Photo of the Week – July 1, 2016

I often tell people, “I’m not an insect expert, I’m an insect enthusiast.”  I don’t spend nearly enough time immersed in the vagaries of invertebrate taxonomy and biology to know much more than some interesting trivia about most species.  This week provided a couple great examples of my lack of expertise.

Early in the week, I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  While walking one morning, I noticed a longhorn beetle on a white prairie clover flower.  I felt pretty good about recognizing it as a longhorn beetle, and was even able to remember part of the genus (“Typo something, I think”).  I also noticed a small weevil on the same flower.   “Cool!”

Long

Longhorn beetle (Typocerus confluens or Typocerus octonotatus) and a weevil on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A few steps away, I saw another white prairie clover flower, and sure enough, there was a longhorn beetle on that one too.  And another weevil.  This second longhorn beetle had a different pattern on its back from the first one, so I assumed it was a second species.  “Nice,” I thought, there’s a good example of insect diversity – two different beetle species feeding on the same flower.

long

Another longhorn beetle on another white prairie clover flower.

A few steps away from that second flower was a third one, and it had a longhorn beetle on it as well.  The third beetle looked different than both the first and the second ones.  (Oh, and there was a weevil on the third flower too.)

beetle

A third longhorn beetle.

As I walked away from the white prairie clover patch, I started composing a blog post in my head about insect diversity.  Something about how important it is to have lots of different species within each group of animals so that if one species suffers from a disease or some other malady, there are others that can cover the role it plays in the natural world.  Blah blah blah.

When I got back to WiFi, I emailed my longhorn beetle photos to Ted MacRae (an ACTUAL insect expert) who is generous enough to help me with identification of beetle photos.  (Check out his fantastic blog here.)  I asked him what species these three beetles were so I could name them in my upcoming blog post.  When I got his reply, my blog post idea went out the window.  They weren’t three different species at all – they were all the same one!  (By the way, Ted couldn’t tell for sure from my photos which of two possible species they were.  He said he’d need to see the “last ventral abdominal segment” of each to be sure.)

Now, how is an insect enthusiast supposed to keep up when three beetles of the same species don’t even have the common courtesy to look like each other??   I’m ok with the occasional oddball.  With flowers, for example, it’s not uncommon to see one white flower out of a big patch of purple spiderwort or vervain flowers.  Fine.  Genetics provides a few quirks now and then.  But I only saw three longhorn beetles, and none of them had the same color pattern on their back??  I give up.

Oh, and the weevils?  Don’t even ask.  I don’t know.  They all look the same to my eye, but what does that mean?  They’re probably three different species that just happen to be feeding on the same flower.  That would be about right.  Geesh.

So then yesterday, I was in our Platte River Prairies and noticed a crab spider on a black-eyed Susan flower.  It was a pretty spider (you have to admit that) so I stopped and photographed it.

crab spider

Crab spider on black-eyed Susan flower.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

After I photographed the spider, I gave the other flowers nearby a quick look, and sure enough – there were crab spiders on several of those too.  Now, here’s the thing: the other crab spiders might have been different species, or they might not.  I’m not even going to guess.  They had different patterns on their abdomens but were generally the same color.  The first one was much broader, but that’s likely because she’s a female, and that’s how it works with spiders.  The other two might be different species or they could be from different growth stages and the patterns might be different for that reason.  Or, apparently, THEY COULD JUST LOOK DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON OTHER THAN TO BE CONFUSING.

crab spider

Another crab spider.  

spider

One more crab spider

I could email photos of the crab spiders to a friend who occasionally identifies them for me, but I’m not going to.  I’m choosing instead to simply admire the aesthetics of these fascinating little creatures, and appreciate some general trivia about crab spiders (for example, their front two sets of legs are extra long for capturing ambushed prey, and some species of crab spiders can change color to match the flower they sit on).  After all, I’m an insect enthusiast, not an insect expert (or a spider expert).  So there.

