Photo of the Week – November 18, 2016

Back in April, I wrote a post about the regrowth after one of our spring prescribed fires.  That’s a fun time of year to burn because the growing season is getting started and the response of green plants pushing through the black ash comes strong and fast.  Typically, fall burns don’t show any green-up until the next spring.  This year, however, the crazy warm weather has changed things a little. In the two burns we’ve done this fall, most of the ground is still black and barren, but here and there, some green is pushing up through the ash as well.

Here are some photos I took this week of a burn we conducted two weeks earlier.  The site was a recently restored prairie (2013 planting) and this was the first burn at the site.  Green plants weren’t the only interesting things I found as I walked around.

Big bluestem skeletons
Big bluestem skeletons stand tall in the ashes.
Cedar tree
Cedar trees are uncommon on our land because of our consistent use of fire.   This one won’t give us any more trouble….
Some grasses and sedges
Despite the lateness of the season, patches of grasses and sedges were showing signs of growth, taking advantage of warm days and some recent rain.
Sedges often stay green well into the winter, but I was still surprised to see these actively growing after a fire.
Goldenrod galls
Among the scorched plants were goldenrod stems with galls.  The insects in these galls left well before the fire, but there other invertebrates overwinter in aboveground plants and are vulnerable to dormant season fires.
The bare sand of pocket gopher mounds stand out against the dark background.  Ant hills, vole runways, and mole tunnels were also spread across the burned area.
Sunflower stalks
Most plants burned completely, but in some places, fire intensity was lower and bigger stems of sunflowers and other plants only partially burned, sometimes falling as if they’d been chopped down.
Back fire
Lines of fallen grass and forb stems show where the fire backed into the wind, rather than being pushed by it.  In a backing fire, only the lower parts of plants are consumed, and the wind blows them over into the already burned prairie where they escape being further burned.
A white skeleton of a long dead rabbit (I think?) was left tarnished but intact by the fire.
Near the edge of the burned area, grasshoppers skipped away from my feet as I walked.

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 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 – September 1, 2016

Two weeks ago, I posted about Yellow Season in prairies.  That annual phenomenon continues, and at our family prairie this week, stiff goldenrod was front and center.  Pollinators and pollen-eating insects seemed to approve.

Eastern-tailed blue
Eastern-tailed blue butterflies were abundant on stiff goldenrod flowers.  They were tricky to photograph, however, because at the slightest hint of danger, they flew from the flower and onto a nearby grass leaf where they sat facing directly away from the sun.  I’m not sure if that was always a risk aversion tactic (hard to see them in the shadows when their wings weren’t catching sunlight) or also a heat management tactic (turning their giant solar panel wings away from the sun to cool off).
Blister beetles were enjoying meals of goldenrod pollen, but it's not clear whether they were actually pollinating flowers.
Blister beetles were enjoying meals of goldenrod pollen, but it’s not clear whether they were actually pollinating flowers.  Some beetles eat parts of the flowers themselves, not just the pollen.  I couldn’t tell if blister beetles were doing that or not.
Cucumber beetles
Cucumber beetles (here) and soldier beetles (not shown) were also all over the place.  Not much pollen sticks to these smooth beetles, so they probably don’t carry much from flower to flower.
Moths of various species were numerous, but wary, quick, and thus difficult to photograph.
Moths of various species were numerous, but wary, quick, and thus difficult to photograph.  This is the only one I caught.  (You can also see a bit of a soldier beetle in the lower left corner of the image.)
Gray hairstreaks were even more abundant than eastern-tailed blues this week.
Gray hairstreaks were even more abundant than eastern-tailed blues this week.  They also held still better, which was nice.  You can see the long tongue at work on this one.
Bee flies have a rigid
Bee flies are part of a family of flies called Bombyliidae, and and many have a long rigid proboscis and feed on pollen and nectar.  Unlike a butterfly tongue, the fly’s proboscis doesn’t retract, so it just sticks straight out as the bee fly zips around.  The best nickname I’ve heard for these creatures is “beewhal” (get it?  it’s like “narwhal” but for a bee) which is just tremendous.
Often, when I post lots of pollinator pictures from a prairie walk, I also include a photo of a crab spider laying in wait. This week I couldn't find a single one! However, there was this big Chinese mantid, which will have to do.
Often, when I post lots of pollinator pictures from a prairie walk, I also include a photo of a crab spider laying in wait for an unwary insect. This week I couldn’t find a single one! However, this big Chinese mantid was lurking about amongst the goldenrod plants, so that will have to do.

