Photo of the Week – May 18, 2018

Look everyone – bison calves!  I don’t really have anything particularly pithy or interesting to say about bison calves… I just  felt like posting some photos of them.  These are three of my favorites, all from the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Enjoy your weekend, everyone.


Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Photography | Tagged | 5 Comments

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Bittersweet Relationship With Trees

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Conservation Fellows.  Alex hails from right here in Aurora, Nebraska.  He has worked both in the policy arena and deep in the wilderness, and so brings a broad perspective to his thinking about conservation.  You’ll hear much more from him during the coming year.

I must come clean before diving into this article: I love trees. Trees are one of my favorite things in the world. From the towering conifers of the Pacific Northwest to the vast overwhelming deciduous canopy in the Shenandoah Valley. So long as I have two boots on my feet and passion in my heart, I will always love trees. Out of all trees, I especially love (brace yourself, fellow prairie-folk) the eastern redcedar.

Rough profile of my new Siberian elm canoe paddle, adjacent to the retired Western redcedar paddle. Photo by Alex Brechbill

I love cedars, largely because of the time I spent up North, in Minnesota, on the water. The first canoeing paddle I carved was from a slab of western redcedar. I cut the profile with a bandsaw and spoke-shaved the shaft, throat, and blade, leaving the finesse of the handle to fine grit sandpaper. Walking into the woodshop, the pungent aroma of cedar fills the air. As someone who enjoys woodworking, there are few things as visually appealing as the aesthetic of a golden, polished cedar-strip canoe. At times I’m a little embarrassed at how much time I spend ogling canoes on the Internet. From the bow to the stern, they are charming and iconic. While camping, I spent hours sitting by the warmth of glowing hot firepit, from freshly split cedar. Even on a soaking wet, bitter-cold day, cedar will burn well. There is a reason that the cedar was known as the tree of life.

Redcedar invokes all five senses; from smelling it to feeling the warmth of a fire. However, seeing thickets of trees, cedar or otherwise, on the prairie is jarring. A majority of the land stewardship time I have spent so far in the fellowship has been dedicated to removing woody invasive plants: Eastern redcedar, Siberian elm, mulberry, and several others. Cutting down trees is bittersweet. I have an immense respect for trees as organisms, and each time I cut one down I have to remember why I am cutting it down: we will lose our prairies if we don’t do anything about encroaching woodlands.

Encroaching trees limit the ability of some plants to establish themselves, and they will choke other plants out. Trees decrease the amount of forage that can be produced on a prairie for grazing. I could go on, but the bottom line is that trees can be harmful to prairies. On the other hand, there are certainly places for them. Along stream banks, as shade trees, and in shelterbelts, trees can be very helpful for people and livestock. I love both trees and prairies, but not when they form a Venn-diagram.

Black walnut spatula and serving spoon next to a pile of woodchips and a hooked knife. Photo by Alex Brechbill

Not only do we improve the quality of our prairies by removing invasive trees, we can also glean valuable products from their wood. Firewood is the first product that comes to mind. Sitting next to my fireplace on a cool night is one of my favorite ways to end the day, relaxing in the dry heat of the seasoned firewood. Milling logs into dimensional lumber is another great way to utilize problem trees. Sawing dimensional lumber is like breaking open a geode, the rugged exterior concealing a center of splendor. The freshly exposed grain of the wood is captivating, and it’s easy to get lost in the curvilinear waves flowing through the heartwood and sapwood. Currently, I am carving a flatwater canoeing paddle out of a milled slab of Siberian elm, another problem tree that we spend hours removing. I spend my evenings whittling black walnut, with its gorgeous dark heartwood, and cottonwood, which cuts like butter under the bevel of freshly honed edge.

A redcedar slab that is destined to be an end table. Photo by Alex Brechbill

For utility and beauty, trees give us a lot, whether they are the subject of a photo or some shade for a picnic. Unfortunately, as much as they give us, they can take a lot away from us, and if that means taking away our prairies, I better sharpen my saw and get back to work.

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Photo of the Week – May 11, 2018

It turns out a broken ankle really cramps my style.  Despite that, I managed to get out into the prairie a few times this week.  While I’m pretty slow, spring is progressing at lightning speed.

