Photo of the Week – July 27, 2018

When I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week, I flew our drone a few times when the light was nice.  It’s really hard to show the scale of this landscape by taking photos from the ground, and I’m having a great time experimenting with aerial photography in order to better illustrate that scale.  Here are a few images from last week, taken right around the headquarters of NVP.  I’m also amassing still and video footage of bison, but I’ll share some of that at another time.

This photo was taken in the evening, with late day light accenting the texture of the landscape. This photo looks east (downriver) and you can see both some piles of recently-cleared eastern red cedars in the foreground and our headquarters buildings on the right side of the image.
This image was taken right above the headquarters, looking to the east as the sun was breaking above the horizon. The skiff of fog didn’t last long once the sun came up, but made for some nice highlights while it lasted.
This image looks south. It shows where the northern portion of the Nebraska Sandhills (a 12 million acre grassland landscape) terminates at the wooded breaks of the Niobrara River. The woodland shown here went through the big 2012 wildfire, but many of the trees were protected from fire by the cool, moist north-facing slopes. Those same factors help support tree species (including paper birch) that don’t otherwise seem like they have any right to be in the hot and arid west.  Many of the trees in the upper reaches of the draws are bur oaks, along with a few ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees that survived the big fire.
This image was taken just a few minutes after the foggy sunrise photo above, but is facing the opposite direction (upstream) and shows the day’s first light hitting the river bank.

Photo of the Week – November 23, 2016

Prairie landscapes are often defined by broad sweeping vistas and big skies.  A wide-angle lens can be great for capturing that kind of huge open landscape.  However, I’ve gotten some of my favorite Nebraska landscape photos when I’ve exchanged my wide angle lens for a telephoto.

Sandhills
Sandhills and windmill in Cherry County, Nebraska.  My zoom lens was set at 122 mm for this shot, just long enough to get both the horizon and windmill in the photo, but still short enough to still show some landscape breadth too.

Using a long lens compresses a landscape and shows off the depth and texture of a landscape in a way that is very different from an image taken with a wide angle lens.  The above photo of the Nebraska Sandhills came after several attempts to capture the immensity of the prairie with a wide-angle lens.  My wide-angle lens showed a lot of the landscape, but it looked relatively flat and unimpressive – especially because there wasn’t anything going on in the sky.  A longer lens brought the distant hills closer and made them more prominent.  It also cut most of the sky from the image, leaving only the interesting parts of the scene.

Sandhills sunrise
In this Nebraska Sandhills photo, a 300mm lens not only compressed the hills, it also made the rising sun look large enough in the image to reflect the way it looked in real life.

Sunrises and sunsets, along with moonrises and sets, can often be disappointing in photographs because the sun/moon looks much smaller in the photograph than it does in real life.  A long lens can help make the orb look more like our eyes see it when we’re there.

Setting moon
What works for the sun also works for the moon.  On this early morning, the moon was going down behind the bluffs at Scottsbluff National Monument in western Nebraska.  (Zoom lens set at 230 mm)

The photo below is one of my all-time favorites from the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and is actually a scan of a slide from back when color slide film (Fuji Velvia!!) was the state of the art in nature photography.  Just as in the windmill/hills photo above, there wasn’t anything interesting happening in the sky, but the light was good (getting close to sunset) and the sideways light provided great texture on the distant hills.  One of the hallmarks of the Niobrara Valley Preserve is that it hosts a convergence of multiple ecosystems, and this photo shows many of them.

Niobrara Valley Preserve
The Niobrara Valley Preserve as seen from a ridgetop north of the river.  The use of a 300mm lens allowed me to include many of the different ecosystem types all in one photo, including tallgrass prairie/oak savanna in the foreground, the Niobrara river and its floodplain, deciduous woodland and ponderosa pine stands, and Sandhills prairie.

If you find yourself standing on a high ridge or hilltop and can’t seem to make the landscape look as impressive on camera as it does in real life, try using a longer lens (or using the zoom on your phone or point-and-shoot camera).  Though it seems counterintuitive, zooming in can sometimes help show off a broad landscape better than zooming out.

Follow Up: Windmill and Bales Photo

A week ago, I posted two similar photos of a windmill and hay bales in the Nebraska Sandhills.  I asked for help deciding which was a better shot.  In case you’re curious as to results and don’t want to sort through all the comments to see which photo was more popular, I thought I’d post the answer here.

