Pondering Winter Wildlife Cover From My Comfy Couch

It’s a good ol’ fashioned blizzard here today.  As I’m sitting snugly in my warm house, I’m feeling a little badly for some of wildlife out there in the snow and wind.  The boys went outside to play in the snow for a little while, and both of them spent most of their time building shelters from the weather.  Many wildlife species, of course, migrate to warmer places or find/build themselves underground burrows to overwinter in, but there are some animals out there in the prairie right now, and this has to be a bad day for them.

Calvin was able to dig out a little shelter in a drift. He was still pretty glad to come in and get some hot chocolate a few minutes later…

Sitting here on my comfortable couch, I’ve been thinking about the prairies I manage or help with, trying to remember what kind of cover is out there.  Overall, I feel pretty good about the situation.  Our shifting habitat mosaic approach involves providing a wide range of vegetation structure types in each of our prairies, including everything from short sparse vegetation to the kind of thick dense cover wildlife are probably seeking out today.  Nelson  (our Platte River Prairies land manager) and I have periodic conversations in which we try to envision ourselves as creatures that prefer various habitat types.  How far would we have to travel to find cover?  If we burn one patch of dense cover, where is the next closest patch of similar cover, and what would animals have to travel through to get to it?  We have a lot of factors to consider and balance as we discuss management plans each year, so it’s always helpful to see the world through the eyes of the various species that will have to live with (literally) the decisions we make.

To be completely honest, I probably don’t think enough about winter cover as I’m trying to consider the perspective of various creatures.  I’m more often thinking about nesting habitat for birds, breeding cover for small mammals, or sunning areas for invertebrates and reptiles that need to thermoregulate during the growing season.  Days like today are a great reminder that while all those considerations are important, at least some species will probably live or die based on what kind of shelter they can find during winter storms like the one roaring outside right now.

Many parts of our family prairie have pretty short vegetation structure during the winter, but we always try to leave some patches of taller grass as well.  This is kind of in-between.  It’s not really dense enough to provide great cover from the wind, but has places for small animals to hide while they’re out feeding.

I’m thinking today about meadowlarks, for example.  As I’ve walked our prairies during the last month or two, I’ve seen a lot of meadowlarks flying around in small groups.  My understanding is that meadowlarks that breed around here head south to Kansas or Oklahoma, and the ones we see during the winter come from up in the Dakotas.  In other words, meadowlarks don’t migrate en masse to one general destination.  Instead, each bird just goes a little southward from where they spent the summer.  I wonder if they each wait until they start seeing birds from the north show up and then head south to get away from the crowd…

Regardless, birds like western meadowlarks need some kind of shelter out in the prairie on days like this.  We know a lot less about the winter habitats used by grassland birds than we do about summer habitat use, and as far as I know, no intrepid biologist has yet gone out to see where meadowlarks or other birds are hanging out during blizzards.  (If you’re an intrepid biologist who HAS done this, please let me know!)  I think it’s fair to assume that most birds (and any other wildlife who aren’t underground) try to get out of the wind during this kind of storm.  It’d be interesting to know whether they stay in open grassland and look for tall dense vegetation or venture into brushy or wooded areas where they might not normally go.

Somebody is apparently sheltering in place under the snow here.  Probably not a meadowlark…

Not knowing much about individual wildlife species and how they each choose to shelter from winter storms, I guess the best strategy is to provide as many habitat types as possible so they can all find what they need.  That way, meadowlarks can forage in short or “weedy” areas during pleasant sunny days, but move to a nearby patch of dense grass (or whatever other cover they like) when they need to nestle in thatchy vegetation and get out of the wind.

Here in our comfy house, we’ve been talking about trying to fix the drafty corner of our kitchen, where one of our walls needs a little better insulation.  Our poor little feet get cold when we’re making toast on windy winter mornings!  It’d be really nice to get that fixed.  On the other hand, it’s just the kind of hardship that helps me understand what meadowlarks are going through on days like this.  I bet their feet were cold at breakfast time too…


Meadowlarks could learn from opossums, who either take over abandoned burrows from other mammals or find a nice wood pile to shelter in during cold weather and blizzards.

