Hubbard Alumni Post – Chicken Wire?!

This post was written (and illustrated) by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows back in 2015-2016.  Evan now works for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon as a monitoring and outreach assistant.

When I worked for The Nature Conservancy near Wood River, NE, I lived close to a restored wetland. In late winter I would gaze longingly out my window at the clouds of migrating waterfowl whirling above the calm water. I wanted to photograph this spectacle but approaching the skittish birds through the open prairie seemed an impossible task. Then I met Michael Forsberg, famed Nebraskan wildlife photographer. I learned how he builds blinds out of garden fence and grass and sleeps in them, sometimes for days, in order to capture the most intimate moments of nature and share them with the rest of us. I wanted to learn this art too, so I decided to try building my own blind on the restored wetland. The result was a successful comic adventure that for some reason I never shared on the Prairie Ecologist, until now.

You could say I messed up from the start. The store was out of garden fence so I bought chicken wire instead, thinking it couldn’t be to different. It could. I spent most of the next afternoon pounding stakes; cutting wire, camo cloth, and grass; and zip tying it all together in the rough shape of a burrito with a hole at one end and a window at the other. The blind was placed right on the water’s edge and would have a spectacular view of ducks waking up in the golden light of sunrise. Or so I thought.

After leaving the blind out for two weeks to let the birds acclimate to it, I set out one March night with my camera gear and sleeping bag, crawled into the blind, and fell asleep to the quite murmurs of roosting mallards. I was so eager for sunrise that I had no less than five dreams of waking up in the blind. In one dream I woke up underwater. In another I woke up to find the wetland dry. When I finally did wake up, I discovered a snafu that I hadn’t even dreamt of: the blind had collapsed on me. The chicken wire couldn’t support the added weight of the morning dew, and in order for me to see out the blind’s window I had to prop the damn thing up with my head. In addition to being extremely uncomfortable, I worried that the floppy and occasionally cursing blob would scare away the birds. Fortunately, it did not. Maybe the birds thought it was too pathetic to be man-made, or maybe it looked like a decomposing tree trunk, but they didn’t seem to notice me at all. I knew I was okay when a Red-winged Blackbird strolled across the top of my head.

Viewed head-on, you can see how a Great Blue Heron’s head is adapted for a lifestyle of hunting prey directly below it. It amazes me how this bird’s appearance changes from Jurrasic to cartoonish with a slight adjustment.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to the blind for giving me intimate glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It’s not often you get to see wild animals behave truly naturally, not at all concerned about a human watching them. Watching a goose bathe in the golden light of sunrise, hearing Blue-winged Teal drakes whisper soft calls to an attractive female, watching beads of water drip from a Gadwall’s impermeable feathers; these were new and beautiful experiences for me. Thanks to the blind, I saw familiar birds in an entirely new way.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.

A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.

A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.

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A Greater Yellowlegs scans the water for invertebrates. This was the closest I’ve ever been to one.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to that blind for giving me glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It taught me a new way to appreciate wildlife, one that requires you to become a part of the landscape. Hunters and photographers know the value of extreme patience, but in today’s fast-paced society, rarely does the average person sit in a spot for hours and watch nature’s secrets reveal themselves. A blind, I learned, teaches you that patience and provides a window to a new view of nature. I hope to build many more blinds in the future, but never, ever again out of chicken wire.

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 17, 2016

We burned a portion of a prairie yesterday.  As the fire was winding down, a small strip of grass near the edge was burning itself out and I walked over to play around (safely) with some photography.  I’ve always found fire to be beautiful, dating back to my days as a Boy Scout, when I’d get up well before everyone else, get a campfire going, and stare at the flames until the sun came up.  Now that I’m a burn boss, I don’t get to appreciate the aesthetic aspects of our fires very often, except during that small window at the end of operations when everything is secure and the fire is coming to a graceful end.  Most of my feelings about fire today are related to concerns with conducting safe burns, an incredible respect for both the destructive and constructive abilities of fire, and an appreciation for the way prairies respond after a fire.  However, now and then, I am grateful for an opportunity to just pause and enjoy the beauty.

