Photo of the Week – June 9, 2018

This week’s featured photos include three small creatures.  One is a beetle (I have no idea which kind) that was barely visible to my naked eye.  A second is a nymph of a praying mantis – probably a Chinese mantis.  The third is the most exciting to me, which is a burrowing owl nesting in our Platte River Prairies this spring.

This tiny beetle was perched on one of the flowers of false gromwell, aka marbleseed (Onosmodium molle) last week.
A praying mantis nymph hunting on a milkweed plant.
I was able to get barely close enough to this owl for a photo by using my pickup as a photo blind. I still had to crop the image a little to make the owl as prominent as it is in the photo, but I wanted to stay far enough away that I didn’t discourage it from nesting.

Burrowing owls occupy burrows of other animals as nesting sites.  These tiny owls are about the same size as an American robin, but their wingspan can be up to 8 inches wider.  They have a fascinating habit of spreading animal dung around the entrance to their burrow to attract dung beetles – one of their favorite foods.

We usually see a few nesting pairs of burrowing owls up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve each year, and they can be found elsewhere in the Sandhills and western Nebraska, especially within prairie dog towns.  However, their populations are in decline across most of their continental range, and it’s uncommon to see them outside of landscapes of mostly intact grasslands.

In this case, this owl and its mate are using a badger hole for a nesting site.  As far as I know, this is the first burrowing owl pair that has nested in one of our Platte River Prairies during the 21 years I’ve been working here.  As you might expect, they are nesting in a site we burned this spring and that is being grazed fairly intensively by cattle.  On its own, this pair of owls doesn’t equate conservation success, but it’s one more piece of evidence that makes us feel good about our work.

When Is A Whooping Crane Not A Whooping Crane?

Along the Central Platte River in Nebraska, there is an annual congregation of hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes during the month of March.  For about two decades or so, there has also been a single whooping crane that appears to arrive and depart with those sandhill cranes.  There are various theories about why the whooper hangs around with sandhill cranes instead of its own kind, but most of us assume it is unaware of, or possibly uninterested in other whooping cranes.  We’re not really sure where it goes during the rest of the year, but it always shows up when the sandhill cranes come through each spring.

This whooping crane has been hanging out with sandhill cranes for about 20 years or more – assuming it’s the same bird each year.  It certainly stands out in a crowd, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, it’s not the crowd it’s supposed to be hanging out with.

It’s kind of a sad situation, but does give visitors to this part of the state an improved chance of seeing a whooping crane.  Most whoopers migrate through this area later in the spring, after the sandhill cranes (and the crowds that come to watch them) have left.  A fairly small percentage of whooping cranes stop at the Platte each spring, and those that do stop are usually just here for a night or two, making it unlikely that many people will see them.  By contrast, the “lonely” whooper often stays for a few weeks or more, making it pretty accessible to grateful crane watchers.

As I was driving out for an early morning crane tour last weekend, I was thinking about the lonely whooping crane.  It had been hanging around near our viewing blinds along the river’s edge over the last week or two.  I knew there was a good chance we’d see the whooper on the river in front of our blinds (and we did!) but I was also thinking about something else.  What if the whooper left the river while we were in the viewing blind and landed in the grassland between the blind and where our vehicles were parked?  Since it’s a federal crime to disturb an endangered bird, we might be stuck in the blinds for a few extra hours, waiting for the whooping crane to leave.

When we first snuck into the blind, it was mostly dark, and most of the cranes were still asleep. We thought we saw something white in the sea of gray, but we had to wait until the light got a little stronger before we were sure of what we were seeing. The other two photographers with me had lenses longer than my arm (more on that later this week). This shot was taken with my puny little 18-300mm lens and then cropped liberally to make the whooper look bigger than a little white dot.

That discomforting thought led me down a rambling philosophical journey as I drove (did I mention it was early in the morning?) about whether or not that lonely bird should actually count as a whooping crane.  By law, of course, it does count, and there’s no question about that.  But what about in an existential sense?

The endangered species act is supposed to help populations of rare species recover, right?  We’ve added layers of protection for the remaining individuals of those rare species so they can survive and reproduce, increasing the size of their population.  But what if an individual is separated from its kind and doesn’t even recognize what it is?  If our lonely whooping crane has no chance of ever interacting with other whoopers, let alone reproducing, how should we categorize it?  Whooping cranes in zoos are physically removed from the wild population, but still have the potential to breed and create more whoopers, which could potentially be returned to the wild at some point.  The lonely whooping crane doesn’t seem to have that possibility.

