Favorite Photos of 2015

As has become an annual tradition, I’ve once again put together a collection of my favorite photos from the last year.  Most of these have appeared in 2015 blog posts, although I think at least one or two haven’t.  (I’m not telling you which ones.)

You can view the photos in one of two ways.  First, you can simply watch the slideshow below – and you can click on the arrows to control the speed of the slideshow if you wish.  If the slideshow doesn’t work on your particular device, you can also (hopefully) watch the same show on the YouTube video below the slideshow.

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Thank you, as always, for reading this blog.  Please help me spread interest and enthusiasm about prairies and conservation by passing along this or any other blog post you think others might enjoy (including the three minute video I put together earlier this year).  Together, we can fight the perception that prairies are just boring patches of grass!

Have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy the final week of 2015!

Photo of the Week – August 21, 2014

I’ve written before about how many times I often snap the shutter on my camera to make sure I get the photo I want.  Digital photography makes that a cheap insurance option and gives me lots of images to choose from when I review them later.  However, I don’t always get the opportunity for multiple shots.

I had my camera out for a walk a few weeks ago, and while I was photographing a bee, I noticed a bush katydid on the prairie clover flower next to me.  I swung around slowly and squeezed off exactly one shot before it flew off.  As you can see from its camouflaged body, there was no hope of finding it again, so I had to move on.  I figured there was no chance the one shot I’d taken was sharp, well-composed, and correctly exposed for light, so I just forgot about it.  Imagine my surprise when I was looking through photos later and saw this….

A bush katydid feeding on purple prairie clover.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A bush katydid feeding on purple prairie clover. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Sure, I could brag about my lightning quick reflexes and fast thinking, but the truth of the matter is that this image came from mostly blind luck.  I had been planning to take a series of images to get multiple angles and compositions of the katydid, but most importantly, to ensure that I got the eye in sharp focus.  Instead, I got one shot that just happened to turn out just fine.  I’ll take it!

Many of you, I’m sure, will remember information I’ve passed on previously about how katydids can be distinguished from grasshoppers by their antennae length and how they hear through the tympana in their “elbows”, but in case you’ve forgotten, you can read about that in a post from earlier this year.

Photo of the Week – August 8, 2014

I usually shoot more than one composition of a scene or creature.  It’s fun to experiment, and hard to know what I’ll like best when I am reviewing images on my computer later.  Of course, having multiple choices is both a blessing and curse.  It’s nice to have a couple options to choose between, but sometimes I just can’t decide which I like best.  Last year, I asked for your help deciding between two bison images.  Many of you weighed in, but in the end, the vote was almost exactly split down the middle.  (Thanks for the help.)

Despite that, I’m going to ask for your input again.  This time, there are three pairs of recent photos I’m struggling with.  See what you think.  If you want to tell me which ones you like best, you can leave your vote in the comments section below.  (Click on the post’s title if you don’t see the comments section.)

This is a photo I used as part my "Photo of the Week" series back on July 24.  I like it very much, but also like the next photo (below).  We'll call this Photo A.
This is a photo I used as part my “Photo of the Week” series back on July 24. I like it very much, but also like the next photo too! (below). We’ll call this Photo A.
This photo was taken within just a few seconds of the one above.  Which do you like better?  This is Photo B.
This photo was taken within just a few seconds of the one above. Which do you like better? This is Photo B.

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This bee appeared in a post earlier this week.  This is Photo C.
This bee appeared in a post earlier this week. This is Photo C.
In this second version (Photo D), there is no anther blocking the view of the bee's face, but the bee's face is more in profile.  It seems like a tiny difference, but I think the Photo C has a pretty different feel from Photo D.  Thoughts?
In this second version (Photo D), there is no anther blocking the view of the bee’s face, but the bee’s face is more in profile. It might seem like a tiny difference, but I think Photo D has a less personal  feel than Photo C.

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This photo of Maximilian sunflower (from the "wrong" side) is a little off-center and includes a bit of leaf to the left.
This photo of Maximilian sunflower blossom (from the “wrong” side) feels a little off-balance and includes a stray bit of leaf to the left.  This is Photo E.
This (Photo F) is a more conventional way to shoot a flower (though still from the wrong side).  The composition is tighter on the flower and feels more balanced.  Despite that, I think I like Photo E better.
This (Photo F) is a more conventional way to shoot a flower (though still from the wrong side). The composition is tighter on the flower and feels more balanced. The flower is “looking” out the right side of the frame, but placed a little to the left to compensate for that.  Despite all that, I think I like Photo E better…  Am I crazy?

