Photo of the Week – January 26, 2017

Ok, I know I just posted a bunch of ice storm photos last week, but as it happens, I took more than 1500 shots that morning (!!) and I didn’t post all the ones I liked last time.  So, with apologies for the semi-redundancy, here are a few more close-ups of ice-coated prairie from that magical day.  You’ll notice that Indiangrass got a lot of attention from my camera.  That was partly because it still had interesting fuzzy seeds, and partly because its golden brown color was pretty irresistible when under a sparkly clear coating.

Also, you’ll notice that I stayed low and shot upward at the sky quite a bit.  As the morning wore on, everything got brighter and more sparkly.  That was great, except that it was hard to find backgrounds for close up photos that weren’t full of distracting flashes of light.  By getting close to the ground I could use the clear blue sky as background and really highlight the sparkle of my subject without the extra sparkles of everything else around it.












I know ice storms can be dangerous and can lead to hazardous driving and long hours for power company employees and sand truck drivers.  It seems selfish to wish for ice storms just because they also make great photo opportunities.  And yet…

(Finally, just one last reminder to please take a few minutes to fill out the quick survey for readers of this blog.  I’ll close the survey Monday morning, so this weekend is your last chance.  Please click HERE to take the survey!)

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Hubbard Fellowship Post – Eric’s Great Plains Tourism Proposal

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  I hope you’ll read and respond to his ideas about a different kind of tourism in the Great Plains.  (Also, please don’t forget to fill out our blog reader survey HERE.)

I get the sense that most of the country mistakes the push they feel as they travel through the Midwest and Great Plains as a force pushing them through and out of the landscape, instead of what could be a push into it. Engine power has let us cross the prairies in a matter of hours. Most of us are resolved to race through the Great Plains, acknowledging it only as a void to be crossed. The wide open spaces almost seem to demand motion, demand a commitment to keep going. This character of movement the prairie inspires is in large part why I think traditional tourism has never taken a firm hold here. It is why I think a tourism economy fit for the Great Plains is one folded into the fabric of the working landscape. It is why I know that the best way to vacation on the prairie is to come out and work in it.

Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.

Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.  Photo by Eric Chien.

We rarely consider prairies as vacation destinations. Mountains, lakes, and beaches; these are said to be restorative natural geographies. They are, but so are prairies. I find they differ not in their effect, but only in their mode. A lake invites me to rest beside its shores or in its waters and refill my own reservoirs. A prairie drives sparks into weary legs, and reminds me that my tank is bigger than I thought. This qualitatively different rejuvenation is what sets prairie “recreation” apart, and I think suggests a shape for prairie tourism.

The heart of the Great Plains economy and the focal point of conservation efforts will always be its working lands. The nature of the prairie itself rejects idleness. The innate restlessness the landscape inspires does not mean we cannot find excitement and restoration. It just means it will not be found sitting idly. I would challenge any family to spend a late Spring weekend lopping young cedar trees out of a prairie lush with new grass and early flowers. Share an afternoon rolling old fence in a herd of cattle alive with the energy of new calves. Drift easily to sleep because of healthful work to the sound of an evening prairie brimming with life. Tell me that would not stick longer in the whole family’s mind than even the best iphone picture from some scenic mountaintop. These are real prairie experiences, playing out all over the landscape beyond I-80.


Who wouldn’t want to learn how to drive a tractor and spend their vacation working in the prairie?  Photo by Eric Chien.

Recreation and tourism are powerful tools in connecting people and place. It can also be a powerful tool for supporting the integrity of the landscape and the lives of its permanent human inhabitants. The ecosystems that hold lakeshores, mountains slopes, and ocean fronts reap a significant portion of the conservation benefits that admiration and attraction confer. They also are teetering with the weight of recreation development incompatible with the health and character of the landscapes responsible for their very existence. This is not what we want for our Great Plains Prairies.  In the place of development for recreation alone, a working lands tourism model melts into the fabric of contemporary life on the plains. “Work vacations” on working ranches and farms offer re-engagement and appreciation of the landscape. They also offer the people of the prairie a chance to share the richness of life working close to the land. We walk into a head wind by trying to impose traditional tourism on the prairie landscape. However, there is fertile ground for attracting visitors by appealing to the culture of revitalizing work that prairies inspire. Molded thoughtfully, a growing appreciation of our landscape and the part we play in it enriches the integrity of our ecosystems, and the lives of Great Plains citizens and visitors both.