After it woke up and stretched a little, the whooper wandered slowly upstream a quarter of a mile or more before we lost sight of it. It seemed to be walking completely alone – not following other birds. The sandhill cranes didn’t seem bothered by it, but also didn’t seem to interact with it in any way.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not saying the lonely whooping crane isn’t important, and I’m not advocating that it be somehow removed from its protected status under the law.  I just found it interesting to think about what it means to be part of a species.  Do you have to be a contributing member?  Is reproduction the way animals pay dues to their species?  If our lonely whooping crane isn’t really a whooping crane, what is it?

I can’t emphasize enough how early it was in the morning when I was thinking about this.  I often do my best thinking while driving, but I’m not sure this counts.  Also, I honestly feel grateful to have the opportunity to see whooping cranes (including this one) fairly regularly during their migration, and I probably shouldn’t take that for granted.  However, being grateful doesn’t mean I can’t allow my mind to wander into the realm of whooping crane existentialism, does it?

Photo of the Week – March 2, 2018

Over the last three days, I’ve given three presentations and led a workshop.  I think I’m running out of words.  There’s no question I’ve run out of the desire to be around people.  I say this in defense of what is going to be a late and very short post at the end of this long week.

I scanned quickly through my February photos tonight and found two that are very different in scale.  One from early February is a close up of a grazed plant in the snow.  The other is a shot of Sandhill cranes that have been pouring into the Platte River this week as part of their annual migration.  I hope you enjoy this very brief (and admittedly lazy) overview of February on the Platte River of Nebraska.  I’m going to bed.

Some kind of plant that was nipped off by some kind of animal. Stiff goldenrod? Rabbit? Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Sandhill cranes on a mostly frozen Platte River this week.

Total Eclipse on the Prairie

Well, if you’re expecting photos of the sun with the shadow of the moon in front of it, I’m sorry to disappoint you.  I figured every other photographer in the world would be taking that photo, so I zigged when they zagged.

We were really fortunate that our Platte River Prairies were right smack in the middle of the path of totality for this year’s solar eclipse, and despite some high clouds here and there, we ended up with a very nice clear view of the eclipse.  We hosted a viewing event for about 150 of our good friends, and it was a truly magical experience.  I don’t really have a lot to say about the science of the eclipse (I was mostly trying to enjoy the experience, not analyze it) but thought I’d share a few photos of what the experience was like on the ground.

Standing around watching people look at the sun through goofy glasses was an experience in itself…
My brother-in-law, Austin Bontrager is an amateur astronomer and greatly enhanced our experience by giving an introductory presentation and then setting up his telescope with a camera and live feed of the sun we could watch on a big monitor. Seeing the eclipse happen on an image of the sun the size of a basketball was extraordinary – especially the chance to see sun spots and solar flares at the same time.
This kid had the best eclipse mask of the day.
Despite quite a few people at the event, everyone was able to spread out and find their own personal piece of prairie to watch from. It really didn’t feel crowded at all.
As we neared totality, we got the 360 degrees of sunset color we’d heard about. It was truly amazing.
Once the moon had completely covered the sun, it was safe to look at it without protective glasses. We had a little more than 2 minutes before the signal sounded to put our glasses back on, and the first bright beam of sunlight came bursting out again.
The two minutes or so of totality blew by really fast. There wasn’t really much time to pay attention to whether insect sounds changed or evening flowers opened. We were all too busy just soaking in the experience.
We had visitors from around Nebraska, as well as from states like Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, and others. Based on our first experience with a total solar eclipse, Kim and I are already talking about trying to travel somewhere in the patch of totality to see the 2024 eclipse…

Photo of the Week – April 28, 2017

Ten days ago, I wrote about monarch butterflies returning from Mexico and flying much further north than is typical, and some of the risks they face because of that.  Many of you responded with your own similar observations and stories of monarchs across the country.  Since writing that post, I’ve spotted numerous monarchs both at our family prairie and in our Platte River Prairies, and reports to Journey North show monarchs have traveled even further north than we are here.

Earlier this week, my wife got to watch a monarch laying eggs on some small whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) plants in our backyard prairie garden.  A monarch (same one?) came by when I was around too, so I snuck out and tried to get photos of it but it was too cagey.  At the end of last year, Kim and I were talking about how surprisingly fast the couple of small whorled milkweed plants we’d gotten for the garden had spread.  Now we’re worried that we don’t have enough whorled milkweed to support all the eggs that have been laid on them!

