Photo of the Week – December 15, 2017

I haven’t done much photography lately, and that always makes me cranky.  I spent a couple days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, but between the short day length right now, a busy meeting schedule, and cloudy/windy conditions, I didn’t even get my camera out of the bag.  This morning, I just couldn’t stand it anymore, so my camera and I took a short walk in one of the small prairies here in town.  I needed to be on a conference call, but I managed to multi-task fairly effectively – participating in the call with my cell phone and earbuds while photographing dead flowers.  My colleagues are pretty understanding…

The first photo I took this morning was of sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus).  There was one lone seed still hanging on inside the spiny pods.
A light overnight frost was being systematically melted as morning sunlight crept across the prairie.  However, by finding plants that were just being illuminated, I could take a few photos before the frost disappeared.  In this case, the sun had just reached this roundheaded bushclover (Lespdeza capitata) plant, but the background was still in shadow.
The frost was quickly melting off of these aster (Aster lanceolatus) seed heads.
Birds, mice, and other creatures have already stripped all the seeds out of the sunflower plants in the prairie – including this stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).

By the time my conference call ended and I headed back to the office, my hands were cold, my knees were wet, and I felt better about the world.  Even in the winter, prairies can provide inspiration and solace to those who go looking for it, including photographers with cabin (office?) fever.

Becoming a Rule Breaker (Artistically)

I’ve never had any formal visual art training, notwithstanding my elementary teachers’ efforts to show me how to color within the lines.  When I started getting serious about photography, most of I what I learned was from books and photographers who were kind enough to offer helpful critiques of my work.  In my early days as an insecure nature photographer, I spent a lot of time paging through magazines and how-to books, looking for photos I liked.  Then I tried to mimic those compositions in my own work.  I was also very earnest in my attempts to learn and follow the rules of composition mentioned in photography books and magazines.

One particular rule I remember reading about said that when photographing animals, you should always have them looking in toward the center of the photo rather than out toward the edge of the photo.  For example, compare these two photos of an upland sandpiper (actually one photo that I cropped in two different ways for illustrative purposes).

In the top image, the bird’s eye is near one of the “power points” of the rule of thirds, so it conforms to that particular rule.  However, because the bird is on the right side of the frame and looking toward the right, the photo seems unbalanced.  In the lower image, the placement of the bird on the left side leaves it more space, and most people probably feel the bottom image is the better composition of the two.  If nothing else, the top image creates a kind of mental tension, in which the viewer feels there’s something wrong, or at least uncomfortable, about the composition.

Creating tension or discomfort, of course, can sometimes be a powerful strategy for artists, and can set their work apart from that of others.  As for me, though, I’m not really much of a risk taker when it comes to composition. In fact, I looked back through quite a few of my photos as I was thinking about this blog post, and couldn’t find many where I had intentionally created a visually jarring composition.  For better or worse, my objective is usually to draw people into a natural world they might not otherwise become familiar with, so making them uncomfortable seems counterproductive.

I don’t do a lot of traditional wildlife photography; I spend much more time photographing insects and flowers.  As far as I can tell, the aforementioned rule about having an animal look toward the center of an image seems often to apply to flowers too, which is a fascinating thing to ponder.  As viewers, are our minds projecting an imaginary face onto flowers, driving our expectation of how those flower photos should be composed?  Or is composition more driven by other factors, such as the curvature of the flower stems or the balancing of subject matter?

Consider the stiff sunflower image above, one of my favorite flower photos.  It would look odd (wrong?) if the flower were moved over to the right half of the image, right?  Is that because we ascribe a face to the flower and expect it to look in a certain direction relative to the photo composition?  Or is it just because of the way the curving line of the flower bends pleasingly toward the center in this photo, rather than away into nothingness if it were moved to the right?  Regardless, there’s something important about keeping the flower on the left side.

Now look at this photo of two Maximilian sunflower blossoms (above) I took last week.  The closer flower is the focal point of the image, and its “face” is “looking” toward the center of the photo.  The photo seems pretty balanced this way.  Compare that to the photo below, in which that same focal flower is moved over to the left.  It seems to be breaking the rules, yes?  Both photos have a second blossom in the background to balance the one in the foreground, but the second photo is still a little jarring because of where the face of the main flower is pointing.

Here’s the thing, though…  I think I like the second photo at least as much as the first, and maybe better.  There’s a slight tension in the image that I don’t think is too distracting, but instead makes the image interesting.  It makes me want to see more, to see what the flower sees.  Am I crazy for thinking the second is the more captivating of the two images?

