I was back at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week to help with a little bison work and a board meeting. My wife was able to come with me, and we stayed an extra night so we could do some hiking Saturday morning before heading home.
Kim and I decided to hike up the bluffs north of the river where the 2012 wildfire transformed an overgrown savanna of pines and cedars into a burgeoning grassland/shrubland dotted with burned tree skeletons. Autumn is well established along the Niobrara River, and there have already been several hard freezes and some light snows. Despite that, we found plenty of color and texture to enjoy while we wandered, as well as a couple very pleasant surprises.
I’m not a wildlife photographer. Wildlife photographers put in countless hours tracking, observing, and either stalking subjects or sitting in a blind. I admire wildlife photographers but I don’t have the patience to be one. Instead, I get my wildlife photos the easy way – by always (ALWAYS) carrying my camera when I’m in the field so that when I have a random close encounter with an animal, I’ve got a chance to take its picture. This month, I’ve had three successful (and accidental) photographic encounters with mammalian wildlife species, and am sharing the results here.
Back in mid-August, I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve collecting data on flowering plants across various management treatments. I’d gotten up early that morning and driven the 4+ hours up to Niobrara because the forecast said the rain would be ending in the early morning and it looked like a good day to be in the field. Instead, it rained all day. While I was driving my truck between sampling locations (in the rain) two mule deer flushed out of some brushy vegetation in front of me and turned to look at my truck. The buck turned away again and took off over the hill, but the doe stayed behind to see what I was up to. I rolled down the passenger side window of the truck, grabbed my camera from behind the seat, and took this photo. I didn’t even get wet – did I mention it was raining?
Later the same day, it finally stopped raining, the sun came out, and both the landscape and I dried out a little before evening. I wandered around with my camera until the photography light disappeared, and then hopped in my truck and headed back to headquarters. As I was coming down the lane between the mailbox and the crew quarters, where I was staying, a young porcupine crossed the road in front of me and climbed up the embankment. Other people had been seeing the same porcupine this summer, but though I’d seen its mom, this was the first time I’d seen the young one. It was moving quickly enough that I didn’t have time to grab my camera out the back seat of my truck, and instead just grabbed my cell phone out of my pocket as I climbed up the embankment to get a closer look. The porcupine didn’t even pause or turn its head to look at me as it made its way to the top and then waddled off across the prairie toward a small patch of trees. I squeezed off three shots with my phone camera and got one that was decent.
The final photo (and my favorite) comes from yesterday, when I was riding my ATV through our Platte River Prairies. I was cruising along pretty slowly and flushed a jack rabbit. That’s not unusual, but in this case, instead of popping up out of the grass and bounding off with its ears held high, the rabbit took two quick hops and then hunkered back down in the vegetation. I stopped the ATV in surprise, and when I realized the rabbit had invested in its hiding strategy, I grabbed my camera from my bag and took a couple pictures of it through the grass. Then I slid slowly off the seat of the 4-wheeler and took a few steps to get a better angle for the photo (above) I ended up liking the best. After that, we just sat there, keeping an eye on each other, until I decided I had work to do and wished the rabbit a pleasant day. As I started up the ATV motor, the rabbit finally decided to scamper off.
Maybe someday I’ll gain the patience and perseverance it takes to be a real wildlife photographer. In the meantime, I’ll just keep my camera handy for those times when the wildlife decides to pose for me.
During the 20 years of my employment with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, I’ve been involved in at least 20 bison roundups (we usually do two a year – one for each herd at our Niobrara Valley Preserve). Last week’s was my favorite, hands down. It wasn’t because the roundup went well – though it went as smoothly as any we’ve done. It wasn’t even because the weather was perfect – though it was. Nope, it was my favorite because it was the first time it’s ever worked out to bring my kids along.
I didn’t get to bring all of them, but everything lined up just right for John and Daniel, who were on fall break from school and were old enough to be helpful and safe. They had a great time, and the experience was far richer for me as well.
