Photo of the Week – September 6

Well, August was an awesome month for my square meter photography project.  An unbelievable number of insects visited my little plot of prairie during the month, many of them drawn by the abundant and very charismatic Maximilian sunflowers.  After a lot of sorting and decision-making, I ended up with well over 150 high quality photos from the month.  I’m sharing 18 of those with you here.

I started this project with the hope of inspiring people about the beauty and diversity of prairies.  What I didn’t expect was the degree to which I, myself, have been inspired and affected by the project.  The diversity of life I’ve recorded has been amazing, but the process of slowing down, focusing in, and appreciating what I find in a tiny space has become a powerful experience for me.  Rather than feeling like I’m missing other photographic opportunities by returning over and over to the same little spot, I actually find myself wishing I was there when I’m not.

Anyway, I hope you’re enjoying these updates along the way.  I’m working on some ideas for how to share the entire project after the year is over.  If you have suggestions along those lines, please feel free to share them!

This beetle is feeding on the leaf of a Maximilian sunflower plant.
There was only one stiff sunflower plant in my little plot, surrounded by many more Maximilian sunflower plants. I tracked the progress of that stiff sunflower plant, anticipating the diversity of insects I would find on its flowers.  However, as soon as that sunflower bloomed, it was attacked by a horde of little beetles. I will admit being emotionally affected by that attack…
Once Maximilian sunflowers started to bloom, they drew insects like huge magnets, including lots of these little hover flies (aka flower flies and syrphid flies)
It wasn’t just the flowers that attracted insects. Early in the month, I found this cavity with something shiny and brown inside it. I never figured out what was in there, and didn’t want to bother it since it was inside my plot.
A few weeks after the previous photo, I found another cavity in another Maximilian sunflower stem. Same kind of insect? I have no idea.
Soldier beetles were astonishingly abundant this month, both on sunflowers and elsewhere.
While soldier beetle abundance was on the upswing, Japanese beetle abundance was declining. I haven’t seen one in a couple weeks now.
Many of the insects I’m finding are really really tiny, including what I’m pretty sure are itsy bitsy wasps. If you look very closely, you can see one silhouetted against this flower.
Another example of tiny insects – I only saw this little fly because I was photographing the leaf axil of Indiangrass and the fly entered the frame.
I had seen this plant hopper species elsewhere in Lincoln Creek Prairie, and was thrilled to finally catch one in my plot.
This aphid was feeding on a Maximilian sunflower before it flowered.
The smoke from western wildfires created hazy skies last month, but that haze made for some nice photo light, including a photo of the sun itself.
I thought this plant hopper (?) was just an empty exoskeleton until it started moving while I photographed it. Astonishingly cool.
Sunflowers weren’t the only bloomers in August. Grasses were also in full bloom, including this big bluestem plant.
Indiangrass started blooming right at the end of the month, and this hover fly took advantage of the easy access pollen.
This hover fly was resting between flowers on a dewy morning.
After seeing them all over the prairie around me, I finally found a mantis inside my plot. This one is the European mantis.
While I was following the above European mantis around the plot with my camera, I came across this Chinese mantis, also in the plot. Two mantis species in the same day!

 

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 – June 14, 2018

I took advantage of some nice light to take quite a few photos this week.  Here is a small selection of unrelated images.

Goatsbeard, aka yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius) is a non-native plant that has become naturalized in our prairies. It appears to be innocuous, and potentially beneficial, at least as an additional resource for pollinators. It’s also gorgeous, especially as it greets the morning sun.
Prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) has very intricate white flowers arranged on a vertical stalk. It is a perennial species, but becomes much more abundant in some years than others, and I’m not sure what regulates those cycles.
Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) is an annual native grass that can become abundant in wetlands when plant competition is suppressed. The unique texture of the pastel-colored seedheads can make it look like a patch of foxtail barley is in motion, even when it isn’t.
A small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii) explores a showy milkweed plant (Asclepias speciosa).  They feed on nectar and milkweed seeds, but can also act as scavengers and predators when food is scarce.
Prairie spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis) in restored prairie, with serrate-leaf primrose (Calylophus serrulatus) in the background.
Serrate-leaf primrose up close.

