Photo of the Week – August 31, 2018

Earlier this week, we spent a few days collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It was a quick trip up and back, but we still managed to see quite a bit of wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn, grouse, lizards, monarch butterflies, lots of grasshoppers and bees, and much more.  We also found ourselves close to bison a few times, and I managed to get some decent photos of them.  Here is a selection of those bison shots.

The red calves we saw back in May have grown quite a bit, and have changed into a more standard bison color.
A yearling cow stares unflappably back at me…
After driving into a bunch of bison in our west pasture, we watched as one after another of them stopped and took a dust bath in the same spot, rolling around in a frankly ridiculous, but apparently effective manner.
More dust bathing…
I couldn’t quite convince my son that we have a two-headed bison at the Preserve now, but he had to look carefully at the photo before he was sure.
This big ol’ bull was off by himself and lying down in the grass as we drove by in the evening. He stood as we approached, looked us over, and then turned and walked away as if he couldn’t care less – which is probably accurate.

Surprising Little Gems

Last week, I had a couple hours to do some reconnaissance at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  I wanted to see how far along the flowering plant season was in preparation for some data collection efforts we hope to start soon.  It was a hot afternoon, and it was nice to be riding an ATV so I could create my own breeze.  At one point, I parked the ATV and took a short walk down into a valley filled with sumac.  When I came back, something caught my eye as I was swinging my leg onto the ATV.  When I checked out the small flash of magenta, I found this:

Pincushion cactus (Escobaria vivipara, aka Coryphantha vivipara)

Wow.  A gorgeous little plant!  I’d photographed the same species at the Niobrara Valley Preserve a dozen or more years ago, but hadn’t seen one since.  Since this was the second pincushion cactus I’d seen despite many many trips to the Preserve, I figured it must be a fairly uncommon plant.  I pulled out my diffuser (thin fabric stretched across a flexible frame) to soften the harsh mid afternoon sunlight and photographed it.  Then I drove away, feeling fortunate and happy.

…and then I saw another cactus about two minutes later.  This one had THREE flowers, so of course I had to photograph it!  What a lucky day – no pincushion cactus sightings for twelve years or more and now TWO in TWO minutes!  Despite the heat, I was in a great mood when I started driving again.

Then I saw another one.  And another.  During my two hour drive, I saw at least a dozen blooming cacti, all vibrant and spectacular.  They were like little sparkling jewels embedded in the prairie.  I even found a couple of them blooming within the portion of the big bison pasture that was burned in March this year.  The prickly pear cacti in that same burned area was shriveled from the fire and (based on previous experience) going to have to regrow from their bases.  I don’t know why the pincushion cactus seemed unaffected; maybe because it sits so low to the ground.  Or maybe I just found the lucky ones that ended up in less intense heat.

My dad has this species of pincushion cactus in his garden and says they only bloom for a few days each year.  I guess that’s why I’ve seen them so infrequently.  I’m sure I’ve walked past them many times without noticing them.  The cactus barrels I saw last week were the size of a tennis ball or smaller, and they sit right on the surface of the ground, so it’s easy to see how I’d miss them without the bright magenta spotlights shining at me.  I just happened to be in the right place at the right time last week.

…I kind of feel like my career has been a long series of being in the right place at the right time.  I’m immensely grateful for every one of those opportunities.

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Eric’s Great Plains Tourism Proposal

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  I hope you’ll read and respond to his ideas about a different kind of tourism in the Great Plains.  (Also, please don’t forget to fill out our blog reader survey HERE.)

I get the sense that most of the country mistakes the push they feel as they travel through the Midwest and Great Plains as a force pushing them through and out of the landscape, instead of what could be a push into it. Engine power has let us cross the prairies in a matter of hours. Most of us are resolved to race through the Great Plains, acknowledging it only as a void to be crossed. The wide open spaces almost seem to demand motion, demand a commitment to keep going. This character of movement the prairie inspires is in large part why I think traditional tourism has never taken a firm hold here. It is why I think a tourism economy fit for the Great Plains is one folded into the fabric of the working landscape. It is why I know that the best way to vacation on the prairie is to come out and work in it.

Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.
Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.  Photo by Eric Chien.

We rarely consider prairies as vacation destinations. Mountains, lakes, and beaches; these are said to be restorative natural geographies. They are, but so are prairies. I find they differ not in their effect, but only in their mode. A lake invites me to rest beside its shores or in its waters and refill my own reservoirs. A prairie drives sparks into weary legs, and reminds me that my tank is bigger than I thought. This qualitatively different rejuvenation is what sets prairie “recreation” apart, and I think suggests a shape for prairie tourism.

The heart of the Great Plains economy and the focal point of conservation efforts will always be its working lands. The nature of the prairie itself rejects idleness. The innate restlessness the landscape inspires does not mean we cannot find excitement and restoration. It just means it will not be found sitting idly. I would challenge any family to spend a late Spring weekend lopping young cedar trees out of a prairie lush with new grass and early flowers. Share an afternoon rolling old fence in a herd of cattle alive with the energy of new calves. Drift easily to sleep because of healthful work to the sound of an evening prairie brimming with life. Tell me that would not stick longer in the whole family’s mind than even the best iphone picture from some scenic mountaintop. These are real prairie experiences, playing out all over the landscape beyond I-80.

Katharine
Who wouldn’t want to learn how to drive a tractor and spend their vacation working in the prairie?  Photo by Eric Chien.

Recreation and tourism are powerful tools in connecting people and place. It can also be a powerful tool for supporting the integrity of the landscape and the lives of its permanent human inhabitants. The ecosystems that hold lakeshores, mountains slopes, and ocean fronts reap a significant portion of the conservation benefits that admiration and attraction confer. They also are teetering with the weight of recreation development incompatible with the health and character of the landscapes responsible for their very existence. This is not what we want for our Great Plains Prairies.  In the place of development for recreation alone, a working lands tourism model melts into the fabric of contemporary life on the plains. “Work vacations” on working ranches and farms offer re-engagement and appreciation of the landscape. They also offer the people of the prairie a chance to share the richness of life working close to the land. We walk into a head wind by trying to impose traditional tourism on the prairie landscape. However, there is fertile ground for attracting visitors by appealing to the culture of revitalizing work that prairies inspire. Molded thoughtfully, a growing appreciation of our landscape and the part we play in it enriches the integrity of our ecosystems, and the lives of Great Plains citizens and visitors both.

During a 48-hour late December heat wave I rumbled east towards a long day of work on the tractor, kicking up the gravel of Shoemaker Island Road. Skeins of Canada geese traced the air above the nearby Platte River, the mid-morning sun spotlighting their dusky flanks. The corn stalks and grass shined their dry gold against the uniquely blue Great Plains sky. In that moment, I counted all of the people I wished could share in that day. It was a long list. It included family and friends. It also included a nameless many who I have shared so many anonymous, hurried moments with at the Pilot Gas Station off the highway. I hoped they would end their trips here, at the Platte River Prairies. Forgo another trip to the mountains or lakes back East, and join me on a fence line. Not just because I believe their visit will create an actionable impression, or through their additional hands, a greater management capacity.  I know the exertions that prairies inspire to be energizing, self-restorative, and meaningful. What more can we ask out of time spent?

The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.
The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.

 

Weaver Small Grants – Request for Proposals Out Now

If you’re a graduate student working in the Great Plains, you might be interested in a small grant available through The Nature Conservancy’s Nebraska Chapter.  The J.E. Weaver small grants program provides five $2500 grants to graduate students working on projects in a number of categories related to conservation in the Great Plains.  The proposal is short (three pages) and easy to write.  Please pass this information on to anyone you know who might be interested.

Click here to see the full request for proposals.  If you’d like to be on the mailing list for the annual announcement about this grant program, send an email to Mardell Jasnowski at mjasnowski(at)tnc.org.

Jasmine Cutter collects data on vegetation structure as part of a small mammal research project. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.
Jasmine Cutter collects data on vegetation structure as part of a small mammal research project. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Photo of the Week – September 16, 2016

NOTE: This post originally misidentified this hawk as a juvenile ferruginous hawk, but after some helpful comments from readers and confirmation from a couple other experts, I have edited the post to make it clear that it is, indeed, a red-tailed hawk. 