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Photo of the Week – January 19, 2018

Let’s talk for a minute about the plains spadefoot and their awesome vertical-pupilled eyes.  You might think the spadefoot is a toad.  If so, you’re wrong  …kind of.  Also, you might think the word “pupilled” isn’t a real word, and anyway it should only have one ‘L’.  Wrong again – (I just looked it up).

The plains spadefoot (Spea bombifrons).  The coolest toad, or whatever it is, you’ll ever meet – if you’re ever lucky enough to meet one.

Toads, you see, have dry skin with little “warts” (no,they aren’t really warts, and don’t cause you to get warts).  Spadefoots have the kind of moist, slightly slimy skin that is more typical of frogs.  In addition, the plains spadefoot is missing the raised parotoid glands behind its eyes that are typical of true toads (see photo below).  So, clearly, the spadefoot is not a toad, it’s a frog.

True toads have dry warty skin and big parotoid glands behind their eyes, as seen in this boring, but useful, photo of a Great Plains toad (Anaxyrus cognatus).

Well, wait just a second, Herp-a-long Cassidy.  It’s not that simple.  As it happens, Anurans – the taxonomic group that includes frogs and toads – is a kind of spectrum, rather than two distinct types.  There are “true frogs” and “true toads”, but there are a lot of in-between species too, which don’t really fit either category.  Spadefoots don’t really identify as either frogs or toads.

The northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens) is one of the “true” frogs. If you watch them carefully, you might notice that they carry their noses just a little higher in the air than other so-called frogs.

Regardless of labels, the plains spadefoot is a fascinating creature, and one that is rarely seen, even in states like Nebraska where it is considered to be common.  In fact, despite the fact that it’s a grassland animal, and I’ve been exploring and studying grasslands for about 25 years, I’d never seen one in person until last summer.  (Thanks to Keith Geluso, by the way, for finding one at The Niobrara Valley Preserve and allowing me to photograph it!).

The reason they’re rarely seen is that plains spadefoots spend the vast majority of their lives underground, emerging only during and after heavy rains between April and July.  They are known as “explosive breeders” because they have to breed and get their offspring to maturity very quickly.  It’s a race between tadpoles and the temporary rain-filled ponds.  To help ensure survival, there are two types of spadefoot tadpoles; herbivores and carnivores/cannibals.  If the tadpole’s pond comes and goes so quickly that no algae or other vegetation has time to grow, at least some tadpoles can still find food – even if that food consists of siblings.  Spadefoots can go from egg to mature in around two weeks if they have to, which is pretty impressive.

Except for the brief periods when plains spadefoots make an appearance to breed and feed, they basically live their lives underground, in a kind of dormant state.  Their “‘spadefoot” moniker comes from a dark hard “spade” on their rear feet, which they use to quickly burrow down into loose soil.  While it might seem crazy that spadefoots live almost all of their lives in dormancy, there are a couple nice perks associated with the strategy.  First, it’s a pretty slick way to avoid predators.  Second, it allows spadefoots to colonize areas of grasslands far from permanent water – they don’t need access to streams, ponds, or lakes like their other Anuran cousins.  Instead, they just sit in quiet solitude until a good hard rain, and then party down.  All things considered, that might not be a terrible life.

Spadefoots are stinking cute.

Many thanks to Dan Fogell, both for his excellent book, “A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Nebraska”, and for helping me better understand the frog-toad-etc spectrum this week.

Posted in Prairie Animals | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Why Would Bison Have Done That??

I have an honest and earnest question:  What do we actually know about the movement and grazing patterns of historic bison herds in North America?

I’ve heard many similar versions of a story about the way in which historic bison herds moved across the North American prairie in pre-European days, but I’ve never been able to find someone who can substantiate it.  I’m not sure where the story (legend?) came from, but it seems to have become canon among many people in the grazing world.  It is particularly used by advocates of intensively managed grazing rotations, who say their grazing strategies mimic what bison did historically.

