Square Meter Photography Project

In January, 2018, I began a year-long project to photograph all the beauty and diversity I could find within a single square meter of prairie.  That tiny plot is located in a narrow strip of restored grassland at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.  The prairie was restored by Prairie Plains Resource Institute in the early 1980’s and contains a nice diversity of prairie plants.

Maximilian sunflowers dominated the square meter of prairie during late August and early September.

My initial motivation for this project was to draw awareness and appreciation to prairie communities.  Prairies suffer from a massive lack of attention and respect, and that provides a major handicap to those of us advocating for their conservation.  That disinterest is true even in a state like Nebraska, where about half of the state is still grassland – including the spectacular 12 million acre Nebraska Sandhills landscape, and where almost no one lives more than an hour’s drive from a prairie.

While I primarily started the project as way to help others discover prairies and their beauty, the journey has also affected me, personally, in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated.  I have always been drawn to photograph flowers, bugs, and other tiny creatures, but I usually do so while wandering broadly through prairies, looking for subjects that draw my attention.  Despite more than 25 years of studying and exploring prairies, forcing myself to sit down and really focus my eyes and camera within a tiny square space has been truly inspirational.

I watched this ant running up and down this sunflower plant for several minutes before I finally captured this image.

When I first came up with this project idea, I figured I would get frustrated by sitting in one place for long periods of time and missing out on potential photo opportunities elsewhere.  After all, beautiful photography light is fleeting and precious.  In actuality, the opposite happened.  I found myself wandering with my camera through gorgeous landscapes of prairies, feeling distracted and unsettled, wondering what was happening back in my little plot.  The only frustration I felt while at my plot came whenever a butterfly or other small creature left the square before I could photograph it.

Butterflies were particularly tricky to capture photographs during their short visits to the small plot.

I honestly don’t think I ever visited my plot without seeing something I hadn’t seen there before.  The number of species I found was astounding, even as someone who studies and touts the diversity of prairies.  I could put together an impressive photo portfolio consisting only of the various fly species of flies I photographed.  I also became engrossed by the growth and survival of individual plants, and felt emotionally affected when all four stiff sunflower blossoms in my plot were attacked by swarms of tiny beetles as soon as they opened.  Most of all, the rhythms and patterns of prairie life became more apparent to me than they ever had been before.  I became intently aware of what was blooming, what was about to bloom, which tiny creatures had newly emerged on the scene, and who was eating whom as a result.

Apart from the impressive biological diversity I observed, I was also stirred by how much beauty I discovered within the confines of a square meter of prairie.  I photographed a lot of flowers from a lot of angles, but I also found myself admiring the graceful downward curve of Maximilian sunflower leaves, the colorful feathery anthers of grasses, and the glowing backlit patterns of leaf veination.  The world of what deserved my attention as a photographer got much bigger, despite working within a tiny area.

Big bluestem flowers

I was already knowledgeable and passionate about prairies before starting this project, but I was still deeply moved and inspired by what I found within a single square meter.  Far from the drab patches of grass many people imagine them to be, prairies are vibrant and dynamic ecological communities, consisting of complex webs of interacting organisms.  There is abundant beauty in prairies, and while you might have to look closely to see some aspects of it, you also don’t have to go far to find it.  I hope this project helps inspire people to explore prairies near them, and to help ensure that prairie ecosystems remain diverse and healthy well into the future.

As of October 29, 2018, I have photographed 110 different species of plants and animals within my little square meter plot.  That includes 14 plant species, 21 different flies, 18 beetles, and 14 bees.  Here a few selected images from the hundreds of photos I’ve taken within a single square meter of Lincoln Creek Prairie:

Frost on Indiangrass
Frosty sunflower seed head
A leaf beetle on lead plant
Backlit stiff sunflower leaf
This species of bee (Andrena quintilis) is a specialist feeder on lead plant flowers
A leaf-mimicking plant hopper
A seed bug on butterfly milkweed
Beetles feeding on stiff sunflower
A tiny fly on an Indiangrass stem
A soldier beetle on Maximilian sunflower petals
Aphids on Maximilian sunflower
A hover fly feeding on Indiangrass pollen
This Chinese praying mantis was one of two mantid species I found in the same square meter on the same day
This was just one of many species of bees feeding on the two sunflower species blooming in the plot
Damselfly
Fading Maximilian sunflowers
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An Arabesque orbweaver dangles daintily from a silken thread.
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A Cope’s gray treefrog was a pleasant surprise, and the only vertebrate I’ve photographed within my plot so far.
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This monarch butterfly showed up one September morning. I’m not sure if it was a migrant or local hatchling.
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Autumn color on lead plant leaves.
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Butterfly milkweed seed stuck loosely to its pod.
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A Maximilian sunflower leaf withers as the growing season comes to an end.
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A hover fly huddles beneath a sunflower head after an early snow in October.

Here are some summary images of the 110 species I’ve photographed within the plot so far in 2018. 

beetles
wasps misc1