Photo of the Week – September 21, 2018

I spent much of this week in northern Nebraska, attending various events and staying at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It rained much of the time, but I caught a break in the clouds Monday evening and happened upon the bison in our east herd as the sun was going down.  I spent about an hour and a half tagging along with them as they moved slowly toward the setting sun.  If you haven’t spent much time with bison, one of the things you notice immediately is how quiet they are.  Apart from some contented grunting, the primary sounds I heard as I accompanied them was the crunching of their hooves in the grass and the sound of them tearing mouthfuls of food from the prairie.  It was very peaceful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the sun going down over the hills.

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

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.

Image #1. This was one of the first shots I took that night.  Tokina 12-28mm lens (at 12mm) ISO320, Aperture 16, Shutter 1/100.

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.

Image #2. Tokina 12-28mm lens (at 25mm). ISO 320, Aperture 7, Shutter 1/125.

Image #3. Tokina 12-28mm lens (at 28mm). ISO 320, Aperture 8, Shutter 1/80.

Image #4. Nikon 28-300mm lens (at 170mm). ISO 320, Aperture 7, Shutter 1/60.

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!

Photo of the Week – June 29, 2018

We spent a productive week at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, collecting a mountain of data.  Five of us spent our days scrambling across the Sandhills, counting flowering plants, quantifying milkweed populations, and estimating habitat cover.  As always, we got to observe far more than what we were focusing on for science.  We saw bald eagles, box turtles, a couple different snakes, pronghorn, mice, bird nests, families of northern bobwhites and sharp-tailed grouse, countless kinds of invertebrates, and much more.  It was an exhausting, but fulfilling week.

The science crew for this week. From left to right: Alex Brechbill and Olivia Schouten (Hubbard Fellows), Amanda Hefner (Conservation Assistant at NVP), and Katharine Hogan (former Hubbard Fellow and current PhD student at the U of Nebraska-Lincoln).

The above photo shows the kind of energy our crew had, though it was also taken just as the week was starting.  Hot sun, wet grass, and lots of massive poison ivy patches eventually knocked their enthusiasm down a notch or two, but we all still had a great time.  The crew certainly made me feel twice their age (which I am, for at least one of them), and not just because I’m still a little hobbled by my recovering ankle.  I appreciated their patience as they waited for me at the end of each sampling grid.

After each day of data collection, I spent the bulk of my evening time trying to build up an inventory of aerial photos and video with our drone.  I flew over the river, across open grasslands and prairie dog towns, and among herds of bison.  My post from earlier this week showed a small slice of just one evening’s imagery.  It’ll probably take me weeks or months to get through all the footage from the last several days, but I do have one tiny video clip to share with you today.

On Tuesday night, I  followed a small portion of our east bison herd around for a while.  I was skirting the edges of the herd with the drone, trying to get a feel for how close I could get before the bison started to react to the vehicle’s presence.  The bison were certainly aware of the drone, but while they edged away when I got too close, they certainly didn’t act frightened or panicked.  A few hundred yards from the main group, a lone bison bull was grazing by himself.  I decided to test its patience a little (in the name of science, of course).  I flew the drone to within 15-20 yards or so of it, and lowered it down to 10 or 12 feet off the ground.  Then I just hovered right there while it was eating.  (Well, the drone hovered there – I was very safely standing a couple hundred yards away, right next to my truck!)

As I watched through the screen on my controller, the bull glanced up a few times while it grazed, and then eventually raised its head to chew and watch the drone.  It chewed and watched for almost a minute.  Just as I was getting tired of the experiment and started to push the button to end the video, the bull’s patience apparently ran out.

Oh boy, do I wish I hadn’t hit the “stop recording” button when I did, but you get a pretty good picture of what came next.  I don’t know if it would have jumped high enough to hit the drone, but I do know that my suddenly sweaty hands pushed the “UP!!!” button on the controller as fast I could when that bull started its charge.  One of the reasons I’m sharing this video is that it’s a great reminder that while bison are incredible and beautiful creatures, they are also unpredictable and dangerous.  People die, or are seriously injured, every year on public lands when they ignore the unpredictable and dangerous part of the equation, and try to get too close to these huge animals.  Bison aren’t going to chase you down and trample you to death for no reason, but if you invade their comfort zone, they are very capable of defending themselves.

