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. 

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.

Working Outside My Comfort Zone

A Brief Photo Journal:

Late last week, I found myself driving through the middle of the Nebraska sandhills as the sun was getting low in the sky.  I decided to stop and check out a small federal wildlife management area to see if I could find anything to photograph.  I had noticed the sign for the site on previous trips, but had never taken the time to drive up the winding road to see what it looked like.  This seemed like as good a time as any to give it a try.

As it turned out, the place was kind of a mess.  In the middle of the twelve million acres of beautiful, ecologically-intact sandhills prairie, this refuge was dominated by invasive species such as narrowleaf cattails, reed canarygrass, and smooth brome.  The area had obviously been farmed in the past, and had apparently not recovered gracefully.

The mess
The mess.  A lot of non-native plants around a wetland.  Oh, and the light was drab and it was really windy.  If you look hard, you can see a couple native grass plants here and there.

I wasn’t sure this was going to work out as a photography location.  A big open-water wetland surrounded by invasive plants?  To make things worse, the sun was behind a big dark bank of clouds, and the wind was howling at about 35-40 miles per hour…  On the other hand, there wasn’t really time to get anywhere else before dark, and there was a promising-looking thin slice of blue sky between the cloud bank and the horizon.  I decided to stick around and see what happened when the sun reached that sliver of sky.

The site looked very different when the sunlight burst through the clouds.
The site looked very different when the sunlight burst through the clouds.

The light, when it finally appeared, was worth the wait.  The low angle of the sun bathed the whole scene in beautiful orange light.  Now I had to get past my purist snobbery about native vs. invasive plants and force myself to think only about light and composition.  Sure, the landscape was covered with invasives, but the light was wonderful and there were interesting photographs to be made.

Invasive narrowleaf cattails, which surrounded the entire wetland (with a reed canarygrass understory).  But they WERE really pretty in that light!
Invasive narrowleaf cattails surrounded the entire wetland (with a reed canarygrass understory). But they WERE really pretty in that light!

Because of the wind, everything was whipping around like crazy, so I had to bump up my camera’s ISO and open up the aperture (apologies for the photography jargon) in order to freeze the action.  The tradeoff, of course, was a shallow depth-of-field, so the backgrounds of my photos were all out of focus.

More cattails.  I was holding the big one on the left still with my hand...
More cattails.

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Even on this relatively small wetland, the wind was strong enough to whip up some pretty big waves.
Even on this relatively small wetland, the wind was strong enough to whip up some pretty big waves.

As the sun approached the horizon, the light intensity eventually dropped to the point where I could no longer get the shutter speed I needed to freeze the blowing plants.  To compensate, I pointed the camera toward the setting sun (don’t try this at home, kids), and tried to silhouette a few plants against that light, which allowed me to use a faster shutter speed.

Pointing toward the sun to take advantage of the light intensity and freeze the blowing plants.
Pointing toward the sun to take advantage of the light intensity and freeze the blowing plants.

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Look!  A native plant!  (Not that it matters, photographically...)  Canada wild rye silhouetted against the setting sun.
Look! A native plant! (Not that it matters, photographically…) Canada wild rye silhouetted against the setting sun.

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Color in the sky as the sun disappeared.
The clouds were very pretty as the sun hit the horizon.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the photos I got from that twenty minutes of light.  At the very least, it was good for me to get out of my photography comfort zone.  For one thing, I don’t usually attempt landscape photography in 35 mph winds!  I also need to get better at embracing the beauty of an area even when it is ecologically degraded.  First of all, it’s important to photograph those kinds of areas to showcase the conservation challenges we face.  More importantly, if I only photograph places that are in great shape, that really limits the places I can take my camera!

Last light.  Time to hit the road.
Last light. Time to hit the road.

I probably won’t come back to this particular wildlife area anytime soon.  There are plenty of other sites in the sandhills that are more interesting and attractive as photographic locations.  On the other hand, I’m not sorry I stuck around last week.  It was a good reminder that beauty can be found anywhere, even in the middle of a bunch of invasive weeds.

