Carolina anemone, aka windflower (Anemone caroliniana), is one of my favorite spring wildflowers. Like many early bloomers, it’s beautiful but inconspicuous. Despite its gorgeous flower color(s), it can be really hard to see unless you’re within a few feet of it.
Earlier this week, the Fellows, Nelson, and I spent a couple hours hiking our Platte River Prairies, practicing some plant identification and talking ecology and management. I’d mentioned the anemone as a species we might see if we were lucky, but we didn’t find it. After our hike but before I headed home, I decided to revisit a hill we’d hiked earlier because I wanted to photograph some groundplum (Astragalus crassicarpus) flowers there. After I finished with the groundplum, I stood up and walked a few steps downhill, and there, not 10 feet from where the four of us had stood a few hours before, was a small patch of Carolina anemone.
There were only five plants and they were in various stages of blooming – and in various shades of blue. I spent a few minutes photographing them and then called Evan (one of our Hubbard Fellows) in case he wanted to come see and photograph them too. Evan said something about a friendly little contest… After describing the location to him, I drove back to town.
Last night, Evan sent me four of the images he came away with from that little patch of windflowers. Have I mentioned that he’s an excellent photographer? Also, he cheated by finding and photographing a crab spider on one of the flowers WHICH IS TOTALLY UNFAIR!
Anyway, without making it an overt competition, here are four photos each from Evan and me. It’s always fun and interesting to see how different photographers interpret the same subject matter. In this case, notwithstanding Evan’s crab spider, WHICH HE PROBABLY PLANTED, we were working with the same five flowers. I put my four photos first, followed by his four.
And now Evan’s photos…
It sure is nice to be back in wildflower season again. I’m glad to live at a latitude where we have a true winter dormant season, but part of the reason I like winter is that it increases my appreciation of the return of the growing season each year!
On Friday August 21, we’ll be hosting our next Field Day on the Platte River Prairies. The agenda is nearly set – we’re just waiting for final confirmation from a few presenters before putting out the official agenda. We’ll have sessions on plant identification, prairie restoration and management, birds, ethnobotany, pollinators, dragonflies, invertebrate ecology, and more.
Please plan to join us between 9am and 4pm (come and go as you like.) There is no cost or registration required, but bring your own lunch. We’ll have some light snacks and water/lemonade for you. Directions to the site can be found here.
Though I came into the Hubbard Fellowship to learn about restoration and conservation of prairies, I have had the good fortune to spend a fair amount of time in, associated with, or, at least, thinking about stream and river systems too. Most of these experiences have been of the Platte River – from surveying for mussels in a southern braid to visiting the various dams, diversions and other irrigation structures that utilize its mighty flow. Oh, and of course, how about the bazillion hours shared with roosting sandhill cranes and awestruck visitors in riverside blinds this spring!
Even when my work does not lead me there, the Platte is inescapable – I drive across it to go just about anywhere and often parallel it for miles on end (who is following who?) as I journey across the state. It is also a persisting reference point and a comforting explanation for some of the tree lines I see from Interstate 80. Its associated groundwater makes possible our impressively realized agricultural potential and supports a great diversity of plants and wildlife. Here is a good map of the extent of the Platte Watershed – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platte_River#/media/File:Platterivermap.jpg – which I see in the embodiment of the Platte River itself, but is much more expansive than a single waterway.
I mention this on The Prairie Ecologist blog now because I am feeling particularly inspired to appreciate my watershed today. I’ve been doing an online course concerning water issues in the western United States that has had me thinking a lot about where my water comes from – which, thankfully, is plentiful enough from its origins in the Rockies to me and on to the Missouri that I don’t have to borrow from watersheds beyond my own. It has also illuminated the complexity of how we allocate water resources to satisfy interests across state boundaries (Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska for the Platte) and has altogether inspired a deeper appreciation for this vital fluid’s movement across the landscape.
Of course, The Prairie Ecologist blog community is a diverse crowd when it comes to geography, so I expect many of you to be intrinsically tied to rivers and watersheds beyond the Platte and that is great!
