Photo of the Week – November 10, 2017

I was back at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week to help with a little bison work and a board meeting.  My wife was able to come with me, and we stayed an extra night so we could do some hiking Saturday morning before heading home.

A burned eastern redcedar overlooks a what is a majestic landscape, even during the dormant season.

Kim and I decided to hike up the bluffs north of the river where the 2012 wildfire transformed an overgrown savanna of pines and cedars into a burgeoning grassland/shrubland dotted with burned tree skeletons.  Autumn is well established along the Niobrara River, and there have already been several hard freezes and some light snows.  Despite that, we found plenty of color and texture to enjoy while we wandered, as well as a couple very pleasant surprises.

Smooth sumac and yucca are two of the more common plants north of the river, and both still provided color, though the sumac leaves had all fallen.
It’s fun to speculate about the series of events that led to this sumac leaflet becoming impaled on this yucca leaf.
One of the best discoveries of the day was the first ponderosa pine seedling I’ve seen since the 2012 fire.  It was right up on top of the ridge.  I’m hopeful that we’ll find more in the coming years.
As bark peels from pine skeletons, bark beetle galleries are revealed. Interestingly, I didn’t see any on eastern red cedar – only on pine.
We were shocked to find a little patch of Campanula (harebell) still in full bloom on November 4. It was sheltered in a fairly steep draw, but must have survived temperatures well below freezing several times during the last month.

Photo of the Week – October 27, 2017

I spent much of this week at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  During most of that time, photography was difficult because of bright sunlight, no clouds, and strong winds, but the place was still beautiful.  Most of the colorful leaves had already fallen from the sumac, ash, oak, and cottonwood trees, and I only found a few asters that still had flowers.  Regardless, there was plenty of life to be seen.  I spotted a kangaroo rat in my headlights as I drove down the lane to the headquarters my first night.  Bald eagles were wheeling above the river, and I saw red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and northern harriers hunting as well.  Flocks of other birds went here and there, either migrating through or just moving nomadically in search of food.  During a couple evening walks, the relative quiet was broken by high-flying squadrons of sandhill cranes passing overhead.

Late day light on ponderosa pine skeletons, burned in the 2012 wildfire.

One evening, I climbed up to the top of the ridge north of the river and photographed the landscape as the sun went down.  By the time I got back down to my truck, it was pretty dark, and I became very aware of how many shadowy places were available for creatures to hide.  I started musing that I still hadn’t seen a mountain lion at the Preserve, even though we know they’re here, and have had several documented recently.  Then I realized that it was less important to think about how many mountain lions I had seen and more important to think about how many lions had seen me!  I’m pretty sure that second number is higher than the first.

Many of the pines killed by the 2012 fire have lost their tops to the wind, but this one was still standing tall and intact.
While cloudless skies make daytime photography difficult, they do have their advantages at night, especially when the wind calms down enough for long exposures (the camera shutter was open about 25 seconds to capture this starry scene).  The light along the horizon is not from the setting sun, but from the closest town of any size (Valentine, Nebraska, population 2700) which was about 25 miles away.
Only a few trees still had their leaves this week, making them stand out in the river valley.

I will be up on the Niobrara again late next week, and I’m really looking forward to it.  Even in the dormant season, there’s always plenty to see.

Photo of the Week – September 29, 2017

As the growing season comes to an end and most wildflowers wind up their blooming period, insects that feed on nectar and pollen have to work a lot harder to find food.  The few remaining plants with active flowers suddenly become really popular.  In this part of Nebraska, those last remaining wildflowers include species like tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), heath aster (Aster ericoides), and New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), among others.  The other day, I spotted a lone New England aster plant being mobbed by hungry insects.  Here are some photos…


Over the five minutes or more that I watched the horde of insects on this plant, I saw the same individual blossoms get worked over multiple times by multiple insects.  After all that activity, I can’t imagine any of those insects were really getting much of anything out of those flowers, but they were certainly trying…

Painted lady butterflies are still pretty abundant, but not nearly as abundant as they were a year ago.

How many insects can you find on the photo below?  I can find four painted lady butterflies, a skipper butterfly, three different bees, and a tree cricket.  Not pictured are a couple of grasshoppers and a few other bees that were just below the field of view.

How many insects can you see?  Click on the photo to see a larger version of the image.