Green grass is spurting up through last year’s thatch, flowers are erupting here and there, and most grassland breeding birds have returned, filling the air with song.  I paused a few minutes to watch some mound building ants this week, and their frenetic activity matched the crazy speed of the prairie all around them, as both plants and animals seem to be rushing to make up for lost time after an extra long winter.  Last night, a big spring thunderstorm passed through, bringing much needed moisture, and adding even more wild energy to the landscape.

Here are a few photos I managed to get this week.  If you haven’t already, get out and visit a prairie near you.  Things are HAPPENING!!

A very active colony of mound building ants in recently burned prairie.

Ants rapidly coming and going from of many tunnel openings into the colony.

Rain drops on spiderwort leaves in my backyard prairie garden this morning.

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Hubbard Fellowship Post – Mixed-Up Flickers

This post is written by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Conservation Fellows.  Olivia hails from Pella, Iowa, and has strong experience in prairie ecology.  Look for more posts from her, as well as our other Fellow, Alex Brechbill, in coming months.

One of my favorite things about the change from winter to spring is the return of migratory birds. While the rest of spring has been reluctant to arrive, I am still reminded of the inevitable change in season as more and more birds arrive in the area. What started with sandhill cranes back in February just continues as killdeer, turkey vultures, and swallows, among others, seem to appear overnight when a favorable wind blows from the south.

Among the new arrivals are northern flickers, a woodpecker that despite its name, tends to feed on the ground. This migratory bird arrived here on the Platte River quite suddenly over Easter weekend, and they’ve been everywhere ever since! While common across North America, if you’ve spent any time travelling and recognize this bird, you may have noticed something interesting: birds in the eastern half of the continent are not the same color as those in the west.

In fact, there are two color variants of northern flickers. Eastern birds are called yellow-shafted flickers, and those in the west are red-shafted. The ‘yellow/red-shafted’ designation refers to the unusual coloration on the shafts of the wing and tail feathers of this bird. Where most birds’ feathers either have white, brown, or black shafts, northern flickers’ are bright yellow or salmon-red, depending on the variant. The undersides of these feathers also display the same color, resulting in bright flashes of color when the birds fly, turning a somewhat drab bird into something spectacular.

There are some other differences between the eastern and western variants. Yellow-shafted birds have a red crescent on the nape of their neck, and while all males have a ‘mustache’ patch of feathers extending down their cheek, it is black in yellow-shafted males, and red in red-shafted males. These differences are so clear, that for many years the two variants were considered different species.

This red-shafted flicker displays the red mustache sported by the males of this species.  Photo by Chris Helzer

In contrast, yellow-shafted northern flickers have a red crescent at the nape of their neck, and the male’s mustache is black. All flickers have a bold black crescent across their chest. Photo by Olivia Schouten

Though overall drab in appearance, northern flickers flash bright yellow or red when in flight. This yellow-shafted male followed around the female at the left of the photo for several minutes. Notice the female is missing the mustache of the males. Photo by Olivia Schouten

However, what complicated that classification was the presence of hybrids of the two variants in a large zone stretching from Texas to Alaska, cutting right through the heart of the Great Plains, including central Nebraska. These hybrids, called intergrades, display combinations of facial traits found in the red- and yellow-shafted variants. In my home state of Iowa all you will see are yellow-shafted flickers. However, here in Nebraska I see flickers with their wings flashing everything from yellow to dark salmon red, and all colors in between.

Though I couldn’t get a clear picture of this bird in flight, it is still clear that the wings of this bird grade from yellow to orange. While the facial markings of this flicker suggest it is a yellow-shafted variant, the coloration of the wings point to it being an intergrade, the result of the hybridization of a yellow-shafted and red-shafted variant. Photo by Olivia Schouten

Now considered one species, northern flickers are just one example of a common trend seen among North American birds. If you flip through a bird field guide and study the range maps, you will often find pairs of similar species where one occurs in the east, and one in the west, with the transition between the two occurring right down the middle of the continent. Eastern screech-owls and western screech-owls, ruby-throated hummingbirds and black-chinned hummingbirds, eastern and western wood-pewees, eastern and western meadowlarks, vireos, bluebirds, warblers, and on and on and on, you can’t escape the pattern. For many, it’s as if there was an invisible wall through Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, and upward keeping these species from spreading any further.

