Photo of the Week – June 23, 2017

This is a good year for sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus) in the Platte River Prairies.  Sensitive briar is a spiny perennial legume that sprawls across the ground in dry prairies and has leaves that fold up when touched or blown about by the wind.  It’s an odd plant, and one that is hard to miss when it’s blooming because each plant has numerous pink flower balls scattered across an area about the size of a large bathtub.

A sensitive briar plant blooming on a sandy hill this year in the Platte River Prairies.

Sensitive briar is named for the sensitivity of its leaves to touch, but it must also be sensitive to moisture conditions or something else.  As I was preparing to write this, I scanned through my field notes because I remembered sensitive briar being extra abundant a few years ago as well.  I was right; I’d noted an extraordinary number of plants back in 2011.  In fact, I wrote a blog post about it!  I don’t have any better explanation this year than I did back in 2011 for why this perennial plant seems to ebb and flow so much in abundance.

This katydid nymph was one of many insects enjoying the abundance (and easily accessible pollen) of sensitive briar this year.

Maybe the ebb and flow is mainly about flowering, and many of our sensitive briar plants just don’t bloom every year.  The only thing giving me pause is an experience we once had with a large plot of sensitive briar plants in our seed production garden.  One year, we thought all the plants had died because they didn’t even come out of the ground that spring.  We wondered if they’d been accidentally sprayed or something the previous year.  Fortunately, we didn’t till the plot up and start over because the next year it was filled with mature sensitive briar plants again!  It’s not that I’m looking for more data collection projects to work on, but it would sure be interesting to mark some plants in our prairies and track them over 10 years or so to see what’s going on…

Just one more fun prairie mystery to solve!

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Register for the 2017 Grassland Restoration Network Now!

This year’s Grassland Restoration Network meeting will be July 11 and 12 at Konza Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas.  Some of you have attended these annual meetings in the past (we hosted last year’s meeting here at the Platte River Prairies in Nebraska).  For those of you who haven’t, they are informal meetings where we visit a site and learn about the challenges and successes of conducting prairie restoration work, especially in the context of using restoration as a conservation strategy.  My favorite aspect of the meetings is that they allow a lot of time to talk with people grappling with the same kinds of issues we are, and I always come away with new ideas and energy.

These research plots at Konza show a pretty stark difference between a couple different fire frequency treatments…

This year’s meeting will be a little different than most.  We will be hearing from scientists working with the Konza Long Term Ecological Research site on a variety of topics that will relate both to prairie restoration and to prairie conservation and ecology more broadly.  I’m sure we’ll have vigorous discussions about how to apply what they’re learning across various geographies.  Some of their research focuses specifically on restoring grasslands through seeding, but we’ll also talk about woody invasion, the impacts of fire and grazing on prairies, and much more.  However, we will still provide plenty of time for conversation about what each of us is learning at our own sites in terms of seeding rates, invasive species challenges, monitoring, and long-term management.

If you’re interested in joining us, you can find more information on the agenda and registration procedure HERE.  I hope to see you there!

I visited Konza Prairie a few years ago with our Hubbard Fellows and wrote three blog posts about some of our discussions, which I found fascinating.  You can revisit those by following the links below:

Post #1

Post #2

Post #3

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Exotic Beauty

Early in my career, I felt pretty strongly that only native plants should be in the prairies I managed.  Pretty quickly, I realized I didn’t have enough time to eradicate the worst invasive plants from our sites, let alone worry about some of the more innocuous non-native plants.  In fact, I found some of those non-native plants could be pretty valuable (e.g., dandelions and their early season resources for pollinators).

I began to take a much more pragmatic approach to managing plant communities, working to suppress species that tended to form monocultures or become dominant enough to suppress the diversity of plant communities.  Some of those dominant/aggressive species included non-native invasive grasses and woody plants, but also some native species such as big bluestem, eastern redcedar, smooth sumac, and rough-leaved dogwood.  A plant’s status as native or not became less important than how it affected the diversity and function of the plant community it was part of.

