Apply Now for the Hubbard Fellowship!

We are now accepting applications for the 6th class of Hubbard Fellows with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.  Application deadline is September 21, and the position will run from February 2019 through January of 2020.

This has been one of the most satisfying programs I’ve ever been involved with.  The opportunity to supervise and mentor young, bright future conservation leaders is incredibly energizing, and fills me with hope.  If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about the Fellowship, you can click here or just go to the Hubbard Fellowship tab at the top of this blog’s home page.

Current Fellows Alex and Olivia (left), along with TNC staffer Amanda Hefner and former Fellow Katharine Hogan prepare themselves to collect data at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

The Hubbard Fellowship program is designed to help recent college graduates get comprehensive experience with a conservation organization and give them a big leg up toward their career.  The hope is to bypass the need to spend several years working short-term seasonal jobs to gain a variety of experiences by giving them all those experiences within one position.

Fellows become an integral part of our land management and restoration team – harvesting and planting seeds, killing weeds, clearing trees and brush, fixing fences, helping with bison roundups, and much more.  They also collect data and interact with a number of scientists and research projects.  Beyond that, however, they are also very active in communication and outreach, leading volunteer work days and sandhill crane viewing tours, speaking to various audiences, writing blog posts and newsletter articles, and helping with our social media presence.  They get a chance to learn about and help with fundraising, see how budgeting and financial management works, and become active participants in conservation strategy meetings and discussions.  Fellows attend our statewide board meetings, are active participants in our statewide strategy meetings and workshops, and attend multiple conferences in and out of the state.

On a tour during a statewide conservation conference, Dillon and Jasmine pause to contemplate their futures.

Beyond those experiences, Fellows also develop and implement an independent project that both fits their particular interests and fills a need for our program.  Those projects have included field research, social science research, enhancing our volunteer program, developing educational materials, and more.  Those projects give Fellows in-depth experience within a topic of interest, but also a substantial accomplishment to point to as they move toward graduate school or apply for permanent jobs.

Evan collects insects for a research project being conducted by a visiting scientist from Kansas State University.

We are looking for motivated, future conservation leaders who want to live and work in rural Nebraska and become an integral part of our conservation efforts for a year.  The application process includes a short essay and letter of reference, in addition to a cover letter and resume.  All materials must be submitted by midnight on September 21, 2018.  Housing is provided for the Fellows, right in the middle of our Platte River Prairies, west of Grand Island, Nebraska.

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.  Thanks!

Katharine and Eric explore a waterfall at the Niobrara Valley Preserve during a staff canoe trip down the Niobrara River.

Sand Wasps

I was introduced to sand wasps (Bembix sp) by Mike Arduser when he came to visit the Platte River Prairies back in 2012.  As we stood together in a sand prairie, a bee-like creature was zipping around us with incredible speed.  Mike explained that it was a sand wasp, and that it wasn’t interested in us, but rather was looking for flies that might be hanging around us.  Since that day, I’ve paid much more attention to sand wasps and have seen them all over the place in sandy places.

Sand wasp (Bembix americana spinolae) burrowing in sand in a blowout. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Sand wasp (Bembix americana spinolae) burrowing in sand in a blowout. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  This wasp was about 1/2 inch long.

While we were exploring a big sand blowout last week at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, there were lots of sand wasps buzzing around, and we found some of their nest burrows.  I took a little time to sit near a couple nests and photograph the females as they worked to excavate them.  The wind appeared to be blowing just as much sand back into the holes as the bees were digging out…

Here's the same wasp as above as it digs sand out of its burrow.
Here’s the same wasp as above as it digs sand out of its burrow.

The video below shows both the blowing sand and the valiant effort of the wasp to excavate its burrow despite the wind.  If the video doesn’t appear correctly, try clicking on the title of this post to view it through an internet browser.

Mike tells me these sand wasps and their relatives catch and paralyze flies for their young.  They lay eggs in their burrows and provide the flies as food for the larvae.  Females, of course, do all the work to create the burrows, catch the flies and lay the eggs.  The males are just around for mating purposes.  While the wasp larvae eat flies, both the adult males and females feed on nectar and pollen.

Here are a few more images of the sand wasps we saw last week, along with the blowout they were living in.

A big blowout where wind keeps sand moving and open.
A big blowout where wind keeps sand moving and open.
The sand wasp shown earlier takes off and twists its body to zip away.
The sand wasp shown earlier takes off and twists its body to zip away.
This was a little smaller wasp from a different species that was nesting in a different part of the blowout from the first wasp.
This was a smaller wasp from a different Bembix species that was nesting in the same blowout as the first wasp.
...and that wasp was also digging its burrow.
…and that wasp was also digging its burrow.