Here are some of the photos I took with my phone yesterday.

Posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Should We Manage for Rare Species or Species Diversity?

Land managers constantly make difficult decisions without really knowing the long-term consequences of their choices.

Balancing the sometimes conflicting needs of rare plants like Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), pollinators, and many other components of prairie communities can be a major challenge. 

For those of you who aren’t ecologists, here are some important vocabulary terms you’ll need to know for this post. 

 1. Conservative species – plants or animals primarily restricted to “intact” or “high-quality” natural areas, as opposed to species that commonly occur in degraded habitats.

2. Species richness – the number of species found in a certain area. High species richness means there are lots of different kinds of plants and/or animals present

3. Species diversity – a kind of modified species richness that also takes into account the evenness, or relative abundance, of each species. When one site has a few dominant species and lots of uncommon ones, it is less diverse than another site with the same total number of species but with more evenly distributed numbers of individuals.


Imagine this situation:  You’re put in charge of managing a tallgrass prairie with thriving populations of several rare plant species.  The prairie is located in a highly fragmented landscape dominated by rowcrop agriculture.  The prairie has been managed with frequent spring burning for many years, and the populations of those rare plants has been pretty stable for at least the last couple of decades.  As you take over, the previous manager tells you she’d recently been considering management changes that might increase overall plant and animal diversity but would likely reduce the population sizes of some rare plant species.  You have to decide whether to stick with the existing management regime or try something different.  What would you do?

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) is a conservative plant species found in a small subset of today’s tallgrass prairies.

It would be perfectly rational and defensible to stick with the strategy that has sustained healthy populations of rare plants for a long time.  Because those plants aren’t found at many other sites, prioritizing them in this prairie makes good sense.  However, before you lock in that choice, let’s consider some other information.

First, there is often an assumption that an abundance of rare plants is an indication that the rest of the prairie community is also intact and healthy. While that assumption seems logical, it’s not always the case.  A good example of this comes from an Illinois study by Ron Panzer and Mark Schwartz.  Their research in the Chicago region showed that neither the number of conservative plant species or rare plant species predicted the number of conservative or rare insect species at a site.  Instead, Panzer and Schwartz concluded that overall plant species richness was more important for insect conservation.

Plant diversity also helps support healthy populations of pollinators and herbivores (invertebrate and vertebrate) by ensuring a consistent supply of food throughout the year.  A wide variety of plant species allows pollinators and herbivores to find high quality food at all times, even though each plant provides those resources at different times of the season.  For this and other reasons, increasing plant species richness can increase both the abundance and diversity of animals, especially invertebrates.  In addition, managing for a variety of vegetation structure types (including a wide range of both plant stature and density) can also help support more animal diversity, including birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects.

Grazing can decrease the size of rare plant populations, especially in comparison to sites under repetitive haying or burning management. However, carefully planned grazing can also increase plant diversity and provide more varied habitat structure for wildlife and invertebrates.

Every species of plant and animal plays a certain role within the prairie community.  High species richness provides redundancy of function and helps ensure that if one species disappears or can’t fill its role, others can cover for it.  That contributes to ecological resilience – the ability of an ecological community to respond to stress without losing its integrity.  Ecological resilience may be the most important attribute for any natural system, especially in the face of rapid climate change, continuing loss and degradation of habitat, encroaching invasive species and other threats.