A goatsbeard flower opening at sunrise.  Niobrara Valley Preserve.

One non-native plant I’ve always gotten along with pretty well is goatsbeard, aka western salsify (Tragopogon dubius).  Sure, it wasn’t here before European settlement, but it isn’t aggressive and has simply added itself to the plant diversity of many of our prairies.  Also, it’s really pretty (though so are many nasty invasive plants).  Both when it flowers and when it goes to seed, goatsbeard makes an attractive photography subject.

It’s fun to stick a macro lens into a goatsbeard seedhead, which resembles a fist-sized dandelion head, and try to create interesting abstract images.  Goatsbeard seedheads were one of my favorite subjects when I first started playing with close-up photography about 25 years ago, and they still attract me today.  I never get tired of looking at those big fuzzy parachute-style appendages attached to the seeds.

Becoming less of a snob about the native status of plants has made my life a little less stressful.  There are plenty of plant species that require serious attention in order to maintain healthy, diverse, and resilient prairies.  Worrying about whether a plant was here 200 years ago is the least of my worries.  Now when I walk around a grassland, I’m comfortable greeting species like dandelions, goatsbeard, and lamb’s quarters as friends (while still trying to eliminate problematic non-natives such as crown vetch, Siberian elm, and Canada thistle).

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Photo of the Week – June 15, 2017

Earlier this week, I posted a photo of a female wolf spider carrying her brood on her back.  We were collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, and it seemed there were babies all over the place.  Young birds were hopping and flapping around, grasshopper and katydid nymphs were abundant – especially on wild rose flowers, and bison calves were following their moms around closely.  Here are a few other photos of early season babies from this week.

Bison calves are at near-maximum cuteness at the moment.

A fledgling horned lark peers at me from its hiding place.

I belly crawled about 10 yards to get you this cute photo. Don’t worry, I think I got most of the sand burs out of my belly.

I’m pretty sure this is a fledgling grasshopper sparrow based on its size, coloration, and habitat.

A young katydid nymph feeds on wild rose pollen.

A grasshopper nymph stands out on a background of puccoon flowers.

Ok, one more bison calf photo…

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Events and Announcements

Hi Everyone,

Here are several opportunities I wanted to alert you to:

First, we will be hosting a Plant Identification Field Day at our Platte River Prairies on Thursday July 6, 2017.  The day will run from 9am to 2pm, and will include several experts leading concurrent hikes through various habitat types (mesic and wet/mesic prairie, Sandhills prairie, and wetlands) and helping participants identify the plants seen there.  This will be a fairly informal day, and you can choose the habitats on which you want to focus.  Please bring your own lunch, and feel free to come and go as you like during the event.  The event is free and open to anyone, and will take place at The Nature Conservancy’s Derr House.

Directions to the Derr House: Take exit 300 off of Interstate 80 (Wood River, Nebraska) and head south for two miles.  Immediately after following a sharp curve in the highway, turn right to continue south on a gravel road and you’ll see the sign for The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.  Park in the lot near the sign.

Second, a few weeks ago, I presented a webinar through the Natural Resources Conservation Service entitled Using and Fire and Grazing to Maintain Productive and Ecologically Resilient Grasslands.  I discussed what ecological resilience is and how it relates to prairies, and talked about various ways prescribed fire and grazing can be used to manage prairies for biological diversity and resilience.  If you’re interested in this topic and have 45 minutes to spare, a recording of the webinar is available for anyone to watch at this link.

Finally, I will be presenting another webinar on June 22 at noon CST in conjunction with Saskatchewan’s Native Prairie Appreciation Week.  This webinar will be entitled “All The Little Things” and is basically an appreciation of the small creatures and natural processes that make prairies work.  It will be mainly photographs and stories about prairie natural history.  You can register for the webinar live by following this link, though space is limited.  I’m not sure if there will be a recording available afterward.