…Good grief, does this mean I’m moving toward becoming a provocative art photographer??

The next thing you know, I’ll be putting horizon lines right smack in the middle of photos solely because the rules tell me not to.  Even worse, I’ll start writing long self-absorbed blog posts exploring the artistic choices I make when creating images…

…oh, wait…

Dang.

Photo of the Week – June 8, 2017

In several of our prairies right now, poppy mallows are among the most prolific flowers.  Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) and pale pink poppy mallow (Callirhoe alcoides) are not only great tongue twisters, but also pretty flowers and important food sources for pollinators.  Earlier this week, I watched a monarch moving from flower to flower in a big patch of pale pink poppy mallow, but I didn’t manage to get a picture of it.  Yesterday, I paused to photograph a poppy mallow blossom and noticed something funny about the underside of the flower…

Those of you who have followed the blog for a while know of my affinity for crab spiders.  They’re just so stinking cute, and once you start looking for them, they are everywhere, especially on flowers.

This particular long-legged friend and his relatives were on several kinds of flowers in our prairies this week, including pale pink poppy mallow (above) and yarrow (below).

At our family prairie, I found a different crab spider (below) hanging out on yarrow with its long front legs cocked and ready to spring shut on unsuspecting prey.

As I photographed the spider, a fly landed on the flower and started feeding on pollen and moving about the flower.

It got closer and closer to the spider, so I just kept shooting.  A few moments later, it turned its back on the spider…

…and the spider GRABBED it.  The fly buzzed loudly and drug the spider around a little, but was no match for the strong grip and venomous bite.

For a few seconds, the spider stood vertically, holding tight to the fly.  Then as the fly’s struggles subsided, the crab spider repositioned itself to start feeding.

Apparently, the spot right behind the head is the best place to puncture a fly if you want to suck out its liquefied insides.  A little tip for all you fly sucker wannabes out there…

Seeing the number of flowers with crab spiders, and the ease with which this crab spider caught its prey is a reminder of how dangerous it is to be a pollinator.  Every flower is a potential source of nutritious food, but a fair number of them also host lurking crab spiders, waiting to snag careless insects.  As someone who spends a lot of time trying to photograph pollinators, I’m keenly aware of how quickly they move from flower to flower.  Of course they do – the longer they stick around each flower, the better chance something will catch and eat them!

Photo of the Week – April 13, 2017

Prairie dandelion, aka prairie false dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata) is different from common dandelion (Taraxacum officianale), the one most people are familiar with in yards and weedy places.  Prairie dandelion is a native perennial wildflower, mainly restricted to dry unplowed prairies, while the other dandelion is a non-native species that seems able to pop up just about anywhere.  I’m actually a fan of both species, and don’t mind seeing common dandelion in our prairies, especially as an important early-season pollinator resource, but it’s always a treat to find populations of prairie dandelion.

Prairie dandelion at Gjerloff Prairie.

Prairie dandelion has a similar appearance to common dandelion, but there are some pretty strong differences as well.  The flowers are much larger, for example, and the leaves are long and don’t have the large serrations that common dandelion leaves have.  Prairie dandelion is considered to be a rare plant in many eastern prairie states, but is found across much of Nebraska – though it is certainly nowhere as abundant as common dandelion.

Close up of two prairie dandelion flowers.

While I was photographing prairie dandelion flowers this last weekend, I noticed a small grasshopper nymph feeding on the petals of one of the blossoms.  I took a few photos of it and moved on.  A few minutes later, I walked back past the flower and noticed the grasshopper had moved into a more visible location, so I took a few more photos of it.  When I got home and looked through the photos, my first instinct was that the second set of photos were better because I could see the whole grasshopper and it was better framed within the image.  Upon more reflection, however, I’m not sure.  Since some of you enjoy voting on this kind of thing, I decided to include both images, and you can tell me if you have a preference between them.  Just leave your vote in the comments section below.

Grasshopper nymph #1
Grasshopper nymph #2

It was a pretty tough winter for prairie photography around here; not much snow, and not even a lot of ice to photograph – with the exception of one notable ice storm.  I’m really glad that flowers and insects are finally breaking up the monotony of drab brown prairie vegetation.  It should be a fun spring.

Photo of the Week – March 31, 2017

Prairie clover is a term that gets used pretty broadly among the public.  Ok, not necessarily the among the GENERAL public, but among people who have at least some idea what grasslands look like.  I’ve heard the term prairie clover applied to a number of different legume species, including sweet clover.  Botanically, prairie clover – as far as I know – refers only to plants in the genus Dalea, and including familiar species like purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and white prairie clover (Dalea candida).