During a 48-hour late December heat wave I rumbled east towards a long day of work on the tractor, kicking up the gravel of Shoemaker Island Road. Skeins of Canada geese traced the air above the nearby Platte River, the mid-morning sun spotlighting their dusky flanks. The corn stalks and grass shined their dry gold against the uniquely blue Great Plains sky. In that moment, I counted all of the people I wished could share in that day. It was a long list. It included family and friends. It also included a nameless many who I have shared so many anonymous, hurried moments with at the Pilot Gas Station off the highway. I hoped they would end their trips here, at the Platte River Prairies. Forgo another trip to the mountains or lakes back East, and join me on a fence line. Not just because I believe their visit will create an actionable impression, or through their additional hands, a greater management capacity.  I know the exertions that prairies inspire to be energizing, self-restorative, and meaningful. What more can we ask out of time spent?

The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.

The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.


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Survey Reminder

Just a quick reminder:

If you haven’t filled out the brief survey I posted last week, would you please click HERE to do that?  It will just take a few minutes.

I’d be toadally grateful…


Posted in Prairie Animals | 7 Comments

A Prairie Ecologist Survey – Please Help!

I need a favor.

I spend quite a bit of time working on this blog each week, but in some ways publishing blog posts is like tossing text and photos into a void.  To help me better understand who is reading blog posts and how those posts affect you, I have created a very short online survey that I hope you’ll take.  This is a follow-up to a similar survey by Eliza Perry (former Hubbard Fellow) several years ago, but I’ve added a few extra questions.

Your responses will be completely anonymous, so you can be as brutally honest as you like.  I’m hoping that your answers will help me make this blog even better, and also help me understand what kind of impact the blog might be having.

Even if you only read this blog now and then, or just skim it to look at photos, please take the survey.  If you forward posts to friends or colleagues periodically, would you please forward this survey as well and encourage them to take it?

Please click HERE to take the survey.

THANK YOU for your help.


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Photo of the Week – January 18, 2017

Much of the Central United States is emerging from an ice storm that glazed streets and closed schools.  On the positive side, it also coated our prairies (and everything else) with a beautiful layer of ice.  As the sun came up yesterday morning, I was walking through one of our local prairies, surrounded by glittering, sparkling prairie plants.


Sunrise and icy prairie.

It was magical.

I had planned to walk around for an hour or so and take pictures, but ended up staying for four hours; leaving only because I got really hungry.  I usually save my “Photo of the Week” post for Thursday or Friday each week, but I couldn’t wait to share some images from yesterday morning.  I hope you enjoy them.


Stiff sunflowers and sunshine.


Indiangrass seeds.



Stiff goldenrod

Stiff goldenrod



Stiff goldenrod

Stiff goldenrod


I was surprised by this perfectly circular hole.


Switchgrass seeds.


Indiangrass seeds.


This ice boat seems to have sprung a leak.


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Photo of the Week – January 13, 2017

I’ve often said that Interstate 80 through Nebraska is a great population control mechanism for our state.  While I actually enjoy much of the scenery along the interstate, it’s particular route helps feed the widely held stereotype that Nebraska is a big flat state with nothing to see but corn and cows.  We certainly have lots of corn and cows, but if you take the time to explore beyond the interstate, you quickly see that Nebraska is anything but flat.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not promoting Nebraska as a place that you should move to.  In my personal opinion, we have plenty of people here already.  I happen to love that there are still large areas of the state where I can drive for miles without ever seeing another human being.  I’m sure that’s not a universally-held opinion among our tourism board or chambers of commerce, but that’s how I feel.  I’m going to show you a few photos of a non-flat Nebraska today, but please don’t take those as a personal invitation to move to our state.  I guess you could come visit, but you’ll be much happier living in your own state.