Aside from the benefits of managing for species richness, a strict management focus on the needs of a few species can put others at risk.  The use of prescribed fire, for example, provides a competitive edge to some plant species, but has negative impacts on other plants, as well as on some animals.  There have been vigorous arguments between advocates for frequent burning and people concerned about rare butterflies and other insects, as well as reptiles and other animals that can be extremely vulnerable to prairie fires.  Repeated intensive grazing by cattle or bison is another management strategy that favors some plant and animal species, but can negatively impact many others, especially without adequate rest periods between grazing bouts. Management that consistently provides favorable conditions for a few species at the expense of others may eventually eliminate some species from a prairie altogether, or at least reduce their ability to effectively contribute to ecosystem functioning.  If those losses lead to decreased ecological resilience, the resulting impacts may end up negatively affecting the same species a site manager is trying to promote.

Regal fritillary butterflies are very sensitive to fire, and can be eliminated from isolated prairies if the entire site is burned at an inopportune time. However, populations can also thrive in large prairies managed with a combination of fire and grazing, as long as sufficient unburned areas are available, and many of their favorite nectar plants (like this Verbena stricta) are common, or even weedy.

So, what’s the right path?  Should we prioritize management for rare or conservative species, assuming that other species don’t need as much help?  Or should we focus on species diversity and ecological resilience because we need the strongest possible natural communities in today’s challenging environment?  How should scale (size of prairie) influence decisions?

There are plenty of potential benefits and risks associated with each path, and I’m not here to tell anyone which they should choose.  In most cases, my own tendency is to focus on diversity and resilience, but I completely understand why managers would go the other way, and I think every situation needs to be evaluated independently.  For example, if a species is teetering on the brink of extinction and we need to keep it alive while we create more habitat elsewhere, I’m perfectly fine with prioritizing management to favor that species.

In other cases, I worry that we’re too sometimes unwilling to manage prairies in ways that promote changes in plant composition.  Years of repetitive management (especially frequent haying or burning) create conditions under which plant communities seem very stable.  However, that stability may be a response to consistent management rather than an intrinsic quality.  Allowing plant populations, even of rare species, to fluctuate in size, or even persist at a lower abundance than we’re used to is not the same as driving those species to extinction.  If rare species survive in smaller populations but the surrounding community is more resilient, that may be a win.  Having said that, reducing the size of rare species’ populations can make them more vulnerable to local extinction, and I don’t take that kind of risk lightly.  These are challenging issues.

This bottle gentian plant (Gentiana andrewsii) is an extremely conservative plant, and was growing in a hayed meadow in the Nebraska Sandhills where management conditions are very stable from year to year.

The hard truth is that we don’t yet understand enough about ecological systems to make these kinds of decisions confidently.  I understand the impulse to manage conservatively, sticking with what seems to have been working for a long time – especially in small and isolated prairies.  At the same time, I also think we need to build as much diversity and resilience in our prairies as we can – focusing on both plants and animals – especially in landscapes where we don’t have many left.  I’m glad managers are experimenting lots of different strategies, but we should all take responsibility for collecting data that help us evaluate our management, and keep open minds as we share what we learn with each other.  None of this is easy, but it is certainly important.

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Management, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 9, 2017

I hope I’ve made it clear through the years that I am really grateful to have my job.  During each March, one of the major perks is access to viewing blinds that allow a front row seat to watch migratory sandhill cranes on their overnight roost.  This morning, I took my wife, two of our kids, and my in-laws out to the Platte River to watch the cranes wake up.

Atticus braved a cold morning breeze in his face to watch cranes dance and loaf around before lifting off to go feed in fields and meadows for the day.

Our viewing blinds aren’t fancy, but they put you right at the edge of the river to watch one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth.

Most crane viewing tours I lead each year are for our current or prospective members and donors, and I really enjoy helping people experience one of the best migratory bird phenomena in the world – especially when our guests are seeing it for the first time.  On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to beat sharing that same experience with my family.  Did I mention how fortunate I am?

This morning provided good crane viewing (we had around 1000 cranes in front of the blind and maybe another 10,000 or more within view), but it was far from the most spectacular visit I’ve had.  The cranes weren’t close enough to our blind for me to get fantastic photos, but I played around a little with my camera anyway.  Today wasn’t about photography though, it was about family time in nature, and in that regard, it was pretty near perfect.