Let me know if you have opinions.  If not, feel free to just enjoy the photos!

Photo of the Week – March 6, 2014

As I posted a couple days ago, I spent some time at my favorite wetland earlier this week.  It was a cold, but very pleasant morning.  The sun was moving in and out of thin clouds, creating attractive light and a nice sky for photograph backgrounds.

A beautiful early March day at The Nature Conservancy's Derr Wetland.
A beautiful early March day at The Nature Conservancy’s Derr Wetland.

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frozen wetland
An ice ridge formed along the edge of a flowing channel prior to the most recent cold spell.  It apparently caught blowing snow during last weekend’s flurries.

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Cattails
I assume the gap near the bases of these cattails was formed either by wind or by the relative warmth of the cattail stems, but I can’t explain the mounded ice.

Beaver activity was obvious along the stream that runs into and through the wetland.  Numerous dams are being maintained, and I found lots of recent tracks and marks from the dragging of sticks in patches of snow or bare sand.  The beavers’ slowing of the streamflow probably enables the surface to  freeze more quickly – to the detriment of waterfowl looking for a place to roost and feed – but the concentrated flow through the dams maintains small areas of open water where wildlife can access it.

Water pours over a small beaver dam.
Water pours over a small beaver dam.

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Another one
The only open water left after the most recent cold snap was just below some of the larger beaver dams, though the ice was very thin in other places, especially above some of the more active springs.

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Water over the dam
Water flows through the spillway of a dam just upstream of the open wetland area.  There are at least seven separate dams being maintained by the inhabitants of a single beaver lodge.

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The beaver lodge is several hundred yards upstream of the main wetland area.
The beaver lodge is several hundred yards upstream of the main wetland area.

Beavers weren’t the only wildlife species active along the wetland.  Based on recent images I downloaded from our timelapse cameras on site, waterfowl have also been using the wetland in big numbers.  Canada geese, especially, have been abundant – especially before the surface froze last week.  Based on evidence found at the scene, they have continued to use the frozen wetland too…

goose feather
Goose feathers littered the frozen surface of the wetland

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feather
Here and there, tiny fluffs of feather clung to plants of all kinds.

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poop
Feathers were not the only thing geese left behind on the ice.  I can’t think of a better way to end this blog post then with a big pile of goose poop.  So there you go.

No beavers or geese were harmed during the making of this blog post.  However, more than 300 images were shot during a two hour period. 

Photo of the Week – February 27, 2014

For a nature photographer like me, Nebraska winters can get pretty long.  Especially winters like this one with very little snow.  How many photos of brown grass and dried flowers can I take, after all?  I don’t have the equipment or patience to photograph wildlife very well, so I’m kind of stuck with landscapes and close-up photos.

Well, a guy’s gotta photograph something…  While I was visiting my in-laws in Sarpy County, Nebraska (south of Omaha) last weekend, I decided to challenge myself to find something interesting to photograph within the small restored prairies on their property.  I guess you’ll have to judge whether or not I was successful.

Indiangrass.  Weiss Acres - Sarpy County, Nebraska.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans).  Weiss Acres – Sarpy County, Nebraska.

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A false sunflower seed head is backlit by the setting sun.
A false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) seed head is backlit by the setting sun.

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The double helix pattern of an open partridge pea seed pod.
The double helix pattern of an open partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculate) seed pod.

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Another false  sunflower seed head.
Another false sunflower seed head…

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Another (yawn) sunflower seed head.  This time it's Maximilian sunflower.  The light was kind of interesting, though.
Another (yawn) sunflower seed head. This time it’s Maximilian sunflower. What can I say?  The light was kind of interesting.

So, there you go.  Now, how about a little snow?  Or some nice hoar frost?  Ice storm??

Spring is coming soon, right?

Sigh.

Flowers of the Night

Not many plants wait for the sun to go down before they open their flowers…

Missouri evening primrose in tallgrass prairie at Camp Cornhusker (Boy Scouts of America) near Humboldt, Nebraska
Missouri evening primrose in tallgrass prairie at Camp Cornhusker (Boy Scouts of America) near Humboldt, Nebraska.  This photo was taken half an hour after sunset in early June.  Light for the image was provided by both the afterglow of sunset and the rising moon.