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Photo of the Week – June 24, 2016

I don’t often photograph sunrises and sunsets.  I’ve got file folders full of color slides from my early years of photography, many of which are trees, grain bins, and other objects silhouetted against the purple or orange sky of sunrises and sunsets.  They’re very nice, but I’m tired of them.  These days, when the sky lights up with color, I’m usually trying to capture the reflection of that colorful light on prairie wildflowers, grasses, and insects.

Last week, however, while I was in the Nebraska Sandhills, I was climbing up a steep hill just before sunrise and noticed a band of haze along the horizon.  Knowing that the sun would appear huge and red as it rose through that haze, I found a nice vantage point, got out my telephoto lens and waited.  And then I photographed the sunrise.  No silhouettes; just a simple celebration of a spectacular prairie landscape.

Sunrise over the Sandhillls.  Cherry County, Nebraska.

Sunrise over the Sandhillls. Cherry County, Nebraska.

I’m not sure there’s a better way to start a day.

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In Defense of Erosion

The Nebraska Sandhills region consists of about 12 million acres of sand dunes with a thin layer of vegetation draped across them.  That vegetation has come and gone over the last several thousand years, as long-term climatic patterns have shifted from wet to dry and back.  We are in a relatively wet period (geologically speaking) today, and grassland is clinging to the hills.  For now.

Except where it can’t.  Here and there, throughout the sandhills, particularly on steep hills, sand breaks through.  Most of the time, blowouts are triggered by a combination of topography and some kind of physical disturbance.  A two track road or cattle trail up a steep slope, for example, or a favorite hangout of livestock.  Just as with frayed fabric, once a small hole in the vegetation starts, it tends to spread.  Most Sandhills ranchers see blowouts as a great risk to their livelihood and work hard to prevent them, or to heal them once they start.  Those ranchers are encouraged in that view by watchful neighbors and a long history of agencies and university extension staff warning of the dire impacts of wind-induced soil erosion.

Sandh

Small blowouts dot the steeper hills in the background and a couple larger ones appear in the foreground.  Overall, these make up a tiny percentage of the landscape, but many ranchers see them almost as badges of shame.

big

A very large blowout like this can cause not only a loss of forage for a rancher’s livestock, but also a huge challenge for fence maintenance.

The Sandhills is ranch country, and all but a tiny fraction is privately-owned and managed for livestock production.  Most ranchers are conservative with livestock numbers and grazing strategies, trying to preserve that thin fabric of grass that feeds their livestock, and thus their families.

While there are certainly places that are prone to wind erosion and practices that can accelerate it, the risk of blowout creation and spread has also become a kind of mythology.  In much of the Sandhills, blowouts are actually difficult to create (we’ve tried) and the percentage of a ranch that could potentially be covered by blowouts is very small.

wet

Sometimes, wind erosion digs a blowout deep enough that it intersects groundwater, creating wetlands.

While conservative grazing has helped maintain healthy prairies in the Sandhills, it has also led to a loss of open sand habitat for a group of plant and animal species that depend upon blowouts and similar areas.  Those species are important, but asking a rancher to allow, let alone encourage a blowout, is much like asking a business man to go to work wearing Bermuda shorts with his sport coat.  The peer pressure and social norms associated with blowouts can be more influential than any potential loss of livestock forage they might cause.  Just as farmers judge their neighbors by the weeds in their fields, Sandhills ranchers judge their neighbors by the blowouts in their pastures.

blow

Blowout grass (Redfieldia flexuosa) is one of a select group of plants that can colonize a blowout and begin to stabilize the sand.

penstemon

Blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii) is a federally listed endangered plant that is found exclusively in blowout habitats.  This one is in a blowout that is healing and might not support penstemon populations much longer.

tiger beetle

Many species of tiger beetles can be found in Sandhills blowouts, including several of conservation concern.  These impressive predators hunt small insects in patches of open sand.

lesser earless lizard

Lizards, including this lesser earless lizard and other species, are often seen in and around blowouts, where they can forage in open areas but retreat quickly to cover to escape predation.