You can read more about the crane migration through Nebraska’s Platte River, and see many more photos, in a couple of previous posts here and here.

A couple small groups of sandhill cranes roosting in the river prior to sun-up.

Early morning silhouettes.

 

PLANT GAME RESULTS

It’s not that I’m competitive, but I’ve decided that I’ll consider it a win when more of you guess a wrong answer than the right one in our Plant Game.  Using that criteria, I won twice this week.  In the first question, Earthsmoke got the most guesses as a fake plant (35%), but it’s actually a real plant (Fumaria officinalis), introduced from Europe, and present (though uncommon) in Nebraska.  The actual fake plant was Lady-of-the-Lake, which I totally made up.  To your credit, that got the second-most votes (32%).

For the second question, the fake plant was Mountain Oats, which sounds real enough that only 32% of you guessed it was fake.  Almost half of you (47%) guessed Raccoon Grape was the fake plant, though, and it’s actually a native vine that grows in eastern Nebraska (Ampelopsis cordata).  Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of chances to redeem yourselves in the future – but congratulations to those of you who guessed right!

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Spines, Thorns, and the Plant Game

Ok, to be frank, this is kind of a weird post.  For some reason, during the last month or so, my brain has paid attention to spines and thorns as I’ve walked through prairies.  Given the relative scarcity of other photographic subjects, I’ve taken pictures of spines and thorns.  As a result, you get to see pictures of spines and thorns too.  I’m sorry.  To make it up to you, I added a couple more Plant Game questions to the end of the post because people seemed to enjoy them last time.  I still haven’t come up with the perfect name for the Plant Game, though I did appreciate the suggestions many of you provided.

While spines and thorns might seem like odd photo subjects, I’m hoping you’ll see some of the beauty I saw.  Plants employ them to help prevent herbivory, but if you look closely, those sharp pointy things are kind of pretty too.

Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) thorns. Hamilton County, Nebraska.

Buffalo bur (Solanum rostratum) seed pods. Hamilton County, Nebraska.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) thorn.

Woods rose (Rosa woodsii). Hall County, Nebraska.

Well, there you go.  Spines and thorns.

Now…

PLANT GAME!

The rules are simple.  Just pick the fake plant name from each list.  Three of the names are official names of plants found in Nebraska.  The other is one that I made up.  Should be easy, right? GOOD LUCK.

 

Posted in Prairie Plants | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Photo of the Week – March 2, 2017

This week marks the 150th anniversary of Nebraska becoming a state.  Nebraska will be celebrating all year, but there were a number of events this past Wednesday, including one at which the U.S. Postal Service introduced a new postage stamp.  The stamp features a photo of sandhill cranes by my friend Mike Forsberg, a native Nebraskan and fantastic conservation photographer.

In honor of Nebraska’s Sesquicentennial (fancy word for 150th anniversary) celebration this week/year, I’ve put together a few of my favorite Nebraska photos from the last several years.  We live in a state of great ecological diversity, ranging from oak woodland and tallgrass prairie in the east to dry sparsely-vegetated rocky bluffs in the west.  It’s an honor to work on the conservation of those natural systems, along with many other conservation professionals, ranchers, farmers, educators, and nature enthusiasts.  I’ve tried to represent some of the ecological diversity of Nebraska in these photographs.

A bumblebee rests on a lanceleaf blazing star (Liatris lancifolia) in restored tallgrass prairie at Spring Creek Prairie near Lincoln.

A bumblebee rests on a lanceleaf blazing star (Liatris lancifolia) in restored tallgrass prairie at Spring Creek Prairie near Lincoln.

A panoramic look at the rocky landscape around Scotts Bluff National Monument in the Nebraska panhandle.

A panoramic look at the rocky landscape around Scotts Bluff National Monument in the Nebraska panhandle.