Some of your attachments must be physical – you live on them and in them and they, quite literally, are a part of you. However, I also suspect you have been affected by water systems in nonmaterial ways– the memory of a family canoeing trip (or “tanking” excursion if you are Nebraskan), the viewing of an inspiring water-related natural spectacle, or the comfort of a secret fishing spot for contemplation and big catfish.
Despite being a Platte River patron – and to some extent a lover of the Loup and a Niobrara nut – I also feel the pull of waters from previous, far-off stations (Oregon’s Willamette River, the Buffalo River of Arkansas…) and am excited to be shaped by whichever watersheds I call home in the future.
For the sake of this watershed reflection, I want YOU to get involved in these musings…
In a book*I have been reading I found this gem of a question, which is particularly relevant here:
After the author reminds us that the human body is nearly 2/3 composed of water, he asks, “What body of water makes up 2/3 of you?”
Well? [This would be a good time for you to utilize that comments section at the bottom of the page…]
And if, by chance, the Platte IS your river, I hope you will check out what our friends at the Platte Basin Timelapse project have been up to as they document and share “a watershed in motion.” http://www.plattebasintimelapse.com/
*Urrea, Luis Alberto. Wandering Time. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Print.
Arguably the sleekest and most adorable of the critters I caught, the most distinguishing feature of the plains pocket mouse (Perognathus flavescens) is its fur-lined cheek pouches. Fur-lined cheek pouches!!! Imagine if, when you opened your mouth, on each side there was a little fur-lined pouch that ran all the way back to almost your shoulders! Gives me the heebie jeebies to think about, but pretty awesome if you’re a pocket mouse. The diet of the plains pocket mice is almost entirely grass and weed seeds, and the pouches allow them to carry seeds back to their burrows and cache them.
Based on what I read, it’s thought that the purpose of these pouches being fur-lined is to conserve spit. Pocket mice and their relatives (other pocket mice, kangaroo rats, kangaroo mice) are often associated with arid environments and these critters are all extremely water efficient. The thought is that if pocket mice had a hamster-like pouch, then every time they spit out the seeds they were carrying they’d be wasting precious moisture. If the pouches are fur-lined, then no spit wasted!
These adaptations help the plains pocket mice go for six weeks without water! Most of the moisture they need is obtained from seeds and their kidneys are extremely efficient. Furthermore, their habits also lend to water conservation; pocket mice spend most of the day underground in burrows where it’s cooler and more humid, they plug their entrance holes to keep in moisture (and keep out predators), and they can change slow their metabolism (enter torpor) when it’s too hot or too cold.
The other crazy thing about the plains pocket mouse is that it is not closely related to any of the other rodents* that I caught. Those other rodents — northern grasshopper mouse, deer mouse, harvest mouse, voles — all belong to one taxonomic family Cricetidae (which includes true hamsters, voles, lemmings and New World rats and mice), whereas the plains pocket mouse is from the family Heteromyidae. Heteromyidae includes kangaroo rats, kangaroo mice, and pocket mice, though none are technically rats or mice. In fact, the plains pocket mouse is more closely related to pocket gophers than to any other rodent I caught!
All this is very interesting, but doesn’t help you identify a plains pocket mouse if you saw it in the field… In my mind, its key identifying features include its small size (usually 7-15 grams, 99-150mm nose to tail tip), small ears usually with a white dot below them, grooved upper incisors (if you hold them by their scruff, you’ll see a line down each upper incisor), and of course, their cheek pouches! They tend to be dark on their back, with a yellowish (“buff-colored”) line on their sides and white/pale underneath.
They are most frequently found in (usually sandy) areas with friable soil. Sandhills are a good bet, as are other fields that have open sandy patches, especially ones that are grazed so they’re more open. In general, plains pocket mice seem to prefer sparsely vegetated areas (hopefully my data will test whether that holds up on our properties).
