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.
I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve for two different events last week. The first was a fantastic two day meeting/tour with university scientists that defined the likely focus of our primary research effort over the next several years. The second was much more impactful – I spent two days with my 17 year old son. We didn’t have much of an agenda for the two days, other than to kayak the Niobrara River on day two. Apart from that, we were free to wander the prairie, splash in the river, or just hang out anywhere and anytime we felt like it. It was pretty glorious.
John is the only one of our kids who hasn’t floated the Niobrara River, so that clearly needed to be remedied. More importantly, I was really looking forward to spending some quality time with my son before he enters his senior year of high school and prepares to go off to college. John and I have similar senses of humor, though he’s usually a little quicker off the mark than I am. He’s also brilliant at math and engineering, knowledgeable and opinionated about current events, passionate about soccer, and has matured over the last few years into an independent and responsible human being. I’m incredibly proud of him. (Also, he will probably read this, so I’m saying only nice things about him.)
When we drove up to the small group of bison at the beginning of our visit to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I was worrying about how to keep John engaged and happy during our two days. He’s a kid who is comfortable in the outdoors, but not necessarily someone who seeks out or finds inner peace when surrounded by nature. When I first asked him if he wanted to spend a couple days at NVP with me, he said, “sure, as long as we can DO things.” No pressure, Dad…
After about ten minutes of bison watching, with just a little quiet conversation about what they were doing and why, we lapsed into a long silence. Concerned that he was bored, I asked John if he wanted to move on to something else. “No,” he replied, “I like bison. We can stay for a while longer.” About twenty minutes later, the bison started wandering off over the next hill, and we drove off in the opposite direction toward a prairie dog town.
My typical experience with prairie dog towns is that I get to see lots of prairie dogs from a distance, but they disappear into their holes well before I get into easy visual range. One of the few exceptions to that came a couple years ago when I visited this same prairie dog town with my daughter. As we drove into the town last week, I assumed the worst, and my expectations were confirmed by the first twenty or so dogs we saw – each of which squeaked and dove into their burrows as we approached.
The twenty-first prairie dog, however, hesitated, and as we inched a little closer, stayed alert but aboveground, along with one of its pups. We slide quietly to a stop and watched them for a little bit. After a few minutes, I moved the truck up even closer so John could get some better photos with his phone, and while the pup got nervous and left, the mother stuck around. While we sat there, we also spotted a burrowing owl and a fledgling horned lark.
Usually, when I’m at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I try to maximize every minute of my time. It’s over four hours away from my home, so it’s an effort to get there, and I always feel pressured to get as much done as I can during each trip. As a result, I rarely have time to just relax and take whatever comes. After John and I finished watching bison and prairie dogs, and it was clear that John was enjoying the laid back trip, I began to relax and sink into the bliss of some agenda-less time with my kid. We decided to go see if we could find a small creek to explore.
On the way to find the creek, we ran across a bigger group of bison and decided to launch the drone and get some footage for my slowly-growing video library. John is a fan of the drone, but we only flew it for a little while before we moved on. After all, this wasn’t a work trip. We eventually stopped along the edge of the bluffs above the river and walked down into a draw that looked like a good place to find a stream. Sure enough, we started to hear flowing water as we descended, and we found a cold clear creek and walked upstream until we saw where it was seeping right out of the ground.
Later that evening, we met up with a couple other friends who happened to be at NVP at the same time, and the four of us splashed around in the river for a while before playing cards and going to bed. It was a good first day, but the main reason John had come was to kayak the river, and we needed to get up (fairly) early the next day to beat the crowd to the water.
The next morning, we got to Rock Barn Outfitters and got a ride upriver to our drop off point, where we slid the kayaks into the water. It was a Friday, and I was a little concerned that we might have to weave through early weekend tubers sharing the river with us, but while the scattered campgrounds along the river were full of people, we spent five hours on the water without seeing any tubers, canoers, or other kayakers. It was perfect.