In Nebraska, we have eight species of prairie clover.  I finally saw large-spike prairie clover this past summer (though not in bloom), which means I’ve now seen all of them.  I’m still waiting for my certificate to arrive in the mail.  I’ve only been able to photograph five of the eight, but I’ll try to do better in the future.  Maybe I can earn the prairie clover photography patch someday.  (I’m just assuming that patch exists.  If it doesn’t, someone needs to answer for that.)

Purple prairie clover is well-known and well-distributed across Nebraska. It is a big favorite among bees, and while cattle will often eat it – especially under relatively high stocking rates – it survives periodic grazing very well in our prairies.
White prairie clover is also widespread across Nebraska and popular among pollinators. This one is hosting both a long-horned beetle and weevil.

While purple and white prairie clover are the best known of this group of wildflowers, the lesser known and more specialized prairie clovers are also worth seeing and learning about.  Golden dalea (Dalea aurea) has gorgeous yellow flowers, but you’re not likely to run across it unless you go searching for it in one of the scattered locations it occurs.  Hare’s foot dalea (Dalea leporina) is an annual prairie clover that is a real enigma to me, and I’ve only seen it in our restored prairies.  Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa) might be my favorite of all.  It has beautiful long pale pink-lavender flowers and fuzzy sea-green leaves and is common throughout much of the Nebraska Sandhills, as well as other sandy places.

Golden dalea is a beautiful prairie clover found on prairie hillsides here and there around the state.
Hare’s-foot dalea, aka annual dalea, is not a showy prairie clover, but is still pretty. It comes and goes in our restored prairies, often responding positively during the recovery periods following bouts of fire and grazing.
Silky prairie clover has a subtle beauty that fits well in the sandy prairies it inhabits.

The remaining three species in Nebraska are large-spike prairie clover (Dalea cylindriceps), round-head prairie clover (Dalea multiflora), and nine-anther dalea (Dalea enneandra).  Round-head prairie clover just barely comes into the southern tier of Nebraska counties.  The other two are found in scattered locations around the state.

It would be hard to think of a group of wildflowers that contributes more to prairie communities than prairie clovers.  At least purple and white prairie clover provide very high quality forage for herbivores, including livestock.  Bees and other pollinators focus heavily on prairie clovers, and the pollen and nectar are abundant and easily accessible.  The seeds are big and nutritious, and eaten by birds, small mammals, and insects.  During drought years, purple and white prairie clover are among the wildflowers that are mostly still green and blooming, even when surrounded by brown crispy plants, so they keep contributing even in difficult times.  Oh, and of course, as legumes, prairie clovers are nitrogen fixers.  From a land manager’s standpoint, prairie clover is easy to harvest seed from, germinates easily in restored prairies, and survives well under our fire and grazing management here on the Platte River.

If you haven’t seen all the different prairie clovers in your area, I hope you get a chance to remedy that soon.  Personally, I can’t wait until summer wildflower season arrives so I can keep working toward earning that prairie clover photography patch.  Maybe I can talk my wife into knitting me a prairie clover-themed stocking cap to sew the patch onto!

(For you young people out there, a patch is a kind of decorative embroidered thingie folks used to sew onto their clothing to recognize an award or achievement, or to signify membership in a particular club or group.  Trust me, it was super cool.  Your friends would be impressed if you showed up to a party wearing one.)

Photo of the Week – February 9, 2017

Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata) is a showy plant, but not because of its flowers.  In fact, the flowers are tiny and very simple.  It’s the leaves (and some bracts beneath the flowers) that make the plant outstanding in its field.

Sno-
Snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata)

Like other relatives in the spurge family, snow-on-the-mountain’s flowers have no petals or sepals.  The small round white things that look like petals beneath the anthers are actually bracts, and all the other white parts are leaves.  Most of the leaves of snow-on-the-mountain are green, but they become variegated toward the top of the plant.  The leaves closest to the flowers are often nearly or completely white.

More snow-on-the-mountain.
More snow-on-the-mountain, showing the rounded white bracts beneath the flowers, and the variegated green and white leaves below those.

The weird flower structures and variegated leaves are not the only unique features of snow-on-the-mountain.  Some of you with biology backgrounds know that plants are often divided by their photosynthesis strategy.  There are C4 plants (often casually referred to as “warm-season” plants) which are most efficient at photosynthesis during hot temperatures and drought conditions, and there are C3 plants (“cool-season” plants) which are more efficient during other kinds of conditions.  A few of you might even know that there is a third photosynthetic pathway called CAM, which is particularly effective in very arid conditions.  As it happens, snow-on-the-mountain and other Euphorbs actually use all three photosynthetic pathways – the only genus of plants for which that is true (as far as I know).  There, now you all have something to talk about at your next family gathering.