Now, to be perfectly clear, we don’t typically involve kids in our roundups, but I was able to supervise the boys personally and make sure they were safely doing work appropriate to their age and ability. To begin with, both of them just watched the process to learn how the animals are moved quickly through a series of alleys and gates with as little noise and stress as possible. Later in the day, they were both able to join in the work.
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.
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.
Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know about the big wildfire that swept across The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve back in 2012. One of the results of that fire was the death of almost all of the Preserve’s ponderosa pines on the bluffs north of the river. I’ve posted several times about the recovery of that portion of the site, which we are watching closely and learning from. We haven’t seen any new pines coming in yet, but grasses, sedges, wildflowers, and deciduous shrubs are all flourishing.
As new plants colonize the site, the old skeletons of pines and eastern red cedars are starting to break down. Some of those dead trees are tipping over completely, while others are breaking off further up the trunk. The result is a landscape that is a little more difficult to walk through (and dangerous on windy days), but one that is still very pretty. The gradual degradation of the tree skeletons is a necessary part of the recovery and transition of this area to a different ecological community. We think that pines will eventually recolonize the site, but it’s going to be many years before that happens to any great extent. In the meantime, there is a great abundance of wildlife, insects, and wildflowers living between the falling trees.
While up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve earlier this summer, I spent a little time wandering in, ruminating about, and photographing the area where the old trees are breaking down. Here is some of what I saw.
I’ve always enjoyed looking at the patterns I find in ponderosa pine park. It’s hard to resist photographing them. This last trip, I was seeing specific images in some of the patterns, so I photographed a few and present them here for your consideration. They are a kind of Rorschach test, I suppose. What images do you see?
Oh man, there are so many choices for titles when writing a blog post about dung beetles…
While my wife and I were hiking around the Niobrara Valley Preserve a few weeks ago, Kim spotted a couple dung beetles rolling a ball of bison dung through the Sandhills. It was really fun to watch them and it was my first good opportunity to photograph dung beetles in action. The light was nice and the beetles seemed fine with me watching them. As it happened, once I started following the first pair with my camera, I ended up seeing two other pairs of beetles within a few yards of the first. I wish I’d had the time to follow them longer and see where they went with their booty.
Dung beetles don’t often get a lot of attention, but when they do, it’s the “rollers” that usually get it. In fact, there are three general categories of dung beetles: rollers, dwellers and tunnelers. Dwellers just live inside manure piles (ick). Tunnelers burrow beneath manure piles and bury some of it for their larvae to feed on (boring). But ROLLERS!! Rollers make a neat round ball out of manure and roll that ball across the ground for our enjoyment. (Oh, and also so they can find just the right place to bury it and lay eggs with it.)
Essentially, rollers, dwellers, and tunnelers are all doing the same job: they feed on manure and help break it down and return it to the soil. Clearly, however, dung beetles that roll poop balls across the ground do that job in the most entertaining way!
To be serious for a moment, there are apparently 50 or so species of dung beetles here in Nebraska, and they really do play a really important role in converting manure into productive soil. Strong populations of dung beetles can also break down manure piles before parasites on cattle and bison can lay their eggs in them – helping to control those parasite populations. Ironically, chemical treatments used to reduce parasite loads in livestock can be hard on dung beetle populations because the pesticides remain in the manure. Even more ironically, some people are now advocating the introduction of dung beetles from other continents to bolster declining populations of beetles in U.S. pastures. Humans sure are silly sometimes.
On the other hand, we don’t roll big balls of poop around…
I’ve written many times about the 2012 wildfire that impacted our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and the continuing recovery of the plant and animal communities there. When I was up at the Preserve a few weeks ago, it was really interesting to explore the north side of the river where the fire wiped out the pine and eastern redcedar trees. I know I’ve posted a number of times about the way that area is recovering. If you feel like you’ve seen plenty of photographs of vibrant green vegetation beneath stark blackened tree trunks, this is your chance to click to another site and catch up on the box score of a recent baseball game or catch up on celebrity gossip.
(Are they gone? Ok, good. The rest of you can enjoy these photos.)