We floated about 14 miles in five hours, stopping a few times to hike, swim, or eat lunch. During the entire trip, the Niobrara Valley Preserve was to our right, helping to give John a feel for the immense size of the 56,000 acre property. In fact, we only saw about half of the Preserve’s river frontage that day. As we slipped quietly downriver, we also saw quite a few bald eagles, along with great blue herons, spotted sandpipers, dragonflies, frogs, and other animals.
It wasn’t all quiet and contemplative nature watching, though. There were also a few kayak races, which included quite a bit of pushing, shoving, and splashing. In addition, John was really hoping to paddle through some rapids, and while I tried to temper his expectations, the river was running pretty high and we did manage to find a fair number of (mild) whitewater stretches. We also found a nice, quiet, and relatively deep stretch of river where he hopped into the water and just floated/swam downstream while I held onto his kayak for him. I think we checked all his boxes for the day.
We had a pretty quiet ride home after we got off the river. John, as usual, slept through most of it. I was pretty tired too, but also grateful for the opportunity to share one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people. Hopefully, John will remember the trip fondly as he goes off to become an engineer. And hopefully, he’ll come back and float the river with me again sometime.
If you’re interested in visiting the Niobrara River Valley, here’s a good website that describes the National Scenic River and some of the choices available. While you’re there, you can stop and hike the public trail at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. We don’t (yet) offer public tours of the bison herd or prairie dog town, but the hiking trail (just south of the river bridge on the road between Johnstown and Norden) provides some great overlooks of the river, and a chance to wander through many of the different ecosystems found in the valley.
Last week, I posted some drone photos of the Niobrara Valley Preserve from the air. The sun popped out of the clouds just as it was nearing the horizon and provided some great light for those images. As I was packing the drone away, I kept an eye on the sky, and it looked like there might be some nice post-sunset color on the way, so I scrambled up the hill to my favorite sunset spot at the Preserve. For the most part, I get pretty easily bored by sunset photos, so it takes a pretty spectacular night to get my camera out of the bag. That night qualified as spectacular.
Over about a 15 minute period, I worked back and forth across the top of a ridge overlooking the Niobrara River, trying various angles and perspectives. The color and texture of the clouds was fantastic, but I knew the color would fade quickly. After I got back and sorted through the images, I had a hard time narrowing down my favorites. Nearly two weeks later, I still couldn’t decide on just one (or even two) shots to share with you. Instead, I chose a selection of four images from various angles and with different lenses. If you have a strong favorite, feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section. At this point, I like all of them for different reasons. I also like about 10 more, but I had to cut something…
I’m presenting these photos in the order they were taken. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the color tone changed incrementally over the 15 minute period. You might also notice that each successive photo was taken with a longer focal length. Part of that was me playing with different ideas, but the color was also receding into a smaller and smaller portion of the sky, so I was matching that with focal length changes.
It’s pretty hard not to take attractive photos at a place like the Niobrara Valley Preserve, especially when the sky does its part to add to the scenery. One of the hardest parts of working up there is keeping my camera in its bag long enough to get some other work done!
Spring is almost here. I spotted my first butterfly this week (too far away to identify it) and there are a few other insects starting to move around as well. Not much flowering in the prairies yet, though plants are starting to green up, especially where we’ve burned. While I wait for the new season to fully kick into gear, I’m falling back to a popular (to me) theme of “Random Photos from Last Year” to fill the gap. Enjoy.
Tomorrow, I’m leading a photography workshop; something I rarely do. I’m looking forward to the workshop, but always feel a little funny teaching photography for a couple reasons. First, photography is a very individual activity, by which I mean that every photographer interprets the world in their own way. Because of that, trying to “teach” someone how to be a photographer seems like kind of a crazy thing. As a result, I’ll be talking very little about the interpretive part of photography, and concentrating mostly on the mechanics of how cameras work and how to use that knowledge to create art. Then I’ll try to provide a lot of examples of what’s possible with photography, hoping to inspire people to develop their own vision.
The second reason I hesitate to lead workshops in photography is that I feel pretty limited in my own knowledge. After all, I spend most of my time on my knees, photographing tiny bugs and flowers, and I’ve learned how to do that using the few pieces of equipment I happen to own. I suppose I know more than the average person, but I don’t feel like I have the kind of broad knowledge of camera equipment or techniques held by many photographers I admire; people like Michael Forsberg, Clay Bolt, Piotr Naskrecki, and Joel Sartore. Also, when I stray from my narrow range of expertise, I tend to make a lot of mistakes. That seems to happen particularly often when I attempt night time photography.
