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