Photo of the Week – April 20, 2018

The prairie is finally waking up (again) around here.  Before last weekend’s blizzard weather, plants were starting to green up, but all that stopped for a while last weekend so we could enjoy one last (?) snowstorm.  We didn’t end up with much accumulation on the Platte River, but our Niobrara Valley Preserve got over a foot of snow.  Yesterday afternoon, the sun was warm and bright along the Platte, so I took a few hours to enjoy the latest reboot of spring.

This tiny orb weaver spider was starting a web in a recently burned patch of prairie. The grass was only a few inches tall, but the spider was using the breeze to string silk between the young shoots. I laid on my belly for quite a while and watched it work.
I’m not sure if it finally noticed me or just needed a rest, but after working for quite a while, the spider retreated to this little hiding place. I waited for several minutes, but it apparently wasn’t going to keep working, so I left it alone.
I noticed this open hole in a fresh pocket gopher mound and thought maybe I’d catch the gopher bringing a load of dirt out of its tunnel. I sat quietly near the hole for a few minutes until I looked more closely and decided it didn’t look as fresh as I’d first thought. I don’t think anything had disturbed the soil at the mouth of the hole since the snow melted. Pretending not to feel foolish, I moved on…
This roundheaded bushclover (Lespdeza capitata) leaf had what I think were probably fungal spots on it. While it wasn’t fresh green growth, I thought it was interesting and attractive enough to be photographed.
While it doesn’t look like much, the yellow-flowered sun sedge (Carex heliophila) shown here was my most exciting discovery of the day. We can’t get it to establish from seed, so we’d moved some plants from a nearby remnant into this restored prairie back in 2011.  Since then we hadn’t been able to find any (tiny plants under tall grass). Since the plants were blooming yesterday, I went looking in an area that was grazed last year and found hundreds of them! The plants survived and are spreading quickly via rhizomes.  This was the first one I found.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are playing their annual role of supporting early pollinators until native wildflowers get rolling. Yesterday was the first time I’d seen any blooming, but I saw several flies (including this one) and a honey bee already feeding from them.

It’s supposed to cool off again this weekend, but the forecast doesn’t show temperatures dropping below freezing – at least for the next week.  Maybe spring will actually catch on this time?  It’ll be interesting to watch plants like windflower (Anemone caroliniana) that started to grow and then got frozen off – multiple times.  Will they still bloom, or will they just give up and wait for next year?  Regardless, it’s sure nice to see something moving around in the prairies besides dead plant stems being blown around by the wind.  Let’s go spring!

Photo of the Week – May 8, 2014

In my last post, I mentioned that I didn’t mind having dandelions in my prairies.  Here is a further celebration of this beautiful, tough little plant.

Dandelions - pollinator heaven.
These dandelions were blooming near our shop building earlier this week.

While dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are kind of weedy, they are not invasive – at least not in our prairies.  They essentially fill spaces left when perennial plants are either absent or weakened.  Typically, they come and go from the plant community pretty quickly, except in places (like around our shop) where frequent mowing and/or poor soil conditions prevent more competitive plants from establishing.

The dandelion’s status as a non-native plant doesn’t bother me in the least.  It is an attractive species and is great for pollinators – especially in the early part of the season when few other plants are blooming in our prairies.  Until relatively recent history, dandelions were seen as a useful and attractive garden plant around the world.  We’ve made the social decision to call it a weed, but that doesn’t change it’s ecological value.  You can read more about the history and uses of dandelions here.

Dandelions and henbit
Dandelions and henbit (another pretty and innocuous non-native flower) offer a nice counterpoint to each other, don’t they?

If you can get past the social aesthetic of dandelions as weeds and look at them as just a flower, they’re really very pretty.  Kids, who haven’t yet been pressured to label dandelions as a nuisance, can see that beauty – why can’t we?

Dandelion seeds
Dandelion seeds at the Helzer Prairie last week.