The most common variation of the story goes something like this: Back in the old days, bison herds were constantly on the move across the plains, grazing and stomping down the prairie as they went.  A bison herd would move into an area, stay briefly, and then move on – leaving behind short-cropped and trampled vegetation, which would get plenty of time to recover before another herd passed by.  The constant movement of bison was driven by humans, wolves, and other predators, who were constantly nipping around the edges of herds, picking off weak animals and keeping the herd moving.

I’m not saying the story is wrong, but I’m fairly skeptical.  Based on both observations and an impressive array of data from around the world, large grazing animals show a strong preference for recently burned and/or recently grazed vegetation.  The lush regrowth of grasses that have been recently burned or grazed is usually the easiest, tastiest, and most nutritious available, especially relative to undisturbed plants that are more mature.

This small area (a few hundred acres within a 12,000 acre pasture) of regrowth from a 2015 hay cutting became a predictable spot to find grazing bison during the remainder of that year and through 2016.  The animals visited the patch often, re-grazing many of the same plants over and over.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

In studies of patch-burn grazing, where cattle or bison are given access to both burned and unburned patches of vegetation, they graze spend something like 70% of their time grazing recently burned areas (and they stay on those areas most of the growing season), even when those burns make up a small percentage of the overall pasture.  The same pattern occurs in both small (a few hundred acres or less) and large pastures (10,000 acres or more).  These results are not coming from a few studies here and there; this is a large and comprehensive body of scientific research.  Bison and cattle are very good at optimizing their own diets, and when they are given the opportunity to regulate their own movements, without cross fences in the way, their optimal diet comes largely from recently burned and/or recently-grazed vegetation.

Given what we know about how bison and cattle (and many other large grazers) select their diets and grazing locations, how can that fit with the story I shared at the beginning of this post?  Why would bison have moved away from burned prairie into unburned/ungrazed grass that was more mature and less nutritious?  If they were forced to move from a particular place, why wouldn’t they have later circled back to graze the regrowth?  Many historic prairie burns, whether set by people or lightning, must have been of considerable size – probably plenty big to keep a herd of bison content for a full season, even if they were constantly bouncing around that burned area to stay ahead of predators.  No?  I just have a hard time imagining large areas of attractive, nutritious vegetation being sampled briefly by large herbivores and then abandoned and allowed to grow uninhibited for the remainder of the growing season.

I understand that much of our research on grazing patterns today is lacking the kind of predator pressure bison might have been under a few hundred years ago, and even a 10,000 acre pasture restricts the ability of bison to freely move across the landscape.  Given that, I’m open to the idea that movement patterns were different long ago than they are today.  Even so, I have a hard time imagining that bison wouldn’t have done everything they could to return to areas they knew contained high quality forage, even if they were being constantly pursued.  Can anyone provide some evidence to support that story?

In historic prairies, many patches of high-quality forage would have been transient (e.g., burned areas that were grazed for a season or so and then allowed to recover as bison switched to newer burns), but prairie dog towns might have represented a consistent supply of high-quality regrowth, and likely hosted fairly frequent visits from bison.

Even assuming (and I’m not) that bison herds were constantly on the move, never circling back to where they’d been earlier, it still seems unlikely that recently burned prairie would have been grazed for more than a few days and then just allowed to grow uninhibited for the remainder of the season.  Surely those burned areas (and later in the season, burned and previously grazed areas) would have been magnets for any other herd wandering nearby, and would have been grazed repeatedly (by a succession of nomadic herds) throughout the growing season?

Why does all of this matter?  In a way, it really doesn’t, other than for the sake of curiosity.  As I’ve discussed before, the way we design prairie management strategies should be based on today’s world, challenges, and objectives.  For example, it doesn’t make any sense to burn a prairie every three years just because we know that was the average historic fire frequency in that landscape.  The same is true with historic grazing patterns.  With increased levels of nitrogen deposition, woody plant encroachment, and habitat fragmentation, not to mention invasive species and climate change, today’s world is not the same as it was at whatever mystical point in history we might choose to try to replicate.  We have to manage today’s prairies in ways that make sense today.

