There is an unmistakable look to late summer prairies, and that look is YELLOW. Sunflowers, goldenrods, and Silphiums (compass plant, cup plant, rosinweed) are all front and center this time of year. The visual dominance of yellow flowers is obvious as I look back through some of my favorite prairie photos from this week.
I wonder if anyone has gone through all the prairie flower species to see which color is most common (I’ll be someone has). It has to be yellow, doesn’t it? Purple, pink, and white are in the running, but I bet yellow wins pretty easily.
Wildflower viewing this time of year, at least in the prairies I know best, is more like an Easter egg hunt than a fireworks show. Spring wildflowers tend to bloom within just a few inches of the ground, nestled among the early growth of grasses and wildflowers that will literally overshadow them within just a few weeks. Their short stature, small blooms, and (usually) solitary nature don’t detract from their beauty, however, and each “egg” is well worth the hunt. Earlier this week, I enjoyed a pleasant hour or so finding these colorful little surprises at our family prairie.
Independence Day is this weekend. Fireworks have been going off in my my neighborhood for days now as people who apparently equate noise with patriotism are enjoying their right to put that feeling into action. Earlier this week, I was photographing a patch of common milkweed in front of our field headquarters at the Platte River Prairies and thought the flowers looked much like fireworks – but quieter. Maybe prettier too.
The attention paid to milkweed has increased dramatically over the last year or two as concern over the plight of monarch butterflies has grown. I’m excited to see that energy because it helps increase interest in broader issues of pollinator and biodiversity conservation. What’s good for monarchs (plant diversity, natural land cover – especially prairie, land management that favors milkweed, intelligent use of pesticides, etc.) is also good for bees and many other species, as well as broader ecosystem functioning.
I’ve been thinking about milkweed management in our Platte River Prairies for a number of years now, especially related to cattle grazing. Cattle like to eat the flowers off of common and showy milkweed (A. syriaca and A. speciosa) even in our moderately stocked patch-burn grazed prairies. The “deflowering” of milkweed and a few others species has pushed us to modify our management somewhat to make sure that every portion of our prairies is completely excluded from cattle at least once every 4-5 years so those species can bloom and reproduce. So far, that seems to have helped maintain healthy populations of those plant species, but we’re continuing to monitor and adapt our management as we learn more.
Milkweed plants are important to monarchs, but many other species as well. Their flowers are among the most popular nectar sources for many pollinators, and a number of herbivorous insects have evolved mechanisms to deal with the toxic sap and rely on the plants for food. Hopefully, the attention brought to milkweed by monarchs will help those other species as well.
I’ve been on a family vacation to the Corpus Christi, Texas area this week. It’s been a great week, with pleasant weather and lots of beach exploration. I’ll have more photos to share next week, but today wanted to share a plant that I very much enjoyed photographing down here.
Railroad vine, or beach morning glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae) is a native vine that sprawls across many of the dunes along the beaches of the Gulf Coast of Texas. Although it is in the same plant family as the bindweed I’m fighting in my home garden, it wasn’t hard to appreciate its color and character.
We spent Thursday at San Jose Island, just north of Port Aransas, Texas. Railroad vine was common on the beach dunes there as well. Also abundant on those dunes were grasshoppers of many colorful species. The two interacted in at least some cases, with the grasshoppers feeding on the flowers of the vine.
It turns out that photography (at least for me) along the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast is much like it is in the prairies of Nebraska. I walk through the vegetation and appreciate the scenery, but mostly focus in on the small creatures (like grasshoppers) living there. More on that next week…
At times, prairies in east-central Nebraska can have such an abundance of large wildflowers, they resemble flower gardens. Early spring is not one of those times. There are plenty of prairie flowers blooming this spring, but you wouldn’t know it from a distance. In fact, it often seems as if you have to nearly step on a spring wildflower before you see it.
In the coming weeks, things will change. Late spring and early summer flowers such as ragwort (Senecio plattensis), shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) and spiderworts (Tradescantia spp) will be displayed at the top of stems that rise a foot or two from the ground. Clusters of those flowers can easily be seen from hundreds of yards away. For now, however, wildflowers are keeping a low profile.
Of course, short stature and small flowers make perfect sense in the early spring. Flowers that bloom at the beginning of the growing season don’t have much time between winter’s thaw and blooming time (especially this year!) The small plants are in a race to bloom before neighbors – especially grasses – overtop them, making it difficult for both pollinators and light to find them. For the most part, spring-flowering plants grow just long enough stems to get their flowers off the ground and make those flowers just big enough to attract pollinating insects.