As expected, there was a strong response but no consensus…

Of the 37 people who responded with a clear preference, 20 of you liked composition #1 and 17 liked #2.  Many of you had strong feelings for one over the other, while others liked them both about the same.  Again, this is what I expected based on previous attempts to get help choosing between photos, including this one that stimulated great discussion about two bison photos.  While it didn’t help me choose between the two photos, it’s always fun to hear people’s perspectives on images.  (By the way, this is why I’ve never liked to enter or judge photo contests.  Once you winnow out those photographers who are missing the basics of using light, aperture, etc., it’s all about the personal taste of the judges.)

I do appreciate the input.  Just for fun, here’s a third option I didn’t include in the first post.  No, you don’t need to vote again…

Thanks for your help – have a great weekend.

Windmill and hay bales. Nebraska Sandhills in Cherry County.
Windmill and hay bales. Nebraska Sandhills in Cherry County.

Photo of the Week – September 18, 2015

There are reasons I am primarily a bug and flower photographer.  One of the biggest of those reasons is that bug and flower shot compositions are pretty simple.

Look – a flower!

Or Look – a bug!

Or sometimes Look – a bug on a flower!

One subject, simple background. Piece of cake.

Ants looking for extrafloral nectar on annual sunflower. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.
Ants looking (I assume) for extrafloral nectar on annual sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).  The sweet substance produced by sunflowers and some other wildflowers attracts ants, which – in turn – may help repel herbivores.  Nebraska Sandhills on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.

I admire good landscape photographers but I feel completely inadequate every time I pretend to be one.  While I’m composing landscape images I usually spend a lot of time fretting and second guessing about foreground, horizon line placement, and other factors that don’t come into play with close-up photography.  For whatever reason, my brain is wired such that composing close-ups of bugs and flowers comes intuitively but landscape photos are mentally painful.

That said, there are times and places when even I can take a decent landscape photo.  Last month, I was on a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills, possibly the most scenic grassland landscape in the world.  The light was great and I had a little time, so I aimed my camera at a windmill and hay bales to see what I could do.  I took a lot of shots, and though I kept feeling like I wasn’t quite capturing the essence of what I was seeing, I liked the photos well enough.  After about 20 minutes, I had about 100 different images that were all very similar to each other and the next challenge was to narrow it down to my favorite.  I almost got there – I got down to two.

Windmill and hay bales on a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Composition 1.
Windmill and hay bales on a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. Composition 1.
Option 3.
Composition 2.

Maybe you can help.  Let me know if you like either of these two images, and if so, which you like more. In the meantime, I think I’ll go look for a bug.  On a flower.  Something my brain can handle.

Photo of the Week – August 6, 2015

There are many benefits of being a morning person.  For example, I see a lot of sunrises – even in the summer when the sun comes up well before most people are awake.

Last weekend, I got up early and drove out to our Platte River Prairies to catch the sunrise.

I’m sure glad I did.

Sunrise in sand prairie.  TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Stiff sunflowers (Helianthus pauciflorus) greeting the sunrise in sand prairie. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Trouble With Fences

This post is written by Dillon Blankenship, one of our two Hubbard Fellows.  

Back in December we kept pretty busy with fence work. The barbed wire fences at a few sites needed to be repaired, and some had to be taken down and rebuilt from the beginning. Single wire electric fences were taken out altogether and will be replaced this spring to accommodate new grazing configurations.

The barbed wire fences we removed were old and in bad shape. Their wire was loose and rusty; t-posts were bent over or leaning.

When we acquire properties, fences are often in bad shape.  This one has multiple layers and ages of barbed wire and needs to be removed and replaced.
When we acquire properties, fences are often in bad shape. This one has multiple layers and ages of barbed wire, has shrubs and trees grown into it, and needs to be removed and replaced.

I am struck by how dramatically the landscape is changed by the mere removal of a fence. Despite the remaining row of interspersing trees or scraggly smooth brome, fencelessness returns a semblance of the infinite horizon. Of course, I want to see the trees and brome erased too, but these things take time and getting the old fence out of the way begins the process.

Even when the next piece of land is a dusty field of corn stalks – much less imposing post-harvest- the lack of fence is liberating. I am free to view the landscape as it once was and I imagine that wildlife can more freely roam about the planet.

Though it is easy to romanticize the open range, fences obviously have some utility.

Barbed wire fencing is a relatively inexpensive way of delineating property boundaries. It confines one’s own livestock and/or protects crops and pasture from being damaged (by stray vehicles, your neighbor’s cattle, etc.). In our restoration work on the Platte we use fences not just to keep cattle in, but also (using single strand electric) to manipulate where and when they graze to suit our particular management objectives – such as controlling certain plant species or promoting others while maintaining a diversity of habitat types.

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Barbed wire fence is the most common type of fence used in most pastures.  It is strong and effective.  It is also visually prominent, and whether or not it is attractive depends upon your point of view.