Having said that, history does matter when it helps us understand how plant and animal species used to respond to the world around them, and what current adaptations and traits they have as a result.  That understanding can help us design and evaluate contemporary management strategies that fits with those adaptations.  It doesn’t mean we try to replicate history, it just means that we incorporate our understanding of it as we move forward.

Cattle seem to exhibit the same preferences for grass regrowth as bison.  These cattle are grazing in a burned patch in our Platte River Prairies this year.  That burned patch was grazed repeatedly and intensively all season while adjacent unburned areas were only lightly grazed.  The cattle were very selective, grazing mostly on their favorite grasses because of a moderate stocking rate.

If we’re going to incorporate a historic context into today’s strategies, however, we should make sure we’re as accurate as we can be about that history.  As I mentioned earlier, advocates of management-intensive grazing (and/or mob grazing, small cell grazing, and other similar strategies) mention the historic bison story often as a reason for managing cattle as they do today.  Because they contend that bison moved quickly across the historic landscape, never staying long in any one place, they propose that we manage cattle herds in that same way today.  I’m not saying those rapid rotation systems are right or wrong, I’m just wondering whether the historic context used to justify them is accurate.  I can’t understand why bison would have done what they’re supposed to have done, and would love to see evidence either way.

Even if bison were pushed off of areas they preferred, why wouldn’t they have returned later to take advantage of the nutritious forage?

I personally prefer the way prairies and wildlife respond to the kind of shifting mosaic approach we (mostly) employ on the sites I’m involved with, but that’s because I have a particular set of objectives, and I measure success based on those.  My personal guesses and extrapolations about how historic bison herds might have interacted with the landscape play a role in why I like our current approach, but they’re not really a major factor.  If I find out that historic bison acted very differently than I think they might have, I’ll appreciate that knowledge, but I’ll still evaluate our current strategies based on the objectives we have for today.  I will, though, pay closer attention to hints that species or natural communities might be showing stress due to exposure to conditions they’re not well adapted to.

Mostly, I’m just curious, and tired of listening to the same old story without knowing if it’s true.  Can anyone help me?

ADDENDUM:  Since writing this post a couple people directed me to this excellent article by Richard Hart that addresses my question fairly well.  Thanks to those of you who shared it!

Posted in Prairie Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 58 Comments

Photo of the Week – January 12, 2018

Tomorrow, I’m leading a photography workshop; something I rarely do.  I’m looking forward to the workshop, but always feel a little funny teaching photography for a couple reasons.  First, photography is a very individual activity, by which I mean that every photographer interprets the world in their own way.  Because of that, trying to “teach” someone how to be a photographer seems like kind of a crazy thing.  As a result, I’ll be talking very little about the interpretive part of photography, and concentrating mostly on the mechanics of how cameras work and how to use that knowledge to create art.  Then I’ll try to provide a lot of examples of what’s possible with photography, hoping to inspire people to develop their own vision.

Bugs (in the broad, non-scientific sense) and flowers are subjects I feel comfortable with.  Landscapes, wildlife, and other subjects are much less in my wheelhouse.

The second reason I hesitate to lead workshops in photography is that I feel pretty limited in my own knowledge.  After all, I spend most of my time on my knees, photographing tiny bugs and flowers, and I’ve learned how to do that using the few pieces of equipment I happen to own.  I suppose I know more than the average person, but I don’t feel like I have the kind of broad knowledge of camera equipment or techniques  held by many photographers I admire; people like Michael Forsberg, Clay Bolt, Piotr Naskrecki, and Joel Sartore.  Also, when I stray from my narrow range of expertise, I tend to make a lot of mistakes.  That seems to happen particularly often when I attempt night time photography.