Regardless of the social or economic ramifications of blowouts for ranchers, bare sand patches really are important habitats for many prairie species.  The discussions I’ve had with ranchers about the ecological values of blowouts have always been polite, but I can’t say they’ve been met with great enthusiasm.  I understand that, but that doesn’t change the need to continue having those discussions.

spider

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) grows on the edge of a large blowout, surrounded by bare sand and a cast of other plants struggling to survive in the shifting substrate.

It may be that changing climate will render moot our discussions about whether or not to allow or encourage blowouts in the Sandhills.  Eventually, we will experience enough consecutive years of hot dry weather that even the most conservative grazing won’t prevent widespread blowing sand once again.  We can’t predict whether those conditions will arrive in the next few years, or not for many decades.  When they do arrive, both the ecological and human communities of the Sandhills will be glad to have species that are well adapted to open sand.  Plants like blowout penstemon and blowout grass, for example, can help restabilize areas of bare sand, and they also provide food for both livestock and wildlife.

For now, the Sandhills provides a vibrant grassland that supports both humans and wildlife.  That will likely change at some point in the future.  Hopefully, blowout-dependent species will find enough habitat to maintain their populations until we really need them.

…and hopefully no one will feel like they have to wear Bermuda shorts in order to make that happen.

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Platte River Prairies Field Day – THIS WEDNESDAY

This Wednesday (June 22) is our next Platte River Prairies Field Day.  Admission is free, and there will be several hikes/presentations to choose from during each of the four session periods during the day.  Come learn about prairie plants and insects, prairie restoration and management, edible wild plants and native plant gardening.  You can also learn about monarch butterfly conservation and find out how you can help collect important data to help monitor their recovery.

You can see the full agenda for the day HERE.  Directions to the site are HERE.

Wildflowers and grasshoppers.  TNC Platte River Prairies.

Wildflowers and grasshoppers. TNC Platte River Prairies.

This event is open to anyone, including families.  Master Naturalists and others interested in learning about (and helping with) ecology and conservation are particularly welcome.

I hope to see you Wednesday.

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Photo of the Week – June 17, 2016

I’m just back from a great week in the Nebraska Sandhills.  I saw an amazing array of wildlife, invertebrates, plants and landscapes.  Of the many wildflowers in bloom this week, none punctuated the hills more beautifully than yucca (aka soapweed).  As always, nearly every yucca stem with actively blooming flowers hosted an abundance of yucca moths, the only pollinator of yucca plants.  If you aren’t familiar with the incredible relationship between yucca moths and yucca plants, you can read about it in a previous post.

Yucca moths in the early morning. Nebraska Sandhills - Cherry County.

Yucca moths in the early morning. Nebraska Sandhills – Cherry County.

I’ll post some more Sandhills photos next week…

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A Week in the Sandhills

I’m in the Nebraska Sandhills all this week, doing field work.  Being in the middle of 12 million acres of intact native prairie has its advantages, but there’s not much time or internet connectivity for blog posting. I’m hoping I can get a few photos posted here pretty quickly before I lose my connection again.

Yucca is common throughout much of the Sandhills. Many of the plants are in full bloom right now, accompanied by the yucca moths that pollinate them.

Yucca is common throughout much of the Sandhills. Many of the plants are in full bloom right now, accompanied by the yucca moths that pollinate them.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) is also in full bloom right now.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) is also in full bloom right now.  It is one of my favorite flowers.

Needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata) is producing seeds, which look very much - and can act very much - like sharp spears.  Trying to figure out why this grass is blooming abundantly in some pastures and not others has been a fun mind puzzle for me this week.

Needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata) is producing seeds, which look very much – and can act very much – like sharp spears. Trying to figure out why this grass is blooming abundantly in some pastures and not others has been a fun mind puzzle for me this week.

Wetlands are all over many parts of the Sandhills.  Groundwater levels are high and often exposed between the vegetated sand dunes.  The wetlands are loaded with everything from frogs and salamanders to trumpeter swans and grebes.

Platte thistle (Cirsium canescens) is a great native thistle with a cream-colored flower.  It is loaded with pollinators right now.

bum

This bumblebee was one of many bees I’ve seen enjoying Platte thistle.

Wetlands are all over many parts of the Sandhills. Groundwater levels are high and often exposed between the vegetated sand dunes. The wetlands are loaded with everything from frogs and salamanders to trumpeter swans and grebes.

Wetlands are all over many parts of the Sandhills. Groundwater levels are high and often exposed between the vegetated sand dunes. The wetlands are loaded with everything from frogs and salamanders to trumpeter swans and grebes.

Lizards are common, especially in areas of bare sand.  They scurry to cover as we approach, but this prairie lizard (Sceloporus sp.) posed long enough for a photo.

Lizards are common, especially in areas of bare sand. They scurry to cover as we approach, but this prairie lizard (Sceloporus sp.) posed long enough for a photo.

 

Posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Photo of the Week- June 10, 2016

I’ve written many times about the 2012 wildfire that impacted our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and the continuing recovery of the plant and animal communities there.  When I was up at the Preserve a few weeks ago, it was really interesting to explore the north side of the river where the fire wiped out the pine and eastern redcedar trees.  I know I’ve posted a number of times about the way that area is recovering.  If you feel like you’ve seen plenty of photographs of vibrant green vegetation beneath stark blackened tree trunks, this is your chance to click to another site and catch up on the box score of a recent baseball game or catch up on celebrity gossip.

(Are they gone?  Ok, good.  The rest of you can enjoy these photos.)

Grasses

The vegetation beneath the tree skeletons still has a lot of annual plants, but perennial grasses, sedges, and forbs are becoming more abundant.

shrubs

Shrub patches are also increasing in size (there is a big one on the right side of the photo).

Wooly locoweed

I’m pretty sure this is loco weed (Oxytropis lambertii).  It is one of many wildflowers that have begun to reassert themselves in the plant community and fill in the bare patches.

puccoon

Hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense) might be the showiest of the flowers I saw on my last trip.  Its yellow-orange blossoms contrasted wonderfully with the green vegetation and black trees.

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Graduating. Naturally.

My daughter graduated from high school this spring.  The graduation ceremony got me thinking about commencement speeches and how I might craft a conservation-oriented commencement speech in the extremely unlikely event that I’d ever be asked to give one.  Here’s an example of what I might have said to my daughter’s class if they’d asked.  

My daughter when she was much younger.  She's not planning a career in conservation, but I hope the time she's had in nature will serve her well and that she'll support conservation efforts no matter where life takes her.

My daughter when she was much younger. She’s not planning a career in conservation, but I hope the time she’s had in nature will serve her well and that she’ll support conservation efforts no matter where life takes her.  And yes, I’m very proud of her.

Congratulations on completing high school and earning your right to independence.  Use your new power and freedom wisely.

One of my greatest hopes for you is that you can feel comfortable in the outdoors.  That you can walk through natural areas without unreasonable fears of hidden snakes or spiders (or bears).  I hope you don’t feel intimidated by wide swaths of open space or dark shadowy woods.  The natural world does present some risk, and even bears in some places, but while it’s smart to take precautions against risks, being in nature should bring you relaxation and joy.