Photo of the Week – January 31, 2013

Another photo from the archives this week – June, 1996, in fact.  These cottonwood leaves were lying on the sandy bank of a small stream at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  A cluster of leaves had fallen from a nearby tree and were just starting to dry out and lose their color.  There was something about the pattern of textures and colors that I really liked.

Cottonwood leaves at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.
Cottonwood leaves at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Fun Fact: this is the only photo of mine that is hanging in our house.

Best of Prairie Ecologist Photos – 2012

As 2012 draws to a close, it seems every photo-related website and blog is putting together a “best of” series of photos from the year.  So, why not – I’ll join in.  It’s not a bad way to review the year.

I winnowed this year’s crop down to 24 images.  (Sorry if it takes a minute or so to load them all.)  Of the 24 photos, all but one has already appeared in a blog post from this year.  For those of you who enjoy this sort of challenge, you can try to figure out which one is new.

The first image shows my son helping me overseed our family prairie in January, 2012.  We’d grazed this portion of the prairie pretty hard in 2011 to suppress the dominant grasses and allow some other plants to have a chance to express themselves.  Since there are quite a few wildflower species that are rare or missing from the prairie, we also harvested and broadcast some seeds to try to help the process along.

My son Daniel, throwing seeds at our family prairie.
My son Daniel, throwing seeds at our family prairie.  Near Stockham, Nebraska.

Spring came quickly this year, and with it came early spring prescribed fires.  Fire is an important tool for land management, but can also cause significant damage when it is out of control (as we experienced later in the year).  Regardless of positive or negative impacts, there’s no denying the visual power of fire from an artistic standpoint.

An early season prescribed fire.
An early season prescribed fire.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies

The winter of 2011/2012 was the first time anyone around here can remember sandhill cranes staying for the winter.  The Central Platte River is well known for hosting half a million or so cranes each spring, but this past year we had thousands of them on the river all winter long.  Judging by the numbers we’ve been seeing in the last couple of weeks, we may get to repeat the sounding joy this season as well.

Sandhill cranes in the early morning.
Roosting sandhill cranes in the early morning.  Central Platte River, Nebraska.

March is always a very busy time of year for us as we split time between prescribed fire and sandhill crane tours.  I’ve taken people into viewing blinds along the Platte River well over a hundred times, but the experience never gets old.

Cranes coming into the roost at sunset.
Cranes coming into the roost at sunset.  Central Platte River, Nebraska.

Close-up photography allows me to find photo opportunities almost anywhere.  This dogbane beetle (on a dogbane plant) was photographed in a small prairie right in my hometown.

A dogbane beetle on dogbane.  Aurora, Nebraska.
A dogbane beetle on dogbane. Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

Similarly, this next photo was taken at a small prairie planting in the front yard of my in-laws’ place in eastern Nebraska.  Sideoats grama is one of the most distinctive-looking of the prairie grasses, but can be difficult to photograph.  On the evening this photo was taken, the wind was dead calm, and I was able to isolate and photograph this “laundry line” of sideoats flowers.

Sideoats grama flowering stem.  Sarpy County, Nebraska.
Sideoats grama. Sarpy County, Nebraska.

This mantis image came from the same night as the grass above.  The sun was dropping fast, and just as the light was fading away, I spotted this mantis and managed to get a couple shots of it before it got too dark to photograph anymore.

Praying Mantis.
Praying Mantis.  Sarpy County, Nebraska.

Every year’s weather favors a different suite of short-lived plant species in prairies and wetlands.  This year was a great year for prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum).  These were photographed along the edge of a restored wetland swale in our Platte River Prairies.

Prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) along a restored wetland.
Prairie gentian growing in abundance on the edge of a wetland.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

While photographing the prairie gentian, I spotted this tiny katydid nymph on the edge of one of the flowers.  As long-time readers of this blog surely know, it’s a katydid rather than a grasshopper because of its very long antennae.