The latest example of my night time photography foibles came during the trip Kim and I made to the Niobrara Valley Preserve over the holiday season.  The weather was very cold while we were there, but I braved the temperatures one night and went out to photograph in the light of a half moon.  I worked along the river, mostly, shooting starry scenes with the river and silhouetted trees in the foreground.  Because of the moonlight, the stars weren’t really popping in the photos, so I decided to switch and shoot the moon instead.  I wandered over to “the chute”‘ a locally famous waterfall on the Niobrara River, right near the Norden Bridge.  Because of the sub-zero temperatures, much of the river was frozen, but the water pouring over the falls was still ice free, and there was fog (is it really called fog in those conditions?) coming off the falls and rising up toward the moon.  It was a magical scene, and I worked for about an hour to capture images of it.

Here is one of the three images I brought back from more than an hour photographing ice and water in the moonlight.  All three photos were taken with a Tokina 12-28mm lens at ISO 800, f/4, and a shutter speed of 6 seconds.

The log in this scene has been stuck on the same ledge for several years now. I keep waiting for a big water event to wash it away…

Unfortunately, my mind must have been as frozen as the the ice I was (carefully!) walking around on.  I completely forgot to change my aperture settings on the camera from the wide open settings I’d been using for star photos to settings that would give me more depth-of-field.  And because it was dark, I had a hard time focusing anyway, and didn’t notice how out of focus many of my foregrounds were.  This led to a lot of almost great photos with blurry images of rocks, ice, and/or water in the foreground.  Out of that entire hour, I ended up with three images that were fairly sharp all the way across – only because I was far enough from the foreground for it to be sharp.  Anything with a nice close waterfall in the foreground and starry sky in the background turned out to be junk.

This was my favorite of the three decent shots, mainly because there was something interesting in the foreground (though I had a couple others with that ice formation much closer to the camera that would have been spectacular…)

I sometimes make mistakes photographing bugs and flowers too, but night time photography always seems to give me big problems.  In fact, one of my biggest recurring issues with bug/flower photography is tied to night photography… I very often forget to reset my ISO after shooting star photos the night before and end up taking grainy photos of flowers with an obscene ISO of 2500 or so.  I’m telling you – night time photography is out to get me.  I’d like to think I’ll get better at it if I do more of it, and I’ve been making an effort in that regard, but so far, not much luck.  Fortunately, there are lots of bugs and flowers to photograph during the daylight hours, so my ego hasn’t completely deflated.

Gee, this wasn’t a great advertisement for my photo workshop tomorrow, was it?  If you’ve signed up and are reading this, I promise I’ll do my best to make it worth your time.  The good news is that the workshop happens during the day – not at night!

Posted in Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Diversity, Beauty, and Secret Lives of Grasshoppers

I know I say this about a lot of different insects, but grasshoppers are truly amazing creatures.  Grasshoppers have a reputation as voracious consumers of crops and forage grasses, and that reputation is well-earned.  However, the pest tag is far too often and broadly applied.  There are something like 400 species of grasshoppers in the western United States, and only about 20 species are categorized pests.  In Nebraska, we have 108 grasshopper species, with only a handful that ever cause economic damage, and that damage occurs sporadically – mainly in years when those species have population booms.

The differential grasshopper is one of only a few grasshopper species that can cause economic damage to farmers, ranchers, and gardeners. It’s a native species that has adapted very well to the way we’ve altered its world.

Unfortunately, the “Grasshoppers Destroy Crops” headline tends to swamp the many and much more interesting grasshoppers stories we should be talking about.  Let’s start with the numbers I’ve already presented.  THERE ARE 400 SPECIES OF GRASSHOPPERS IN THE WESTERN UNITED STATES AND 108 SPECIES IN NEBRASKA ALONE!  That doesn’t include katydids or crickets, by the way, just grasshoppers.  I’m guessing most of you had no idea there were that many kinds of grasshoppers.  Am I right?

