Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017

When photographing invertebrates, I can split most critters into two categories: those that hunker down and those that flee.  Those that hunker down are awfully nice because I can set up and photograph them thoughtfully, playing with various angles and compositions for each individual.  The ones that flee are a completely different matter, and I often end up chasing lots of different ones around, hoping to get close enough for any kind of photo and/or find one that is slightly less skittish then most.  Of course, all of this is on a continuum; even insects that end to hunker down can be pushed past their comfort level and eventually hop, drop, or fly away.  Learning where those thresholds are for various invertebrate species has been really helpful over the years.

Katydid nymph on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) earlier this week.  Katydids are usually pretty easy photo subjects.

Katydids and grasshoppers tend to be hunkerers, especially if I catch them in the middle of a meal.  Often, if they’re feeding on a flower, for example, they’ll slide around to the far side of the flower when I get close.  That’s actually nice because it lets me finish my approach while they’re not looking directly at me.  Then – and here’s a little trick you’re welcome to use – I can reach my hand out to the other side of the flower and they’ll slide back toward me to get away from my hand.  Sometimes, of course, they’ll hop off the flower when they see my hand, but usually they seem reluctant to abandon their food.  In most cases, I can repeat the hand trick at least 3 or 4 times before it starts making them nervous.

…and another one on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

Other invertebrates that tend to hunker and allow photographs to be taken include stink bugs, aphids, and caterpillars.  Crab spiders (one of my favorites) fall into this category too, but they can sometimes be a little touchier than katydids and others to the hand trick.  Sometimes, it works well, but some crab spiders can be more difficult to lure onto the side of a flower where I’m at.  If I can approach slowly enough that they don’t move away in the first place, that’s always the best.  Once they hide beneath or behind the flower, it seems like about 50% of them will either drop off the flower or refuse to be baited when they see my hand.

…and another one.

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so at our family prairie photographing insects because the wind was fairly calm and there were some nice diffuse clouds creating nice lighting conditions.  During that hour, I concentrated on two different subjects; katydids and damselflies.  The katydids, as per usual, were pretty accommodating, and the main challenge was the slightly swaying flowers they were feeding on.  The damselflies were a whole ‘nother story, and I ended up chasing them around quite a bit to get a few decent photos.

A damselfly rests briefly on an ironweed (Vernonia sp.).

Damselflies definitely fit into the category of insects that flee.  The nice thing about damselflies and dragonflies (as opposed to bees, moths and butterflies, for example) is they tend to be territorial.  That means that when they fly, they don’t usually go far.  Sometimes, if I’m patient, they’ll return to the same perch I flush them from.  That said, they can still be really difficult to get close to.  Staying low to the ground (keeping my head below the horizon line) seems to help, especially if I can avoid having my shadow pass over them.  A slow and steady approach usually works best, but it’s far from foolproof.  During the vast majority of attempts, they fly off just as I get in photography range.

The other issue with skittish subjects like damselflies is that when they do land, they often land in places that don’t work for photography.  That can include perches in the middle of a bunch of leaves that partially obscure them from view, or perches with vegetation behind them that overly clutters up the background.  The ideal situation is when they land on a relatively high perch, or at least one with good clear space all around it.  Trying to wait until they land in a favorable location and then watching them fly away just as I get close is an example of why insect photography is not for the impatient.

Eventually, I found a few damselflies that let me get close enough for some fairly intimate portraits.  The end results – nice peaceful looking insects resting on perches – don’t paint an accurate picture of the effort invested, however.  The grass stains on the knees of my pants and the sweat pouring down my face were better indicators of that.

Since I didn’t document the visual aspect of the damselfly photo hunt, here is a quick recap:

Helzer approaches a perched damselfly slowly.  Very slowly.  He creeps through the vegetation, being careful not to even slightly bump any plants because…DANG!  it flew away.  Ok, now he’s spotted another one but it’s not in a good spot.  He’s bypassing that one in favor of another on a higher perch.  He’s getting pretty close this time, but there’s a stray grass stem in the way.  Oh!  It looks like he’s going to try to carefully slide that stem out of the way.  It’s a bold move, but it’s going pretty well and…DANG!  It flew again.  Hmm.  He’s got another one in his sights now, and he’s working his way toward it, staying nice and low, keeping an ironweed plant between him and his subject.  Now he’s leaning around the ironweed…  he looks like he’s in range…. he’s focusing and depressing the shutter…OH NO!!  He lost his balance just a little and as he reached to catch himself the damselfly flew away again.  What a disappointment!

You get the idea…

One of the best parts of owning our own prairie is that I can do this kind of insect photography and not have to worry about anyone watching me.  The only thing I can think of that might make me look more foolish to passers by is when I’m chasing fruitlessly after a flying bee or butterfly with a net, swiping wildly at it while weaving back and forth in its path.  At least when I’m crawling around on the ground with my camera I’m a little more difficult to see from a distance.