Photo of the Week – March 9, 2018

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to dedicate this post to a friend of mine who’s going through a difficult time right now.  Ernie Ochsner is an extraordinarily talented artist from here in Aurora whose paintings and photographs have inspired me for years.  More importantly, talking to Ernie always makes me feel better about the world.  He is incessantly curious, thoughtful and kind.  I’ve seen very little of him in recent years – my fault, not his – and I’ve missed his energy and conversation.

Whenever I see a sky like this, I think of Ernie and his artwork.

Ernie is a first rate explorer of both landscapes and philosophy; he chases skies and truths.  Some of the most thought-provoking discussions of my life have been with Ernie, largely because his explorations have given him an expansive view of life and spirituality, and he is excited to share what he’s discovered.  However, many of our conversations have started by him asking, “Did you see that sky last night?”   Every time I look out my window and see gorgeous clouds and light above town, I assume Ernie is out with his camera, trying to find a foreground to put in front of that sky (and he usually is).  His landscape photographs are wonderful, and his paintings are sublime.  There’s no mistaking an Ernie Ochsner painting – he has a distinctive and beautiful style, characterized by colors that jump off the canvas.

I tend to look down, rather than up, as I walk prairies with a camera.  However, when a sky is striking enough that it causes me to lift my head and gaze at it, I often think of Ernie.  Today’s post includes photos of some of those skies.  I hope they give both Ernie and you some joy.

Niobrara Valley Preserve in the spring.
Bison, sandhills, and sky.
Early morning light at Konza Prairie in Kansas.
Showy evening primroses in the Platte River Prairies.
Plains sunflowers along a fenceline in the Nebraska Sandhills.
Gjerloff Prairie, one of Ernie’s frequent haunts – owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute, which Ernie has been part of from the beginning.

Snow and Light

We finally got our first measurable snowfall (4-5 inches?) of the year here in east central Nebraska.  I took my camera for a walk at our family prairie yesterday evening, enjoying the way a little snow really transforms a landscape.  I found and followed tracks of coyotes, mice, birds, and deer, and flushed flocks of meadowlarks and tree sparrows.  As the sun started to drop quickly toward the horizon, I wandered through one of the areas we grazed particularly hard last summer, enjoying the broad expanse of whiteness, punctuated by scattered plants poking up through the snow.

Heath aster (Aster ericoides) protrudes from a tiny mound of snow.

I spent the next half hour mainly lying prone on the snow, tripod legs splayed flat to the ground, photographing heath aster and sideoats grama plants, and having a great time.  As you look through these photos, you’ll be able to see how the quality and color of the light changed as the sun approached the horizon.  Shadows became much less stark and more blue in color, and the plants and snow both reflected increasingly golden-orange light from the setting sun.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
More sideoats
More heath aster
Final sideoats photo, as the sun was right at the horizon.

The opportunity to watch sunrises and sunsets is a big perk of living on the Plains, where we get an unobstructed view of the sun from horizon to horizon, without pesky trees or mountains in the way.   On many nights, the combination of a low sun angle, expansive sky, and scattered clouds can provide spectacular views.  Other times, however, the best way to appreciate a setting sun is to turn and look in the opposite direction at the changing colors of light and shadows.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Best of 2017 – Stories and Photos from The Year

I’m consistently and deeply grateful to everyone who takes the time to read and/or follow this blog.  After more than 7 years, pumping out a couple blog posts each week is still energizing for me, and it’s awfully nice to know people are out there enjoying what I post.

This is my annual “Best Of” post, in which you can find some of my favorite posts from 2017 in case you’re looking for something to read (or re-read) over the holidays.  Below that, you can peruse what I think are the best photos I took this past year.  If you have friends or colleagues who don’t yet appropriately appreciate the beauty and complexity of prairies, feel free to forward this post to them.  You never know what might start someone on their own journey of discovery, and we need all the prairie fans we can get.

Speaking of that, please consider supporting your favorite conservation organization this season.  There are lots of good options, including the one that pays my salary.  Thank you for any support – financial or otherwise – you can provide to help conserve prairies and other important natural areas around the world.

