Photo of the Week – January 26, 2018

Leftovers.  When we cook a big meal and don’t eat it all, we bundle the rest up and save it for later.  We might not feed it to company, but there’s a distinct pleasure (at least for me) in coming back later to dig back into the remains of a great meal.

In a funny way, the idea of leftovers applies to many of my photography excursions as well.  Often, I’ll get out in the field and a theme of sorts will start to emerge as I wander around with my camera.  I usually notice something interesting and then look for other aspects or examples of that.  Sometimes, it’s a particular plant species, and the variety of pollinators or other insects using that same plant.  Other times, the theme is a little more broad – having to do with the impacts of some prairie management strategy or a recent weather event.  As a result, when I get home with a batch of photos, many of them can be strung together into a story I use for blog posts and/or presentations.  Scattered among those photos, however, are the leftovers.  The leftovers are the photos that I really like, but that don’t fit into a particular theme or story.

During the winter, when I’m not as active as a photographer, I have time to dig back into the remains of those earlier photo excursions.  While it’s not necessarily polite to share leftovers with company, I’m going to break that rule today and share some of mine from last summer.

Wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota). This is one of the better portraits I’ve managed to get of this great plant.
American germander (Teucrium canadense) is fairly uncommon in our Platte River Prairies, but when it does occur, it often grows in large patches. It’s always been a difficult flower for me to photograph because it sticks out in all different directions, and it’s hard to figure out what to focus on. As I walked past this plant one morning last summer, my brain saw something that might work, and I ended up with a photo I liked.
Getting sharp photos of spiders on their webs is always an accomplishment. Even the slightest breeze pushes them around substantially, making it really hard to get a photo that freezes that motion.  During a pleasant morning walk at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last summer, I spotted this spider and managed to get at least one sharp image as it swayed gently in the wind.

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 – 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!

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.

Choices, Choices.

I’m putting together a collection of my favorite photos from 2013 for a “best photos of the year” post similar to the one I did last year about this time.  It’s been a tough task, especially when there are two photos that are only slightly different from each other.  I’ve gotten through most of them, but am stuck on one pair of photos.  Since I can’t seem to make a decision, I’ve decided it might be fun to just put it to a vote.

I’ve put both options below.  If you have a preference between the two, let me know by replying in the comments section below.

The image that gets the most votes will be part of the photo collection next week.

Thanks for your help!

Photo A: (you’ve seen this one before)

Bison at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve (one year after the big wildfire).
Bison at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve (one year after the big wildfire).


Photo B: (taken just a few seconds after the first)

The same bison just a few seconds later.  (Both photos were taken from the safety of a pickup.)
The same bison, different angle. (Both photos were taken from the safety of a pickup.)

You can click on each photo to see a larger and sharper image of it.  Please vote – and thanks for your help!

Photo of the Week – January 12, 2012

It’s been a very mild winter in Nebraska.  We took advantage of the warm weather on Tuesday to burn a small island in the middle of a stream/wetland restoration project area.  The day was sunny, and it was 55 degrees F with light winds when we started the fire.  (Quite a contrast with Wednesday, which was in the 30’s with winds gusting to 40 mph.)

Fire backs into the wind through a grove of young sandbar willow trees. The fire will top kill the trees, but they will resprout again in the spring.

The objectives for the fire included clearing most of the vegetation from the island to create feeding and roosting habitat for migratory cranes, shorebirds, and other species in the early spring.  We also wanted to burn through the willow trees that were establishing on the island and set them back before they started to crowd out the grasses, sedges, and other herbaceous wetland plants beneath them.  The fire worked out just right, removing most, but not all, of the vegetation.

It’s not often we can get a burn done in January.  Even when it’s warm enough, the days are too short.  By the time the day warms up enough to dry out the grass and support good fire behavior, it’s usually after lunch – and by mid-afternoon, the sun has dropped low enough that fire stops burning well and smoke stops lifting.  Most of our burn units are big enough that it’s difficult to complete them during that short window of time.  The island we burned this week, however, was less than an acre in size and we didn’t have to do anything but light it and let it go.  A great way to do prescribed fire!

