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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.