Photos of the Week – September 16, 2022

If you’ve been reading my recent posts, you know that our Platte River Prairies, along with most of Nebraska and the larger region, is in the middle of a drought. The Platte River is mostly dry, groundwater levels and soil moisture are low, and a lot of prairie vegetation is dry and brown. But not everywhere is showing evidence of the drought.

One of our restored wetlands, which we call the Sandpit Restoration, always seems to resist drought impacts. It is located along a creek that goes dry upstream of the wetland, but water starts flowing again right before it hits the wetland restoration site. Regardless of regional rainfall or groundwater levels, I’ve never seen the wetland itself without standing water. It’s almost as if it draws from its own independent (and apparently rich) water supply. As a result, it’s a nice place to hang out when everything else is dry. Nice for me, but even nicer for animals and plants that require wetland habitat!

Sunrise over the Derr Sandpit Wetland Restoration earlier this week. Tokina 11-20mm lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/100 sec.

The 25 acre Sandpit Wetland is the result of about 10 years of staged restoration work that restored an old sand and gravel mining site to a meandering stream channel and adjacent wetlands. Most of the work was pretty simple – just taking out trees and pushing piles of spoil sand into the lake to reshape the habitat. The results have been really great in some ways. We’ve taken advantage of the constant ‘wetness’ of the place and birds, turtles, amphibians, freshwater mussels and wetland plants really thrive in the new shallow water and moist soil habitats.

Nut sedges (Cyperus sp.) and nodding beggarticks (Bidens cernua). Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/125 sec.

On the other hand, the connection to the upstream creek and the downstream Platte River has some negative implications. Invasive plants are constantly moving downstream into the restored site, making it nearly impossible to keep up with them. Invasive fish, including mosquito fish and common carp dominate the aquatic community, along with largemouth bass, green sunfish, and a few channel catfish. None of the really neat minnows and other small native fish you’d expect to see are present, despite that habitat conditions looking ideal for them.

Despite those challenges, it’s a special place and there’s more than enough good to outweigh the bad. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that since I’m no longer the one who has day-to-day responsibility for trying to manage the invasive species issues! I just get to wander down to the water and enjoy the cardinal flower, dragonflies, and shorebirds (while conveniently avoiding eye contact with purple loosestrife, Phragmites, cattails, reed canarygrass, carp, mosquitofish, etc. I did just that earlier this week before starting some nearby fieldwork.

A spider hangs out next to its web (and two captured mosquitos) along the edge of the water. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/9, 1/100 sec.
Hover fly on nodding beggarticks. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/80 sec.
More nodding beggarticks. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/200 sec.

Cody and his stewardship crew (our Hubbard Fellows and a seasonal technician) spend a lot of time knocking out the big patches of invasive plants without eradicating the nice areas of diverse native vegetation. Since the invasives are constantly being wiped out and recolonizing, much of the area is dominated by short-lived opportunists like beggarticks, annual sedges, and other rushes and water plants that are good at popping up quickly. Other places seem to resist invasion and have more developed plant communities with lots of perennial wildflowers, as well as prairie cordgrass and large populations of rhizomatous sedges and rushes.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and sunrise. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/500 sec.
Cardinal flower. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/60 sec.
Cardinal flower. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/60 sec.

This week, the lobelias and nodding beggarticks were hogging the spotlight. A frustratingly stiff morning breeze made photography challenging, but I still managed to capture some of the gorgeous floral color. There wasn’t any dew to hold insects in place for me, so between that and the breeze, the number of insect photos was lower than what I’d hoped but I tried my best with them.

Narrowleaf cattails (Typha angustifolia) invading the wetland and preparing to spread hordes of seed to further that invasion. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/200 sec.
Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/9, 1/200 sec.
Grasshopper nymph on blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/8, 1/250 sec.

After spending a lot of time in brownish prairies, it was really nice to be in a place where I had to wear waterproof boots and got my knees and elbows wet when I got down close to the ground for macro photos. Lush green vegetation was all around me, and despite the inclusion of some plants I’d rather not acknowledge, it still felt good. After a while, I finished my wetland photography and climbed just a few feet up in elevation into the adjacent prairies, where I was quickly returned to drought conditions again. There was beauty there too (as seen in my last post) but it was very different than the opulent moisture of the restored wetland. I may never understand why that site stays so wet but I sure am glad it does.

Bumble bee roosting overnight on blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/80 sec.
More blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/100 sec.