Gaining the confidence to feel at home in the outdoors comes through experience.  Hopefully, you’ve already had enough experience in nature to feel relatively comfortable there.  Whether you have or not, please make time to visit your backyard, local parks, national parks, and other areas where you can surround yourself with wildness.  Use your time there to reenergize yourself, but also to remind yourself that you too are a part of the natural world.  Explore.  Pick up rocks to see what’s under them.  Where appropriate, leave the trail and bushwhack up a hill or through a line of brush to see what’s on the other side.  Sit and watch an ant hill until you start to see order in the chaos.  With time, you’ll begin to recognize the many cycles that occur in your favorite natural places, including the migratory patterns of birds, butterflies, and dragonflies, and the regular progression of blooming plants through the seasons.

I hope that as you grow older you’ll also grow your appreciation of the value of nature.  Those of us who spend significant time exploring the outdoors understand the emotional and spiritual benefits that come with periodic escapes from the horde of humanity and its demands on our time and energy.  There are plenty of recreational activities that can pull you into the natural world, including hiking, hunting, fishing, photography, backpacking, boating, and birdwatching.  Any of those can help you relax, reflect, and keep a healthy perspective on the world.

At the same time, it’s also important to recognize the more utilitarian values of the natural world.  Clean drinking water comes from healthy ecosystems.  So does our food supply.  Critical processes like pollination, decomposition, and nutrient cycling rely on multitudes of species that, in turn, rely on intact food webs and biological diversity.  The air we breathe and the climate that sustains us depend upon cascades of natural processes driven by millions of plant, animal, and microbe species.

For all those reasons, both personal and societal, I hope you’ll support conservation efforts.  That doesn’t mean you have to chain yourself to a tree or shout slogans on the steps of the Capitol.  You also don’t have to be a research biologist or land manager, although both can be very fulfilling jobs if you’ve got the interest.  Instead, start by simply speaking well of nature and the outdoors to your peers.  Help others see the beauty and importance of the natural world through your eyes.  Help them see conservation for what it is; non-partisan, common sense, and good for everyone.  Recycle.  Compost.  Vote.  Contribute time and money to causes and organizations you feel good about.  Grow native plants in your yard.  There are countless small ways to contribute toward the conservation of nature, and all of them can make a real difference.

Most importantly, go take a hike.  Kneel down and watch the bees come and go from a flower.  Grab your old dirty shoes and splash around in a stream.  Or wear your good shoes and splash around in a stream.  You’re a high school graduate – who’s going to tell you no?

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Photo of the Week – June 3, 2016

Toads are funny looking.

Woodhouse's toad.  Helzer family prairie.  Stockham, Nebraska.

Woodhouse’s toad. Helzer family prairie. Stockham, Nebraska.

Have a good weekend.

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Next Platte River Prairies Field Day – June 22, 2016

Please plan to join us for our next field day on June 22, 2016.  We will have multiple field sessions to choose from throughout the day from 9am to 3:30pm.  There is no cost for attending, and families are welcome.  Bring your own lunch (and sunscreen, insect repellant, and drinking water).

Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension Research Entomologist talks about prairie invertebrates.  Platte River Prairies Field Day, August 27, 2014.

Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension Research Entomologist will return this year to talk about prairie insect identification and ecology.

Session topics include:

Plant identification and ecology

– Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy

Principles of prairie management

– Gerry Steinauer, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Prairie insects

– Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension

Gardening with native plants

– Kim Helzer, TNC Volunteer and Centennial High School Science Teacher

Edible wild plants

– Cyndi Trail, The Nature Conservancy

Prairie seed harvesting and processing

– Mardell Jasnowski, The Nature Conservancy

How to help monitor monarch and regal fritillary butterfly populations

– Melissa Panella, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Each session will be available at least twice during the day.  We will likely add another couple session options within the next weeks stay tuned for a final agenda to be posted here within the next couple of weeks.   

The Derr House is located 2 miles south of the Wood River exit off of Interstate 80 (Exit 300).  Turn south immediately after the highway curves to the east and you’ll be there.

For more directions to the site, go to: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/nebraska/placesweprotect/eastern-nebraska-platte-river-native-prairie-nature-trail.xml

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