Though these are compelling reasons to keep fences around, I remain frustrated by the inconveniences they create. I have already mentioned the aesthetic inconvenience. To my eye – even with agriculture playing a prominent role in the landscape mosaic – the Plains look more expansive and beautiful without fence lines. The image of an unfenced pasture is striking for its rarity.

Fences can also be problematic for certain wildlife. While deer are pretty good at jumping over most fences, animals further west like bighorn sheep and pronghorn need special accommodations for safe passage. Free-roaming bison, of course, have little hope in our highly fenced world – we must confine them to their own big area saying “this is yours, but go no further.” Even birds are affected, sometimes colliding with and becoming entangled in barbed wire. Field fences, though not insurmountable, present their own challenges for ground dwelling creatures.

This duck got hung up and died on a fence along the edge of a wetland.
This duck got hung up and died on a fence along the edge of a wetland.

My biggest complaint is that fence lines are often poorly managed. They can be difficult to work around when treating invasive species, which makes them prime habitat for encroaching trees and exotic plants. Substantial tree lines are common along fences in central Nebraska. In many cases, I suspect the fence came first. While a fence itself is usually not too problematic from a grassland habitat perspective, fences that grow up with trees begin to act as fragmenting agents – deterring grassland bird nesting and generally diminishing the openness favored by grassland species.

So where does that leave us?

There are already a lot of good ways to mitigate fence impacts for wildlife – increasing visibility for birds and using smooth wire with particular spacing for large mammals. Sometimes wooden fences are better alternatives, though more resource intensive (got any spare cedars?). While these address the wildlife objection, they don’t do much for the aesthetic or management elements.

Single-strand, smooth wire, electric fences are simple and temporary, offering reprieve from the oppressive four-strand barriers and better accessibility for management – you can drop the wire and drive right across. Moreover, when you move these fences every year like we do, fence-line management is less of a problem because the following year any given line-site will be back in the management regime of fire, grazing, and manual treatment. This system suits my preferences well, but its greatest assets are also its ultimate downfall.

Even when electrified, single wire fences are often not enough to keep cows in – and, I imagine, never keep in sheep or goats. Also, deer are pretty good at going right through, knocking the wire off the insulators – which is hard to monitor when you have a lot of wire out there. I was going to say that their temporary-ness was another drawback – a guarantee that you have to work fence every year. However, tree and exotic species management need to happen every year anyway, so maybe it wouldn’t be that much work and I feel like removing 20 years of trees from an unmaintained fence probably takes much more time than monitoring and moving temporary fences.

Bison fence at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in Iowa.
Bison fence at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in Iowa.

My dream of fencelessness is really thwarted at scale. At places like TNC’s Niobrara Valley Preserve with over 50,000 acres to manage, you really just need a sturdy fence that doesn’t have to be constantly checked… or so I thought. I recently learned about innovations in fencing that have been experimented with over the last decade. I had been thinking that something like the invisible fences people use for pets might be an interesting option to scale up, but there are better systems already in play.

Instead of building (or burying) an actual fence, there are folks putting GPS collars on cows and then using digital mapping software to “draw” fences on the landscape which deliver a slight shock (like an electrified fence) when cows cross the satellite-imposed boundary. These digital fences can be placed at property boundaries, around sensitive vegetation or aquatic features, and across a pasture to suit a particular grazing regime – all with the swipe of a computer cursor. It could be modified on the fly, which is even easier now that so many people are carrying smartphones (this technology is already being utilized for things like increasing center pivot irrigation efficiency via monitoring and adaptive management). Doesn’t that sound incredible? No fences breaking up the landscape (which is aesthetic, but also means less work for ranchers), safer corridors for wildlife, less potential for tree encroachment, and better accessibility for managing invasive weeds. Cool.

The system is bound to have its own problems – technical glitches will happen on occasion (with the software or and the collars), there will be new opportunities for trouble-makers to tamper with private property (“digital cattle rustlers”), star-up costs, you name it – but I really like the potential something like this has for prairies and the ranching community.

Nonetheless, most of us aren’t quite there yet, which brings me back to the old-fashioned fence. For now I guess I’ll have to get over it and get on to other things; just manage my own fence better and become hardened to the unavoidable taunting of unnatural tree lines and fence rows on the landscape.

It feels good to vent a little bit here. As it warms up I cease writing and return to work on the post and wire repairs. I return to the prairie and reflect on these musing, “Alas, this is a necessary, if unfortunate evil” and the new fence goes up. I find solace that its days could be numbered.