This photo was taken just a few minutes after the video.  I was safely in my truck…

As soon as I flew the drone away, the bison returned to calmly grazing, probably congratulating itself on how easily it had scared away that odd-looking, noisy, and pesky bird.  After watching the bull for a while from a distance, I drove slowly closer to it and photographed it as it continued grazing.  It was well aware of my presence, but is used to being around pickup trucks.  Since I wasn’t coming AT him, he calmly grazed and wandered on his way.

I’m fully aware of how fortunate I am to have my job, and to have access to the places we own and conserve. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone who reads this blog, but even more to people whose financial support allows our conservation work to happen.  I wish I could give each of you a personalized tour of our sites, but in lieu of that, I’ll continue trying to do the next best thing – show you the diversity and beauty of those places as best I can through writing and photography.  You can also come visit, of course, and hike the trails to see what you can see.  In the meantime, stay tuned for more photos and videos.

Information on visiting the Niobrara Valley Preserve can be found here and on visiting the Platte River Prairies here.

Niobrara Valley Preserve From The Air

We arrived at the Niobrara Valley Preserve yesterday in pouring rain.  The road in from the south was nearly impassable and our data collection plans were scrapped for the day.  As evening neared, though, the rain started to let off, and just as the sun was nearing the horizon, it popped out from behind the clouds.  Suddenly, the entire Niobrara Valley was bathed in gorgeous golden light.  I scrambled to get the drone up into the air.

Looking downriver with the sun behind. Can you see Alex on the sandbar?

Facing the sun as it drops below the horizon.

The Nebraska Sandhills extend nearly forever south of the river (12 million acres of contiguous prairie). You can’t even see the entire 12,000 east bison pasture in this photo. The scale is just immense.

The Niobrara Valley Preserve headquarters is nestled between the Sandhills and the river. The campus now includes a couple new buildings, which will greatly help us improve visitor access and experiences.

The Niobrara Valley Preserve is already magical, but when you add that kind of evening light, it just becomes absolutely spectacular.  Below is a 30 second video showing more of a panorama view of just one small part of the 56,000 acre property.

Thank you to everyone who supports our conservation work, both at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and elsewhere around the state, country, and world.

Special thank you to the Nebraska Environmental Trust for funding this effort through a PIE (Public Information and Education) minigrant, administered through the Nebraska Academy of Sciences.

Photo of the Week – December 28, 2017

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.

A skeletal stick frames the rising sun over the frosty Niobrara River.

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.

Tracks of some kind of water bird on a sand bar.  The individual toe prints were approximately an inch long, maybe a little longer.  

Slushy ice floats down the Niobrara River as the sun comes up.

I wish you all a wonderful and happy new year; something I’m very much looking forward to myself.

Catching Up on Summer Photos

I spend most of my summers in the field, wandering around in prairies collecting data, making observations, and taking photos.  Lots and lots of photos.  So many photos that I only have time and space to post a small percentage of my favorites here on this blog.

This week, I’ve been going through my 2017 photos, trying to select a manageable number for my annual “Best Photos of” feature, which will be coming in the next week or two.  While doing that, I came across quite a few photos I really liked but haven’t posted yet.  Here is a batch of previously unposted images from the Niobrara Valley Preserve from this summer, along with some brief natural history notes.

A gorgeous northern leopard frog stares at me from the bank of the Niobrara Valley Preserve. I like this photo for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is that my daughter spotted the frog while we were out exploring together.  The northern leopard frog can be distinguished from the plains leopard frog because the two lines on the back of the northern are continuous, and the lines on the plains leopard are broken.

We are trying to better understand the potential ecological values of short vegetation structure and exposed soil in the Nebraska Sandhills. It’s a set of habitat conditions most ranchers manage against, and we’re wondering what species might benefit from having a little more around.  If nothing else, the patterns found in wind-blown sand are aesthetically pleasing.

One species we know thrives with lots of bare sand is the Ord’s kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ordii). K-rat tracks are abundant in bare sand, distinguished by the relatively large size of the foot prints and the tail marks between them.

This was one of the first plains sunflowers (Helianthus petiolaris) to bloom this summer, but as the summer progressed, sunflower populations exploded, especially where we’d burned in the spring.