Snow-on-the-mountain is often maligned as a weed that needs to be controlled via herbicide or mowing.  In truth, while it is closely related to leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), snow-on-the-mountain is an annual plant that is opportunistic but not invasive.  Cattle don’t like the taste of it, so it is often left ungrazed when everything else around it is nipped off near the ground.  Snow-on-the mountain can thrive in overgrazed pastures and other places where the vigor of dominant grasses is suppressed, but it competes poorly against those grasses when they’re allowed to grow again.

I appreciate periodically seeing snow-on-the-mountain in prairies because I know that if it was able to germinate and grow, other plants (including less “weedy” perennials) probably got the same opportunity.  Except around water tanks or other places where repeated cattle impacts or other factors keep grasses suppressed, snow-on-the-mountain doesn’t hang around very long.

A small beetle feeds on pollen, seemingly unaware of the camouflaged danger lurking nearby (crab spider).
A small beetle feeds on snow-on-the-mountain pollen, seemingly unaware of the camouflaged danger lurking nearby (crab spider).

As if the weird flowers, variegated leaves, and triple threat photosynthesis strategy weren’t enough to make you love this unique and beautiful plant, here’s one more cool fact.  Snow-on-the-mountain and other spurges produce white milky latex in their leaves and stems just like milkweed plants and rubber trees.  The latex isn’t sap, it’s made by a completely separate production system and doesn’t travel through the plant.  It’s a defense mechanism that is bad tasting and irritating to the skin of many animals (including humans with latex allergies).

Snow-on-the-mountain is a gorgeous native wildflower.  It used to be more commonly planted as an ornamental because of its beauty, but also because it is relatively free of pests and diseases (due in part to its toxic latex).  Unfortunately, because cattle don’t like to eat it and it can be abundant (and very conspicuous) in overgrazed areas of pastures, it has gotten an undeserved reputation as a nasty weed.  Snow-on-the-mountain doesn’t want to take over the world.  It just likes to grow in places where nothing else is growing anyway, and it gives way politely when the neighbors start getting pushy.

Does that sound like an invasive plant to you?  It sounds to me like a plant that needs a friend.  Let’s be friends with snow-on-the-mountain.  What do you say?

Photo of the Week – October 20, 2016

Rosinweed
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
Late goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)
More goldenrod
More goldenrod
Beetle
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.
damselfly
There were quite a few damselflies feeding on tiny flying insects as I walked around.  They were difficult to get close to, though…
damselfly
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.

The Curious Case of Stickleaf Flowers – Yet Another Fascinating Natural History Story

Stickleaf (Mentzelia nuda) is a common short-lived wildflower in western Nebraska.  It and other stickleaf plants are named for the dense barbed hairs on their leaves that make them sticky to touch.  This particular species of stickleaf also has beautiful showy white flowers.  Until this summer, however, I hadn’t realized those flowers aren’t open during most of the day.

Mentzelia
Stickleaf (Mentzelia nuda) blooming near sunset.  Garden County, Nebraska.

Once I started paying attention, I noticed that the flowers were always closed up in the morning, and were still closed at lunchtime.  They didn’t start to open until around 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  Although it was fun to discover the blooming pattern in the field, it wasn’t a new scientific observation by any means.  Back at home, I started looking for information on Mentzelia nuda and immediately found numerous references to its evening blooming pattern.

Mentzelia
Mentzelia nuda stays closed during much of the day.
Mentzelia
It opens its flowers in the late afternoon and keeps them open until dusk.  Note the dense stamens in the center of the flower.

As I looked for more information on stickleaf,  I found a couple of great papers published in the 1980’s by Dr. Kathy Keeler, now a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Dr. Keeler did some really interesting natural history research on Mentzelia nuda  and published it in the American Journal of Botany (1981, 68:295-299; 1987, 74:785-791.)  At a basic level, she confirmed that most stickleaf plants act as biennials (they live for two years, and then bloom once and die).  A few of the plants she studied, though, germinated, bloomed and died all in one year, and others lived as rosettes of basal leaves for up to seven years before finally blooming and dying.  In other words, Mentzelia plants can adapt to conditions and either bloom in their first year if conditions allow or hold on for extra time if conditions aren’t favorable.

