back around 2013

A story about a surprise excess of sludge that appeared during restoration

An update about the sludge as the site continued to mature

Lastly, here’s a feature on the site by Platte Basin Timelapse

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Ashley Goes West!

Hi everyone. I always love hearing stories of people discovering that Nebraska has more to offer than the relatively boring landscapes seen from Interstate 80. I always joke that Interstate 80 is our population control strategy – we tried to minimize interesting scenery as much as possible to make sure people don’t want to move here and make the state more crowded. Ashley Oblander, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year, took a personal camping trip to western Nebraska a couple weeks ago and shares stories from that trip here. I think you’ll enjoy them. REMINDER – applications are due September 30, 2020 for the next round of Hubbard Fellows. Click HERE for more information.

Here’s Ashley’s post – –

Despite going to graduate school in Nebraska, I had never ventured very far west in the state. I heard from many people that it was gorgeous and worth a trip, so I finally planned one. To be completely honest, it had been awhile since I had gone on a long solo camping trip, and I was feeling a little nervous. As a woman, there are concerns that come with being alone in remote places. Additionally, we’re in the middle of a pandemic so I wanted to pack everything I would need to minimize stops to gas stations. What does someone who doesn’t eat hot dogs, beef jerky, or lunch meat, and who is limited on space, pack for four days of tent camping? I did what I could to work through these worries and put my mind at ease, then hit the road.

I’m not good about getting pictures with myself in them, so I made it a priority to be better about it on this trip. This shot is from Toadstool National Geologic Park.

My first stop was brought on by a need to get out of the car and stretch my legs. I saw a billboard for Carhenge and thought I should see it. If you aren’t aware of what Carhenge is, here’s a link https://visitnebraska.com/alliance/carhenge. It’s worth the click. Here’s a quote from the sign when you first walk up: “Your first question upon encountering Carhenge might be: Why? But creator Jim Reinders’ answer would simply be Why not?” Hard to argue with that! It’s definitely unique, and I’m glad I made the slight detour.

My next destination was Chadron State Park. I’ve been in the Sandhills, so I was aware that Nebraska has much more to offer than what people assume or see off Interstate-80, but wow. We really do have topography! It’s part of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge, displays gorgeous buttes and canyons, and was Nebraska’s first state park. On my first hike, I noticed a smoke plume coming from the hills in the distance. It turns out that a wildfire had been started by a lightning strike and spread around 200 acres. Fortunately, from what I can tell, no people or property were damaged. I think that’s the closest I’ve gotten to a wildfire, and it was neat to see the smoke and haze distribute.

I didn’t get any great photos of the smoke plume itself, but you can see the haze from the wildfire in the distance of this one. It also shows the topography of Chadron State Park and the aftermath (standing dead trees) of a past fire.

The following day I travelled to Toadstool National Geologic Park. This is a place that defies people’s typical image of Nebraska. I hiked a 5-mile loop that weaved through badlands and prairie and ended in one of the most unique trails I’ve hiked in awhile. It’s at the bottom of a canyon, which gives a unique perspective. That night when I went to get sunset photos a storm was moving in, which gave some cool color to the clouds. If you visit this site, make sure to have a lot of storage space on your camera because everywhere you look there is something picture worthy. There’s also a mile loop that you can hike and use the interpretive brochure to learn more about the unique geology of the area. Interesting and engaging for all ages!

After taking a lot of pictures in the full sun with few clouds, it was fun to have clouds and color to play with.

My final stop was Fort Robinson State Park. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19 most of the historical and educational buildings were closed, but the hiking trails were still open to the public. I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do a lot of macrophotography on the trip so far. That was partially because there weren’t a lot of wildflowers blooming, but also because most days were windy. Wind is great for keeping cool during a long hike, but not so great for capturing flowers and insects that aren’t blurry. However, one morning the wind died down so I took the opportunity to go out and see what I could find and wasn’t disappointed. I came upon a sunflower with its petals stuck together. I inspected further and realized that there was a spider web holding them in that position. I sat patiently and lightly knocked at her door, and eventually the spider graced me with her presence. She was a beauty.

You can see some of the crab spider’s web sticking out from the folded petal. Having the macro lens on the camera makes me see the world differently. I start noticing little things that I wouldn’t have before.
Here’s the spider that came out from under the petal. I couldn’t get a super crisp shot because she wasn’t excited to spend a lot of time with me.
Here’s a crab spider that was a bit more cooperative and sat longer for their close up. I’m not sure what species they were, but they were gorgeous!

Some people may think that a solo camping trip could be boring or lonely, but that wasn’t the case at all. I had interactions with people at campgrounds or on trails, like the man who offered me kindling when my fire was struggling to start or the women that excitedly pointed out that one of the rock formations looked like a turtle. You can also have amazing wildlife interactions when you’re out in nature. Of course, I didn’t have my camera ready for most of these, but I’ll share a couple. On my last hike of the trip, I was sitting on a rock after climbing a steep incline and enjoying the wind blowing across my face and the sounds of nature. Suddenly, a northern harrier came and circled around me. He didn’t mind my presence at all, just went about his day, looking majestic as ever. You don’t have that kind of experience in the city. I also made some animal friends at one of the campgrounds, which you can see below. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any bighorn sheep or prairie rattlesnakes. Maybe next time!

Meadowlark at Toadstool Geologic Park
It was apparent that these critters are used to people at the campground. The meadowlark was hopping around my campsite while I set up, paying me no mind. The thirteen-lined ground squirrel was hiding under my pack and trying to get a drink from my water bottle. It was pretty amusing.

Sure, there were some bumps in the road. I was sore (who knew Nebraska had so many inclines to hike?), I struggled through setting up a tent in gusty, plains winds, my car had some trouble, and in efforts to get a nice photo, I sat right in a patch of sandburs. But I am so incredibly happy that I pushed myself a little out of my comfort zone. There is nothing quite like being alone and immersed in nature. I came back feeling refreshed and in awe of the state that I currently call home. I’ll end with a quote that I think nicely sums up how I felt at the end of the trip:

 “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better” -Albert Einstein