Emergence of Life in a Wetland

After many years of wanting to, we finally installed some solar-powered pumps and livestock water tanks in our family prairie.  (Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks for providing cost-share money!)  Those two water tanks give the cattle nice cool clean water to drink and allow us more flexibility in the way we design our grazing each year.  Most importantly, they allow us to exclude the pond/wetland from grazing so it can start to function as a wetland rather than as a big mud hole for cattle to stand around in.

Because we’ve had good rains this year, the wetland has been pretty full.  That’s nice, but it has also prevented much of the wetland-edge seed I planted from germinating and growing.  Despite that, the recovery of the wetland is well underway.  There is now grass growing right to the water’s edge and arrowhead and other emergent plants are starting to appear in shallow water.  I’ve been spraying the few reed canarygrass plants growing nearby in the hope of preventing that invasive species from taking over the margins of the wetland, and hopefully I can get some more diverse wetland plants to establish there instead.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

The pond/wetland at the Helzer family prairie with abundant arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) in the shallows.

My daughter and I went for a walk at the prairie over the weekend and visited the wetland to see what was happening.  As I waded into the shallow water to take the above photo, leopard frogs scattered from my footsteps and red-winged blackbirds scolded me for encroaching upon their territories – very good signs of recovery.  However, looking more closely at the arrowhead plants poking through the water, I found even more evidence of new life.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Abandoned exoskeletons of damselfly nymphs were littered around the wetland.

Adult damselflies fluttered around everywhere, and many of them had apparently just appeared on the scene because the larval exoskeletons they’d just emerged from were stuck to leaves and stems all over the place.

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While I was too late to see the actual emergence of the damselflies, I did manage to find a green darner dragonfly that had just popped out of its larval skeleton and was fluttering its wings and waiting for its body to dry and harden.  I snapped a few pictures of it in place and then carried it over to Anna so she could get a good look at it.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

A green darner dragonfly and the larval exoskeleton it had only recently escaped from.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

Anna enjoyed getting a close-up view of the dragonfly and even posed for a photo with it.

After we became a little better acquainted with the new dragonfly, we set it safely on a fence post so it could finish hardening up in the warm sun.  I took a few more quick photos of it on the post and then left it alone.  It was gratifying to see other dragonfly species zipping around nearby too – I’m hoping that’s a sign that a number of other aquatic invertebrates are also colonizing our recovering wetland.  It should be fun to watch the changes in the coming years.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.

Our new friend on the top of a fence post.

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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.