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Photo of the Week – January 9, 2014

Earlier this week, I found myself lying on my back in the tight crawlspace beneath a house at our Platte River Prairies, helping our land manager fix a ruptured water line.  For this claustrophobic prairie ecologist, the dark cramped space under that double wide trailer house was a test of psychological endurance.  As soon as the repair was finished, I found myself in desperate need of a walk under the big open sky.  Fortunately, that sky was mottled with attractive clouds, and one of our restored wetlands was close by, so I grabbed my camera and took a nice restorative hike.

ice
This frozen stream/wetland had plenty of interesting textures and shapes to look at and photograph.  Most importantly, however, it was big, wide, and open.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

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frozen
The white streaks in the ice created an impression of flowing water even though they weren’t moving.  There was, however, water flowing beneath the ice, despite the cold snap we’ve had.

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Cattail seeds
Recent strong winds scattered hybrid cattail seeds around the ice in a few places, making interesting photographs, but spelling work for us next year as we try to keep those cattails from taking over too much of the site.

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ice
Beavers have dammed up much of this restored stream/wetland area, helping us in our effort to create a variety of habitat conditions.  The strong groundwater influence of the stream usually keeps it from freezing up completely, even during the coldest periods of winter.

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Photo of the Week – May 31, 2013

I started my annual plant community monitoring this week.  That work consists mainly of inventorying the plant species within small sampling plots.  Forcing myself to walk regularly spaced transects and stare at a square meter of prairie at a time is a great way to find creatures and sights I might miss if I was just wandering aimlessly.  This week, for example, I scared up a couple jackrabbits and found a quail nest within a few minutes of each other, and found a number of pretty neat insects.  But in that particular prairie, the star of the show was Tradescantia bracteata (bracted spiderwort), which was scattered across the site in patches about the size of a small car.

A close-up look at a patch of bracted spiderwort, with prairie ragwort (Senecio plattensis) in the background.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A close-up look at a patch of bracted spiderwort, with prairie ragwort (Senecio plattensis) in the background. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  You can click on the photo to see a larger and sharper version.

These spiderworts were blooming in a prairie we planted back in 2000.  It has become of our most colorful sites – loaded with wildflowers of all kinds.  I didn’t see much spiderwort during the first 5-7  years of the prairie’s establishment (most of which were drought years).  Eventually, I started finding a lone plant here and there.  Those scattered plants have now formed colonies that radiate outward every year.

If you look closely, you can see that several of the spiderwort plants in this photo have been grazed.  They are blooming in a burned portion of the prairie, which is where cattle are focusing most of their attention (within our patch-burn grazing system).  Cattle really like to eat spiderwort, so grazing will probably impact the 2013 growth and seed production of the plants in this photo.  However, we just finished building a temporary electric fence to exclude cattle from about half of this same prairie for the rest of this growing season, so all the spiderwort patches in that exclosure should have a good year.  Next year, the patch of flowers pictured here will get a break from grazing too.

Although grazing can keep spiderwort plants short and decrease seed production, most of this species’ reproduction happens through rhizomes (underground stems), so annual seed production is not critical for its survival or spread.  In addition, periodic grazing helps open up space among the grasses and provides opportunities for spiderwort to continue its spread.  In fact, areas of our prairies that get little or no grazing tend to have fewer and smaller patches of spiderwort (though the individual plants often grow taller).

The Right Metaphor for Prairie Restoration

Prairie restoration can be a powerful tool for grassland conservation, but we’re not taking advantage of its full potential.  Too often, we think and talk about prairie restoration (aka prairie reconstruction) in the wrong way.  Instead of trying to restore an ecosystem, we try to reproduce history.

Nelson Winkel, land manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, harvests grass seed using a pull-behind seed stripper.

I was in Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago and visited Ford’s theater, where President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  After the death of the president, the building went through drastic changes, including being completely gutted after a partial collapse of the interior.  By the time the decision was made to restore the building for use as a historic site, the National Park Service basically had to start from scratch.  Regardless, through painstaking research and a lot of hard work, the theater was rebuilt to closely resemble Ford’s theater of 1865.

The rebuilding of Ford’s theater is a decent metaphor for much of the early prairie restoration (or reconstruction) work dating back to the 1930’s in North America – as well for some of the restoration work that continues today.   In the case of prairie restoration, someone identifies a tract of land that used to be prairie but has been converted into something completely different (usually cropland), and tries their best to restore what was there before it was converted.  Just as in the restoration of Ford’s theater, the prairie restoration process requires lot of research and hard work to identify, find, and reassemble what had been there before.