The Blue Creek valley in Garden County.

The Blue Creek valley in Garden County.

Fort Robinson State Park in the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska.

Fort Robinson State Park in the Pine Ridge of northwest Nebraska.

The Wildcat Hills of the Nebraska panhandle.

The Wildcat Hills of the Nebraska panhandle.

The Niobrara River. Cherry County.

The Niobrara River. Cherry County.

Anyway, I bet your state is really pretty too.  You should live there.  Thanks.

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Mysterious Strands of Silk

This post is written and illustrated by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  

In November, I visited the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 83 south of the town of Valentine. There had been a burn several weeks previously at the refuge, and I enjoyed a little time wandering around and observing the effects of the fire on the vegetation and exposed sandy soil. In patches, some brave grasses had re-sprouted in defiance of the cooling autumn temperatures. In other areas, the patchy fire had not burned hot enough to do more than singe the thicker sunflower and forb stalks, and everywhere the rodents had wasted no time in churning up the exposed sand, leaving clean, cool piles in stark contrast with the surrounding black ash from the burned vegetation.

I had only been walking around for a few minutes when I came across something that, though strange at first, eventually astonished me in its scope across the landscape. I noticed a patch of flower stalks with some threads of spider silk, strung out from stalk to stalk, not forming an actual web but nonetheless running roughly parallel, using the burned stems as support. Upon further examination, however, I realized that this was not an isolated occurrence within the burn, and that this same patterning of silk strands stretched off in both directions across acres and acres of the burned vegetation.

Although these pictures don’t and can’t really accurately represent the scope of this phenomena, I was able to capture a couple that show, if nothing else, the impressive amount of silk that had been put out for some unknown reason by, one must guess, some very industrious arachnids.


The lighting makes it somewhat challenging to see, but the density of the webs can be best seen in the upper center of the photograph, and extends outwards from there.  Photo by Katharine Hogan.

My knowledge regarding spiders and their habits is utterly basic. I have a high appreciation for them as fascinating creatures and as ecological players, but my ongoing efforts of understanding have simply not focused on them, focusing instead on plants in part because plants don’t, you know, suddenly relocate on you for inscrutable reasons. At the time, I could only wildly guess as to what caused this phenomenon to occur. Apparently it involved a presumably large number of arachnids deciding more or less in tandem that changing location was a really good idea, but why? And what type of spiders? Were they moving towards or away from something? Was this movement related to the recent fire? What about the decreasing autumn temperatures and daylight?

I did a little digging and came up with a couple potential situations that could describe at least in part what I saw. As always, I would welcome the insights of readers of this post with a better idea of what’s going on! I would love some help in solving this web of mysteries.

This was a typical amount of webbing that had been constructed on each of the thousands of plants across the section of the burn.

This was a typical amount of silk on each of the thousands of plants across the section of the burn.

I found references to spiders of two families that sometimes exhibit tendencies that could explain silk strands such as these. Jumping spiders (family Salticidae) leave “safety lines” of silk behind them as they jump between plants; however, this does not explain the massive amount of silk, nor why it was all aligned in the same direction across the landscape.

The other possible explanation I found was with regards to spiders, not exclusively but predominantly of the genus Erigone, that, according to a 2005 article in the Bulletin of Entomological Research, will sometimes display what is called “mass ballooning”, where large numbers of spiders in tandem migrate short distances across landscapes, leaving behind “spectacular amounts of silk on the ground” (J.R. Bell et al.). The reasons for this behavior are still largely not understood, but hypothesized explanations have included sudden changes in temperature, humidity, and other factors largely dependent upon the microclimate of the population in question.

Several other studies during the 70s and 80s also supplied some evidence that the propensity of spider populations to balloon was correlated with the “predictability” or stability of their habitats. In the case of Greenstone (1982), populations that selected for habitats subject to more frequent change, e.g. open spaces near water sources, were more likely to balloon than species that favored prairie habitats. If habitat changes are positively correlated with the likelihood of a spider population ballooning, could this suggest the recent prescribed burn as a causal factor in the event whose aftermath I witnessed at the wildlife refuge?