Invertebrate photography can be frustrating, especially when I’m chasing insects in the “flee” category, but it’s awfully rewarding when I actually get a few good photos as a result.  Unfortunately, most viewers of my insect photos don’t give me any extra credit for the degree of difficulty of some photos over others.  The katydid shots in this post, for example, were a cakewalk compared to the damselflies, but unless I’d told you, you wouldn’t have known or cared, would you?  But I know, and I feel a little extra pride in these close-up damselfly portraits.

I’m just glad no one documented the process…

Photo of the Week – March 27, 2014

Prairies are underappreciated by much of the general public, even in states and provinces where prairies are (or were) the dominant landform.  They’re often seen as boring, drab, weedy, or otherwise uninteresting.  One of my goals in life is to get people to see prairies a little differently.  The best way to change someone’s opinion of prairies is to take them on a hike and show them what’s really there, but the first step is to pique their interest.

That’s where photography comes in.

Stiff sunflower.  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.
Stiff sunflower. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

These two photographs are among 60 prairie photos I’ve just posted on the “Prairie Photos” page of this blog.  You can see all 60 by clicking on the “Prairie Photos” tab at the top of the blog’s home page or you can just follow this link.

Spider at sunrise.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska
Spider at sunrise. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

If you have friends or acquaintances that haven’t yet experienced the charm of prairies, please consider sending them the link to these photos.  Maybe one or more of the images will spark an interest in an ecosystem they’d never really thought much about before.  Then, if you see that spark, grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them out to an actual prairie so they can see one for themselves.


Photo of the Week – September 26, 2013

If found this dragonfly encased in dew a couple weeks ago as I walked through a small prairie here in Aurora.  I’m sure someone reading this will be able to tell me what species it is – I don’t know my dragonflies very well.

Dew-covered dragonfly on pitcher sage.  Lincoln Creek Prairie - Aurora, Nebraska.  September 13, 2013
Dew-covered dragonfly on pitcher sage. Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska. September 13, 2013

There were a couple of these in the prairie that morning, but we’ve also been seeing some bigger groups (flocks?  herds? swarms?) of other dragonfly species coming through Nebraska lately on their annual migrations.  Many more insect species migrate than you might expect, including (at least) moths, butterflies, and dragonflies.  I expect we’ll learn a tremendous amount about these phenomena during the next decade as efforts to study those migrations continue to ramp up.  Technology, including tiny radio transmitters, will help, as will volunteer citizen science efforts to gather sightings from across large areas.  It will be exciting to learn more about what seems an improbable but very interesting behavior from insects we don’t give nearly enough credit to.

You can learn more about insect migration from an earlier post I wrote on moths last year, as well as another post on intercontinental insect migrations.

Finally, if you are interested in nature photography or prairie ecology and are within driving distance of Lincoln, you might enjoy the lecture I’m giving tomorrow night for the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum.  More information on the event and ticket information is available here.

Photo of the Week – September 6, 2013

Here are three photos from the last couple weeks that didn’t fit into any particular story or theme.  Each is from a different prairie, and each was the result of a quick opportunistic stop in the midst of doing something else.  The pitcher sage photo (immediately below) came after I walked past a patch of the flowers and then backed up to capture the image that stuck in my head when I first walked past.  I noticed the soldier beetle (second photo) as I was walking back to take more photos of the praying mantis eating the sphinx moth.  Finally, I spotted the bee sitting on a dew-covered gayfeather flower (third photo) as I got out of my truck to work on a fence project at our farm.

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in our plant diversity research plots.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in our plant diversity research plots. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.


A soldier beetle on a grass leaf.  Lincoln Creek Prairie - Aurora, Nebraska.
A soldier beetle on a grass leaf. Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.


A male long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).  Helzer family prairie - south of Aurora, Nebraska.
A male long-horned bee (Melissodes sp) on dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata). Helzer family prairie – south of Aurora, Nebraska.

A Fuzzy Meal

I took a quick trip over to Lincoln Creek Prairie again this last weekend.  Two weeks ago, I photographed a praying mantis and saw several others.  This trip, I saw a couple more – including one that had captured, and was eating, a large sphinx moth.  I took a couple photographs of it and then moved on to look for other subjects.  A few minutes later, however, I found myself drawn back to the mantis, and just sat and watched him for a while.  Here are a few photographs from that morning.

When I first spotted it, the mantis was upside down on a pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) plant, and the moth was still struggling feebly.


As it fed, the mantis was getting fuzz all over its head.


As I watched, the mantis tried – mostly unsuccessfully – to wipe some of the hairs off its face.


It’s always interesting to see which part of their prey a predator will start feeding on.  In this case, the mantis was eating the underside of the thorax first.