I assume the remaining painted lady butterflies will migrate soon, but most of the other pollen and nectar-eating insects around here don’t have anywhere to go.  Some will simply die with the flowering season, but others will spend the winter in a state of dormancy and re-emerge in the spring.  I sometimes use the analogy of watering holes in Africa when talking about flowers and pollinators.  In this case, the analogy seems particularly apt as the last “watering holes” are drying up and the animals relying on them are highly concentrated.  I was surprised not to see any “crocodiles” (e.g., crab spiders) at this particular watering hole, taking advantage of an increasingly desperate prey base.

I appreciate living in a temperate zone where I can enjoy a nice variety of seasons through the year, but I’ll certainly miss seeing (and photographing) flowers and insects over the winter.  It’s hard to focus on indoor work these days, knowing that my opportunities to see those flowers and insects this season are dwindling fast…

Photo of the Week – November 11, 2016

On Wednesday of this week, we took advantage of the eerily warm November temperatures to conduct our second prescribed fire of the fall.  This one will help concentrate some spring grazing in an area where we want to suppress grass dominance and rehabilitate forb diversity.  The fire was also a great opportunity for further training of some young conservation staff.  In addition to Eric and Katharine, our two Hubbard Fellows, we also had three young interns/technicians from a couple of our conservation partners, the Crane Trust and Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary.

Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows, ignites the west flank of the fire.
Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows, ignites the west flank of the fire.
A firefighter in a UTV with a slip-on pump unit follows Katharine's ignition and prevents the fire from creeping into the mowed firebreak. By this stage in the fire, the wind was mostly blowing the fire into the unit, making this job easier.
A firefighter in a UTV with a slip-on pump unit follows Katharine’s ignition and prevents the fire from creeping into the mowed firebreak. By this stage in the fire, the wind was mostly blowing the fire away from the break and into the unit, making this job easier.
Here, Eric, our other Hubbard Fellow, ignites the head fire, which runs quickly with a tailwind until it is stopped by the backing fire and blackened area at the far end of the unit.
Here, Eric Chien, our other Hubbard Fellow, ignites the head fire, which runs quickly with a tailwind until it is stopped by the backing fire and blackened area at the far end of the unit.  He is followed by another UTV and pump unit.
Nothing to do now but watch.
Nothing to do now but watch.
At the end of every fire, we hold an "after action review" in which every member of the crew shares what went well, what they learned, and what might help us do better in the future.
At the end of every fire, we hold an “After Action Review” in which every member of the crew shares what went well, what they learned, and what might help us do better in the future.

Anyone who has seen prairie fires up close gains an appreciation of their speed, heat, and power.  Harnessing a force like that to achieve prairie management objectives takes careful planning, solid training and good equipment.  The fire this week went as smoothly as could be hoped for, but  – as with every burn I lead – my stomach was still knotted up until the last of the big flames had been extinguished.  After we were done, I took a leisurely and therapeutic walk around the perimeter of the burned area, both to confirm that everything was secure and to envision the positive impact the burn will make as next year’s growing season begins.

Photo of the Week – November 3, 2016

To this prairie photographer, milkweed seeds are like candy – I just can’t get enough.  As I’ve walked around this fall, I’ve had a very difficult time walking past any milkweed plant without stopping to photograph the silky seeds shimmering in the light.  They’re just so FLUFFY!

(And yes, botanist friends, I know the fluffy part isn’t actually the seed, but is an ‘appendage’ called the coma – or less accurately, the pappus – that aids in wind transport of the seed.  And the brown parts are actually the follicles that CONTAIN the seed.  Yes, yes, and yes. Allow me this vulgarization for the sake of simplicity, ok?)


Whorled milkweed

Common milkweed





It’s getting a little harder to find milkweed seeds that haven’t yet blown away, but they’re out there.  I keep seeing them as I walk through prairie and drive down the highway.  I can hide the Halloween candy so I don’t snack on it all day, but who’s going to hide all those milkweed seeds?

Photo of the Week – October 27, 2016

I’m up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  We spent the whole day herding bison today, so obviously I’m posting several photos of some autumn leaves I photographed along a creek after we finished.

Cottonwood leaf in a stream. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Cottonwood leaf in a creek. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
The same leaf. Different angle.
Same leaf, different angle.
Different leaf, same creek.
Different leaf, same creek.

Once I get time to sort through them, I’ll probably have some bison roundup photos to post too…

Photo of the Week – October 20, 2016

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) seeds hang tenuously to the flower head.  Lincoln Creek Prairie (Prairie Plains Resource Institute) in Aurora, Nebraska.