Clearly, something is going on in the middle of the continent when it comes to birds, and this hybridization sometimes makes it difficult for ornithologists to determine where species begin and end, or whether they should even be considered different species at all. One of the leading hypotheses is that climactic changes during past ice ages created unsuitable habitat in the center of the continent that separated previously connected populations. Time allowed for the divergence of these now separate populations, and when they reconnected as the ice retreated, enough differences had accumulated that they were no longer the same species.

Of course, this divergence was carried to varying degrees of completion depending on the bird. While some of these species pairs, like flickers, hybridize quite readily, and in fact never quite diverged enough to be different species at all, others, such as meadowlarks, while nearly identical in appearance, developed different enough songs that their separation was maintained.

So pay attention to the flickers around you here in Nebraska and elsewhere along the hybrid zone, and see if you have can spot the different variants!

Though I’m not entirely sure what is happening in this photo, I believe the male flicker here was displaying its tail to the female in some sort of courtship behavior. Whatever it was doing, it made for a nice demonstration of the brightly colored feathers tucked away by this otherwise unassuming bird. Photo by Olivia Schouten

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Toxic Bee-Killing Hitchhiker Beetles (I Know, Right?)

I’ve said many times that I’m no entomologist.  I am an invertebrate enthusiast.  I enjoy photographing small things, which means I end up with a lot of images of tiny invertebrates.  Once I have photos, I love to figure out what it is I’ve photographed and how it fits into the incredible complexity of its ecosystem.  The only times I’m ever disappointed by that research is when I can’t find any good information – often because there just isn’t much known about whatever creature I’m looking up.  When I can track down a story, it is always fascinating, and reinforces my sense of wonder about the world.

The latest example of that came last week while I was photographing pasque flowers at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  I noticed a few bees and other insects hanging around the flowers, but most were too wary to be photographed – with one big exception.  There were several big black beetles with large bulbous abdomens and short wings feeding on pasque flowers.  They were intent enough on feeding that I was able to get a few decent photographs, and promised myself I’d look up the species later.  Before I had a chance to start doing research, former Hubbard Fellow Jasmine Cutter texted me some photos of what looked like the same kind of beetle feeding on pasque flowers up in North Dakota and asked if I knew what they were.  Nope, but I was going to.

An oil beetle feeding on pasque flower at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week.

After a rare failed attempt to use, I sent photos to a couple friends and James Trager responded quickly with the answer – oil beetle (Meloe sp.), a kind of blister beetle.  Once I started looking for more information, I was shocked that I’d not come across oil beetles before.  Ok, not shocked, exactly, since there are way more great insect stories out there than I’ll ever learn, but still surprised, given the abundance of oil beetle accounts online.  Of those, I particularly recommend Piotr Naskrecki’s The Smaller Majority blog, as well as Adrian Thysse’s Splendour Awaits site.

So, what did I learn? First of all, oil beetles produce the same kind of toxin as all other blister beetles – a compound called cantharidin.  Ingesting only a small amount of cantharidin is toxic to most vertebrates.  While that seems like a great way for an oil beetle to get revenge on anything that eats it, it doesn’t necessarily prevent the big flightless beetle from being attacked and killed in the first place.  Don’t worry – there’s more.  When an oil beetle feels threatened, it can secrete bright yellow hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) from its leg joints.  As one does.  That hemolymph contains enough cantharidin that any contact with the skin of potential predators causes painful swelling and blisters.  That, of course, is a pretty good deterrent against predators, as well as any foolhardy humans trying to manhandle an oil beetle.

As a side note, cantharidin has been long recognized by humans as a powerful chemical.  Despite its extreme toxicity, it has actually been used (in very small doses) as an aphrodisiac, starting at least a thousand years ago.  Because of the severe consequences of even a slight overdose, however, there are gruesome stories of hopeful lovers causing very painful deaths to themselves or others.  Cantharidin also has a long and varied history in medicines.  Currently, it is being tested for its effectiveness at treating cancer (as in this recent example).

The wings of oil beetles are much too small carry their weight.

The ability to secrete toxic bright yellow fluid from its leg joints is a pretty good story.  However, that just scratches the surface of the fascinating natural history of oil beetles. Most beetles mature through a process called complete metamorphosis, in which larvae  hatch out of eggs and grow until they pupate and become adults.  The larvae usually look completely different from the adult, and often have a very different lifestyle as well.  Oil beetles, however, go above and beyond by using a process called hypermetamorphosis.