As often happens with invertebrates, once I’ve been introduced to a creature, I start seeing it everywhere.  Even better, I’ve yet to meet an invertebrate that doesn’t have a fascinating background story.  It’s an awesome world we live in, and we share it with some pretty great neighbors.

Thanks, as always, to Mike Arduser for his help with identification and ecology.

Photo of the Week – August 11, 2016

I made a quick trip up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week.  As always, there was a treasure trove of unexpected finds.  Here are some of them.

Bison calves are growing fast. Their coats have darkened to match the adults, and their horns are starting to look like more than just little bumps.
Bison calves are growing fast. Their coats have darkened to match the adults, and their horns are starting to look like more than just little bumps.
Bison tend not to hang around wooded areas for shade, but they also like to rub on trees aggressively enough to keep them stunted or even kill them. This bull was one of several bison that had evidence of recent rubbing on eastern red cedar trees.
Bison tend not to hang around wooded areas for shade, but they also like to rub on trees aggressively enough to keep them stunted or even kill them. This bull was one of several bison I saw this week that had apparently been recently rubbing on eastern red cedar trees.  Good for them.
Robber flies are amazing predators and always fun to photograph, but this might be my favorite of all time. This gorgeous robber fly landed in a sand blowout and was consuming a leaf hopper.
Robber flies are amazing predators and always fun to photograph, but this might be my favorite of all time. This gorgeous robber fly landed in a sand blowout and was consuming a leaf hopper.
Sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii) is sometimes lumped with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and sometimes considered a separate species. I'm not entering that argument. However, sand bluestem (shown here) does tend to have much hairier flowers.
Sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii) is sometimes lumped with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and sometimes considered a separate species. I’m not entering that argument. However, sand bluestem (shown here) does tend to have much hairier flowers.

How many of you noticed the small larva in the above photo?  I didn’t, until I was going through the photos on the computer the day after taking them.  Look below for a more close-up view of the larva.  You can see it at its original scale just to the left of the bottom left of the inset image.

Fly larva? Whatever it is, it sure is small. Wouldn't you love to know what it's doing there?
Fly larva? Whatever it is, it sure is small. Wouldn’t you love to know what it’s doing there?
This tumbleweed (Russian thistle, aka Salsola iberica) was lodged up against a fence in a big sand blowout.
This tumbleweed (Russian thistle, aka Salsola iberica) was lodged up against a fence in a big sand blowout.
This tiny pale bee (Perdita perpallida) is a specialist in prairie clovers (Dalea species) but I've only seen it on one species - Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa)
This tiny pale bee (Perdita perpallida) is a specialist in prairie clovers but I’ve only seen it on one species – Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa).  Its pale color helps it blend in very well. Thanks to Mike Arduser for ID and information.
What is more evocative of the Great Plains than bison grazing in a prairie dog town as the sun goes down over an expansive grassy landscape?
What is more evocative of the Great Plains than bison grazing in a prairie dog town as the sun goes down over an expansive grassy landscape? 

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Welcome to the Fourth Class of Hubbard Fellows!

Many of you have followed this blog enough to be familiar with our Hubbard Fellowship program and the experiences they’ve had with us during the last several years.  In June, our fourth pair of Fellows, Katharine and Eric, joined us here in Nebraska and have been quickly and enthusiastically learning about prairies and conservation.  Both of them have written a brief introduction of themselves, and you’ll hear much more from them over the next 11 months.

Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.
Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

From Katharine:

Greetings! I’m Katharine Hogan, and I am very excited to join The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska for the 2016-2017 Claire M. Hubbard Conservation Fellowship. I’m coming to this opportunity as a northeasterner who developed her love of nature while growing up in the mountains of Vermont. My summers and free time were spent horseback riding in the woods, swimming, gardening, forming what was then an unconscious but deep attachment to the natural world, and building the foundations for my future professional passions.

I am part of the fourth generation of my family to choose conservation as a profession. Whether this is generational conditioning or some genetic preference not yet understood, I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that I’ve always gravitated towards any science that required spending long hours outdoors studying nature directly. I remember as a teen deciding in part to pursue environmental science over other science fields due to a fear that they might require spending too much time indoors! This isn’t necessarily a fair summary of those fields, but ultimately I completed a B.S. and in 2014 an M.S. in Environmental Science from Taylor University in northeastern Indiana.