The island was surrounded by a wide swath of water and sand, making it very easy to control the fire (which is why I had time to take photographs!).


The prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) on the island burned very intensely, but other areas had standing water or other vegetation types that burned less well - leaving a mosaic of burned and unburned vegetation when the fire was over.


A Prairie Ecologist Vacation

Our family went on vacation last week (sorry for the delayed responses to your comments while I was gone…)  We rented a cabin in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Colorado.  It was a really nice week, especially considering that the temperatures ranged from 40-80 degrees F – with low humidities – in the mountains while temperatures at home were in the high 90’s!

While I enjoy short trips to the mountains very much, I think I’d have a hard time living there year-round.  For one thing, I’m too used to seeing big skies.  In the prairies, you can watch thunderstorms from many miles away, and gauge whether or not they’re heading for you or not.  In the mountains, storms sneak up and pounce over the nearest ridge before you have time to react.  And, of course, there are the winters.  I enjoy snow as much as the next person, but winter driving in flat land is enough adventure for me…

Regardless of my fondness for plains and prairies, I did find plenty to photograph in the mountains as well.  Its easy to see why mountains and water dominate so many nature calenders and posters.  Appreciation of prairie landscapes tends to be an acquired taste – one that grows as a person becomes more familiar with the intricacies of prarie life.  In contrast, anyone can appreciate the dramatic landscapes of the mountains without even working at it!  (…and where’s the fun in that?)

This wasn’t a photo trip, it was a family vacation, so I really didn’t spend much time taking photos.  Most were snapped during brief breaks on family hikes, or while my family patiently (?) waited in the car while I jumped out to take yet another photo of the same mountain…  However, I got a few, and thought you might enjoy seeing mountains throught the eyes of a prairie ecologist and photographer.

Mount Evans is a great place to see dramatic mountain landscapes. This was one of many photos I took on quick "I'll be right back" jump-out-of-the-car trips. Not a lot of time for careful compositions, but not a lot of need either - I felt like I could have pointed the camera randomly and gotten great photos! You can click on this (and other) photos to see larger views of them.
I've only spent a short time in alpine meadows, but I really like them. On this trip, the cold blustery weather on top of Mount Evans caused me to be out-voted, and we headed down to warmer temperatures before I got to explore very much. Maybe next time!
There was a group of mountain goats at the top of Mount Evans that seemed perfectly willing to have their photos taken. Very accomodating!
Our cabin was near Golden Gate Canyon State Park, and we found it to be a great site for family hiking.
I recognized many of the plants (at least to Genus) in the meadows at Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Some very pretty places there, and it was a great year for wildflowers.
I always feel a little closed in when hiking in woodlands, but many parts of the trails in Golden Gate Canyon State Park were very pretty.
This mule deer fawn popped out of the grass as we rounded a trail corner near the Red Rocks Amphitheater south of Denver.
Our cabin was located in a steep valley (can a valley be steep?). If you look carefully, the green roof of our cabin can just barely be seen in the bottom right portion of this photo. I climbed the slope across the road from the cabin a couple times in the evenings and took a few photos. Most of the time it was either too cloudy or too sunny, but I managed to find a few opportunities in-between.
I haven't had time to look up this flower yet, but it was abundant - even in some hard-to-grow-in places!
One of our most promising hikes ended early when we found this big stream running across the trail. Our family was less adventuresome than a few other hikers who managed to make it across (not without getting wet). THIS is why the Platte and Missouri Rivers are running so high this year! LOTS of snow melt in the mountains!
One of my problems with hiking in mountains is that I'm programmed to look down as I hike, so I sometimes miss the great landscape vistas. Instead, I see things like this!
I kept seeing this blanket flower along trails and finally got a photo of it by having my daughter Anna hold a diffuser (homemade with thin cloth on a flexible plastic ring) between it and the bright sun. When she saw the photo later she said, "You didn't even get the whole flower in the picture!"