A juvenile ferruginous hawk
A juvenile red-tailed hawk in a prairie dog town.  Garden County, Nebraska.

As I’ve said many times, I am not a wildlife photographer.  I stalk insects and flowers, and try to take a few scenic photos, but I don’t have the equipment, time, or patience to be a real wildlife photographer.  Thus, I don’t have a lot of photos of birds, deer, or other wildlife.  The few photos I do have of those wildlife species come from opportunities I don’t really deserve, but am lucky enough to get anyway.  For example, I posted about an evening photographing prairie dogs back in July when, for no good reason, a prairie dog and her pups let me get within about 15 feet of them with my camera.

Last month, on a trip to the Nebraska Sandhills, I got another inexplicable chance to photograph wildlife without really trying.  I didn’t set up a photo blind weeks beforehand, crawl into it in pitch darkness, and spend fruitless day after fruitless day waiting for a red-tailed hawk to land in the right place at the right time.  Nope.  Instead, I saw a hawk and drove over to get a closer look.

I drove slowly, watching for signs of agitation so I could stop before it flew off.  There was no agitation.  The hawk just stared at me as I drove within 25 feet or so, BACKED UP in a half circle to get a better angle, drove a little closer, GOT OUT OF THE VEHICLE, crouched down next to the vehicle, and took some photos.  It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, it shouldn’t have happened, but it did.  As a result, here are some photos I took of a red-tailed hawk this summer…

Ferruginous hawk
The red-tailed hawk staring at me as I knelt on the ground with my camera and took its picture from 15 feet away.

The hawk didn’t appear to be injured in any way, and I saw it fly and land in the spot where I photographed it.  The only justification I can come up with for its behavior is that it was a young bird, but even that doesn’t really make sense.  Even a young bird should be afraid of a noisy vehicle driving toward it and a funny looking bipedal creature emerging from the vehicle holding some kind of black object.  I hope the hawk changed its attitude toward strangers before meeting a coyote, for example, that wasn’t quite as innocuous as a surprised and grateful photographer.

 

Photo of the Week – November 20, 2015

Early last week, a group of us spent a couple days enjoying the Nebraska Sandhills at Calamus Outfitters, a working ranch that also offers a number of outdoor recreation opportunities.  Here are a few photos from those days.

Sand bank on the Calamus River. Sandhills of Nebraska near Burwell.
A steep textured sandy bank on the Calamus River, a beautiful river that flows out of the Nebraska Sandhills.

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Sharp tail grouse feather. Sandhills of Nebraska near Burwell.
Sharp-tailed grouse feathers on a hilltop often used as a lek (courtship area) in the spring.  Calamus Outfitters provides viewing opportunities for both sharpies and greater prairie chickens.

It’s great to see entrepreneurs like Calamus Outfitters provide people a chance to explore the Nebraska Sandhills – one of the great grasslands of the world.  Since the majority of the Sandhills is privately owned, it can be difficult to find places to hike, hunt, birdwatch, photograph, etc.  I don’t think hosting numerous outsiders on their land is an idea many ranchers find attractive ( most of those I know list solitude as a big reason they enjoy ranching) but I applaud Calamus Outfitters for doing so.  The most important role they play might be to put a face to ranching so that visitors from cities or out of state can see ranchers as thoughtful, caring land stewards.  It doesn’t take much talking to Bruce, Sue Ann, Sarah, and Adam for that to become clear.

TNC Nebraska staff at Calamus Outfitters. Sandhills of Nebraska near Burwell.
A jeep trail ride across the Sandhills was one of the high points of the trip.  Even in November, the landscape was beautiful.