As a lifelong northeasterner relocating to a strikingly different ecosystem and culture, my interest in exploring more of the country post-college was piqued, leading me after graduate school to work first performing native plant restoration at North Cascades National Park in Washington state. Here, I learned firsthand how the world of conservation and land management far eclipsed what I could have possibly grasped in school, fell completely in love with the unforgiving wilderness, and essentially felt like I’d stumbled upon an entirely different world than I expected. However, it still provided everything I had been looking for in my hopes of developing a career in which I could do work that was both needed by the world and fulfilling for me to complete.

The lessons learned in Washington and at subsequent opportunities in vegetation monitoring in Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho created individual and collective experiences I couldn’t have dreamt of if I had chosen any other profession. I’ve been lucky enough to have learned and seen more of this beautiful country than I would have thought possible even three years ago. But here is where we come to the beauty of this Fellowship! Even having learned so much about different ecosystems and aspects of conservation, here in Nebraska there will be countless other opportunities to expand my knowledge of and appreciation for nature, all while contributing to the conservation of the beautifully intricate prairies on the Platte River and across the state. There will be new challenges around every corner, I’m sure, and I can’t wait to take them on, and see what I can contribute and accomplish by the end of the year. I have a feeling it will fly by and leave me looking for more at the end of it, so I suppose I’d better get busy! Thank you all for reading!

Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.
Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.

From Eric:

It is great to finally have arrived at the Platte River Prairies. I can still distinctly remember leaning over my chainsaw last December, the snow and cold driving though my face shield, wondering how I was going to find work that kept me on the prairie. The evening I pulled in earlier this June to begin a year as a Hubbard Fellow, a warm Great Plains wind swirled the grasses, cattle stood staring at the fence line, the bobolinks and bobwhite whistled away. With a change from the cold unknown to warm, welcoming opportunity, you can rightly imagine I am happy to be here.

I am from Minnesota; subjectively, but to my mind irrefutably, God’s country. I have basked in the state’s diverse, and rich natural heritage my entire life, living and recreating in and around our iconic waters and forests. It has only been relatively recently that I was enlightened to the wonder of the prairie. After returning home from Maine where I received my undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College, I worked for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota. Over the last couple years I have been blessed to work in some incredible restored and remnant prairies in Western parts of the state. (If you haven’t, check out Chris’s blog post from the Grassland Restoration Network last year at the Bluestem preserve in Hawlsey, MN to get a taste of the region and the work being done there.) As a result of weeks of work in the grass, long days spent cutting back woody plants and trees, wrestling with invasive grassland plants, and harvesting prairie plant seed, I am now a prairie person.  I can’t say exactly what it was or is that ties me to prairies, and the components of that interest seem to be changing day by day, but it’s there.

With my interest in prairies firing on all cylinders, I eagerly look forward to this upcoming year in Nebraska with the Nature Conservancy. I anticipate and aim to make it an opportunity that can help me translate my interests in grassland restoration and management into a portfolio of skills and knowledge that can be applied pragmatically and effectively for prairie conservation. With several weeks under my belt, I can already report that I have learned a great deal both about prairie ecology, and how we, as prairie scientists and enthusiasts, can begin to tackle the complex, and entangled issues that threaten the species, places, and livelihoods we care about.

Whether it is at volunteer events, conferences, or a chance encounter somewhere between some bluestem, I look forward to meeting many of you over the course of the next year. One of the things that has struck me most over the last couple years is the uniquely intense passion that people who work and/or have an interest in prairies possess. It has and continues to inspire me. So even if we never meet, I hope we can find ways to connect, and continue to find ways to learn about and work for prairies.

Finally, I just want everyone to know how welcoming the neighbors have been. On the first morning of being at the Platter River Prairies I opened my front door, and standing at the base of the steps was a hen turkey. That bird stared me right in the eye and clucked a couple notes before strutting off down the driveway- a great Platte River Prairie welcome.

 

Photo of the Week – November 28, 2013

Does any animal evoke a stronger sense of prairie than the plains bison?

Bison at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Bison at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in the sandhills of north-central Nebraska.  Click on the image for a larger, sharper view.

On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things.  Among those is the opportunity to take my kids to see bison on large tracts of native prairie.  I hope they’ll do the same with their own kids someday.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Photos by Eliza

Guest Post by Eliza Perry, one of our 2013-14 Hubbard Fellows (all photos are by Eliza Perry).