In terms of why we care about them, well, they have awesome cheek pouches and barely need any water!!! What else do you want?? Just kidding, there are many more reasons why it’s worth paying attention to them. Most importantly, we still don’t know that much about them. Not a lot is known about their mating or winter habits, and until recently there were sizable gaps in our understanding of their distribution in Nebraska (see Geluso and Wright 2012).
The plains pocket mouse can be found throughout the Great Plains – from Northern Mexico to Minnesota and the Dakotas; yet, it’s local distributions are less well understood. There also seem to be noticeable differences between critters on the western end of their range and the eastern end. So much so, that there are two recognized subspecies of the plains pocket mouse. There is a western subspecies, P. f. flavescens and an eastern subspecies, P. f. perniger.** The eastern subspecies is considered rarer and has been deemed a Tier 1 At-Risk species by the Nebraska Game and Parks Natural Legacy Program.
Our Platte River Prairies are right at the edge of the alleged dividing line between the range of the western subspecies and the range of the eastern subspecies, which makes it an especially interesting place to study them. Are we seeing the eastern subspecies, or the western? At this point, the answer seems to be “yes!” Hopefully our population(s) will help the experts to parse the differences between the two subspecies and their range. Trying to define ranges is always tricky, especially because sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a species is actually not in a place, or if people just haven’t looked for it there.
All of this is to say that there’s a lot more work to do! It’s exciting to study a critter that is still fairly enigmatic, and I’m excited to see what future studies discover both in terms of life history knowledge and range/subspecies questions!
* Rodents are from the Order Rodentia, i.e., all the critters I caught except the shrews, the weasel, and the frog.
** The differences between the subspecies are very nuanced and my previous description (and pictures!) should still allow you to identify them as a plains pocket mouse.
Last week, Jasmine (one of our two Hubbard Fellows) and I spent a morning at the Derr Wetland Restoration here in the Platte River Prairies. We wanted to get some photos and video of the site before the latest snow melted.
…Ok, to be honest, we were mostly hoping to test out the capabilities of our new drone (UAV). Two of our Nebraska board members, Jim and Nancy Armitage, donated the funds to purchase the drone as a way to help us better capture our sites and the work we’re doing here in the state. We’re just starting to figure out the potential for drone photography, but I sure like what I see so far!
Here is a short 3 minute video of footage shot from the drone, followed by some still photos from the same morning. Both the aerial video and still photos provide powerful images, but the video certainly captures the context of the site in a way that’s not possible for me as I walk along the ground with my camera. I think the drone is going to be an awesome complement to the other ways we photograph and monitor our sites – it’s going to be exciting to keep exploring the possibilities. Stay tuned for future videos!
We are now accepting applications to join our 2015-2016 class of Hubbard Fellows. Please share this with anyone who might be interested.
The Claire M. Hubbard Fellowship Program bridges the gap between school and career by providing Fellows with a broad set of experiences that supplement their college education. Fellows are employed for a full year by The Nature Conservancy. During that year, they spend much of their time doing prairie restoration and management, including invasive species control, prescribed fire, livestock management, equipment maintenance and repair, seed harvest and planting, etc. In addition, Fellows attend a wide variety of conferences and meetings and gain experience with grant writing, marketing, outreach, research and monitoring, budgeting, conservation planning, and much more. Each Fellow also designs and carries out an independent project that fits their individual interests.
The Fellowship is based at the Platte River Prairies, west of Grand Island, Nebraska, but Fellows also spend considerable time at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and many other sites. Click here to see this year’s brochure, which includes much more information and guidance for interested applicants.
The Fellowship is open to graduates (by May 2015) of undergraduate and graduate programs in natural resources, conservation biology, or related subjects. We are looking for highly-qualified, motivated people with strong leadership and communication skills. Applications are due January 9 and the Fellowship will begin in early June, 2015.
We are extremely grateful to Anne Hubbard and the Claire M Hubbard Foundation for funding this Fellowship Program.
S’mammal Spotlight: the Fearsome Northern Grasshopper Mouse
While I finish up the data entry for my independent project on small mammals, I thought it’d be fun to share some more information about some of the s’mammals out in our prairies. Some of them are really, especially awesome, and hopefully knowing a little more about them will elucidate why we think they’re worth studying!