Like other evening primroses, Missouri evening primrose blooms overnight rather than during the day.  The plants can produce multiple flowers, which open at about sunset, but each individual flower blooms for only a single night.  The pollen grains of evening primroses are attached to each other by very thin elastic threads, which apparently stick very well to sphinx moths, their primary pollinators.  Night-flying bees also feed on evening primroses but are not thought to be effective carriers of pollen from one flower to another.

Flowers
A closer view of a Missouri evening primrose plant.

As some of you more botanically-aware readers surely know, the contemporary name for this plant is Oenothera macrocarpa, or bigfruit evening primrose (macro = big, carpa = fruit).  Many of us, however, still refer to it as Missouri evening primrose because it used to be Oenothera missouriensis, and I’m choosing not to break that habit.  So there.

Regardless, it is a beautiful prairie wildflower that typically grows less than a foot tall and has large yellow flowers.  Its four-petaled blossoms turn into very distinctive four-winged seed pods, which are often used in floral displays (there happens to be a glass vase full of them on my dining room table right now!)  Missouri evening primrose has a long taproot and usually grows best in soils with relatively little organic matter.

Most flowers bloom during the day, taking advantage of the numerous pollinators that fly around when the sun is high in the sky.  That’s a fine thing to do, but I can appreciate the strategy of evening primroses.  Why fight the crowds when you can monopolize the attention of a few specialized pollinators during the off hours?

Photo of the Week – January 16, 2014

Here’s a photograph I took a couple years ago while hiking at Griffith Prairie – a site north of Aurora, Nebraska that’s owned and managed by the Prairie Plains Resource Institute.

Sunrise at Griffith Prairie - Hamilton County, Nebraska.
Setting sun at Griffith Prairie – Hamilton County, Nebraska.

I like the image, in part, because it shows what that evening looked and felt like as the sun dropped to the horizon.  What you see in the photograph is pretty much what my eyes saw.  However, it does NOT look like the image that came out of my camera.  I had to use image-processing software to alter the image so it looked like it did in real life.

In this image, I set the camera so that the grass would be correctly exposed, knowing that the sky would be overexposed (too bright).
For this image, I adjusted my camera’s settings so that the grass would be correctly exposed (not too bright or dark), knowing that the sky would be overexposed (too bright).

A camera’s sensor makes photographs by capturing reflected light from a scene.  However, a sensor is not able to record the same range of light (from bright to dark) as the human eye.  The same is true with film.  That means that in the above image, although my eye could see all the colors and details in both the sky and the ground, the camera was unable to capture both.  Either the sky was going to be bright and washed out or the ground was going to be way too dark.  Neither of those was an acceptable option to me.

In this photo, I set the camera to capture the sky as it looked, knowing that the ground was going to be very dark.
In this photo, I set the camera to capture the sky as it looked to my eye, knowing that the ground was going to be very dark.

I ended up shooting the scene a couple ways, figuring I’d try to fix it later.  I later used the second image (the one with the really dark ground) as a starting point and used Adobe Photoshop to lighten the ground and bring out the details and colors my eye saw but that the camera couldn’t capture.  There are two ways to look at this.  The first is that I used the tools at my disposal to make the image match what I saw in real life.  The other is that I essentially lied to you by altering the image that came out of the camera.

If you don’t like what I did and feel like I lied to you, consider this…  Nearly every photo you’ve seen in any printed form has been manipulated, regardless of the era it was printed in.  Old time black and white photographers spent hours adjusting the tone of various parts of their photos as they created prints.  When you take a roll of film or a batch of digital photos to get printed, the printing machine makes automatic adjustments to the images as it prints them – or the technician can override those with his/her own adjustments.  There is really no escaping the fact that photography is art, and that much of the artistic interpretation takes place after the photo is taken.

While photography is art, I’m a scientist trying to share my experiences in the natural world with others, so I feel an obligation to represent things accurately.  That puts me in an interesting position.  Do I avoid processing photos in order to show the viewer exactly what my camera captured – even if that image doesn’t accurately reflect the image I saw in real time?  Or do I manipulate the photo to make it look like it did in real life, even if that necessarily means I’m putting my own translation of reality into that image?

I’m not sure there’s a right answer, but I generally choose to process images and attempt to show you what I saw through my eyes.  I want you to see the same prairies I see in the hope that you will better understand and appreciate them.

