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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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:
“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.”
“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…”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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!