I thought I’d kick off this series with one of my favorites, the northern grasshopper mouse (Onychomys leucogaster). There is no other way to describe this critter except beefy. This is a mouse made for fighting, for pouncing, for striking fear in the hearts of the other lil s’mammals (I haven’t obtained any critter statements about the last part, but if I was pocket mouse-sized, I’d be wary). They are a handful to work with – very aggressive, and surprisingly agile. They’re able to shrink out of pretty much any corner I try to limit them to, and their pointy carnivorous teeth ensure that I am very aware of the distance between my fingers and their mouth!
If you’re wondering if you’ve seen one, northern grasshopper mice have big eyes, big ears, and relatively short tails that are consistently about 42 mm long (Mike and I measured many grasshopper mouse tails). The majority of them are silky gray-brown on top and white below, though there are a few whose backs are more cinnamon-y than gray. Juveniles tend to be lighter colored. Most of the grasshopper mice I caught were approximately the size of my fist, maybe a little smaller, about 33-45g (for reference, pocket mice are generally 8-12 grams).
The impressive muscle mass of a northern grasshopper mouse is achieved by a largely carnivorous diet. True to their name, grasshopper mice consume a lot of grasshoppers, as well as other insects, and sometimes other mice, including others of their species. Allegedly, grasshopper mice stalk their prey and will emit a shrill cry before attacking. It is thought that they tend to have a longer period of maternal care than most mice (which isn’t saying much) so that young grasshopper mice can be taught to hunt. Ideally, I’d like to camp out by their burrows in the spring so that I can hear them sing and see their fearsome predatory skills in action.
If you’re looking for a northern grasshopper mouse, you are mostly likely to find them in sandy soils. They seem to prefer sandy areas that had sparser and often shorter vegetation. Apparently the sandhills portion of our Platte River Prairies are ideal habitat because they are loaded with northern grasshopper mice. It is exciting that we have such a robust population, especially because it gives us a chance to learn more about them.
Learning more about their habits will not only aid in our management of our prairie, but could potentially help fill some gaps in the broader scientific literature. While the life histories of some small mammals are pretty well understood, it seems to me that there is some updating to do in terms of the natural history descriptions of northern grasshopper mice. For example, most natural history sources will tell you that the northern grasshopper mouse is very territorial and will fight to the death any other grasshopper mouse that wander into its territory. However, Mike and I have been catching several northern grasshopper mice within 10-14 meters of each other. This seems like a much higher density than one would expect for a highly territorial species, especially one that is known to have a fairly large home range in relation to its size.
Greg Wright, a wildlife biologist at the Crane Trust says he’s seen reports that grasshopper mice might hunt as family units, which could explain the densities we were catching. [It will be intriguing to see if our data supports that idea]. It could also be that northern grasshopper mice are only especially territorial during the mating season? A small study in Colorado found that several individuals shared a burrow in the winter.
I think these critters have a compelling story, and I look forward to our future studies and new research questions so that we can expand our understanding of the awesome, fierce northern grasshopper mouse.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Editor’s Note: Ok, two things, gigglepants. First, have YOU ever tried to take a photo of a grasshopper mouse in the wild? Exactly. They don’t tend to sit still and pose, do they? Second, I have not hidden my photo techniques in the past, and on the rare occasion when I use something like a cardboard box to get a photo that would be otherwise impossible, I try to be transparent about it. Many readers will remember my very serious technical piece on how to use a wheelbarrow as a photo studio, for example. At least I don’t use something silly like a plastic bag… : )
Jasmine’s favorite s’mammal information sources:
University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web. This site has photos, skeletons/skulls, life history information, range, and usually some tidbits from recent studies. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/
The Colorado paper I mentioned:
Size and Habitat Characteristics of Home Ranges of Northern Grasshopper Mice (Onychomys Leucogaster). Paul Stapp. The Southwestern Naturalist, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 101-105