Ants appreciate the extrafloral nectar produced by plains sunflowers, and presumably help suppress numbers of herbivorous insects on those sunflowers – notwithstanding the well-armored weevil shown here.

Mating assassin bugs on a plains sunflower. These ambush predators are often seen hunting on the sunflowers as well, taking advantage of abundant insects in search of accessible and nutritious pollen and nectar.

The day’s last beams of sunlight stream across our public hiking trail above the Niobrara River back in June of this year.

As I prepare for the “Best Photos of” post coming up, please let me know if you have a favorite photo or two from the year.  It’s awfully hard for me narrow them down…

Photo of the Week – November 16, 2017

Most of us don’t think about ants very often unless they’re marching across our kitchen counter (or up our leg).  That anonymity isn’t their fault, it’s ours.  Ants play major roles in ecoystems, and their biomass in prairies can rival that of bison, so if we’re not paying them sufficient attention, that’s on us.

Ants on upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska

I took the two ant photos in this post at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in June of this year.  As is usually the case, I spotted the ants only because they happened to be crawling around on some flowers I was looking at.  Ants are often spotted on flowers, especially those that have easily accessible nectar that helps satisfies ants’ attraction to sweets.  While they don’t usually do much good as pollinators, ants might provide some protective services for plants by helping to keep herbivores away.

Ants spend most of their time underground, of course, where it’s easy for us to forget about them.  When they’re not in their tunnels, they still aren’t all that visible unless we’re looking for them.  Regardless, they are major predators in prairies, collaborating with each other to take down prey much larger than they are.  In addition, ants are scavengers, major forces in nutrient cycling, and important seed dispersal agents for some plant species.  Ants can also steal food and workers from each others’ colonies, “herd” aphids and harvest their honeydew and meat, and are themselves an important food source for other animals.  We should probably stop ignoring them.

Golden early morning light shown on this ant as it crawled down the stem of an upright prairie coneflower plant.

Most prairies probably have around 30 species of ants living in them, which is more local diversity than is found in grassland nesting birds, which we pay infinitely more attention to.  In addition, if we lost all our grassland birds tomorrow, it would be sad, but I’m pretty sure it would have much less impact on prairie ecosystems than if we lost our ants.

Let’s try to keep them both around, shall we?

 

Here are some previous posts I’ve written about ants if you feel like reading a little more about them:

https://prairieecologist.com/2011/01/03/the-density-of-ants-in-prairies/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/05/20/ants-in-the-sun/

https://prairieecologist.com/2015/08/18/killer-thistles/

Photo of the Week – October 27, 2017

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.

Late day light on ponderosa pine skeletons, burned in the 2012 wildfire.

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.

Many of the pines killed by the 2012 fire have lost their tops to the wind, but this one was still standing tall and intact.

While cloudless skies make daytime photography difficult, they do have their advantages at night, especially when the wind calms down enough for long exposures (the camera shutter was open about 25 seconds to capture this starry scene).  The light along the horizon is not from the setting sun, but from the closest town of any size (Valentine, Nebraska, population 2700) which was about 25 miles away.

Only a few trees still had their leaves this week, making them stand out in the river valley.

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.

Photo of the Week – September 15, 2017

I spent a couple long days collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week. There wasn’t a lot of time (or light, honestly) for photography other than the first hour of sunlight on Thursday morning. The Sandhills prairie is nearing the end of flowering season and sliding quickly into its fall costume.  A few late-season flowers are in full bloom, but the most of the color in the prairie this time of year comes from leaves changing from green to various shades of brown and red.  Here are a few photos from yesterday morning.

Sunrise over the Sandhills and Niobrara River, with sunflower skeletons in the foreground.

The flurry of sunflower blooming was nearly over, but a few plants held on to their last blossoms, much to the delight of the bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, and other insects feeding on their pollen and nectar.

Wild rose (Rosa arkansana) had a great fruit year in the Sandhills, especially in recently-burned prairie. 

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolium) is one of the last flowers to bloom in the Sandhills season, and patches were scattered about the prairie.

Smooth sumac in the the middle of its transition to from green to red.  In this burned area, skeletons of previous growth are surrounded by the regrowth from the base of the plants.