I’m including a half dozen grasshopper photos in this post to show off just a taste of the beauty and diversity of grasshoppers in prairies.  If you want to read more about this, you can read an article I wrote for the August/September issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine.  While you could be forgiven for thinking there are two kinds of grasshoppers in the world – green and brown – you would be very wrong.  There are grasshoppers with much more color and pattern variation than many species of birds, but nobody makes movies about people circling the globe to see more grasshopper species than anyone else, do they?  Many band-winged grasshoppers show off gorgeous red or yellow wings as they fly, wings that rival those of butterflies, but you don’t hear about historically-prominent British Prime Ministers collecting grasshoppers, do you?

The painted grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor) rivals any bird for beauty in color and pattern.

Now let’s discuss grasshoppers’ diet, which can include far more than just grasses.  Some grasshopper species feed high up in the canopy of prairie vegetation, while others stay on the ground.  Many have a very wide diet, including both grasses and wildflowers, but others are much more specialized, including grasshoppers that feed almost completely on one or a few wildflower species.  Grasshoppers are often seen feeding on the pollen of flowers, especially sunflowers, providing further evidence that they are much more than just grass eaters.  Most grasshopper species prefer the newest, most tender leaves of plants, but some – especially those that live mostly on the ground – make their living off of older leaves, including some dropped by their brethren living above them.  Regardless of what they like to eat, grasshoppers have very sensitive organs on the tips of their antennae that help them determine the forage quality of a leaf before they eat it.

The cudweed grasshopper (Hypochlora alba) is named for its favorite food plant – cudweed sagewort, aka white sage (Ambrosia ludoviciana), on which it is supremely well camouflaged.

When you think about animals that have sophisticated communication systems, you probably think about creatures like apes, whales, and even prairie dogs, right?  You might be surprised to learn that grasshoppers have their own complex methods of communication as well.  Every grasshopper species produces its own unique set of sounds, most of them created by rubbing their hind legs against their abdomen.  In addition, some employ what’s called “crepitation” – a loud clacking sound made by snapping their hind wings while flying.

The huge and flightless plains lubber (Brachystola magna) is as gorgeous as it is large.

Grasshoppers can also communicate visually.  They can do this by rubbing their legs against their wings, flashing their wings, and making a variety of motions with their legs.  Those visual signals can help them attract mates, defend breeding territories and feeding areas, and ward off unwanted suitors.  I’m not saying we should make documentaries about people trying to teach grasshoppers how to communicate with American Sign Language, but I’m not NOT saying it either…

This bandwing grasshopper (Oedepodinae) is about as well camouflaged as you could hope for against its sandy background.  When it flies, though, it displays very colorful wings (color and pattern varies by species).

If you’re someone who doesn’t care about the beauty, diversity, or communication abilities of grasshoppers, maybe their utilitarian value will make an impression.  As a major consumer of vegetation in prairies, grasshoppers play a huge role in nutrient cycling, a role that becomes even more important in prairies without large vertebrate grazers.  Perhaps most importantly, though, grasshoppers are a crucial food source for many other animals, including birds and other wildlife species you (hopefully?) enjoy having around.  They are large and packed with nutrients, as well as abundant and fairly easy to catch.  In addition, while they aren’t a particularly popular food item among people here in North America, grasshoppers are an important source of protein for humans in other parts of the globe.

When grasshoppers start to emerge next spring, please take a little extra time to notice and appreciate them.  See how many different colors and shapes of grasshoppers you can find in your neighborhood prairies (remembering that if their antennae are as long as their body or more, they are katydids, not grasshoppers.)  Look for the grasshoppers with big colorful wings as they clatter noisily away from your feet.  And if you’re a person of financial means, and are interested in making a movie about grasshopper watchers or people trying to teach grasshoppers how to talk to humans, call me.  I know people who know people.

How can you not like and admire the green fool grasshopper (Acrolophitus hertipes), with its raised back ridge, bright red antennae and charming face?

Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Photo of the Week – January 5, 2018

Three brief items today:

First, if you’re from here in Nebraska, you might be interested in a free photo workshop I’m leading next Saturday (Jan 13) from 9:30 am to 2 pm.  The workshop is designed for people who don’t have a lot of photography experience and want to learn how to better use whatever camera they have (from a phone to a digital SLR camera).  You can see more information about the workshop here.

Second, thanks to everyone who played the Plant Game this week.  The names I made up were Eggs-and-toast, Starry Flipwick, and Jasper Penny.  I won the first two (at least one real plant name got more votes than my fake one) but over half of you figured out that Jasper Penny isn’t a real plant.  The mystery photo was Pyrrhopappus grandiflorus (Tuberuos false dandelion).  I actually posted the same photo back in May 2016.  It is common in the southern U.S. but only known from one location in Nebraska.

Third, here is this week’s photo.  I went to a nearby frozen wetland yesterday, looking for photo opportunities.  I wasn’t finding much of interest until I started looking at the edges of where snow had melted away from protruding plants.  There, I found some interesting patterns among the ice crystals, often with dark shadows beneath them.  This was my favorite shot of the day.  I think I see Bambi the fawn (left side, facing to the right).  What do you see?

What do you see in this image of melting snow?

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Plant Game – January 3, 2018

Happy New Year!  To celebrate, let’s play THE PLANT GAME!

You know it,  you love it.  It’s the game in which you have to figure out which plant name is not real.  More specifically, one name in each of the following lists is NOT the official common name of a plant found in Nebraska.  It’s a silly way to poke fun at the ridiculous names we’ve chosen for the plants that live around us.  I’ll post the answers in a day or two.

In the first list, there are five plant names with way more hyphens than seem necessary.  The names are almost short stories.  Good luck.

In these other two lists, all the names are crazy.  You just have to figure out which crazy names I made up.


Bonus question – can you name this flower?  If you’re a Nebraska botanist, there is only one known location of this plant in the state.  Good luck…


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Photo of the Week – December 28, 2017

Kim and I spent a few days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, something that has become an annual holiday tradition for us.  As always, it was beautiful, peaceful, and we were alone in a big wild place – the three components of a perfect getaway.  We saw plenty of wildlife, including multitudes of eagles and deer, as well as flocks of meadowlarks, robins, tree sparrows, and grouse.  In addition, tracks of many other animals were abundant in the recently-fallen snow.  I kept hopeful eyes out for mountain lion tracks, but didn’t see any – though I did have a strong sense of being watched one night, while out photographing night scenes under a half moon.  It wasn’t just the cold temperatures that made me shiver a little.

A skeletal stick frames the rising sun over the frosty Niobrara River.

I spent one particularly nice hour or so exploring the partially frozen river one morning, and was able to get some photos before heavy overcast skies took over.  The temperature was hovering around zero, but it was nevertheless a pleasant calm morning.  I enjoyed the solitude and sunrise and then walked back up to a hot breakfast before Kim and I headed out for a longer hike.  Here are a few photos from my sunrise walk.

Tracks of some kind of water bird on a sand bar.  The individual toe prints were approximately an inch long, maybe a little longer.  

Slushy ice floats down the Niobrara River as the sun comes up.

I wish you all a wonderful and happy new year; something I’m very much looking forward to myself.

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Snow and Light

We finally got our first measurable snowfall (4-5 inches?) of the year here in east central Nebraska.  I took my camera for a walk at our family prairie yesterday evening, enjoying the way a little snow really transforms a landscape.  I found and followed tracks of coyotes, mice, birds, and deer, and flushed flocks of meadowlarks and tree sparrows.  As the sun started to drop quickly toward the horizon, I wandered through one of the areas we grazed particularly hard last summer, enjoying the broad expanse of whiteness, punctuated by scattered plants poking up through the snow.

Heath aster (Aster ericoides) protrudes from a tiny mound of snow.