I hope to see you on July 6!

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Child Care Can Be a Burden

I’m up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week.  While collecting data today, we spotted a brood of sharp-tailed grouse, a couple other baby birds, and a whole bunch of cute red bison calves.  I got photos of all of those except the grouse (they’re really fast!).  I might post some of those cute baby photos later.  Tonight, though, I have just enough time to post a photo of the other babies I saw today.

Female wolf spiders are known for carrying their brood around on them until they’re big enough to go off on their own.  I watched this family for quite a while this evening.  It looked to me like mama was about done with this whole child care thing.  She mostly just stood still while her babies clung to her, or periodically scurried around, looking for a better place to hold on.  The only moving she did was to periodically wipe a few spiderlings off her face.  Her immobility made photography easier, but I felt pretty bad for her.

I’m guessing the spiderlings will be leaving soon.  In fact, a few of them made it up onto my camera while I was watching their mom.  I wish them success, but I also hope their mom gets to take a nice vacation, or at least enjoy a good grasshopper dinner after they leave.  It looks like she deserves it.

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Photo of the Week – June 8, 2017

In several of our prairies right now, poppy mallows are among the most prolific flowers.  Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) and pale pink poppy mallow (Callirhoe alcoides) are not only great tongue twisters, but also pretty flowers and important food sources for pollinators.  Earlier this week, I watched a monarch moving from flower to flower in a big patch of pale pink poppy mallow, but I didn’t manage to get a picture of it.  Yesterday, I paused to photograph a poppy mallow blossom and noticed something funny about the underside of the flower…

Those of you who have followed the blog for a while know of my affinity for crab spiders.  They’re just so stinking cute, and once you start looking for them, they are everywhere, especially on flowers.

This particular long-legged friend and his relatives were on several kinds of flowers in our prairies this week, including pale pink poppy mallow (above) and yarrow (below).

At our family prairie, I found a different crab spider (below) hanging out on yarrow with its long front legs cocked and ready to spring shut on unsuspecting prey.

As I photographed the spider, a fly landed on the flower and started feeding on pollen and moving about the flower.

It got closer and closer to the spider, so I just kept shooting.  A few moments later, it turned its back on the spider…

…and the spider GRABBED it.  The fly buzzed loudly and drug the spider around a little, but was no match for the strong grip and venomous bite.

For a few seconds, the spider stood vertically, holding tight to the fly.  Then as the fly’s struggles subsided, the crab spider repositioned itself to start feeding.

Apparently, the spot right behind the head is the best place to puncture a fly if you want to suck out its liquefied insides.  A little tip for all you fly sucker wannabes out there…

Seeing the number of flowers with crab spiders, and the ease with which this crab spider caught its prey is a reminder of how dangerous it is to be a pollinator.  Every flower is a potential source of nutritious food, but a fair number of them also host lurking crab spiders, waiting to snag careless insects.  As someone who spends a lot of time trying to photograph pollinators, I’m keenly aware of how quickly they move from flower to flower.  Of course they do – the longer they stick around each flower, the better chance something will catch and eat them!

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Surprising Little Gems

Last week, I had a couple hours to do some reconnaissance at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  I wanted to see how far along the flowering plant season was in preparation for some data collection efforts we hope to start soon.  It was a hot afternoon, and it was nice to be riding an ATV so I could create my own breeze.  At one point, I parked the ATV and took a short walk down into a valley filled with sumac.  When I came back, something caught my eye as I was swinging my leg onto the ATV.  When I checked out the small flash of magenta, I found this:

Pincushion cactus (Escobaria vivipara, aka Coryphantha vivipara)

Wow.  A gorgeous little plant!  I’d photographed the same species at the Niobrara Valley Preserve a dozen or more years ago, but hadn’t seen one since.  Since this was the second pincushion cactus I’d seen despite many many trips to the Preserve, I figured it must be a fairly uncommon plant.  I pulled out my diffuser (thin fabric stretched across a flexible frame) to soften the harsh mid afternoon sunlight and photographed it.  Then I drove away, feeling fortunate and happy.