While not universally true, many early flowering plants seem to thrive best when a prairie isn’t loaded with thatch and tall dead vegetation from previous seasons. Prairies burned during the dormant season or were grazed or hayed the previous summer/fall seem to have the greatest abundance of spring flowers. Of course, there is some observer bias involved in measuring that since spring flowers are much easier to see in short vegetation…
This spring, I’ve been paying particular attention to prairies that we burned and grazed during drought of 2012. Most were awfully short, brown, and barren-looking by late last summer and stayed that way through the winter. It’s been nice to see them greening up this spring and supporting good numbers of wildflowers. Interestingly, I’ve seen more wind flowers (Anemone caroliniana) this year than I can remember from previous springs. The two sites in which I’ve seen big patches of wind flowers were both burned and grazed pretty hard last year, making the flowers easy to see, but probably also allowing the plants to grow with little competition for light or other resources.
While spring flowers are short in stature, they seem to be able to attract pollinators. Of course, many of those pollinators are good at finding hidden plants by following their scent. In addition, when the number of flowering species is limited, pollinators do what it takes to find whatever flowers are available!
What’s more interesting to me is that as I’ve been seeing and photographing wind flowers over the last week or so, I’ve seen a surprising number of tiny crab spiders on them. I would guess that there’s a crab spider on one out of every 10-15 flowers, and they all appear (to me) to be of the same species. I wish I knew how those crab spiders found the flowers.
I’ve been seeing a lot of trailing silks in the air lately, so I know some spiders are on the move (by ballooning), and I assume young crab spiders disperse that way. But if they do, landing on or near a flowering plant at this time of year seems awfully unlikely. Are the crab spiders I’m seeing on wind flowers the lucky few that landed near a good hunting place? Or are most crab spiders able to find a flower to hunt on, even in the spring when flowers are scattered around in low numbers? If so, how?
Maybe one of you will be able to answer those questions for me. For now, I’ll just add them to my long list of other questions – a list that will surely grow considerably during this coming field season.
This weekend, our family visited my in-laws in Sarpy County (south of Omaha). While we were there, I grabbed a couple hours of photography time during an evening and morning when the wind was nearly calm. In the evening, I poked around a little prairie planting in the yard. The next morning I walked a grassy cropfield edge.
From a distance, neither area looked like it had much going on. Very few flowers were in bloom, and there wasn’t much obvious insect activity. As always happens with prairies, though, there’s always much more than meets the eye – sometimes you just have to get down on your knees and look for it. I took some of my favorite photos from those couple hours and made them into a brief slideshow.
I’m not sure how this slideshow will work for those of you getting this post by email. If it doesn’t play correctly, click on the title of the post at the top of your email to go to the actual post, and that should fix it.
Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I think prairie conservation is so important. I’m not questioning my conviction – I feel very strongly that prairies are worth my time and effort to conserve – but if I can figure out exactly what it is that makes me care so much, maybe I can be more effective at convincing others to feel the same way.
I can list off all kinds of logical and aesthetic reasons that prairies are important. Prairies build soil, capture carbon, trap sediment, grow livestock, and support pollinators. Depending upon our individual preferences, prairies also provide us with flowers to enjoy, birds and butterflies to watch, and/or wildlife to hunt.
Those are all very practical reasons to think prairies are important, but I don’t care deeply about prairies because they make soil and grow pretty flowers. More importantly, those reasons are not enough to make someone stop and reconsider a decision to plow up a prairie to plant corn or broadcast spray 2,4-D just to reduce ragweed abundance. If prairie conservation is going to succeed, you and I both need to understand and articulate the deeper reasons that we feel prairies are worth saving.
Which brings me to Dr. Seuss.
As I was mulling over why I cared so much about prairies, the story of “Horton Hears a Who” popped into my head. In case you’re not familiar with the story, Horton the elephant accidentally discovers an entire community (Whoville) living on a speck of dust. After he finds and starts talking with the Whos, Horton agrees to help protect them from harm. The other characters in the book don’t believe Horton when he tries to tell them about the Whos, and actually go out of their way to steal and destroy the speck of dust he’s trying to protect. Only when the Whos are finally successful at making enough noise to be heard do those other characters recognize the existence of the Whos and agree to help protect them.