After the 2012 wildfire that swept through the Niobrara River Valley in north-central Nebraska, one of the concerns among our neighbors and other observers was the chance of significant erosion from both wind and water. Based on previous experience with summer fire and grazing in Sandhills prairie, we weren’t overly concerned about erosion there, but we had less experience with the kind of steep slopes and loose soils found beneath the ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees on the bluffs north of the river. We used timelapse cameras to watch several areas where we thought there was potential for erosion to happen. (Spoiler alert: not much happened.)
One camera was set up on the edge of a big Sandhills blowout (an area of bare sand created by previous wind erosion). With a summer of severe drought, a July wildfire, and continuous bison grazing during and after all of that, it seemed possible we’d see some accelerated wind erosion there. The camera was erected in April 2013 and set to take one photo per hour and document whether or not the blowout expanded in size following the fire.
The camera’s post twisted and shifted some over time (watch the distant bluffs in the top left corner of the images as a landmark). That made it more difficult to track the edge of the blowout precisely, but it’s clear that if there was any expansion of the blowout, it was really minor. This matches what we’ve seen previously after conducting prescribed fires (spring, summer, and fall) in bison-grazed prairie in the Sandhills. Although ranchers are often advised to defer grazing after a fire to avoid damaging grasses and/or causing erosion, we haven’t seen any long-term problems arise from grazing immediately after fires. Graduate research by Jack Arterburn at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is helping us further evaluate the recovery of grasslands from this latest wildfire.
North of the river, the wildfire ripped through stands of ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar that had become so dense that very little vegetation could grow beneath many of them. Following the fire, the barren ground and steep slopes seemed ripe for significant soil erosion. We had several cameras in this area to help see how much erosion actually occurred. One of those (shown above) was set to look across a steep slope in a place that seemed particularly likely to lose soil during a downpour.
Some small gullies formed, and a few rocks even washed downslope along with some topsoil during spring rains in 2013. After that, however, annual plants of various kinds established quickly on the slopes and subsequent soil loss between the summer of 2013 and the end of the season in 2015 appears to have been very minimal. Perennial plants are now starting to spread across these slopes, but it will be a while before they are the dominant vegetation. In the meantime, annual sunflowers, foxtails, and other short-lived opportunistic species seem to be doing their jobs and holding the soil.
We also put a camera at the bottom of a draw beneath the steep slopes shown earlier. Any water and/or sediment coming from those slopes would have to flow into and through this draw, so we thought it would be a good place to watch. In the first video below, you can see that a load of sediment did come down between May 18 and May 21, 2013 – the same time period during which we saw the most significant erosion in the video of the steep slopes. The other story from this particular video is that you can really see the resprouting of the bur oak trees in that draw – nearly all of which seemed to survive the wildfire (albeit in a different form than before).
In the second video from this camera, you can see a quick progression of images from the three years following the fire. The tall growth of vegetation (primarily annuals) makes it difficult to see the ground, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of erosion after that first half season of 2013. We didn’t do any seeding or take other steps to reduce erosion on steep slopes, so it was reassuring to see that the plants there were up to the task of holding the soil. Amanda Hefner and Dave Wedin from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have been collecting data from the site that we hope corroborates the story we’re seeing through the cameras.
It would have been a lot more exciting to show you videos of blowouts moving across the Sandhills or torrents of rock and soil washing down steep slopes. Sorry about that. On the other hand, while we won’t likely win any awards for dramatic videos, watching nothing much happen in these timelapse images is pretty powerful in its own way. It’s natural to assume the worst after a traumatic event like a major wildfire, and it can be difficult to convince ourselves and others that things will be ok without some pretty strong evidence. Timelapse photography is only part of our effort to measure the impacts of the wildfire, but they provide visual reassurance in ways that data graphs just can’t.
We’ll continue to watch and react to the recovering landscape in the coming years. For now, however, recovery of the Niobrara Valley Preserve seems to be on a good track.
Thanks to the Nebraska Environmental Trust for supporting our timelapse project other efforts to measure and track recovery from this wildfire.
Many of you are familiar with one of the great disappointments in my life. I know you’re familiar with it because you take great delight from bringing it up in conversation when I see you in person. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been introduced to someone at a conference or other event, and as I shake their hand, they smirk and ask, “Have you seen an otter yet?”