Katydid nymph on prairie gentian.
Katydid nymph on prairie gentian.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This crab spider was hunting for pollinators on purple prairie clover flowers.  There were plenty of bees and flies around that day (though I didn’t get many good photos of them), so I’m sure it didn’t go hungry.

Crab spider on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).
Crab spider on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

In early July, we hosted two entomologists/ecologists from Missouri (James Trager and Mike Arduser) in our Platte River Prairies.  I invited them to help us evaluate our restoration work from the perspective of bees, ants, and other insects.  It was a great week, and stimulated a lot of thinking and discussion about how our management work affects insects – and how those insects affect and indicate the status of important ecological processes.  James and Mike also stopped by some prairies in southeastern Nebraska where I am helping to coordinating research.  The photo below shows James in one of those prairies.

James Trager, naturalist at the Shaw Nature Reserve, displays the finer points of a katydid in southeastern Nebraska.
James Trager, naturalist at the Shaw Nature Reserve in Missouri, displays the finer points of a katydid in southeastern Nebraska.

Tyler Janke heads up a collaborative effort to design strategies for restoring cottonwood woodland along the Missouri River in Nebraska.  I spent a July day with him, looking over some early results of various methods he’s testing.

Tyler Janke stands in front of his irrigated plots where he is restoring cottonwood woodland along the Platte River.
The Nature Conservancy’s Tyler Janke stands in front of some irrigated plots where he is testing cottonwood restoration strategies.

As I was driving home from work on a hot day in late July, I got a call that there was a wildfire on or near our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  The remote location of the fire and the weather forecast made it sound like it could be a bad one.  It certainly was.  By the time I got up there a few days later, over half of our 56,000 acre property had burned, and several neighbors had lost homes.

Aftermath of the 2012 Fairfield Creek Wildfire - The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Aftermath of the 2012 Fairfield Creek Wildfire – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Even after the dramatic changes caused by the fire, the scenery at the Preserve was as striking as ever.

Scorched grassland and yucca following the 2012 wildfire.
Scorched grassland and yucca following the 2012 wildfire.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Walking through the ash and soot, it was nice to see how many creatures had survived the fire.  This lizard was one of many hanging around in the few remaining shady areas in the sandhill prairies.

A fence lizard that survived the wildfire hunts in the ashes.
A fence lizard hunts for food among the ashes.

Annual sunflowers were big winners in the competition between plants within drought-stricken prairies this year.  That was true in our Platte River Prairies as well as along the Niobrara.  The photo below shows a small native bee taking advantage of one of many sunflowers that survived both the drought and the wildfire at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A small native bee gathers food from an annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
A small native bee gathers food from an annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus).  The Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

The most difficult impacts of the wildfire were economic.  The vast majority of our east bison pasture (over 7000 acres) burned, leaving the herd with little left to eat until the grass was able to recover.  I got to go back up the Preserve in early August to help the staff and volunteers with a bison roundup to sort and sell off a good portion of the herd.  Bison roundups have some similarities to cattle roundups, but bison are definitely wild animals (and really big), and now and then they can remind you of that in dramatic ways.  An example is when a big bull tries to jump over the 10 foot wall of a corral.

A bison bull tries to jump out of the corral chute during a bison roundup.
A bison bull looking for a way out of the corral chute during a bison roundup.  The Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Large portions of the Niobrara Valley Preserve and the surrounding neighborhood will look very different in the coming years, but it remains a beautiful and ecologically important place.  It will be very interesting to watch the recovery and adaptation of the species and communities that live there.

The Niobrara River flowing through the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
The Niobrara River flowing through the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Despite the drought, many of our Platte River Prairies still had some areas of lush growth this summer.  These rosinweed plants, though not as tall as in some years, were looking just fine.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) in restored prairie along the Platte river.
Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) in restored prairie along the Platte river.

After a frustrating attempt in the spring to photograph prairie dogs near home, I found some more accommodating photo subjects in the Nebraska sandhills.  Judging from the feedback I received, many of you enjoyed reading about both my failed and successful attempts.