Dr. Seuss’s intended moral to the story (repeated many times) is “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” It’s a fine moral, but isn’t what drew me to the story as a metaphor of prairie conservation. Instead, I was thinking about WHY the other characters in the story finally changed their minds. The sour kangaroo and the Wickersham brothers didn’t give up their threats to boil the speck of dust in Beezelnut oil because Horton finally came up with the right logical argument to explain why the Whos were worth saving. They changed their minds because when they finally heard the Whos making noise they recognized and identified with the Whos as fellow living creatures.
Can you see where I’m going with this? I think the biggest thing that drives me to devote my career (and a fair amount of my free time) to prairie conservation is that I have developed a personal connection to the species that live in grasslands. Not only do I know those species exist, I can also identify with them and what they’re doing to survive. By becoming familiar with them, I became fond of them.
When I was in graduate school, I studied grassland nesting birds. I got to know those bird species well, including where they lived, how they survived there, and what motivated and threatened them. I saw prairies through their eyes, and that made me want to help make those prairies as hospitable to birds as I could. Eventually, I began learning about prairie plants and insects as well. I was fascinated to find that their stories were equally or more interesting than those of birds. Each species had their own unique set of life strategies that allowed them to survive and interact with the world around them. As a photographer, I usually learn about new species by taking a photograph of some interesting plant or insect, and then identifying it and researching its life later. I’ve yet to come upon a prairie species that doesn’t have an amazing life story, which means the process of discovery continues to be fulfilling for me.
As the number of species I’ve gotten to know has increased, so has my commitment to prairie conservation. Maintaining the resilience and vigor of prairie communities has grown from something that seemed like a good idea into a personal mission. Now I’m working to protect things I love, not just species I’d read about or knew about only in the abstract.
Be honest, would you be more likely to send money to help people recovering from a natural disaster in a neighboring town or in a town on another continent? With rare exceptions, we’d all choose the nearby town. Why is that? I think it’s because we can more easily identify with the people who live there. We can imagine ourselves in their places. We can see the disaster and their plight through their eyes. It’s not that we don’t care about people on other continents, but they’re naturally a little less real to us.
By the way, forming sympathetic bonds with species can be dangerous when managing prairies. The more I know about the species living in my prairies, the more I understand the ways in which those species are affected (positively and negatively) by management activities. Any management treatment has negative impacts on some species, and impacts from activities such as prescribed fire can be quite dramatic. Caring about individual species to the point where I’m unwilling to do anything to hurt them would paralyze me. Management is all about tradeoffs, and while my management objectives are to sustain all the species I can, I have to be willing to knock populations of some species down periodically so that others can flourish. I think the key is to become attached to the species, but not the individuals. Tricky…
Why does all this matter? It matters because we need to recruit as many people to the cause of prairie conservation as we can. Excluding a tiny minority of prairie enthusiasts, when the general public thinks about nature and conservation they look right past prairies to the mountains, lakes, and forests beyond – even when prairies are in their own backyard. After all, what’s to care about in prairies? It’s just grass.
If we’re going to fix that, we’ll need to do more than describe how prairies can help sequester carbon, filter water run-off, or support pollinator populations. We’ll need to introduce people to the camouflaged looper inchworm that disguises itself with pieces of the flowers it eats – and to the regal fritillary caterpillar which, after hatching from its egg in the fall, sets out on a hike that will end by either finding a violet to feed on or starving to death. They’ll need to become acquainted with sensitive briar, the sprawling thorny plant with pink koosh ball flowers whose leaves fold up when you touch them. And who wouldn’t love to meet the bobolink – a little bird that looks like a blackbird after a lobotomy and flies in circles sounding like R2D2 from Star Wars?
Through this blog, as well as through numerous presentations, articles, and tours, I spend much of my time sharing what I’ve learned about prairie species with anyone who will listen – hoping that those stories will spur people to explore prairies on their own and start to form their own individual relationships with the species and communities they find. My photographs and narratives aren’t themselves sufficient to convert people to the cause, but maybe they can at least get some of them to put on their hiking boots and go for a walk.
What about you? Have you met the citizens of the prairie? If not, let me help introduce you. If you have met them, what stories can you tell? How will you spread your passion about prairies to others?
Here are some accounts I’ve written about prairie species I find fascinating. If you find them interesting too, please share these links with others!
Spring is a good time to think about buds. Most of us are familiar with buds on the branches of trees and shrubs because they’re easy to see – and at this time of year, they begin opening and exposing new leaves and flowers. Most prairie plants, however start their spring growth from buds at or below the soil surface.