A male dickcissel sings its territorial song at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

A male dickcissel sings its territorial song at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Morning dew on spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Morning dew on spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Reflections of sky in a Sandhills wetland and meadow.

Reflections of sky in a Sandhills wetland and meadow.

Yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) in oak woodland at the Rulo Bluffs Preserve in southeastern Nebraska.

Yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) in oak woodland at the Rulo Bluffs Preserve in southeastern Nebraska.

Bison bulls in recently-burned prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Bison bulls in recently-burned prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A bush katydid feeds on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) in the Platte River Prairies.

A bush katydid feeds on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) in the Platte River Prairies.

Fog and the Niobrara River at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Fog and the Niobrara River at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Sandhill cranes float gently to their overnight roost on the Platte River.

Migratory sandhill cranes float gently to their overnight roost on the Platte River.

A migratory dragonfly and morning dew at its overnight roost in a small prairie outside Aurora.

A migratory dragonfly and morning dew at its overnight roost in a small prairie outside Aurora.

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) in mixed-grass prairie in Central Nebraska.

Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) in mixed-grass prairie in Central Nebraska.

Hay bales and windmill in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Hay bales and windmill in the Nebraska Sandhills.

 

A red-bellied woodpecker in a snowstorm in eastern Nebraska.

A red-bellied woodpecker in a snowstorm in eastern Nebraska.

A saltmarsh caterpillar in early morning light.

A saltmarsh caterpillar in early morning light.

Smith Falls, a well-known landmark and tourist stop along the Niobrara River.

Smith Falls, a well-known landmark and tourist stop along the Niobrara River.

Sunflowers and sunrise in the Platte River Prairies.

Sunflowers and sunrise in the Platte River Prairies.

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , , | 27 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – No “Earth” without “Art”

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Katharine is multifaceted and very talented – exactly the kind of person we like having in our Fellowship program.  

I used to be a fairly prolific artist. As soon as I could hold a pencil I began drawing and copying whatever pictures of horses I could find. As a teenager, I explored multiple media and subjects, including colored pencil landscapes, watercolor and acrylic paintings, ceramic dishware, and illuminated Celtic calligraphy in inks and metallic finishes. My hands would wander over the paper, canvas, and clay for hours, creating from whatever came into my head or caught my eye. I would get frustrated, I would get inspired, and almost always something would find its way out of my head.

Around when I finished graduate school, this drive began to fade. It hasn’t disappeared – there have been occasional spurts of creation, but overall the last two and a half years have seen a huge drop in my artistic inspiration. When I did create, it was painstakingly slow and the hours no longer slipped away from me. This stressed me out. Art had been so huge in my life for so long, what was happening? Would I ever be able to access that drive again, or was it gone? Over time I became resigned, and figured all I could do was keep my mind open to any inspiration that might reemerge.

One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan

One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan

This past week, while I was cutting out the windows on the metal shipping containers that will eventually be The Nature Conservancy’s new sand hill crane viewing blinds, I was thinking about how even land management tasks that seem repetitive and straightforward have varying degrees of hidden skill behind their successful implementation.

The plasma cutter I was using to create the crane blind windows has a tiny spatial range where its electric arc most effectively cuts steel, and the evenness of the cut depends on holding the tip at a very consistent angle while simultaneously moving the cutter at a precise rate.

Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.

Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.

Safely and effectively spraying invasive plants depends on literally moment by moment interpretation of air movement, requires an understanding of how the leaves of different species shed or hold herbicide, and, of course, knowledge of sometimes subtle botanical differences between native and non-native species in various life stages.

Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan

Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan

And don’t even get me started on working with the tractor grapple. It takes less than five minutes to learn the basics of grapple operation, but it took me hours of operating those two levers until I truly began to grasp (pun intended) the subtleties of picking up and piling tree branches.