Favorite 2017 posts:

General Science, Prairie Management, and Philosophy

  1. An essay about the importance of understanding the scientific process and its impact on our lives.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/01/04/how-science-works-and-why-it-matters/
  2. How does livestock grazing fit with concerns about emissions that contribute to rapid climate change?  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/02/06/compatibility-of-cows-conservation-and-climate-change/
  3. Thoughts about tough decisions regarding sometimes conflicting prairie management objectives.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/03/14/should-we-manage-for-rare-species-or-species-diversity/
  4. A discussion about how prairie size can influence the viability of prairie species and communities.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/04/26/how-small-is-too-small/
  5. A post designed for land managers who might feel discouraged about the constant and growing challenges they face. https://prairieecologist.com/2017/10/31/a-hopeful-metaphor-for-prairie-managers/

Natural History and Place-Based Stories

  1. The unsung heroes of pollination – single moms.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/02/14/the-life-of-a-single-mom-bee/
  2. Is it a wasp, mantis, or fly?  Nope.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/06/27/its-a-what/
  3. Background on the incredible numbers of painted lady butterflies seen in 2017.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/09/20/the-painted-lady-butterfly-this-years-poster-child-for-insect-migration/
  4. Insects that steal nectar without following protocol.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/10/10/back-door-thieves/
  5. Monarch butterflies arrived in Nebraska much sooner than usual this year.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/04/18/not-yet-monarchs-not-yet/
  6. Photos from one of the most spectacular and hidden places in Nebraska.   https://prairieecologist.com/2017/05/31/vacation-at-toadstool-geologic-park/
  7. An informative (and humorous) look at a beautiful and unusual plant.  https://prairieecologist.com/2017/11/28/a-brief-note-on-painted-milkvetch/

Most Viewed Post of all Time…

Just for fun, here is a link to the blog post that has had more views than any I have other written.  It’s certainly not the one I would have expected, but I checked the statistics out of curiosity and there it was – 48,000 views all time, including 21,000 in 2017.  I’m not going to tell you what it is, but if you’re curious, you can click here and find out.

Favorite Photos of 2017

Here is a selection of the photos I thought were my best from 2017.  You can see them in the slideshow below (click on the arrows or just sit back and watch), or in YouTube video form below that.  Hopefully, one of the two formats will work on whatever device you’re viewing this on.

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YouTube Video of the same photos:

If you liked these photos, you might also like my 2016 selections or this collection of some of my all-time favorites.

My Wife Finds A Basement Visitor

One of the best parts of a happy marriage is being periodically reminded that you’ve found just the right partner.  My latest example of that came this weekend, when my wife came up from our basement with a jar containing a beautiful inch-and-a-half-long house centipede.  Kim had been doing laundry and spotted it on the floor.  Instead of stomping on it, she trapped it and delivered it to her crazy photographer husband.  I sure do love that woman.

House centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata)

Since house centipedes are fleet of foot (feet?) and can have a pretty painful bite, I had to come up with a creative way to photograph this one.  I needed to get close to the centipede without it getting away (and/or scurrying up my arm) but also didn’t want any glass jar walls or other obstacles between my camera and my subject.  My eventual solution was to put the centipede in a shallow but slippery white porcelain serving bowl from our kitchen.  The little critter couldn’t quite climb the walls, but I could still point my camera right in its face, especially when it stopped and faced upward on the side of the bowl.  I placed the bowl on my dining room floor in a beam of late afternoon sunlight from the window and clicked away with my camera.  (I’ll add the white serving bowl idea to my other homemade photo studio options, which include an old wheelbarrow.)

House centipedes are native to the Mediterranean region of the earth, but have spread across much of the globe, often cohabitating with people.  They can live outside, especially in moist places under leaf litter, rocks, or other cover, but don’t do well with cold winters.  In places where temperatures dip below their comfort level, house centipedes tend to make their way into warm basements like ours.

As predators, house centipedes have a wide range of prey, including crickets, silverfish, earwigs, and spiders.  They have modified front legs called “forcipules” through which they inject prey with venom.  Because the venom comes from forcipules instead of actual mandibles, it is considered a sting, rather than a bite when the skin is pierced and venom injected.  I bet most prey don’t care much about the distinction.

This cropped image shows the sharp brown-tipped forcipules used to inject venom into prey.  They are right behind the spiky maxillae, and while they look like fangs, or mandibles, the forcipules are technically modified legs.