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.


Snake Season!

It’s a great time of year to see snakes.  As the weather cools in the fall, snakes are especially drawn to places where they can soak up warm sunlight during the middle part of the day.  That makes it fairly likely to see snakes (alive and dead) along roads.  In addition, many snake species overwinter together in communal winter dens – particularly in higher latitudes.  As they move from their summer feeding areas to those winter dens, they often have to cross roads and other open areas.  This puts snakes at risk from cars and predators but provides even more opportunities for interested people to see snakes that can be difficult to find during the rest of the year.

Yesterday, we spotted this beautiful young bull snake on a gravel road along the edge of one of our Platte River Prairies.  It was only about 16 or so inches long, but it did a great job of making itself look menacing when we stopped to take a closer look.

Young bull snake on gravel road along the boundary of the TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
This little bull snake was doing its very best to scare me off, but it didn’t work.  Instead it got its portrait taken.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

As we approached it, the snake coiled up and flattened its head, making it look very much like a viper.  It was also wiggling the tip of its tail back and forth very quickly – a move that would have made a sound like a rattlesnake rattle in dry leaves (a great scare tactic) but wasn’t incredibly effective on the gravel.  As I moved in with my camera, the snake struck at me several times, but never came anywhere close to biting me.  Being a biologist, my response to all this was to lie down on the gravel and photograph the snake.  However, if I hadn’t known that bull snakes are basically harmless – unless you’re a small mammal or bird – I probably would have headed quickly in another direction.  The snake probably would have preferred that…

I felt badly that the snake was putting on such a great show to no avail.  Maybe I should have acted a little more frightened.  Instead, I photographed the poor snake for a few minutes and then left it alone – hopefully before I completely destroyed its self esteem.

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…


Caterpillar Crossing

While driving through central Nebraska last week, I couldn’t help notice all the fuzzy creatures crossing the highway in front of me.  They weren’t raccoons, deer, or even voles.  They were tiny little caterpillars, and they were moving FAST.

This was a common site along Nebraska highways last week.
This was a common site along Nebraska highways last week.

I’m not entirely sure why the caterpillars are on the move, or where they are going.  Some internet searching turned up some university extension and similar pages that infer that the caterpillars are simply searching for a good place to spend the winter.  That could be true, but if so, they sure don’t seem to be doing it in any organized fashion!  There were just as many caterpillars crossing the road from left to right as there were from right to left.  It made me wonder if they just kept going back and forth…  (tiny little brains.)

As I drove, my scientist mind was spinning, despite my best intentions.  I kept track of the land cover types on both sides of the road, trying to figure out what kind of habitats the caterpillars might be leaving or heading for.  If there was a pattern, I didn’t see it.  The caterpillars crossed the road in places where there were soybean fields on both sides as well as places where there were miles of sandhills prairie on both sides.  They didn’t seem to be heading from high ground to low or from tall vegetation to short – or vice versa.

Another one.
Another one.

My photographer brain was also in full gear, which meant I had to keep stopping to take photos of the little buggers.  Fortunately, the roads I was traveling were not very well populated with other vehicles, but I still had to be discreet to avoid uncomfortable conversations.  Whenever I heard a vehicle coming I just pretended I was stopped to make a phone call or just to admire the view.  Otherwise, I would have ended up having conversations something like this:

“You okay?”