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The Much Maligned Coyote

Here in Nebraska, we’ve lost most of our largest predators.  Bears and wolves are gone (excepting rare long-distance wanderers).  Mountain lions are making a slow comeback in the northern and western parts of Nebraska, but the agricultural character and fragmented nature of our state makes it difficult to imagine a much stronger presence of large predators than we have right now.  That’s not a critique – it’s just reality.  It’s difficult to know what effect the absence of those predators has on our wildlife and natural landscapes, but based on what we know from research elsewhere, it’s surely significant.  Throughout the world, and across a wide range of habitat types, major predators stimulate complex cascades of impacts far beyond simply suppressing the populations of their favored prey species.  In fact, the diversity and abundance of many plant, invertebrate, and wildlife species have been shown to decline dramatically when dominant predators disappear.

Illustration by Kim Tri
Coyote illustration by Kim Tri, one of our Hubbard Fellows and, obviously, a talented artist.

Today, in the absence of wolves and bears, coyotes have stepped into the role of top mammalian predator across much of Nebraska.  It’s hard to know if they are as effective as their larger counterparts at maintaining ecosystem function, but there is strong scientific evidence for the strong and positive impacts coyotes have on a number of other grassland species.  Much of the research on this topic was published 15-20 years ago, but few people seem to be familiar with it.  In fact, rather than being celebrated for their importance, coyotes are widely reviled, and often shot on sight, by many (most?) rural citizens across much of prairie regions of North America.

There is much unfortunate irony in the vilification of coyotes.  One common coyote narrative is that coyotes are hard on nesting birds, especially game species like pheasants, quail, turkeys, grouse, and ducks.  In reality, coyotes feed mainly on rodents, and the major predators of birds and their nests tend to be smaller animals, including foxes, raccoons, and cats (especially feral house cats).  Coyotes are large and aggressive enough to intimidate or kill those “mesopredators”, keeping their numbers low and driving them into areas where coyotes spend the least time, such as wooded draws, farmsteads, and even surburbia.  In fact, numerous studies have documented detrimental impacts to bird populations ranging from songbirds to ducks and grouse when coyote numbers are suppressed and mesopredator populations swell.

One of the most dramatic studies of coyote impacts on the structure and function of ecological communities took place on 20,000 hectares of west Texas land back in the 1990’s.  Researchers halved the number of coyotes in one portion of the study area and left the population alone elsewhere.  Within a year of coyote control, the area with fewer coyotes experienced higher populations of bobcats, badgers, and gray foxes.  Perhaps as a result, 11 of the 12 rodent species in that area disappeared, leaving only a skyrocketing population of kangaroo rats.  Jackrabbits also tripled their numbers in the coyote control area, much to the chagrin of ranchers, since jackrabbits compete with livestock for forage.

Another great coyote illustration by Kim Tri.
Another great coyote illustration by Kim Tri.

Speaking of ranchers, many tend not to be coyote fans, in large part because coyotes are sometimes hard on livestock.  Sheep ranchers can suffer big losses to coyotes if they don’t actively protect sheep with dogs, overnight enclosures, and other strategies.  Cattle ranchers can also have trouble with coyotes killing livestock, especially just-born calves.  Coyotes are very good at killing young deer fawns – a great reason for prairie enthusiasts to be coyote fans, by the way – but some transfer that skill to calves as well.  While any self-respecting cow can protect her calf from coyotes under most circumstances, even the toughest mother is weakened enough by the process of giving birth that she is vulnerable to a quick sneak attack.

Unfortunately, the response to livestock losses is often the indiscriminate killing of whatever coyotes ranchers can find.  Research has shown that kind of “coyote control” to be largely ineffective, in part because it usually fails to kill the individuals actually causing problems.  For example, a fourteen year study showed that almost every sheep killed by coyotes was taken by the “alpha pair” in the pack’s social structure.  Those alpha animals are also the wiliest and most difficult to kill.  Furthermore, of course, in the unlikely event that coyote control efforts succeed at suppressing the population in an area, the results might not turn out in favor of the rancher.  Higher numbers of raccoons and foxes, not to mention jackrabbits, along with fewer ducks, grouse, and quail, might take the thrill out of the temporary victory.