When an oil beetle egg hatches, what crawls out is called a triungulin, a speedy little creature that looks much like a tiny silverfish.  The triungulin cluster together and emit a chemical that mimics the pheromone of female solitary bees (bees that individually make nests and raise young, as opposed to honey bees and other social bee species).  A male bee, upon catching the scent, will descend upon the mass of triungulin and attempt to mate with it (guys are so dumb when they’re horny).  Instead, the triungulin quickly crawl up onto the bee and hold on tight.  They stay with the male bee until it finds a genuine female bee and mates with her, at which time the triungulin scramble aboard the female.

Once onboard the female bee, the triungulin hitchhike back to her nest burrow.  When they arrive, they detach themselves and start eating everything then can find in the nest, including the bee eggs and larvae, along with the food the mother bee provisioned for them.  You can watch an incredible short video of oil beetle triungulin here.  During their time in the host bee’s nest, the triungulin molt into much more traditional grub-like larvae, and eventually pupate and turn into adults.  As adults, oil beetles feed on vegetation – including, apparently, pasque flower blossoms.

You’d never know by looking at its cute face that this oil beetle spent its childhood eating baby bees.

Do you see what I mean about the fascinating lives of invertebrates?  Who would’ve guessed that a bulbous-butt flightless beetle would have such a great story?  Answer: anyone who knows much about invertebrates.  As I write this, I have my booted broken ankle propped up awkwardly on the couch, but I’m already formulating plans for how I’m soon going to (carefully) drag myself out into the prairie to collect more images and stories of tiny little creatures.  Stay tuned.

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Photo of the Week – May 4, 2018

“I love it when a plan comes together.”   Col. John “Hannibal” Smith.

Last summer, my wife and I were exploring at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and found what we thought were pasque flower plants, though they were well past blooming.  There were hundreds of plants on north-facing slopes in the mixed-grass prairie north of the river.  The soils in that mixed-grass prairie are more loamy than the vegetated sand dunes south of the river, and they support a different prairie plant community.  We don’t see pasque flower along the Platte River or at my family prairie, so I was really excited to see it.  I hadn’t realized it grew at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Pasque flowers (Anemone patens, aka Pulsatilla patens) are among the earliest bloomers in Nebraska prairies, but are found only in selected locations around the state. They are more widespread to the north and west of Nebraska.

As Kim and I walked around those hills last summer, I promised myself I’d figure out a way to photograph the pasque flowers in bloom during the spring of 2018.  As spring finally staggered out of the gate this year, I kept a watchful eye on Facebook and Instagram posts and checked in periodically with friends – all in an effort to gauge the best time to head north for pasque flower photography.  A couple weeks ago, our Hubbard Fellows made a trip up to the Preserve, and I had them scout the site for me.  Olivia sent me a photograph of a blooming pasque flower, but said the majority of plants hadn’t flowered yet.  Shortly after that, the area got over a foot of snow, which I figured would slow things down a little.  For the next two weeks, I nervously watched the calendar, focusing on this week’s scheduled staff meeting at the Preserve, and hoping the timing would work out for pasque flowers too.  I was sorely afraid I’d arrive only to find that I’d missed the peak bloom by just a few days.

Finally, this Monday, we drove up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, arriving about 45 minutes before our noon meeting was scheduled to start.  I immediately hopped on my ATV and rode out to the hills north of the river to find the pasque flowers.  The sky was cloudy, but the clouds were thin enough to create beautiful diffused light, and winds were light.  I tried not to get my hopes up as I climbed the last hill to one of the spots Kim and I had found the flowers last summer.  As I crested the hill I grinned from ear to ear.

It looked like nearly every pasque flower in the prairie was blooming when I arrived at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week.

I spent the next 30 minutes frantically scampering about, trying to photograph as many flowers as I could before I absolutely had to head back for the meeting.  Later, during a break before supper, I talked a few colleagues into coming out again with me, and I managed another hour or so of photography.  I could have stayed for days.  Everything had worked out just as I’d hoped.  I was right on time for peak bloom, and the light and wind cooperated as well.  Life was just perfect.  I loved the world and the world loved me.

The very next day, I broke my ankle.  No kidding.