A black-tailed prairie dog in the Nebraska sandhills.
A black-tailed prairie dog in the Nebraska sandhills.  North-Central Nebraska.

The great thing about box turtles is that they’re fairly easy to keep up with as they move through the prairie.  That makes turtle photography considerably easier than, say, prairie dog photography.

An ornate box turtle in the Nebraska sandhills.
An ornate box turtle in the Nebraska sandhills.  North-Central Nebraska.

While walking through one of our wetlands in the autumn, I spotted this jumping spider watching me.  I repaid the favor.

A jumping spider on a beggarstick plant in a restored wetland.
A jumping spider on a beggarstick plant in a restored wetland.

A month or so later, I returned to the same wetland to attempt some landscape photography.  After changing my mind several times, I decided I did, in fact, like this particular photo from that day.

A restored wetland and stream along the Central Platte River.
A restored wetland and stream along the Central Platte River.

Finally, this last photo seems the most appropriate to cap off the year 2012 for me.  I was crossing a bridge over the Niobrara River a few days after the wildfire when I saw this photographer down below.  Watching the photographer capturing the beauty of the river, despite being surrounded by a charred landscape, was particularly striking.

A photographer captures the late day light coming through the falls on the Niobrara River near the Norden Bridge.
A photographer captures the late day light coming through the falls of the Niobrara River near the Norden Bridge.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Images have tremendous power.  Although this blog is about far more than just pretty prairie photos, those photos do play a critical role.  They help illustrate the topic being discussed, but they also showcase the beauty and diversity of an ecosystem that many people wrongly assume is flat and uninteresting.

I’m very grateful to all of you who regularly visit this blog.  I also really appreciate it when you forward your favorite posts to friends and colleagues.  Together, we can show the world how complex, beautiful, and important prairies really are.

Remember, if you want to have blog posts emailed to you, you can subscribe at the top right corner of the page.  You can even follow the blog on Twitter: @helzerprairie.

Photo of the Week – November 29, 2012

Yes, you’ve seen this photo before…

This is the same photo I used for the Photo of the Week back on November 16.

When I get back from a photography venture, I usually try to sort through and process photos within a day or so.  I hate getting behind, and I like to get photos worked up before I get tied up in other things and forget about them.  However, it can sometimes pay to wait a little while.  Now and then I’ll go back and look at photos I took weeks or months earlier and decide that the images I liked best at the time are no longer my favorites.

Two weeks ago, I used the above wetland photo as my Photo of the Week.  I took the photo the day before I posted it, and at the time it was my clear favorite from the day.  The other day, I happened across it, looked at it, and thought, “Meh.”

So I went back and looked at the rest of the same batch and found some other images I liked just as much, or maybe even more.  I’m not saying any of them are life changing images – landscapes are not really my forte – but I like them… and I didn’t think much of them two weeks ago.  In fact, this first one (below) didn’t even make the first cut.  I didn’t enter any metadata into the file or work it up in PhotoShop; I just left it with all the others I didn’t think were worth spending any time on.

This image was a throw-away two weeks ago. Now I kind of like it.

This next photo was one that I really liked when I was in the field, but liked less when I got it back home.  There was too much of the photo that seemed extraneous.  This week, as I looked through the images again, I saw a way to cut out some of what I didn’t like as much and emphasize what I did.

I like this photo much better after cropping it a little from my original composition. Basically, I just nipped off a little on the left side that didn’t really add anything to the image. Two weeks ago, I thought it was mediocre. Now I think it’s a pretty nice image, and – at this moment – it’s my favorite from that day. (A month from now I’ll probably hate it)

This final image (below) is almost completely contained in the image above, but shot from a slightly different location.  The way it’s cropped now, however, changes the whole feel of the photo.  Instead of a photo of a wetland with an interesting cloud above it, it’s now a photo of an interesting sky with a little bit of wetland below it.  The shorter height makes it look wider, which fits the way the scene felt in real life.