I honestly don’t have a clue. Other interests and appreciations aside, I am very much a “plant person” and feel uncomfortable coming to any conclusions regarding a group of organisms about which I know so fabulously little. I do know, however, that the scope of the phenomena I witnessed was truly impressive, and thus I gained a little more appreciation and awareness of the unseen lives of the tiny critters around us. As always, input on the matter would be much appreciated. If any of you readers have any insights on the matter, please let us all know in the comments! Thanks!


Sources cited:

Bohan, David A., et al. (2005) Ballooning dispersal using silk: World fauna, phylogenies, genetics and models. Bulletin of Entomological Research 95, 69-114.

Greenstone, M.H. (1982) Ballooning frequency and habitat predictability in two wolf spider species (Lycosidae: Pardosa). Florida Entomologist 65, 83–89.



Posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Photo of the Week – January 5, 2017

Can you guess what this is a photo of?


While the photo does look like leaping chicken ballerinas (according to my wife), that isn’t the correct answer.  Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to photograph leaping chicken ballerinas, though it is a lifelong goal of mine.

If you guessed it’s actually a photograph of Oenothera rhombipetala (fourpoint evening primrose) just after a rainstorm, you get the prize.  Treat yourself to something from your cupboard.  Chocolate, if you’ve got it.

The primrose photo was taken at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last summer.  Below is another photo from the Preserve, showing the same primrose species from a very different perspective, and with some other company.


I hope your 2017 is off to a great start.  I also hope we all get the opportunity to see some leaping chicken ballerinas real soon.

Posted in Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants | Tagged , | 6 Comments

How Science Works and Why It Matters

As a scientist and science writer, I’m concerned about the way science is perceived by the public.  I think some big misunderstandings about how science works are creating distrust and dismissal of important scientific findings.  That’s a huge problem, and I’d like to try to help fix it.

Let’s start with this: Science is a process that helps us understand and explain the world around us.  That process relies on repeated observations and experiments that continuously change our understanding of how things work.

Scientists often come up with results that conflict with those of other scientists.  That doesn’t indicate that something is wrong; it’s exactly how science is supposed to work.  When scientists disagree about something, more scientists get involved and keep testing ideas until a consensus starts to emerge.  Even at that point, ideas continue to be tested, and either gain more acceptance (because of more supporting evidence) or weaken (because conflicting results are found).

There is no endpoint in science.  Instead, ideas move through various steps of acceptance, depending upon how much evidence is collected to support them.  You can read much more about how the process works here.

We are lucky to have easy access to immense amounts of information today.  However, it can be be very difficult to know which statements are supported by good science and which are just opinions amplified by people with an agenda and a prominent platform.  Today’s world, for example, still includes people who earnestly believe the earth is flat, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Media coverage of science often increases confusion.  How many times have you heard or read a media story about how a particular substance either cures or causes cancer?  In most cases, the scientist being interviewed tries to explain that their work is just one step in a long process of evidence gathering and doesn’t prove anything by itself.  That scientist might as well be talking to an empty void.  The headline has already told the story and pundits are shaking their heads and complaining about how scientists can’t ever agree.  (Please see paragraph three above.)

Unfortunately, confusion about how science works means the public often doesn’t pay attention when scientists actually do agree on things.  Loud voices can easily sway public opinion on important topics because it’s hard to know who to believe.  Often, we believe those who say things we want to be true.

Let me ask you three questions:

Do you believe that childhood immunizations are safe and effective?

Do you believe that rapid climate change is occurring as a result of human activity?

Do you believe that food derived from products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is safe for human consumption?

The scientific community has clearly and strongly stated that the answer to all three of these questions should be yes.  Despite that, many people will answer yes to one or two of these questions, but not all three.  If you’re one of those people, I have another question for you.

If you trust the scientific community and the scientific process on one or two of these topics, why not on all of them?

This post is not about vaccines, global warming or GMOs.  I’m not trying to tell you what to think. Instead, I’m inviting you TO think.