Here’s the final version of the image one more time.  Do you like it more or less, knowing what went on behind the curtain?

The final version of the photograph one more time.
This is the same image of Griffith Prairie shown at the beginning of this post.

Best of Prairie Ecologist Photos – 2013

As promised, here are some my favorite photos from 2013.  It was really tough to narrow these down to 22 (it was going to be 21, but see below) out of the roughly 1,800 images that were “keepers” from my various photography jaunts this year.

Of course, many of you joined in the winnowing process by helping me decide between two similar bison photos last week.  Or at least that’s what was supposed to happen.  Since the vote was nearly evenly split (and a lot of people voted “both”) I decided to include both photos.  You’ll see them displayed back to back below.

I hope you enjoy the photos.  If you let the slideshow run on its own, it’ll take a little under two minutes to cycle through.  You can speed up the process, if you like, by clicking on the arrows within the frame.

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If I had to choose a single favorite from the year, it would probably be the one below.  It tells a great story without having to use any words at all.

Ant and crab spider on an annual sunflower.  The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Ant and crab spider on an annual sunflower. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

I shot quite a few images of crab spider silhouettes that morning, trying to get one that was just right.  I got some pretty nice ones, but none that were as striking as I’d hoped – until I was photo bombed by this ant.  That’s often the way photography goes.  Equipment and technique are both important, but you really just have to be in the right place at the right time.

I’m looking forward to being in lots of right places in 2014.

Photo of the Week – October 10, 2013

At the Platte Prairies, and – I assume – throughout most of the central United States, this is the time of year we see woolly bear caterpillars crawling all over.  They are one of the most widely-recognized caterpillars around, though most people don’t give a second glance to the tiger moth they become as adults.

A tiger moth larva (woolly bear caterpillar) photographed on October 4, 2013.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
A tiger moth larva (woolly bear caterpillar) photographed on October 4, 2013. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This time of year, woolly bears are often seen crossing roads or sidewalks, trying to find a place to spend the winter.  Like many other insects, they will freeze solid over the winter, only to thaw out and resume their lives in the spring.

Photo of the Week – October 3, 2013

I found this robber fly perched in the prairie early Monday morning.  Although it was fairly breezy, the light was good enough to attempt a photo.  I’m glad I decided to give it a try.

Robber fly.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Robber fly. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  You can always click photos to see a sharper version.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have even considered attempting this photo.  When I was shooting with slow speed slide film, I loved the saturated color of Fuji Velvia, but every time I clicked the shutter it cost me about 34 cents in film/processing.  That kind of cost made me pretty leery of trying to photograph something like a flower that was blowing around in the wind.  A shot that came back blurry because the subject was moving too fast cost me just as much as a nice sharp image, so I couldn’t afford to “miss” very many times.  I would often take 3-4 versions of the same shot to make sure I got the exposure and focus correct, but even that was costing me about a dollar per good image.

This week, I photographed the above robber fly for about 5 minutes.  Within that time, I took 162 images.  The vast majority of those were blurry because the wind was swinging the fly and its perch so much I couldn’t focus and shoot fast enough to keep up.  I ended up with only a few sharp images in three different compositions.  Ten years ago, taking 162 photos would have meant about four and a half rolls of slide film and would have cost me about $44.  This week, it just meant I had to sort through 162 images to find the good ones – something that took just a few minutes.

Digital photography can sometimes make me a little lazy because it’s tempting to let some of the fundamentals of exposure and composition slide and try to fix things later with digital processing and cropping (though I usually don’t do much of that, and there’s still no substitute for getting it right in the field).  On the other hand, digital photography allows me to take risks that would have been unthinkable (or at least really expensive) in the old days.  Blurry photos don’t cost a thing now, and can often be deleted in the field.  Just as important, I can make sure I’ve got the shot I want before I leave, instead of discovering it days later when my slides come back from being processed.  Overall, it’s a pretty good time to be a photographer.

Just for fun, here are some of the other images from the brief photo session with the robber fly.

This one ended up relatively sharp...
This one ended up relatively sharp…

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...but I had 30 more that looked like this.
…but I had 30 more that looked like this.

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This one (like many others) was pretty fuzzy...
This one (like many others) was pretty fuzzy…

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...but this one isn't too bad.
…but this one isn’t too bad.

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