Before I go any further, I need to thank Jackie Ott, who provided the background information and photo interpretation for this post. Jackie is a PhD candidate, and one of a group of researchers at Kansas State University who are working to learn more about the buds of prairie plants and the role those buds play in the ecology of plant populations. Just as the collective seeds in the soil beneath a prairie is called a “seed bank”, the buds beneath a prairie can be called a “bud bank”. Jackie and others are trying to find out how those bud banks work, and (among other things) how they help plants and populations respond to stress. I’ve enjoyed several opportunities to learn about buds from Jackie and her colleagues over the last several years, and will write a future post about some of what they’re learning about bud banks. In this post, though, I present a short introduction (with photos) on the belowground buds of prairie grasses and wildflowers.
Buds are essentially packages of plant tissue full of cells that can divide very quickly. They are usually protected from moisture, temperature extremes, and other damage by a thick waxy coating. All of the buds on grasses are located below ground, so all growth comes from there. When a grass is clipped or grazed off, it just keeps pushing the growth up from the original underground bud. Forbs start their growth each spring from buds located near or below ground too, but they can also grow “adventitious” buds at any point along their stems. When a forb is clipped, it can create a new bud near the clipped tip and restart growth from there. If it is clipped too close to the ground, it may start a new stem from a belowground bud instead of from an adventitious bud.
According to Jackie, more than 90% of the stems you see in a tallgrass prairie each year started as buds, rather than seeds, that spring. Buds allow the “parent” plant to provide nutrients to the new stem and support its growth – as opposed to a seed, which has a limited supply of food in its endosperm and then is on its own to survive.
If you dig up a prairie grass or forb, you can easily find the buds around the base of the plant. Generally, there are multiple buds – each able to grow into a new stem if/when needed. Those buds represent the ability of that plant to produce new growth each season, but also following a disturbance such as fire, drought, or intensive grazing, that forces the plant to restart its growth mid-season. The larger collection of buds among all the plants in a prairie represents the prairie’s “bud bank.” The capacity of that bud bank to respond during stressful conditions is one of the most intriguing parts of what Jackie and her colleagues at Kansas State University are researching.
All of the photos in this post were taken in an indoor studio.
I’ve had a number of requests to post something on techniques for close-up photography (macro photography). To keep long technical details out of a short blog post, I’m presenting some basic tips here and providing a link to a more detailed PDF document for those interested in it.
Carrying a camera with a good macro lens is a fantastic way to explore prairies. I notice things I wouldn’t otherwise see when I’m looking for close-up photos because my mind has developed a search image for small objects.
Rather than looking for specific subjects (such as dragonflies or violets) I try to look for things that are well-lit and have interesting colors/backgrounds/patterns. Early in the day, I often work the edges between shadows and light, trying to find flowers or insects that are catching the warm light but have shadows behind them. On bright overcast days, everything is evenly lit and saturated with color, so I look for appealing patterns and colors – but just about any subject is fair game. I rarely pull my camera out on bright sunny days unless I’m documenting something. The light from a bright mid-day sun is just like the color of the sun – harshly bright and colorless.
Close-up photography doesn’t require a lot of equipment, but an SLR camera with manual focus and aperture control, a good macro lens, and a tripod are all necessary items. Slow shutter speeds (the amount of time the camera’s shutter is open) allow small aperture settings, which helps maximize depth-of-field (the amount of space, front to back, that’s in focus) – something that is very important when focusing in on small subjects. In order to shoot with slow shutter speeds, it’s impossible to hold a camera still without a tripod. It’s also difficult to use slow shutter speeds on windy days, so calm wind is a close-up photographer’s best friend.
The most important – and often overlooked – aspect of a close-up photo may be the background. When photographing an insect or flower, photographers tend to focus solely on that subject and forget about what is behind it. An errant grass leaf or stem has been the downfall of many otherwise very nice photos. An experienced photographer is always conscious of what’s behind the subject, and knows how to make slight adjustments to the position of the camera to create the most interesting (or least distracting) background possible.
I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to share my photos with others through multiple avenues – magazines, books, slide presentations, and now this blog. I enjoy being able to show people animals and plants they might not otherwise have seen on their own. It’s also educational for me because I can’t identify many of the subjects at the time I photograph them, but a good photograph allows me the opportunity to research both the identification and ecology of those species later. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about prairies just by photographing its small citizens. If you enjoy photography but don’t own a macro lens, I encourage you to look into getting one – it’s a ticket into a whole new world.
For more photos and tips on macro photography, click to see a PDF of more detailed guidance (macro photography 2010) or a short article I wrote on the same subject for NEBRASKAland magazine back in 2007 (Macro-June2007).