Photo of the Week – July 11, 2013

Every visit to a prairie is different – partially because the prairie is always changing, and partially because I focus on different aspects or species each time.  This week, I was near Griffith Prairie (owned and managed by my friends at Prairie Plains Resource Institute) when the light coming through the diffused clouds was too much to resist.  I popped over to see what was going on in the grassland…

A stink bug on coralberry (aka buckbrush or Symphoricarpus orbiculatus).  Griffith Prairie - Nebraska.
A stink bug on coralberry (aka buckbrush or Symphoricarpus orbiculatus). Griffith Prairie – Nebraska.

On this particular day, wildflowers were blooming all over the place, but what kept catching my eye were stink bugs.  I don’t know if they were particularly abundant or if I was just paying attention enough to notice how many there were.  Either way, I seemed to see stink bugs on just about every plant species I looked at.  They weren’t all the same kind of stink bug, but I don’t know enough about them to tell for sure how many species I was seeing.

Here are three more photos from that same day.

A stink bug on wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum).
A stink bug on wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum).


... and a stink bug on leadplant (Amorpha canescens)...
… and a stink bug on leadplant (Amorpha canescens)…


... and one more, on grass this time.
… and one more, on grass this time.


Photo of the Week – January 31, 2013

Another photo from the archives this week – June, 1996, in fact.  These cottonwood leaves were lying on the sandy bank of a small stream at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  A cluster of leaves had fallen from a nearby tree and were just starting to dry out and lose their color.  There was something about the pattern of textures and colors that I really liked.

Cottonwood leaves at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Cottonwood leaves at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Fun Fact: this is the only photo of mine that is hanging in our house.

Photo of the Week – January 17, 2013

Ok, I know milkweed seeds have been done to death by photographers.  I, personally, have somewhere around a zillion milkweed seed photos.  But milkweed seeds in the winter?  With hoar frost?  And a snowy background?  That’s just magic.  How can I not photograph that?

Frosty milkweed seeds and pods.  The Leadership Center Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.
Frosty milkweed seeds and pods. The Leadership Center Prairie. Aurora, Nebraska.








These photos are all from the same morning as those in last week’s photo of the week post.  I’ve got even more from that morning saved up for future weeks…  It was that kind of morning.

Photo of the Week – January 10, 2013

Portholes in the snow.

Hoarfrost on the edge of a hole in the snow, with prairie grass beneath.
Hoarfrost on the edge of a hole in the snow, with prairie grass beneath.  The Leadership Center Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

Early morning hoar frost, calm winds, and a hazy sunrise got me out the door with my camera Tuesday morning.  I found plenty to photograph, including frosty milkweed seeds, mouse tracks, and lots more.  But it was the little windows in the snow that I couldn’t stay away from.

It appears to me that many of the holes in the snow were a result of radiant heat, caused by the sun warming up the plants sticking out of the snow.  Regardless of the reason, they were sure interesting to look at – especially with the morning hoar frost tinging their edges.

Here are just a few of the images I came home with.

A stiff sunflower stem protrudes from a frost-edged gap in the snow.


I assume many of the holes were caused by heat radiating from vegetation warmed by the sun?


Some of the holes were more like cracks...
Some of the holes were more like cracks…


All in all, it was a pretty nice morning to be out.
All in all, it was a pretty nice morning to be out.


Photo of the Week – August 31, 2012

It seems like a good time to be a crab spider.  The drought has greatly reduced the number of flowers blooming in prairies, forcing pollinators to visit fewer flowers in greater numbers.  Previously, I’ve used the analogy of crocodiles in watering holes to describe crab spiders waiting in ambush on flowers.  To further that analogy, the drought has now dried up all but a few watering holes, and the crocs just have to sit and wait for the increasingly desperate animals to come to water.

A crab spider with the spotted cucumber beetle it just captured.

When I was photographing for my drought post earlier this week, I found this crab spider, which had just captured a spotted cucumber beetle.  The beetle was still struggling against the spider, but the spider was maintaining a tight grip on its head.  I didn’t stick around for the ending, but it assuredly didn’t end well for the beetle. 

If you’re a gardener who has dealt with these beetles on your cucumbers, melons, or other produce, you’re likely not shedding any tears over this photo.  Not only do cucumber beetles feed on the leaves and fruits of garden vegetables, they are also a carrier for bacterial wilt, which can also cause lots of damage.  However, unlike some garden pests, cucumber beetles are native insects who just happen to have found easy pickings in cultivated areas. 

Cucumber beetles are a very common sight on prairie flowers right now.  They are feeding on the pollen, but like most beetles provide very little actual pollination for most of those flowers.  While they’re not pests to the degree they are in gardens, these insects aren’t really doing those flowers much good either.  

On the other hand, they’re providing a good food source for crab spiders!