The latest example of my night time photography foibles came during the trip Kim and I made to the Niobrara Valley Preserve over the holiday season. The weather was very cold while we were there, but I braved the temperatures one night and went out to photograph in the light of a half moon. I worked along the river, mostly, shooting starry scenes with the river and silhouetted trees in the foreground. Because of the moonlight, the stars weren’t really popping in the photos, so I decided to switch and shoot the moon instead. I wandered over to “the chute”‘ a locally famous waterfall on the Niobrara River, right near the Norden Bridge. Because of the sub-zero temperatures, much of the river was frozen, but the water pouring over the falls was still ice free, and there was fog (is it really called fog in those conditions?) coming off the falls and rising up toward the moon. It was a magical scene, and I worked for about an hour to capture images of it.
Unfortunately, my mind must have been as frozen as the the ice I was (carefully!) walking around on. I completely forgot to change my aperture settings on the camera from the wide open settings I’d been using for star photos to settings that would give me more depth-of-field. And because it was dark, I had a hard time focusing anyway, and didn’t notice how out of focus many of my foregrounds were. This led to a lot of almost great photos with blurry images of rocks, ice, and/or water in the foreground. Out of that entire hour, I ended up with three images that were fairly sharp all the way across – only because I was far enough from the foreground for it to be sharp. Anything with a nice close waterfall in the foreground and starry sky in the background turned out to be junk.
I sometimes make mistakes photographing bugs and flowers too, but night time photography always seems to give me big problems. In fact, one of my biggest recurring issues with bug/flower photography is tied to night photography… I very often forget to reset my ISO after shooting star photos the night before and end up taking grainy photos of flowers with an obscene ISO of 2500 or so. I’m telling you – night time photography is out to get me. I’d like to think I’ll get better at it if I do more of it, and I’ve been making an effort in that regard, but so far, not much luck. Fortunately, there are lots of bugs and flowers to photograph during the daylight hours, so my ego hasn’t completely deflated.
Gee, this wasn’t a great advertisement for my photo workshop tomorrow, was it? If you’ve signed up and are reading this, I promise I’ll do my best to make it worth your time. The good news is that the workshop happens during the day – not at night!
Kim and I spent a few days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, something that has become an annual holiday tradition for us. As always, it was beautiful, peaceful, and we were alone in a big wild place – the three components of a perfect getaway. We saw plenty of wildlife, including multitudes of eagles and deer, as well as flocks of meadowlarks, robins, tree sparrows, and grouse. In addition, tracks of many other animals were abundant in the recently-fallen snow. I kept hopeful eyes out for mountain lion tracks, but didn’t see any – though I did have a strong sense of being watched one night, while out photographing night scenes under a half moon. It wasn’t just the cold temperatures that made me shiver a little.
I spent one particularly nice hour or so exploring the partially frozen river one morning, and was able to get some photos before heavy overcast skies took over. The temperature was hovering around zero, but it was nevertheless a pleasant calm morning. I enjoyed the solitude and sunrise and then walked back up to a hot breakfast before Kim and I headed out for a longer hike. Here are a few photos from my sunrise walk.
I wish you all a wonderful and happy new year; something I’m very much looking forward to myself.
I spent much of this week at our Niobrara Valley Preserve. During most of that time, photography was difficult because of bright sunlight, no clouds, and strong winds, but the place was still beautiful. Most of the colorful leaves had already fallen from the sumac, ash, oak, and cottonwood trees, and I only found a few asters that still had flowers. Regardless, there was plenty of life to be seen. I spotted a kangaroo rat in my headlights as I drove down the lane to the headquarters my first night. Bald eagles were wheeling above the river, and I saw red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and northern harriers hunting as well. Flocks of other birds went here and there, either migrating through or just moving nomadically in search of food. During a couple evening walks, the relative quiet was broken by high-flying squadrons of sandhill cranes passing overhead.