…and then I saw another cactus about two minutes later.  This one had THREE flowers, so of course I had to photograph it!  What a lucky day – no pincushion cactus sightings for twelve years or more and now TWO in TWO minutes!  Despite the heat, I was in a great mood when I started driving again.

Then I saw another one.  And another.  During my two hour drive, I saw at least a dozen blooming cacti, all vibrant and spectacular.  They were like little sparkling jewels embedded in the prairie.  I even found a couple of them blooming within the portion of the big bison pasture that was burned in March this year.  The prickly pear cacti in that same burned area was shriveled from the fire and (based on previous experience) going to have to regrow from their bases.  I don’t know why the pincushion cactus seemed unaffected; maybe because it sits so low to the ground.  Or maybe I just found the lucky ones that ended up in less intense heat.

My dad has this species of pincushion cactus in his garden and says they only bloom for a few days each year.  I guess that’s why I’ve seen them so infrequently.  I’m sure I’ve walked past them many times without noticing them.  The cactus barrels I saw last week were the size of a tennis ball or smaller, and they sit right on the surface of the ground, so it’s easy to see how I’d miss them without the bright magenta spotlights shining at me.  I just happened to be in the right place at the right time last week.

…I kind of feel like my career has been a long series of being in the right place at the right time.  I’m immensely grateful for every one of those opportunities.

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Photo of the Week – June 2, 2017

I’m just back home from a week of outdoor family vacation, so apologies for another brief post.  Earlier this week, while I was crouched low to the ground photographing a flower, I noticed a little friend perched on a nearby grass stem.  She looked like she wanted to make a connection with me, but I wasn’t looking for that kind of relationship.  Instead, I swung the camera around, photographed her, and then left her hanging.  I know, I’m a real cad…

A female American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis), aka Wood Tick, waiting for just the right someone to pass by.

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Vacation at Toadstool Geologic Park

One of the best tourist stops in Nebraska gets very few visitors (which doesn’t hurt its value as a site I like to visit).  Toadstool Geologic Park is in the northern panhandle of Nebraska, north of the town of Crawford.  We stopped there on a short family vacation trip this week and enjoyed hiking and camping in relative solitude.  The landscape is otherworldly and beautiful, and full of interesting plants and rock formations.  The geology and paleontology of the park are legendary, but I spent most of my time (of course) looking at bugs and flowers.  The boys and Kim, however, hadn’t been to the park before and really liked the self-guided tour that showcases rock formations, volcanic ash deposits, ancient rhino footprints, and much more.

After leaving Toadstool this morning, we cut north for a brief stop at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.  Caves and I don’t get along well (I’m an open skies person, myself), so while the rest of the family is down in a dark closed-in space, I figured I’d knock out a quick blog post.  Apologies for not including more detail, but I didn’t have a lot of time!

The landscape of Toadstool Geologic Park is rugged and gorgeous.

Wildflowers were putting on a real show while we were there, including white beardtongue (Penstemon albidus).

White penstemon was pretty, but crested beardtongue (Penstemon eriantherus) was even more spectacular.

This is, I think, leafy musineon (Musineon divaricatum), growing on rocky flats, surrounded by rock formations.

Large rocks suspended on eroding soils were common across the park.

Alkali milkvetch (Astragalus racemosus) was growing all over the place, and seemed to be particularly attractive to bumble bees.

The mud at the bottom of the ephemeral stream courses was drying out after recent rains, and there were some fascinating reticulated patterns here and there.

The landscape was no less impressive after dark, especially when illuminated by a crescent moon.

We saw a lot of these evening primroses (I think they are gumbo-lily – Oenothera caespitosa) seemed to be able to grow in almost no soil, along with many other plants in the park.

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