The past month has been wild. Instead of writing up a succinct summary, I decided to share a few of my favorite photos I’ve managed to capture in the field (our work is rarely camera-friendly).

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From afar, prairie is a striking landscape with dramatic skies and a vast, quaking floor; up close, however, is a far more interesting view. I had never seen a bird’s nest intentionally woven into grass before working in prairie. This particular nest held five dickcissel eggs. Usually these eggs are accompanied by one or two brown-speckled eggs from a crafty cow bird, who transfer their parental burden onto an unknowing other.

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Invasive species control will always bring up concerns about inadvertent damage. I don’t know the name of this beautiful flower, but I noticed it while spot spraying sericea lespedeza at our property in Rulo. We recently purchased a new backpack sprayer that provides dense, targeted coverage over a plant, but even so, my worry is always in how many neighboring plants unintentionally receive a harmful or fatal dose of herbicide. We could see patches of dead vegetation from last year’s sericea treatment.

During my first few days of spot spraying this season, soaking invasives seemed like a bulletproof plan in light of the natural tendency toward “more is better.” Since then, I’ve learned that this method is not only harmful to the surrounding plant community, but more importantly, it is often counter-productive because it can “burn” the plant past its ability to absorb the chemical. The result is a damaged plant with an intact root system and ability to regrow and flower. This is an ongoing challenge, but I have learned to mitigate some of my impact through application technique. For example, one key is maintaining high pressure in the backpack sprayer pump to avoid drippage between sprays.

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This photo was taken several weeks ago when most of our sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus) was at an early stage in blooming. The young flowers caught my attention immediately because to me they look like fireworks. I invent names for most of the forbs I don’t recognize until I can get a handle on their proper common names, and I called these “firework flowers” until relatively recently when I finally accepted them as sensitive briar.

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This photo does not adequately capture the plant or structural diversity present in this area. I took it very early on before I understood the significance of either, but as I reviewed the photos I had snapped in the past two months, this one stood out in a different way than it was originally intended to: as an almost comical juxtaposition of cropland and prairie. Of course, agricultural monocultures serve their purpose, but the measures of success and functionality for the two “ecosystems” are so contrary that it makes for an interesting picture to see the two side-by-side. For one, the presence of a “weed” is considered to be the enemy of crop productivity, while prairies are essentially a collection of tenacious (native) weeds. Moreover, monocultures entail the least amount of variety in land management practices by design, while prairies thrive on highly variable land management and substantial disturbance.

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Prairie management involves a lot of equipment and we need to know how to maintain it. Our trailers are particularly important because they allow us to transport heavier equipment like ATVs and skidloaders to properties further away. A few weeks ago, one of our trailers had a small part knocked off. This photo shows Nelson, our land manager, teaching me how to weld it back on. Anne and I are in the process of learning to use all of the exciting hand and power tools in our shop so that we can more effectively help with maintenance and construction projects. Someday I hope we will complete our own.

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Leave it to Anne to find a climbing wall in the middle of a prairie!

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This photo does not do justice to the number of invasive thistles packed into that truck bed. We found a sizeable forest of musk thistles seeding out at the tail end of our thistle season and decided to remove them from the scene entirely because pulling off all of the flowers would have taken a full day. A dumpster brimming with these villains was a satisfying sight after weeks of focusing most of our efforts on eradicating them.

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I have moments every single day in this job when I have to stop what I’m doing to relish the fact that scenes like this are my equivalent to an office. I captured one of these moments one afternoon while scouting our Kelly Tract for Canada thistles. Controlling invasives is a daunting task with some species, and I have found myself feeling defeated to the point of forgetting its importance to our conservation objectives, which has been a good lesson for me. As Chris recently described in a blog post, our goal is to strengthen the overall ecological resilience of our properties, which cannot occur without a resilient plant community.

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We rescued this little lady from the middle of a highway on our way to Niobrara Valley Preserve. There was a stretch of ten or so miles in which we saw a high number of box turtles crossing the road, and virtually none before or after. While she certainly looked on at us indifferently, I thought I could detect a hint of sass in her expression and did my best to capture it here.

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Once Anne had learned how to safely operate this tractor, she proceeded to mow our most recent restoration site for several hours. The key to our success in becoming comfortable using all these new vehicles and tools is, unsurprisingly, practice. Luckily there is no shortage of pastures that need to be mowed, trees that need to be felled, or fences that need to be relocated. Mowing is one of several land management strategies for knocking back invasives by thwarting their growth to prevent or buy time before they seed out. Mowing “burn breaks” is also an essential component of safe prescribed fire burns.