House centipedes have 15 pairs of legs at maturity, but start out with only 4 pairs when they hatch from eggs.  As they grow and mature, they add about two sets of legs every time they molt.  The rear-most legs of females look like giant antennae, growing much longer than their other pairs.  While I was playing with the my photo subject (before I figured out the serving bowl strategy), those long rear legs accidentally got caught between the rim of a jar and the floor, and they popped off.  They twitched for a minute or two afterward, which I assume could distract a predator and give the speedy centipede time to escape.  The twitching legs distracted me too, but I still managed to keep the jar firmly over the centipede.

House centipedes are nothing to worry about, probably help keep other basement-dwelling insects under control, and will usually try to stay out of your way.  Since my serving-bowl-photo-studio design kept the centipede at a safe distance from me, I didn’t have a chance to test the severity of its bite/sting, but a little research makes it sound like it feels similar to a bee sting.  I’m happy to trust the internet on that, I think.

Face to face on the inclined edge of a white serving bowl…

Photo of the Week – October 13, 2017

My favorite photos tend to be those I’ve taken most recently.  I imagine that’s true of most everyone who does any kind of creative work.  I have a tab at the top of the home page for this blog called “Prairie Photos” where you can see some of my favorite photos.  The other day, I looked through them and realized it had been way too long since I’d updated that page, so I remedied that.  Now you can click on that tab (or just click here) and see a batch of some of the photos I’m most proud of.  Here are a few examples…

This photo of prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) was taken this summer.  I think I mainly like it for its simplicity.

Most of the photos included in that collection were taken within the last couple of years, but there are a few older ones that I still like.  Often, those older photos captured a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.  Other times, they were the the final result of a lot of trial and error, and my pride in the image comes as much from that effort as from the quality of the photo.

This image of a crab spider and ant was taken back in 2013.  I was photographing the spider when the ant unexpectedly appeared.
This 2015 photo of stiff sunflowers in restored prairie along the Platte River still evokes a strong memory of the morning itself.
I honestly don’t know when this photo was taken. It’s a scan of an old slide. While I don’t remember the date (I could look it up) I definitely remember the moment because I’d been trying for years to find a vantage point from which I could capture the landscape diversity of the Niobrara Valley Preserve and this was the first time I felt successful.  Most of the cedar trees shown in the photo are gone now…
I have countless photos of stiff sunfllower (Helianthus pauciflorus), but this 2015 image is my current favorite. I like the color and composition, but also the fact that the petals are only partially elongated, giving it a different look than more mature flowers.
This katydid photo from 2014 is still one of my favorites because of the color and composition, but also because I can see its “ears” so clearly on its front elbows.  I use it often to talk about that fascinating anatomical tidbit about katydids.
When I see this 2015 photo, I can still smell the smoke of the prairie fire that scorched the vegetation on and around the big ant mound. I was monitoring the aftermath of our prescribed burn when I found these ants, and was able to capture the heightened activity of the colony as they scrambled to assess their newly exposed condition after the fire.
I have plenty of early morning photos with dew drops in them, but this one (from June 2016) is my current favorite.

One of my biggest aspirations for my photography is to help people see the beauty of prairies.  If you have friends or colleagues who aren’t yet aware of that beauty, maybe you can send them the link to these photos to show them a few examples.

Do it quick, though, before I get tired of these photos and replace them with newer ones!

Photo of the Week – October 5, 2017

I had a few minutes after a meeting yesterday to walk through a restored wetland in our Platte River Prairies.  I didn’t really have any preconceived notion of what I was looking for – I just wanted to explore a site I hadn’t visited for a while.  There weren’t many flowers still blooming, but the golds and browns of autumn vegetation were still mixed with quite a bit of green.  Recent rains had raised the level of the stream flowing through the site, as well as the groundwater-linked wetlands adjacent to it.  I pulled my muck boots on over the decent jeans I’d worn for the meeting and wandered out into the wetland.  Here are a few of the photos I got from my brief walk.  I hope you enjoy them.

Water flows over a small beaver dam, split and rippled by multi-colored vegetation.
Swamp milkweed seeds lined up and waiting to make their jump.
A beggarticks (Bidens sp) plant in water surrounded by floating duckweed.

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.