And I always answer “no.”
This is despite the fact that I have spent more than 20 years working along the Platte River, where there are very high populations of river otters – especially in the stretch of river where The Nature Conservancy owns most of our land. I see tracks, scat, and other sign of otters often. Other staff, researchers, volunteers, neighbors, and (I assume) people just driving past on the interstate have all seen otters. But I have not.
Well, I have an update on that situation. During the week of Christmas, my wife Kim and I spent several days up at the Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. It was a combination work trip/vacation. One morning, Evan Suhr, the Preserve’s land steward took us out to look at the results of last year’s grazing and fire treatments. During the trip, we took a brief break and walked down to the river to see where Hazel Creek dumps into it.
As we stood on the river bank admiring the view, I heard the sound of soft ice cracking, looked up, and stared right into the face of a river otter. Yes, really.
I had my camera in hand, but had my wide angle lens on, which was worthless for photographing wildlife. I called out to Evan and Kim to look at the otter and fumbled around in my camera bag for my longer lens. Before I could get the lenses switched, the otter dipped back below the surface. A few minutes later, however, we saw it reappear just upstream, and a second otter head popped up next to it. Unfortunately, there was a dead cedar tree partially blocking my view of the otters. I stepped slowly and carefully around the tree, but just as I did, both otters disappeared again. Kim managed to see the two of them once more before we headed back to the truck, but I didn’t, and never managed to get a photo.
So, how am I to feel about this? First, defensive. YES, I saw an otter. I have two witnesses to back me up, as well as a photo of the hole through which the first one popped its head. I don’t care what you say – I saw an otter. Two, in fact!
Second, it was really cool to see those two otters. After waiting so long, and enduring so much grief, the experience was even more sweet than it would otherwise have been. We didn’t get to see them for long, but they were fairly close, and it was exciting. It was especially nice that Kim and I both got to see them.
Third. Now that I’ve moved beyond the initial thrill of seeing those otters, I can’t help slipping a little back into the kind of bitterness I’ve expressed about otters before. Yes, I saw otters, but I still haven’t seen them along the Platte, where I’ve spent many years waiting and looking for them. I also didn’t manage to get even a bad photo of them, despite the fact that I saw them twice and HAD MY CAMERA IN MY HANDS at the time. I can’t help thinking this may be part of the broad otter conspiracy against me. It’s almost as if the otters were afraid I was giving up on ever seeing them and decided it’d be a lot more fun to throw me a crumb and make me want the rest of the cake even more.
I know, I know. I’m being completely irrational and ungrateful. I know I should just enjoy the experience of seeing them and not worry about the fact that it happened on a different river or that I didn’t get a photo taken. I also acknowledge that it’s unlikely (but not impossible!) that the otters of Nebraska are in any way conspiring against me. I know all of that. But I can’t help it.
Until I see an otter along the Platte River, I’m just not going to be satisfied. Sure, I’ll do my best to enjoy my life otherwise. My wife and kids are wonderful, I have a great job, and life seems very good. It’s just not quite complete. But sooner or later, those otters are going to slip up. One of them is going to fail to notice that I’m there and it’ll pop out of the water with a fish in its mouth and start tap dancing on the bank – as they do when I’m not around. But THIS time I’m going to be there. With my camera. And we’ll see who’s laughing then, won’t we??
Earlier this week, I mentioned the hike I took at the Niobrara Valley Preserve Monday afternoon and evening. I carried my camera on the walk but waited in vain for decent photography light. The heavy clouds started to thin as sunset time neared, but the sun dropped below the horizon before ever popping through. However, a short time later, as the clouds continued to thin, they suddenly lit up with beautiful pink and purple color.
Not long after the color faded from the sky, the first stars started to appear and the clouds continued to disperse. By the time I reached the car, most of the sky was clear and the stars were strikingly bright in the sky. It was only about 7:30 pm, so I decided to extend my hike a little and found a few trees to put in front of the stars.
Listening to coyotes and great horned owls while admiring more stars than anyone could count in a lifetime of lifetimes was a pretty great way to end the day.