“Me?  Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Oh.  I just wondered why you were lying in the middle of the highway.”

“Um, yeah.  I was actually taking a photograph of a caterpillar.”

“A caterpillar.”


“In the middle of the highway?”

“Well, yeah.  I wanted to know why it was crossing the road.”

“Is that a joke?”

“No, but now that you mention it, it might not be a bad start to one…”

“So you don’t need any help?”

“No, I’m good, but thanks for asking.  I’m just trying to get some pictures.”

“In the middle of the highway.  On your belly.”

“Well, yeah.  You see, I’m a prairie ecologist.”

“Oh!  Why didn’t you say so?  Carry on then…”

Fuzzy caterpillar crossing the highway west of Taylor, Nebraska.
Anyway, I did manage to get some photographs of the commuting caterpillars.  I’m glad I did because seeing them up close made me realize there were several different species of them making the crossings.  I also (I can’t believe I’m admitting this) timed them to see how fast they were going.  What? I was just curious…

I wish the caterpillars well on their journeys.  There were surprisingly few smooshed caterpillars on the road, so I’m assuming the majority made it across the road.  I hope that means they found a nice place to spend the winter, or whatever they were looking for.

I also hope no one saw me photographing them.

Fuzzy caterpillar crossing the highway west of Taylor, Nebraska.

You probably don’t care, but in case you’re wondering, the caterpillars were making the 32 foot trip across the highway in about 80 seconds.  If my math is correct, that means they were traveling about 4.8 inches per second.  That’s moving right along for a tiny critter with stubby little legs!

Photo of the Week – September 18, 2014

I’m writing this from The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in north-central Nebraska, where I’m attending a prescribed fire planning workshop.  The weather up here is beautiful, and the prairies are already wearing their autumn colors.  The most conspicuous color on the landscape is the bright red of smooth sumac, which contrasts wonderfully with the more subtle browns and golds of the grasses.

Smooth sumac and prairie along the Niobrara River at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Smooth sumac and prairie along the Niobrara River at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

This photo was taken in one of the few parts of the Preserve that wasn’t impacted by the big wildfire of 2012.  I walked and photographed areas that were affected by the fire as well, and I’ll post some of those photos and descriptions soon.  In short, everything I saw is looking great; no significant invasive plant issues, complete recovery of grasslands, and positive developments under the burned pine woodland areas.


Photo of the Week – November 14, 2013

Last week, I took a short early morning trip out to my family prairie.  As the sun came up, its light was caught beautifully by the fuzzy seeds of various prairie plants, particularly stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).

A stiff goldenrod seed is ready to fall from a seedhead.
A stiff goldenrod seed is ready to fall from a seedhead.  Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Species with fuzzy parachute-style seeds trade distance for time.  Their seeds can be carried far from the plant, giving them a chance to colonize new areas.  However, because the seeds have to be light weight, they tend to have short shelf-lives, and can’t survive for very long – they will either germinate quickly or die.  Bulkier seeds often have the ability to survive for years in the ground and then germinate when favorable conditions appear – but they don’t typically travel very far from their parent plant.  Life is a series of tradeoffs!

More goldenrod seeds.
More goldenrod seeds.


And more.
And more.  In this photo, the contrast between the brightness of the seeds and the shadows behind the plant were such that the camera couldn’t capture it all, resulting in a black background behind the correctly-exposed seeds.


Even after the petals (and even the seeds) fall, goldenrod flowers are still very attractive.
Even after the petals (and even the seeds) fall, goldenrod flowers are still very attractive.


Dotted gayfeather also has short-lived, high-flying seeds.  However, once a new plant is established, it puts down deep roots (literally - as deep as 10-15 feet).
Dotted gayfeather also has short-lived, high-flying seeds. However, once a new plant is established, it puts down deep roots (literally – as deep as 10-15 feet).


More dotted gayfeather seeds.
More dotted gayfeather seeds.