Even if coyotes gain wider recognition for their positive effects on natural systems, however, the relationship between coyote and human is bound to be complicated.  As we continue to alter their habitat, coyotes will continue to adapt and survive as best they can.  At times, that will bring them into conflict with us.  It is understandable, for example, that a rancher needs to address livestock losses, and sometimes that could mean tracking down and killing the individual coyote(s) responsible.  However, that kind of careful, targeted response is much different (and more effective) than current broad, indiscriminate campaigns against an animal whose bad reputation is largely based on innuendo and misinformation.

Ideally, seeing coyote tracks on their property would be a positive experience for landowners.
Ideally, seeing coyote tracks on a property would be a positive experience for landowners.

Coyotes and other predators play critically important roles in grassland ecosystems.  It’s easy to understand how they directly suppress populations of their primary prey species.  However, as we continue to study predators, we find more and more of the kind of indirect impacts that ripple through ecological systems in ways that are difficult to predict.  While it seems unlikely that wolves and bears will ever return to prominence in Nebraska or most other prairie regions of North America, coyotes may be able to cover at least some of the ecological roles those larger predators once played.

But only if we let them.

 

LANDSCAPE EXPERIENCES MAJOR SHIFTS IN APPEARANCE OVER SHORT TIME SPAN

As I was preparing to post this blog, I received the latest installment of Ian Lunt’s blog, which gives very good advice to science bloggers about how to capture and hold an audience’s attention.  Ironically, I’d just been worrying that my new post wasn’t as pithy as it could be, and had even asked my kids to read it and tell me what they thought.  I didn’t actually change the post after reading Ian’s advice, but I did change the “headline” to make it more snappy.  I hope Ian approves…  (The fact remains, however, that the following post is really just a series of pictures I thought were nice, so feel free to skip it and find something more productive to do.  The only good news is that there’s very little text to slog through…  So, with that sales pitch – here you go!)

I’ve been going through more timelapse images from the Niobrara Valley Preserve recently.  There are numerous story lines from the cameras there, all of which tell a tale of recovery and resilience following the big wildfire in 2012.  In a smaller way, however, looking through the images also demonstrates how much the appearance of a site changes from day to day.

In this post, I’m showing seven images taken by the same camera, from the same perspective, but on different days and at different times through the 2014 season.  The camera that took the photos is mounted high atop a windmill at the south end of a 10,000 acre bison pasture.  These seven images of sandhill prairie span an eight month period.

January 8, 2014.  6pm.
January 8, 2014. 6pm.
February 5, 2014.  3pm.
February 5, 2014. 3pm.
April 5, 2014.  7pm.
April 5, 2014. 7pm.
May 17, 2014.  7:30pm.
May 17, 2014. 7:30pm.
July 24, 2014.  9pm.
July 24, 2014. 9pm.

 

August 15, 2014.  9:30am.
August 15, 2014. 9:30am.
August 15, 2014.  8pm.
August 15, 2014. 8pm.

All of us who visit someplace regularly recognize that it never looks exactly the same twice, but we usually compare what we see today with what we remember from an earlier time.  Timelapse photos allow us to record those variations and compare them side by side.

Ok, sure, the presence or absence of bison helps distinguish some of these photos from others, but bison are also a part of (and a driver of) the changing landscape at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  More to the point of this post, however, are the differences in the quality, direction, and intensity of light between photos; not to mention the varied appearances of the sky and the growth stage of the prairie vegetation.  The prairie can look starkly different even within the same day – as shown by the last two photos.

There are countless reasons a prairie changes in appearance from day to day, even from moment to moment.  More importantly, however, those changes should motivate us to get out and enjoy nature even more often.  After all, you never know what you’ll see!

As always, thanks to everyone at Moonshell Media for their help with this timelapse project.  

Photo of the Week – July 17, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I posted a photo of a sunset from the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  In the post, I talked about having to scramble to get into position for the photo before the color left the sky.  Barely a week later, I found myself in the same situation again…

This time, I was at home in the evening, playing an indoor game with my 13-year-old son.  A rainstorm passed through while we played, and as the storm was moving away, the sky started to light up in one of those Great Plains post-storm sunset spectacles.  Mammatus clouds abounded, along with lots of color and texture.  As my son and I enjoyed the view through the window, he told me I should really be out taking pictures.  I replied that I was perfectly happy enjoying the view with him, and that we were in the middle of a game.  A few minutes later, however, the sky was even more spectacular and, since he was insisting, I grabbed my camera and ran for it.