I spent the next half hour mainly lying prone on the snow, tripod legs splayed flat to the ground, photographing heath aster and sideoats grama plants, and having a great time.  As you look through these photos, you’ll be able to see how the quality and color of the light changed as the sun approached the horizon.  Shadows became much less stark and more blue in color, and the plants and snow both reflected increasingly golden-orange light from the setting sun.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)

More sideoats

More heath aster

Final sideoats photo, as the sun was right at the horizon.

The opportunity to watch sunrises and sunsets is a big perk of living on the Plains, where we get an unobstructed view of the sun from horizon to horizon, without pesky trees or mountains in the way.   On many nights, the combination of a low sun angle, expansive sky, and scattered clouds can provide spectacular views.  Other times, however, the best way to appreciate a setting sun is to turn and look in the opposite direction at the changing colors of light and shadows.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Best of 2017 – Stories and Photos from The Year

I’m consistently and deeply grateful to everyone who takes the time to read and/or follow this blog.  After more than 7 years, pumping out a couple blog posts each week is still energizing for me, and it’s awfully nice to know people are out there enjoying what I post.

This is my annual “Best Of” post, in which you can find some of my favorite posts from 2017 in case you’re looking for something to read (or re-read) over the holidays.  Below that, you can peruse what I think are the best photos I took this past year.  If you have friends or colleagues who don’t yet appropriately appreciate the beauty and complexity of prairies, feel free to forward this post to them.  You never know what might start someone on their own journey of discovery, and we need all the prairie fans we can get.

Speaking of that, please consider supporting your favorite conservation organization this season.  There are lots of good options, including the one that pays my salary.  Thank you for any support – financial or otherwise – you can provide to help conserve prairies and other important natural areas around the world.

Favorite 2017 posts:

General Science, Prairie Management, and Philosophy

  1. An essay about the importance of understanding the scientific process and its impact on our lives.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/01/04/how-science-works-and-why-it-matters/
  2. How does livestock grazing fit with concerns about emissions that contribute to rapid climate change?  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/02/06/compatibility-of-cows-conservation-and-climate-change/
  3. Thoughts about tough decisions regarding sometimes conflicting prairie management objectives.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/03/14/should-we-manage-for-rare-species-or-species-diversity/
  4. A discussion about how prairie size can influence the viability of prairie species and communities.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/04/26/how-small-is-too-small/
  5. A post designed for land managers who might feel discouraged about the constant and growing challenges they face. https://prairieecologist.com/2017/10/31/a-hopeful-metaphor-for-prairie-managers/

Natural History and Place-Based Stories

  1. The unsung heroes of pollination – single moms.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/02/14/the-life-of-a-single-mom-bee/
  2. Is it a wasp, mantis, or fly?  Nope.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/06/27/its-a-what/
  3. Background on the incredible numbers of painted lady butterflies seen in 2017.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/09/20/the-painted-lady-butterfly-this-years-poster-child-for-insect-migration/
  4. Insects that steal nectar without following protocol.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/10/10/back-door-thieves/
  5. Monarch butterflies arrived in Nebraska much sooner than usual this year.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/04/18/not-yet-monarchs-not-yet/
  6. Photos from one of the most spectacular and hidden places in Nebraska.   https://prairieecologist.com/2017/05/31/vacation-at-toadstool-geologic-park/
  7. An informative (and humorous) look at a beautiful and unusual plant.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/11/28/a-brief-note-on-painted-milkvetch/

Most Viewed Post of all Time…

Just for fun, here is a link to the blog post that has had more views than any I have other written.  It’s certainly not the one I would have expected, but I checked the statistics out of curiosity and there it was – 48,000 views all time, including 21,000 in 2017.  I’m not going to tell you what it is, but if you’re curious, you can click here and find out.

Favorite Photos of 2017

Here is a selection of the photos I thought were my best from 2017.  You can see them in the slideshow below (click on the arrows or just sit back and watch), or in YouTube video form below that.  Hopefully, one of the two formats will work on whatever device you’re viewing this on.

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YouTube Video of the same photos:

If you liked these photos, you might also like my 2016 selections or this collection of some of my all-time favorites.

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