My photography outings might be a little limited for the next few weeks, but I’ll have a whole raft of pasque flower photos to stare at in the meantime:

The flowers and early leaves of pasque flower are amazingly hairy. One of the reasons I wasn’t completely sure of the identification of the plants we saw last summer was that their summer leaves are much less woolly.

Many of the flowers were nearly completely white, while others had more lavender color to them, especially on the undersides of the petals.

Olivia (Hubbard Fellow) and Amber (Bio-Technician) came out later in the day to appreciate the abundant flowers.

These flowers show the more lavender extreme of the color spectrum represented by the flowers we saw.  I’m not sure if the color changes  (becoming more white?) with maturity or if there is just a lot of variation from plant to plant.  Someone with more experience with pasque flowers might be able to chime in on that.

This photo, taken with a short telephoto lens, gives a better feel for the density of the plants than my more wide angle shots, which make the plants look more widely dispersed than they really were.

I hope to photograph these flowers every year, now that I know where they are. I captured a lot of angles and perspectives this year, but I feel like there are nearly unlimited possibilities for more photos in the future!

Posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | 17 Comments

Interview: An Introduction to South African Grasslands

With this post, I’m finally getting around to something I’ve been contemplating for several years.  Back in October, 2015, Alan Short sent me an email from South Africa.  He’d been reading this blog and was interested in exploring similarities between South African grasslands and the prairies of North America.

After some emails back and forth, Alan brought his colleague Greg Martindale into the conversation, and Greg then suggested I talk to Devan McGranahan – a professor at North Dakota State University who I first met at some patch-burn grazing meetings more than 10 years ago.  Devan spent a year in South Africa doing post-doctoral work, which lets him compare North American grasslands to those in South Africa.

I’ve found the similarities and differences between the grasslands on our two continents to be fascinating and I’m hoping you will as well.  In this post, I’ve asked Alan, Greg and Devan to provide a quick introduction the South African grassland, or veld, as it is locally known.  In a future post, we’ll explore some management issues.  You can read a little more about the South African grassland biome here.

Grassland and forest patch – in Fort Nottingham Nature Reserve. Such forests form fire refuges and are important component in the species and structural heterogeneity of the mesic grasslands in KwaZulu-Natal. The forest is an endangered vegetation type, Eastern Mistblet Forest, which is a form of montane forest. Photo and caption information by Greg Martindale


Alan, can you give a basic description of what the grasslands of South Africa look like and how they might compare to ours here in North America?



Our grasslands have quite a wide range of climatic and geological variation. The eastern parts are high rainfall (700-2000mm, or 28-79 inches, per annum) down to about 500mm, or 20 inches, in the west where they start grading into the shrubby vegetation of the karoo. From that point of view, the range in precipitation is probably fairly similar to the US.

A couple of big differences might be that southern African grasslands are entirely summer rainfall, apart from some of the subtropical coastal grasslands which are mostly fire-maintained and have more evenly distributed rainfall. We do get snow on the mountains, and occasionally in the foothills (every 3-4 years), but it probably doesn’t contribute to precipitation in the same way that snowfall in North American prairies do.

The major structural feature of much of the African continent is the interior plateau, with a steep escarpment on the eastern flank which blocks a significant fraction of the rainfall coming in from the warm Indian Ocean in the east. So, in the grasslands of the escarpment itself, you have high-rainfall, mostly fire-maintained grasslands with patches of natural forest in the sheltered valleys and southern flanks of the mountains. These areas are particularly prone to invasion by alien invasive woody species. On the plateau, the grasslands are more climate-maintained, although fire still plays an important role.

Illustration by Chris Helzer. Apologies for over-generalizations

The biodiversity is spectacular. There’s a very long evolutionary history in these grasslands and a high rate of endemism. In the moist grasslands, much of the plant diversity consists of perennial, fire-adapted species with large underground organs. Annuals become more dominant in the semi-arid grasslands. The grasses are mostly tropical and subtropical species, with many of the same subfamilies as found in some of the North American prairies. At high altitude, once you get into basalts of the Lesotho Highlands and the summit of the Drakensberg (above about 2500m, or 8200 ft), temperate genera like Festuca and Poa become more common. There are a lot of endemic frogs, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, most of which are on the endangered species lists. In the central (plateau) grasslands as well as the coastal grasslands, huge herds of game were once a feature, but they’ve mostly disappeared and been replaced by livestock, apart from game farms and nature reserves.