One evening, I climbed up to the top of the ridge north of the river and photographed the landscape as the sun went down. By the time I got back down to my truck, it was pretty dark, and I became very aware of how many shadowy places were available for creatures to hide. I started musing that I still hadn’t seen a mountain lion at the Preserve, even though we know they’re here, and have had several documented recently. Then I realized that it was less important to think about how many mountain lions I had seen and more important to think about how many lions had seen me! I’m pretty sure that second number is higher than the first.
I will be up on the Niobrara again late next week, and I’m really looking forward to it. Even in the dormant season, there’s always plenty to see.
Back in late June, a group of us were at the Niobrara Valley Preserve collecting data. During the evening, a storm rolled in from the west. Against all common sense and safety, I went up on a hill above the Niobrara River to photograph the approaching lightning.
Lightning photography seems much more complicated than it actually is. Mostly, you just point the camera toward a storm, open the shutter of the camera for a while, and hope lightning strikes within the frame before you have to close the shutter again. The photos here were taken with exposures between 3 and 8 seconds each. And, of course, I took about 200 photos (I’m guessing, but that’s probably close) and ended up with a handful of shots with lightning bolts in them.
They say photography is mostly about being there, and that’s certainly the case with these photos. Unfortunately, lightning can be awfully dangerous (I was once knocked down by a nearby lightning strike while trying to get off the top of a mountain and really don’t want to repeat that). Eventually, safety concerns overrode the urge to capture a great image and I skedaddled for shelter. A more dedicated photographer would have stuck around for the lightning to fill the frame. On the other hand, I’m still alive to write this post.
There’s something to be said for that.
We just returned home from our family trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. I posted some photos from the first half of the trip earlier this week. Here are a few more, but they don’t begin to cover all the experiences we had. I’ll share more photos and stories in the coming weeks (after I unpack and get my life organized again!)
Many of you remember previous posts about the wildfire that swept across the Niobrara Valley back in July 2012. About half of The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve burned during that event. Through some funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund and assistance from Moonshell Media, we set up an array of timelapse cameras to document the recovery of our site from that fire.
I’ve spent much of this week looking through many thousands of images from those cameras. The cameras (when they are working properly) take one photo each daylight hour. Between April 2013 and today, that is approximately 14 billion images – or so it seems through my weary and bloodshot eyes. As I’ve been poring through these photos, looking for stories they can tell us, one thing that keeps my fire stoked (so to speak) is the periodic discovery of dramatic light and/or scenes captured by the automated cameras. Today, I’m sharing a selection of those accidental masterpieces taken by one particular camera that was set up to peer downstream from near the top of the bluff north of the Niobrara River.
When we set up this camera, my hope was to watch the re-greening of the hills beneath the dead ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees and maybe catch a nice sunrise or two. Both objectives were achieved, along with some other really gorgeous photographs – some of which happened only because the camera malfunctioned.
So, there you go. A beautiful series of images that also show what happens following a wildfire. Ecological processes don’t stop after a fire, they just shift into a different gear. We have done nothing to aid or enhance the recovery of the woodland at this site. To this point, we’ve just been watching for signs of trouble – invasive plants that might take advantage of the situation, serious soil erosion issues, etc. There hasn’t yet been any reason to step in and act. Plants and animals are thriving on the slopes shown in these photos, though the composition of those communities has changed pretty dramatically – and continues to change.
Ecological resilience is about the ability of natural systems to absorb shock and keep functioning. The pine woodland is gone from these hills, and it will probably take many decades to show up again because they are pretty far away from unburned pine woodland that could provide seed. In the meantime, we will do our job as land stewards and try to facilitate the most biological diversity we can, using the primary tools available to us – prescribed fire and grazing to manipulate plant competition and habitat structure, and spot-treatment (as needed) with herbicides to control invasives.
We hope to keep these timelapse cameras going for at least several more years. Hopefully, that will help us continue documenting the amazing resilience of nature, and the specific stories playing out at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. If nothing else, we should be at least get some more beautiful, if accidental, photographs to enjoy.