These tasks of subtle familiarity and mastery are not unlike the learning curves of artistic mediums. So, I wondered, have shop skills and land management techniques become my new artistic pursuits? Have I traded one skill for another that is often not recognized as art because it is narrowly defined with a specific, practical objective? Perhaps, but I believe it goes deeper than that.

I believe there is art hidden all around us. There is art in every efficient system of organization. An herbarium of native prairie plants is artistic in creation and appearance. Communicating with diverse audiences about the importance of prairies is an art both subtle in execution and many layered in its implications.

Our daily lives hold art as well. Aside from the more obvious sources such as cooking or interior design, there is also art in the words we give to the people in our lives, and in how we choose to spend our time so as to be more responsible with the resources in our possession. Every life can be treated like a work of art.

Art is many things. Among others, art is simultaneously the most intellectual and most visceral form of communication in its dual capacity to make us both think and feel. This communication can be purely aesthetic, or it can be pragmatic. We are all artists, whenever we take a concept to its completion in the way that best brings our talents to the rest of the world.

I still hope to rediscover my inspiration in the “traditional” studio art forms. Until then, I will simply have to do the best I can to recognize the hidden art before me every single day.

I would love to know your thoughts and responses to these ideas. Please let me know in the comments, or email me at katharine.hogan@tnc.org. Thanks! I hope you go forth and create.

Posted in Hubbard Fellowship | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Save the Date – Grassland Restoration Network July 11-12, 2017

The Grassland Restoration Network is a loose affiliation of people trying to use prairie restoration (reconstruction) as a way to rebuild, conserve and sustain grassland ecosystems.  Each year, we put on a workshop to share ideas, techniques, research results, and stories with other.  Workshops are hosted by a different site each year, giving us the opportunity to visit a range of projects over the years.  We were happy to host the workshop here in Nebraska in 2016.

A discussion in front of cardinal flower and a restored wetland during the 2016 Grassland Restoration Network at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

A discussion in front of cardinal flower and a restored wetland during the 2016 Grassland Restoration Network at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

The 2017 workshop will be held at Konza Prairie (Kansas) on July 11-12, 2017.  This will be a great opportunity to learn from the intensive and impressive array of prairie research going on at this Kansas State University research site.  They have done research specifically on prairie restoration, but also a lot of other work that relates closely to the kinds of challenges faced by those of us working to restore grasslands.  The Hubbard Fellows and I made a trip to Konza back in 2014, and I wrote three blog posts about the trip and still didn’t feel like I covered everything we learned and discussed.  You can read those blog posts here, here, and here.

Please mark these dates on your calendar and stay tuned for more information to come (probably in April).  This workshop will be limited on space, and priority will be given to people actively working on, or studying, large scale prairie restoration.

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Photo of the Week – February 23, 2017

The weather has been extraordinarily warm for the last couple weeks, but it’s finally getting colder.  While I’ve enjoyed getting outside to play soccer and other outdoor recreation activities, I’m also looking forward to seeing some ice again.  A little snow wouldn’t hurt my feelings either.  It’s been a pretty brown winter so far.

In the meantime, here are a few ice photos from a couple weeks ago, just as the last vestiges of ice were disappearing from the edge of a Platte River wetland.  Let’s hope they aren’t the last ice photos of the winter…

Frozen wetland plants and bubbles near the edge of a frozen, but melting wetland.

Frozen wetland plants and bubbles near the edge of a frozen, but melting wetland.

A frozen rush embedded in ice.

A frozen rush embedded in ice.

Ice and wetland rushes/grasses on the edge of a wetland. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Patterns of ice bubbles and wetland plants.

And before you say it, yes, I recognize the delicious irony of yearning for more winter in this post exactly a week after a post in which I yearned for spring so I could photograph flowers.  What I can I say?  I like flowers, but I also like ice…

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Pill Bug Mystery

Last November, we conducted a prescribed burn at a 3-year old restored prairie.  Two weeks later, I was surprised to be able to photograph green regrowth in that area.  Last week, I revisited the same burned area and got yet another surprise.  Thousands and thousands of dead pill bugs (aka sow bugs, roly polies, wood lice) lay scattered across the ground.