Unfortunately, the Ford’s theater approach has turned out to be a poor fit for prairie restoration.  Prairies aren’t buildings that have specific architectural plans and well-defined pieces that can be collected and assembled to create a pre-defined end product.  Prairies are dynamic ecosystems that are constantly changing and evolving, and their components include organisms that interact with each other in complex ways.  Trying to recreate a prairie that looks and functions just as it used to – especially on a small isolated tract of land – is nearly impossible.

Reseeded prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands Restoration Project in Indiana. If the plant community today looks different than it did before it was farmed, is that really a failure of the restoration project?

That doesn’t mean small scale prairie restoration is a bad idea.  I think reestablishing vegetation that is similar to what was at a site many years ago can have tremendous historic and educational value, and can also provide important habitat for many grassland species.  Where this kind of prairie restoration falls flat is when we expect too much from it.  It’s really easy to find glaring differences between the restored prairie and what we know or think used to be there – soil characteristics are different, insect and wildlife species are missing, plant species are too common or too rare, etc.  These “failures” have led some people in conservation and academia to become disillusioned with the whole concept of prairie restoration.

In reality, prairie restoration has proven to be very successful, and is a tremendous tool for grassland conservation.  We just need to find and apply a better metaphor.

A Better Metaphor for Ecological Restoration

Unlike efforts to restore old buildings, prairie restoration projects should not be aimed at recreating something exactly as it existed long ago.  Instead, effective prairie restoration should be like rebuilding a city after large portions of it are destroyed in a major disaster.  When reconstructing a metropolitan area, replicating individual structures is much less important than restoring the processes the inhabitants of the city rely on.  The people living and working in a city depend upon the restoration of power, transportation, communication, and other similar functions.  Those people don’t care whether roads, power lines, or communication towers are put back exactly as they were before – they just want to be able to get the supplies and information they need, and to travel around so they can to do their jobs and survive.  Restoration success is not measured by how much the rebuilt areas resemble the preexisting areas, but by whether or not the city and its citizens can survive and thrive again.

Similarly, restoration of fragmented prairie landscapes should not be an attempt to recreate history.  It should be an attempt to rebuild the viability of the species – and, more importantly, the processes – that make the prairie ecosystem function and thrive.  Success shouldn’t be measured at the scale of individual restoration projects, but at the scale of the resultant complex of remnant and restored prairies.  Are habitat patches sufficiently large that area-sensitive birds can nest successfully?  Are insects and animals able to travel through that prairie complex to forage, mate, and disperse?  Are ecological processes like seed dispersal and pollination occurring between the various patches of habitat?  When a species’ population is wiped out in one part of the prairie because of a fire, disease, or other factor, is it able to recolonize from nearby areas?

Pollination is an example of an important process that drives prairie function. Increasing the size and/or connectivity of prairies by restoring areas around and between prairie fragments can enhance the viability of pollination and other processes.

At first glance, choosing the appropriate metaphor for prairie restoration may seem insignificant compared to other challenges we face in grassland conservation.  However, if we’re going to successfully restore the viability of fragmented prairies, we can’t afford to waste time and effort worrying about whether or not we’ve matched pre-European settlement condition, or any other historical benchmark.  Instead, we need to focus on patching the essential systems back together.

After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.

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Read more on this subject…

– An earlier blog post about using prairie restoration as a landscape scale conservation tool.

– A prairie restoration project case study, with ideas about how to measure its success.

– Some recent early attempts we’ve made to measure restoration success by looking at the responses of bees and ants.

– A post about the importance and definition of ecological resilience in prairies.

Photo of the Week – October 19, 2012

And now for something completely different…

I feel like I’ve been in kind of a photography rut on this blog lately.  Lots of close-up photos, especially of seeds.  This week was extremely windy, and I didn’t get out and get any new photos, so instead I dug into the archives for this photo of the week.  It’s about as different as I can get from close-ups of seeds.

Cowboys moving cattle at TNC’s Cherry Ranch in the Nebraska Panhandle. May, 2001.

The photo was taken in May 2001 at The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch, near the northwest corner of Nebraska.  It’s a dry, rocky, and utterly beautiful landscape.  It’s dominated by threadleaf sedge (aka blackroot sedge – Carex filifolia) and a number of short grass species, but also has patches of big bluestem and tall grasses here and there.  Rocky outcroppings are a great place to see pretty little flowers clinging to rocks, along with the occasional nesting prairie falcon or golden eagle.  Prairie rattlesnakes are not uncommon, but easy to see (and hear) because of the short vegetation.  The mighty Niobrara River flows through the ranch, but is small enough that you can jump over it in some places.  It’s just a great place.

Enjoy your weekend!