When I went back and looked at this photo, I saw potential for an interesting panoramic format, so I cropped off a good chunk from the bottom and liked the result. I think it does a good job of representing the very wide open feel of the landscape.

…Speaking of not being able to choose the best of my photos, I’ve decided it might be fun to go back through photos I’ve taken this year and try to select a few for a kind of Year in Review Photo Show for a December blog post.  (Isn’t that what websites like this are supposed to do at the end of the year?)

I’ve got it narrowed down to about 50 photos, which is about 40 too many…  I’m going to keep winnowing them down, but if you have any favorites you think should definitely make the cut, feel free to cast your vote by leaving a comment below.  You can browse through 2012 posts to see if any really stick out, but be warned that only photos I actually took this year are eligible (my blog, my rules).  Or you can just wait to see what I pick out myself.

Photo of the Week – November 16, 2012

I really enjoy photography, but I’m glad I don’t have to make my living doing it.  For me, photography is something I get to do for fun – grabbing opportunities when they arise, instead of having to record a particular event at a particular time.  I have incredible respect for journalistic photographers who show up and make beautiful or powerful images out of very challenging photographic situations.  I’ve done that kind of photography a few times, and found it much more stressful than enjoyable.  It’s much more fun to pull my camera out of the bag only when the light is good and I have some time to wander.

Restored wetland habitat at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. The sun was just nearing the thin edge of a big cloud bank, bathing the scene in warm diffused light – perfect conditions for photography.

Yesterday morning, I arrived at our Platte River Prairies field headquarters a little early for a meeting.  As I was driving in, I was enjoying the beautiful light being produced as the sun neared the edge of a receding cloud bank.  Since I had a little time, I turned onto a short trail road, parked, and hiked into one of our restored wetlands to see if I could find anything to photograph.

As I walked up to the edge of the water, I flushed a great blue heron and a dozen mallards, and listened to several flocks of cranes passing overhead.  During the next 15 minutes or so I walked the edge of a wet swale with my camera – until the sun finally emerged completely from behind the clouds and the light became too intense for my liking.  I packed up and headed for my meeting… and arrived right on time.

Deadline-free photography – it’s a wonderful thing.

Photo of the Week – November 8, 2012

A Moment in Time

I actually saw this seed detach from a milkweed pod and float away on a breath of wind.  I tracked its flight until it got stuck – ever so slightly – on the seed head of a nearby grass plant.  I had just enough time to plop my tripod down, focus quickly, and squeeze off one shot before the gentle breeze lifted the seed again and carried it out of sight.

A butterfly milkweed seed clings (briefly) to the seed head of sideoats grama. Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

It was one of those rare, but gratifying, times when I actually caught a fleeting image with my camera.  Near misses are much more common – see earlier blog posts on photographing prairie dogs and bees, for example…  In fact, I often have to remind myself not to get so wrapped up in the (often fruitless) attempt to capture an image photographically that I forget to simply enjoy the moment.

This time, I got both the image and the enjoyment, which means I get to pass both along to you.

Photo of the Week – August 16, 2012

This photo is actually several weeks old – taken at the Niobrara Valley Preserve right after the big wildfires had blown through.  On this particular evening, I was crossing a bridge over the river and saw a photographer working to capture the evening light coming through the spray of a waterfall.  I had just enough time to squeeze off a couple shots of him before he started packing up his tripod to leave. 

A photographer catching the evening light through the waterfall just upstream of the Norden Bridge – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Click on the photo to see a larger, sharper version.

When I took this picture, I was covered in soot from working all day in recently-burned areas.  The photographer, the beautiful light, and the clean water passing over the falls were all in stark and welcome contrast to most of the surrounding landscape, which consisted largely of scorched earth and trees.  The scene was like a small peephole into what the larger landscape had been like just a few days earlier. 

I’ve delayed posting this photo because I wasn’t sure whether I liked it because of my emotions at the time or because it was really a quality photo.  To be honest, I’m still not sure, but it’s time to post it anyway.  I hope you enjoy it.