Drought Flowers

The drought affecting most of Nebraska has been a little less severe at our Platte River Prairies than in much of the rest of the state. Nevertheless, especially during the last month, it has put its stamp on our grasslands. Many parts of the prairies are visually-dominated by plants that have gone dormant, leaving the landscape full of dried and brown plants. That’s especially true in our restored (former cropland) prairies, where soil organic matter and water holding capacity tends to be much lower than that of remnant (unplowed) sites.

Dotted gayfeather seems to do very well in droughty prairies. Note how brown and dry most of the surrounding vegetation is.

Yesterday, while scouting for plants to harvest seed from next week (sorry, I should sayfrom which to harvest seeds‘), I paid attention to what wildflowers were still green and blooming, despite the drought. You might remember that I did something similar up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in August and included some photos of those in my post about clonal shrub invasion. One species that was particularly notable along the Platte was dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), which was fairly abundant in a couple restored prairies I visited.

This brown-belted bumble bee and lots of its kin and colleagues were easy to find on dotted gayfeather plants this week. I just picked out a flower I liked and waited a few minutes for a bee to stop by.
This grasshopper was hanging out (and maybe feeding?) on dotted gayfeather at our family prairie earlier this month.

Dotted gayfeather blooming prolifically at our family prairie, as well as in the Platte River Prairies. In both cases, it appears to be providing some really important resources for pollinators and other insects. It’s not the only blooming wildflower species right now, but it’s one that seems particularly attractive to bumble bees and other pollinators,

This plant is growing in a site that was grazed intensively last year. In previous years I’ve noted that dotted gayfeather shoots up extra flowering stems during years when the prairie is recovering from grazing. This year, the plants seemed to do that even under drought conditions.

Other plants that were still pretty green in the dry soils of our restored prairies included goldenrods (Solidago spp.), pitcher sage (Salvia azurea), Silphiums, sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), and others. I’d love to know more about the strategies employed by these plants to keep themselves going during droughts, especially given the recent info I shared about prairie plants apparently not utilizing their deep roots for obtaining water during droughts. Some prairie plants seem to respond to drought by going dormant and saving their efforts for better days, but others find a way to keep on trucking.

Stiff goldenrod doesn’t look phased by the drought at all.
Pitcher sage is a really important drought-tolerant plant in our prairies. It’s a favorite of bumble bees and monarchs, along with lots of other pollinators. During the 2012 drought, it still grew tall and bloomed prolifically when everything around it was really crispy. This year hardly seems like a challenge in comparison.
This compass plant didn’t bloom this year but I don’t think that was necessarily drought-related since a lot of its relatives nearby did bloom and have produced seed.
Maximilian sunflower (pictured here) is less abundant and showy than usual this year in our drier prairie sites, but is still managing to flower. Stiff sunflower, which is better adapted to dry soils, is doing better, but is shorter and producing fewer flowering heads than it often does.
Curly cup gumweed and other annuals tend to still flower in droughts. Once they start growing, they pretty much have to flower because it’s their one shot.

Despite not understanding how these plants are doing it, it’s fantastic to see them continuing to grow and bloom during dry periods. From a resilience standpoint, of course, this is crucial. One of the most important pillars of ecological resilience in prairies is the diversity of species (plants, animals, and other) and this is a terrific example of why it matters so much. High numbers of species means a lot of overlap in the roles being filled by each species and the strategies used to do so. In times of stress, some species will respond better than others and can help ensure that resources are provided to the community and that reasonable productivity is maintained.

Looking at current maps, most of North America’s grassland regions are currently in some stage of drought. If your favorite prairie is drier than average right now, it might not have the same color you’re used to in mid-September. Don’t let that dissuade you from visiting! This is the time when you get to see which prairie community members can be relied upon when the rain stops falling for a while. It’s a great chance to admire the resilience and adaptability that makes prairies what they are.

If you’re an ecologist or land manager, don’t forget to record what you’re seeing if your site is in drought. It’s an opportunity I’ve missed multiple times in the past and am trying not to miss this time. Just taking a few notes of observations might be really appreciated by you or others down the road. In addition, drought-stricken (if that’s the right word) prairies might not seem as photogenic as regular ol’ rain-fed prairies, but I’m trying to do a better job of photographing them anyway. It’s a fun challenge, but I also know I’ll be glad to have the documentation in future years.

We visited The Nature Conservancy’s Ordway Prairie Preserve in Minnesota last week, which is also thriving under drought conditions. In that prairie, one of the obvious species doing well was showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). (And of course smooth sumac – Rhus glabra and other deciduous trees and shrubs.)