A sky like that deserved a decent foreground, and ideally, I wanted something that could reflect the light.  I jumped in the car and drove west toward the nearest wetland (9 miles away).  As I drove, I was watching the already-fading color and receding clouds through my rear-view mirror…  After what seemed like an hour-and-a-half, I finally reached the wetland and jumped out of the car.

Post-storm clouds over a wetland at Springer Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.
Post-storm clouds over a wetland at Springer Waterfowl Production Area, west of Aurora, Nebraska.

I had time for about one photograph facing east (above) before the color in that part of the sky faded completely.  However, there was still a little color to the west, so I hopped over to a different wetland pool and tried to set something up in that direction.  I’d pulled on some knee-high rubber boots, which did me no good at all as I waded into thigh-high water…

Last light at Springer.
Last light at Springer.

I managed to shoot a few frames before the light disappeared, and then slogged my way back to the bank and dumped my boots out on the gravel road.  Then I squished my way back to the car and drove back home to have a shower.

 

Longhorns on the Prairie

One of the great things about prairies – and nature in general – is that there is way more to discover than I’ll ever have time for.  Especially within the world of invertebrates, there is no shortage of species to learn about, and every one of them has a fascinating story.  During the last two weeks, I’ve started paying attention to longhorned flower beetles, a group of species I’d noticed before while looking for bees.  Not surprisingly, once I started really looking at them, I discovered that there are multiple species and that they are much more common than I’d realized.

This longhorned beetle is likely Typocerus confluens, according to Ted MacRae.  There were a couple different (but similar) species around the day I took these photos.
This longhorned beetle is likely Typocerus confluens, according to Ted MacRae, but he said there are others that look enough like it he can’t tell for sure from a photograph.   The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

These beetles belong to the “flower longhorn” group of insects (family Cerambycidae, subfamily Lepturinae).  Adult flower longhorns are largely diurnal (active during the day) and feed upon a wide variety of wildflowers.  When I started looking for information on longhorns, I turned to Ted MacRae, an entomologist and author of the fantastic blog, “Beetles in the Bush“.

Ted helped me identify the species I’d been able to photograph around here, and gave me some good information on what longhorns are all about.  Ted, by the way, has documented at least 229 species and subspecies of longhorn beetles in Missouri.  That information made me feel better about being unable to identify my photographed beetles myself, but also strikingly ignorant about a very diverse group of insects I’d never really noticed before.  (Such is the way it usually goes with insects.)

Ted thought this was probably Typocerus octonotatus, a common Great Plains species of longhorned beetles.
Ted thought this was probably Typocerus octonotatus, a common Great Plains species of longhorned beetles.  You might think it looks just like the T. confluens in the earlier photo, but look more closely at the color pattern…  I know, right?!   Helzer Family Prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Flower longhorn beetles are named for their habit of feeding on wildflowers as adults.  As larvae, on the other hand, most longhorn beetles are wood-borers.  That includes many (most?) members of the Typocerus genus – the genus of beetles I’ve been seeing.  However, Ted says the larvae of many Typocerus species in the Great Plains are actually subterranean root feeders on prairie grasses.  That, of course, seems a much more sensible strategy for insects in landscapes with only widely scattered woodland habitats.

Face on.
A longhorned beetle with a face full of pollen.

Now that I’ve started to pay attention to longhorned flower beetles, I’ll probably never ignore them again.  That’s both a blessing and a curse.  I love learning about new species, but it makes prairie hikes go more slowly because the more species I recognize, the more there is to see.  If this keeps up, it’ll take me all day to walk 100 yards!

Thanks to reading this post, your mind has also been infected with the visual image of longhorn flower beetles.  The next time you walk through a prairie, you’ll likely spot more than one.  (You might want to budget just a little more time for that prairie walk, by the way – sorry about that!)