If you’re a scientist, are you spending enough time thinking about how to talk to a public that is skeptical of science?  Being right isn’t enough when there are louder voices shouting that you’re wrong.  How do you expect the public to find the real story when your results are hidden in subscription-only journals and written in technical jargon-filled language?  What can you, personally, do to help others understand what science is, why it’s important, and what it can tell us?

If you’re someone who believes the science on some topics, but not others, are you comfortable with the reasons behind that?  Do you think science has been polluted by money and agendas, or do you think money and agendas are trying to discredit science?  Have you spent enough time reading articles that contradict your position and evaluating the credentials of those on each side?  Is it possible that long-held beliefs are preventing you from looking at evidence with clear eyes?

While individual scientists may have biases, the scientific process has no agenda other than discovery.  Scientists are strongly incentivized to go against the grain – both employers and journal publishers get most excited by research that contradicts mainstream ideas.  Because of that, ideas that gain overwhelming scientific consensus should be given extra credibility because they have withstood an onslaught of researchers trying to tear them down.

Can scientists be wrong?  Yes, of course – scientists are wrong all the time, and they argue back and forth in pursuit of knowledge.  That’s a good thing.  Saying that science is untrustworthy because not all scientists agree is like saying that we shouldn’t eat fruit because some of it isn’t ripe.

We desperately need credible science in order to survive and thrive on this earth.  Sustaining that credibility is the responsibility of both scientists and the public.  Scientists must provide accessible and clear information about what they’re learning, but the public also needs to be a receptive and discerning audience.

There is a torrent of news and data coming at us every day.  As you process that information, think like a scientist.  Question everything, including your own assumptions.  Form an opinion and then test it by looking for information that might disprove it.  Most importantly, even when you’re confident in your viewpoint, keep your mind open to new evidence and alternate perspectives.

Finally, remember that science is a continual and cumulative process.  Conflicting research results don’t indicate weakness, they drive scientists to keep looking for answers.  Science shouldn’t lose your trust when scientists disagree.  Instead, science should earn your trust when scientists reach consensus.


Special thanks to Anna Helzer for helpful feedback on this piece.

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Photo of the Week – December 29, 2016

Kim and I have made it an annual tradition to spend part of our holiday break at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Our kids were with other relatives for part of this year’s break, so we had a few days to rest, relax, and explore by ourselves.  The weather was variable during our time there, including fog, rain, snow, hail, strong wind, and warm sunshine.  Perfect.  We watched bald eagles soar effortlessly over the river and bluffs, flushed cottontail rabbits out of the brush, saw white-tailed deer, mule deer, bison, turkeys, and the tracks of many other animals. We enjoyed the diversity of plants we saw as well, even though most of them were brown and dormant.  It was a great trip, although we both wished we’d been serenaded by coyotes at least one evening.  Maybe next year.  Here are some photos from the visit.


Our first day started out foggy, wet, and cold, and we finished our five mile hike just as a thunderstorm rolled in, bringing icy rain and hail. Visibility was limited, but it was still beautiful.


I caught Monday’s sunrise on the bluffs north of the river where the 2012 wildfire left abundant pine and cedar skeletons behind.


Looking up at a burned ponderosa pine.


The Niobrara River was partially frozen over, but still had channels of open water.


I wandered around on the ice for a while, looking for interesting patterns.


This sunflower head was poking out of the ice on a small island in the river.


We climbed up a ridge we hadn’t explored before and enjoyed the view downstream.


While the vast majority of pines were killed in the wildfire, there is one steep draw on the very corner of our property where a decent percentage of pines somehow survived. Kim and I christened it “The Canyon of the Living Pines”.


It was gratifying to see green needles on trees after hiking for hours through burned out skeletons.


A panoramic view of the Niobrara Valley Preserve.


This photo includes five photos stitched together to help show the scale of the property.

Trips like this help me realize how fortunate I am.  I’m lucky to have a wife who enjoys winter hiking and remote vacations away from people and noise.  I’m lucky to have a job that allows me access to places like the Niobrara Valley Preserve and the time to explore them.  And I’m lucky to have this platform for sharing photos and stories with people who appreciate them and share their perspectives back with me.  Thank you.  Happy New Year!

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