Dr. Keeler also reported some fascinating details about stickleaf’s strategy for producing nectar.  She found that each stickleaf flower blooms six evenings in a row before its petals drop off.  During those six days, it produces nectar at the top of its flower’s ovary.  That nectar attracts bees and flies, which Dr. Keeler observed burrowing through the thick forest of stamens to get to the nectar.  That’s all fine and good.  What’s really interesting, though, is that after the flower drops its petals, it continues to produce nectar for another 10 days.

Why would it do that?

Well, that 10 day period covers about the first half of the time required for the Mentzelia plant to make and ripen its seeds.  Dr. Keeler’s hypothesis was that the “postfloral nectar” attracts ants (predators) and helps prevent damage to the developing seeds.  Ants don’t seem to be able to find or access the nectar hidden behind the dense growth of stamens while the flower is blooming, but Dr. Keeler saw numerous ants on the flowers after the petals and stamens had dropped off.

Being a good scientist, Dr. Keeler excluded ants from some plants and found that those plants had more damaged seed capsules than plants with ants on them, supporting her hypothesis.  However, the nectar-for-protection strategy is apparently far from foolproof, because many seed capsules were still damaged by moth larvae and weevils, even when ants were present.

We can learn a lot by studying how species do in the core versus the ragged edges of huge intact prairie landscapes like the Nebraska Sandhills.
Mentzelia nuda blooming on a beautiful evening in the Nebraska Sandhills.

A few quick observations:  The details of how Mentzelia nuda interacts with the world around it are fantastically interesting.  On the other hand, so are the details of the lives of most plants and animals – or at least those that have been studied.  We only know what we know about Mentzelia’s postfloral nectar strategy because Dr. Keeler took the time – significant time – to figure it out.  That kind of research happens much less frequently these days, and that’s unfortunate.  Also, despite all of Dr. Keeler’s work, there are still plenty of unanswered about that story, including “What species of seed eaters do ants help repel?  How do the moth larvae and weevils attack the seed capsule and escape ant predation?  How has the nectar production strategy changed over time?  How/will the plant adapt in the future to counter the seed destruction by moths and weevils?”

Now, think of all the unknown stories out there related to other plants that haven’t gotten the level of attention that Dr. Keeler gave Mentzelia nuda, let alone all of the invertebrates and other tiny creatures that most of us aren’t even familiar with!  Every time I’ve gone looking for information a prairie species, one of two things happens.  Either I find incredibly interesting stories that scientists have pieced together through careful study or I find that almost nothing is known.  I’ve not yet found a prairie species with a boring story.

It’s an awesome, complex world out there.  Let’s keep learning.

If you’re interested, you can read Dr. Keeler’s full journal article on postfloral nectar here.

 

Photo of the Week – September 22, 2016

I was looking through some photos from earlier this year and found one that I’d meant to post back in June but hadn’t.  I like it, and even though it’s a few months late, I hope you like it too.  Better late than never, right?

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) and morning dew drops in the Nebraska Sandhills
Prairie spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) and morning dew drops in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Spiderwort is a gorgeous prairie wildflower with a name that might sound off-putting to some.  Of course, other common names for the plant include snot weed and cow slobber (both related to the clear sticky goo that comes out of the leaves when you break them).  Maybe spiderwort isn’t so bad, huh?

Photo of the Week – April 15, 2016

Back in July, I got to photograph flowers and insects at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie in Minnesota.  One of the subjects I enjoyed photographing was a little yellow-flowered plant in the genus Lysimachia.  I don’t know the name of the species (I’m sure someone will tell me what it is, which would be fantastic).

I played around with the background in my Lysimachia photos.  I moved the camera slightly up and down, changing what was visible behind the flowers.  The problem with doing that, of course, is that I had to later decide which version of the photo I liked better.  Or, as I sometimes do, I get lazy and just put multiple versions in a blog post to see if you have a preference.

Lysimachia sp. at The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie. Version one (a little lower perspective to show a little sky in the background).
Version 1. (a little lower perspective to show a little sky in the background).
Version 2.
Version 2.  (the camera was a little higher so the sky is not visible.)

If you have strong feelings, let me know if you like one or the other better, but don’t feel obligated to encourage my laziness.

And, just for fun, here’s a completely different composition of a different plant of the same species (from the same morning).  I actually like this composition less well, partly from an artistic standpoint, and partly because I just think the two earlier images better represent the way the flowers tend to delicately droop on either side of the plant.

Version 3.
Version 3. (Different plant, same morning)

Someone I know, not-to-be-named, likes the last composition much better than the first two.  That person is wrong, but to be fair to them, I’m including the composition in the post.  I’m sure all of you will agree it’s nice, but not as good as the first two…

Right?