Pill bugs

Dead pill bugs in a prairie burned last November.

cluster

The distribution of dead critters wasn’t consistent across the site, but there were a lot of areas like this with big numbers.

After I found the first few, I noticed them everywhere.  White skeletons of pill bugs, lying on top of the ground – sometimes in large aggregations, other times just a few here and there.  If I’d randomly tossed a hoola hoop on the ground 100 times, I bet I’d have found at least a couple dead pill bugs inside the hoop after 97 out of 100 of those throws.

isopod

I think these pill bugs were probably Armadillidium vulgare, which is a pretty good descriptive name for them.

When I got home, I looked through my photos from last November to see if maybe the dead pill bugs had been on the ground back then too.  If they were still dark gray, instead of white, I might not have noticed them.  Out of about 30 photos, I did find one bug, and it was still dark.  It’s certainly possible there were many more bugs on the ground, hidden by a combination of their dark color and the remaining ash and debris that has since largely disappeared. I’d like to think I would have noticed that many, but I’m not very confident of that.

november

A single pill bug can be seen in this photo from mid-November last year.

I like mysteries, but I also like understanding ecological phenomena.  Pill bugs are detritivores; they feed on dead and decaying material on and below the soil surface.  One possibility is that the dead pill bugs had been feeding above ground, within the layer of thatchy dead vegetation, and were killed by the fire.  A second possibility is that they were belowground during the fire, but came up after the fire (maybe it got too cold and/or dry because the protective thatch was burned away?) and then died aboveground.  There are lots of other possibilities as well, not all of them related to fire.

I emailed photos and questions to several entomology friends, asking for help explaining what I’d seen.  None had ever seen something like this after a fire.  Based on their responses, though, my first proposed scenario (above) seems the most likely.  I just wish I’d looked more carefully after the fire last November, though there wasn’t any reason to do that at the time!  One of my friends also mentioned that I shouldn’t lose any sleep over what happened since the pill bugs are an introduced species (native to the Mediterranean region) and could be having negative impacts on the native detritivore community in prairies.

caught in grass

There were clusters of dead pill bugs in basal clumps of grasses like this one.  Maybe they got lodged here during a strong wind?

This is the kind of thing that keeps me interested in ecology.  Something killed a lot of pill bugs in that prairie.  It was probably related to the fire, but I can’t even say that for sure.  If it was the fire, were there other creatures similarly impacted, but in a less visible way? (We try not to burn entire prairies because of this kind of potential impact, especially on insects overwintering aboveground.) What impacts might the loss of that many pill bugs have on other detritivores, on the decomposition process in that prairie, or on other aspects of prairie ecology?  Lots to ponder; I love it!

Has anyone out there seen anything like this before?  Any other suggestions as to what might have happened?

PLANT GAME ANSWERS:

Thanks to everyone who played the plant game this week.  Over 360 people guessed on the first question, and over 60% guessed correctly that “Widespread Panic Grass” was made up.  Nice work, though I did purposefully try to make the first one easy.

The second question got many fewer guesses, only about 200, as of my writing this.  I got most of you on this one.  Almost half of the guesses were for Yerba Mansa, but that’s a real plant, folks.  It’s a rhizomatous semi-succulent plant in the lizard’s-tail family (Saururaceae) – I PROMISE I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP – and is most common in the southwestern United States, but has at least one record in western Nebraska.

The correct answer for the second question was “Jagged-edge milkwort,” which doesn’t exist.  It’s a little tricky because milkwort is a real thing, but there is no such thing as a “jagged-edge milkwort”.  Only 14% of guessers got it right.  Congratulations to you 30 people!

It looks like people enjoyed playing the game, so we’ll try it again in the near future.

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