I stole an hour of photography time this week as a foggy morning worked its way toward a sunny afternoon.  The small restored prairie on the edge of town was a great place to explore. A few surprises awaited.  Though most flowers were well done with flowering, a few late ones were still in bloom – possibly plants that were injured earlier in the season and were trying to squeeze out a flower on hastily regrown stems.  Insects were surprisingly abundant – taking advantage of a day with temperatures in the high 60’s and rising.  Here is a selection of images from my prairie walk.

Late goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)
More goldenrod
More goldenrod
A tiny beetle takes advantage of a rare pollen dinner on a stiff goldenrod plant (Solidago rigida) that was flowering extraordinarily late.
Stink bug
This stink bug blends in wonderfully with the drying head of pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) it was exploring.
Giant milkweed bug
Giant milkweed bug on a common milkweed pod.
There were quite a few damselflies feeding on tiny flying insects as I walked around.  They were difficult to get close to, though…
After many failed attempts, I did finally manage to get close enough to a couple damselflies to get reasonable photos.  Here is one of them.

Photo of the Week – October 14, 2016

It feels like autumn has arrived.  We had frost on the ground yesterday, most wildflowers are done blooming, fluffy seeds are erupting across the prairie, and leaves and stems are turning from green to yellow.  Leaves of shrubs and trees in and around prairies are turning red and gold.  It’s also quiet.  Yesterday, as I walked through a small prairie here in town, the only noises I heard were plants rasping against each other as I walked through them.  Insects and birds were largely absent, or at least silent.

Here are some fall prairie photos from this week.

Smooth sumac
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) leaves, those still hanging on, are a gorgeous red right now.
It’s a good time of year to see milkweed seeds floating about.
Wild cucumber
Wild cucumber (Echinocyst9s lobata) growing between prairie and the Platte River.
Virginia creeper
Virginia creeper, (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) just a few feet away from the wild cucumber.
I’m not sure what kind of sustenance this milkweed bug larva and its three friends (which feed by sucking plant juices) were getting from this dry milkweed pod.
Stiff goldenrod
Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) maintains great red and yellow coloring, well after it is done blooming.
Canada milkvetch
Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) pods show the exit holes from the insect that ate the majority of its seeds this year (and most years).

It’s going to be a long time before I can photograph wildflowers again.  The winter is always hard in that regard.  Prairie life during the winter largely goes underground, which is sensible, but difficult to photograph.  I enjoy the challenge finding color, texture, and light to photograph during the long winter months, but I sure will be glad to see the first wildflowers again next spring.  For now, however, I’m going to get as much enjoyment as I can from the fall colors of the prairie.

Smooth sumac
Smooth sumac again.  It’s hard to walk past something with this kind of color.

Photo of the Week – November 12, 2015

Most prairie plants have now traded their summer colors for the browns and golds of fall.  The low angle of the sun this time of year shines rich warm light across the grassland.  As a special bonus, crisp fall mornings often provide a beautiful frosty glaze that perfectly accents the texture and colors of autumn prairie plants .  Last weekend, I enjoyed the combination of all those factors during a brief but pleasant morning outing.

Stiff sunflower with frost. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.
Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and frost. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.
Roundheaded bushclover (Lespedeza capitata)
Roundheaded bushclover (Lespedeza capitata).
Canada milkvetch with frost. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.
When everything else is brown, any remaining green – including these Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) leaves – really stands out …especially when edged in frost.


Photo of the Week – October 23, 2014

I needed a walk in the prairie the other evening.  There are times when I just need to change focus and think about something besides my own life, and hiking through a grassland is the perfect tonic.

Our family prairie was resplendent in golds and browns as the sun was going down.  As the last light hit the fuzzy seed heads of stiff goldenrod and other late season wildflowers, the plants seemed to glow – as did the numerous thin strands of spider silk strung between the plants.

Stiff goldenrod seeds caught on a stray strand of spider silk.
Stiff goldenrod seeds tenuously held by a stray strand of spider silk.
More stiff goldenrod seeds.
More stiff goldenrod seeds.

As the sun continued to sink, I kept climbing uphill – until I finally ran out of light completely.  Just as the sun was dropping below the horizon, I spotted a wild lettuce plant with its beautiful wispy seeds waving in the gentle breeze.  I had just enough time to capture one image before the sun disappeared.

Wild lettuce seeds at sundown.  Helzer Family Prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.
Wild lettuce seeds at sundown. Helzer Family Prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

I stood up, stretched, and enjoyed my long walk back to the truck.  The world looked pretty good…