Grassland and mountains in the Lotheni Nature Reserve, which is part of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site. The vegetation types here are montane grasslands, Southern Drakensberg Highland Grassland and uKhahlamba Basalt Grassland. These grasslands are grazed by free roaming wildlife species, the largest of which are eland and they are burnt on three or four year cycles. Photo and caption information by Greg Martindale


Devan, you spent a year in South Africa but are also very familiar with grasslands in the U.S.  What can you add to what Alan described?



The South African diversity is indeed striking, both in the types of grasslands and the species richness of even the grasses themselves, not to mention forbs. The spatial variability in distinct grassland types is itself higher than I associate with North American grasslands, and they are all packed into a less extensive area. The lack of snow-derived moisture is indeed a difference but I suspect the lack of frost (at lower elevations) is a bigger difference between the northern prairies I’m familiar with and probably all of South Africa’s grassland. Soils under African grassland are old and oxidized and much of the grassland biome reminds me more of eastern Oklahoma than anywhere else in North America: reddish soil and high productivity.

Alan mentioned the Drakensberg grasslands. It does snow in the Drakensberg. It gets cold, and one can see it in the soils: decomposition is slowed and deep, black organic matter builds up. These grasslands crank out as much grass biomass as any tallgrass prairie. But despite being set aside as a World Heritage Site and managed by the provincial wildlife authority, grazer density on these grasslands is much lower than one would expect. Grazer density is low because the sward drastically loses nutritive value in the winter and simply can’t support large herds. These high-altitude grasslands are known as “sourveld” and are complemented by “sweetveld” – rangeland that can be grazed all winter long. Again, I think a lot of these differences to North America are climate-driven, the difference between dormancy driven by cold vs lack of precipitation.

Mooi River Highland Grassland in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands – this area it utilised for cattle grazing and is burnt on a three to four year cycle. Photo and caption information by Greg Martindale


Greg, how are the grasslands in South Africa doing today?



The grassland biome, which is the second largest biome in South Africa, at approximately 350 000 km2 (about the size of Iowa and Nebraska combined – PE), includes the country’s main economic centre, the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg and surrounding cities), which is its most populous, rapidly urbanising and industrialising region.  Due to this, and other pressures such as crop production and the operations of several key industries including mining and forestry, approximately 60% of the biome has been irreversibly transformed.

Levels of transformation and these intense and growing pressures are of particular concern because the biome comprises a centre of diversity with an estimated 3 788 plant species and only 2% of it is formally conserved.  Almost the entire area of the biome that has not been irreversibly transformed is used for livestock agriculture. The overall extent of grassland in South Africa, appears to be primarily determined by climatic variables, although fire and grazing exert considerable influence over the biome’s boundaries.

Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve – a Ramsar site and the source of the Umgeni River, KwaZulu-Natal’s most important river, as it is the main source for the economic centres of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. This nature reserve is subject to controlled grazing to allow areas to be kept open for the breeding of wattled cranes, a critically endangered species. Photo and information by Greg Martindale.

Biographical information:

Alan Short

Alan Short is a rangeland ecologist and independent consultant, advising farmers, conservation agencies and other land managers in southern Africa on sustainable range management principles. Previously, he worked as a research scientist at a provincial department of Agriculture, ran a national rangeland monitoring program for South Africa, and spent two years working for a conservation program in Mozambique.

Greg Martindale

Greg is the director of a small non-profit organisation in South Africa, which focuses on creating new protected areas with landowners.  This builds on work he did when he was employed by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial conservation authority.  Through this work he interacts closely with landowners to devise approaches to the management of grassland for livestock grazing, which are compatible with biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of critical ecological processes.

Devan McGranahan

Devan Allen McGranahan learned about tallgrass prairie growing up on his family’s farm in Clay County, Iowa, and learned about managing it while at Grinnell College. Afterward he spent a year living on game farms across southern Africa before taking up graduate studies at Iowa State University on a patch-burn grazing project. After returning to South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Grassland Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, Devan joined the Range Science faculty at North Dakota State University. He specializes in grassland fire ecology.

Suggested Reading:

Low, A.B. and Rebelo, A.G. (1996) Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Pretoria.

O’Connor, T.G. and Bredenkamp, G.J. (1997) Grassland. In Cowling, R.M., Richardson, D.M. and Pierce, S.M. (eds) Vegetation of Southern Africa. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Reyers, B. and Tosh, C.A. (2003) National Grassland Initiative: concept document. Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Land Affairs, Johannesburg.


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Photo of the Week – April 27, 2018

I feel like I need to apologize to long-time readers of this blog.  This is the seventh spring season I’ve photographed and shared via this blog, and each of those spring seasons starts with essentially the same wildflower species.  Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus), and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – in no particular order – are the first three wildflowers I find and photograph almost every single year.  I’m always excited to find them because they are an important signal of a new growing season, but also because I’m desperate for something vibrant and colorful to photograph after a long winter.

Sharing those spring flower photos with you each year feels to me like a shared celebration of the annual prairie rebirth, but I also imagine some of you checking in on the blog, seeing the photos, sighing deeply, and checking right back out again.  If that’s you, I really do apologize, and you’re free to go.  I’ll try to do better next week.  For the rest of you, guess what!  It’s spring!  Look at these gorgeous flowers!!

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) was blooming at our family prairie this week.  Most were extraordinarily short still, but flowering nonetheless.  It was as if they didn’t feel like they had time to grow to their typical height – they just needed to BLOOM ALREADY.

Quite a few insects were flying between and crawling upon the pussytoes flowers, but many were tiny enough I had to look awfully close to see them.  That included this tiny true bug.

Because of the extended cold weather this spring, the flowering season is getting a late start, but plants seem to be responding with phenomenal speed.  I visited our prairie six days before this photo was taken and didn’t see any flowers of any kind.  Less than a week later, ground plum (shown here) and its colleagues seemed to be racing to catch up, and were in full bloom in all their regular places.

Dandelions bloomed first, but were still difficult to find a week ago. Now they are all over the place, especially in places that were grazed hard last year.

More pussytoes.

While not particularly showy, the flowers of pussytoes must produce fairly significant resources of pollinator insects, at least in comparison to the mostly barren (of flowering plants) landscape around them.  Flies were the most abundant visitors, but so were bees, moths, and even a few butterflies.

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Re-emerging into the Warm Sunshine

On Monday, I took advantage of very pleasant weather to visit one of our Platte River Prairies I hadn’t seen for a while. The warm sunny day felt great to me, but apparently also invigorated a lot of other creatures. Wild turkeys were in full display mode, with males showing off to each other and to nearby females, and I flushed a prairie chicken from near where it and others had been lekking earlier in the day.

More interestingly, I saw all kinds of insect activity. Big green darner dragonflies were zipping around wetlands adjacent to the river, and nearby patches of bare sand were full of small hordes of brightly colored tiger beetles chasing after flies and other tiny insects.  I wondered whether the adult insects I was seeing had spent the winter as adults, and if so, how.  Green darner dragonflies are migratory, so the ones I saw might have moved back north from wherever they go during the winter.  I’m pretty sure the tiger beetles I saw had spent the winter as adults, sheltered in their burrows.

I’m pretty sure this is the bronze tiger beetle (Cicindela repanda) because it fits both the visual description and the habitat (bare moist sand near the river). This was the most common tiger beetle I saw.

There many fewer festive tiger beetles (Cicindela scutellaria), but they were certainly the most colorful.

As I was crawling through the sand on my belly, trying to get close enough to photograph tiger beetles, I occasionally flushed band-winged grasshoppers that were hanging around on the same patches of bare ground.  I managed to photograph both green and brown ones, which I assumed were different species until I got home and looked more closely at the photographs.  Despite the different colors, the patterns and textures of the grasshoppers looked identical to each other, so I sent the photos to a couple friends who have shown themselves willing to put up with my grasshopper questions in the past.

The brown form of the greenstriped grasshopper was much more common (and harder to see against the mostly still brown grass) in the prairies this week.

Both Ellen Welti and Angela Laws responded and let me know that both the green and brown grasshoppers were greenstriped grasshoppers (Chortophaga viridifasciata).  Greenstriped grasshoppers are band-winged grasshoppers, which are known for their colorful wings and their habitat of crepitation (loud snapping noise) as they are flushed and fly away.  Band-wings also tend to hang out in areas of bare ground, which matches where I found them this week.

The greenstripped grasshopper is very common and abundant in the eastern United States, but it is found in much more scattered populations out here in the west where it tends to be tied to areas of moist soil. The grasshoppers hatch from eggs in mid-summer and then overwinter as late stage nymphs.  Once they emerge in the spring, they molt into their adult form. During the winter they are in diapause (a kind of dormant state) that is apparently broken in the spring, not by temperature, but by increased photoperiod (daylength).  All of this means that greenstriped grasshoppers have to be extremely cold tolerant.  They have to survive the winter, of course, but even after they emerge in the spring they still have to face the kinds of spring cold snaps we’ve been dealing with this year.  During those cold periods, the grasshoppers find a place where they can nestle into some prairie thatch until temperatures rise again.  Then they bask in the sun until they’re warm enough to resume their regular activities.

In its green form, the greenstriped grasshopper is sure handsome, isn’t it?

Ellen shared a great anecdote about how cold tolerant the greenstriped grasshopper can be.  While doing grasshopper research at Konza Prairie (near Manhattan, KS), she put a batch of caught grasshoppers in the freezer – a standard way to kill insects before sorting, identifying, and pinning them.  Three days later, when she brought the bag of frozen insects out to work through them, a greenstriped grasshopper started kicking its legs!  Ellen said she felt bad for the grasshopper and ended up taking it back out to the prairie, where it seemed to be completely unphased by the whole experience and hopped back into the grass.

Seeing how quickly insect activity resumes after cold snaps during the spring is a great reminder of how resilient and well-adapted those creatures are.  We complain about having to put up with wild temperature swings, but we’ve got cozy homes and appropriate clothing to help us cope.  Birds, insects, and other animals don’t have the advantages we have – they’re just tougher than we are.  While not all of them can stand being frozen solid like the greenstriped grasshopper (though many of them can), they have been dealing with crazy weather events for many thousands of years, and will likely continue to do so in the distant future.  I bet they whine a lot less about it too.

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Photo of the Week – April 20, 2018

The prairie is finally waking up (again) around here.  Before last weekend’s blizzard weather, plants were starting to green up, but all that stopped for a while last weekend so we could enjoy one last (?) snowstorm.  We didn’t end up with much accumulation on the Platte River, but our Niobrara Valley Preserve got over a foot of snow.  Yesterday afternoon, the sun was warm and bright along the Platte, so I took a few hours to enjoy the latest reboot of spring.

This tiny orb weaver spider was starting a web in a recently burned patch of prairie. The grass was only a few inches tall, but the spider was using the breeze to string silk between the young shoots. I laid on my belly for quite a while and watched it work.

I’m not sure if it finally noticed me or just needed a rest, but after working for quite a while, the spider retreated to this little hiding place. I waited for several minutes, but it apparently wasn’t going to keep working, so I left it alone.

I noticed this open hole in a fresh pocket gopher mound and thought maybe I’d catch the gopher bringing a load of dirt out of its tunnel. I sat quietly near the hole for a few minutes until I looked more closely and decided it didn’t look as fresh as I’d first thought. I don’t think anything had disturbed the soil at the mouth of the hole since the snow melted. Pretending not to feel foolish, I moved on…

This roundheaded bushclover (Lespdeza capitata) leaf had what I think were probably fungal spots on it. While it wasn’t fresh green growth, I thought it was interesting and attractive enough to be photographed.

While it doesn’t look like much, the yellow-flowered sun sedge (Carex heliophila) shown here was my most exciting discovery of the day. We can’t get it to establish from seed, so we’d moved some plants from a nearby remnant into this restored prairie back in 2011.  Since then we hadn’t been able to find any (tiny plants under tall grass). Since the plants were blooming yesterday, I went looking in an area that was grazed last year and found hundreds of them! The plants survived and are spreading quickly via rhizomes.  This was the first one I found.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are playing their annual role of supporting early pollinators until native wildflowers get rolling. Yesterday was the first time I’d seen any blooming, but I saw several flies (including this one) and a honey bee already feeding from them.

It’s supposed to cool off again this weekend, but the forecast doesn’t show temperatures dropping below freezing – at least for the next week.  Maybe spring will actually catch on this time?  It’ll be interesting to watch plants like windflower (Anemone caroliniana) that started to grow and then got frozen off – multiple times.  Will they still bloom, or will they just give up and wait for next year?  Regardless, it’s sure nice to see something moving around in the prairies besides dead plant stems being blown around by the wind.  Let’s go spring!

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