A monarch egg on whorled milkweed in our backyard.
Usually, the monarch laid only a single egg per plant, but some plants had as many as three on the same small plant. Hopefully, those caterpillars will be able to make their way to surrounding plants if they overwhelm the ones they start on.

Yesterday, I went walking in our Platte River Prairies, hoping to find some eggs there as well.  I was looking for common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) but all I found was more whorled milkweed.  Sure enough, I found eggs on some of those plants too, and even spotted a couple tiny caterpillars.  All the plants I found were in prairie patches we’d burned and grazed last year.  I’m guessing the monarchs had the same impression I did of that grazed habitat – it’s sure easier to find tiny milkweed plants when there aren’t a lot of taller plants and thatch hiding them!

This tiny little caterpillar was busily munching away on whorled milkweed in our Platte River Prairies. It was just a couple millimeters long.

Whorled milkweed doesn’t usually get the accolades or attention it deserves.  In our prairies, it is often most abundant in areas where native prairies have been degraded by a long history of overgrazing and broadcast herbicide use (before we acquired the properties).  The plants are relatively small (often less than a foot tall) and have small white flower clusters and skinny seed pods.  When we’re harvesting seeds for our prairie restoration work, we try to get enough seed to ensure the species will establish in our plantings, but probably haven’t always worked as hard as we should at it.

Whorled milkweed is often overlooked and underappreciated, but is certainly proving its worth this spring.

The monarch eggs and caterpillars I found yesterday were in a restored prairie we’d seeded back in 2000.  The patches of whorled milkweed I found were over 15 feet in diameter, and some contained well over 100 plants.  I’m awfully glad now that we took the time to find and harvest whorled milkweed seeds during the summer of 1999, and wish we’d harvested even more.  Nevertheless, the plants that established back in 2000 have spread successfully and are now helping to rear the next generation of monarch butterflies.  When those caterpillars emerge as butterflies, they’ll find themselves in the middle of a large and diverse prairie community, full of flowers for them to feed on.  Eighteen years ago, that same location was a cornfield.  Today, it is giving some way-too-early monarchs a chance at survival.

This plant had both an egg and an already-hatched caterpillar. Hopefully, as it grows, it will find not only sufficient milkweed, but also abundant nectar resources for its adult life. (You can see a larger and more clear version of this image by clicking on it.  Maybe you can figure out what the little white bump is on the caterpillar’s back…  Part of the egg?  Something else?)

Photo of the Week – March 9, 2017

I hope I’ve made it clear through the years that I am really grateful to have my job.  During each March, one of the major perks is access to viewing blinds that allow a front row seat to watch migratory sandhill cranes on their overnight roost.  This morning, I took my wife, two of our kids, and my in-laws out to the Platte River to watch the cranes wake up.

Atticus braved a cold morning breeze in his face to watch cranes dance and loaf around before lifting off to go feed in fields and meadows for the day.
Our viewing blinds aren’t fancy, but they put you right at the edge of the river to watch one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth.

Most crane viewing tours I lead each year are for our current or prospective members and donors, and I really enjoy helping people experience one of the best migratory bird phenomena in the world – especially when our guests are seeing it for the first time.  On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to beat sharing that same experience with my family.  Did I mention how fortunate I am?

This morning provided good crane viewing (we had around 1000 cranes in front of the blind and maybe another 10,000 or more within view), but it was far from the most spectacular visit I’ve had.  The cranes weren’t close enough to our blind for me to get fantastic photos, but I played around a little with my camera anyway.  Today wasn’t about photography though, it was about family time in nature, and in that regard, it was pretty near perfect.

You can read more about the crane migration through Nebraska’s Platte River, and see many more photos, in a couple of previous posts here and here.

A couple small groups of sandhill cranes roosting in the river prior to sun-up.
Early morning silhouettes.

 

PLANT GAME RESULTS

It’s not that I’m competitive, but I’ve decided that I’ll consider it a win when more of you guess a wrong answer than the right one in our Plant Game.  Using that criteria, I won twice this week.  In the first question, Earthsmoke got the most guesses as a fake plant (35%), but it’s actually a real plant (Fumaria officinalis), introduced from Europe, and present (though uncommon) in Nebraska.  The actual fake plant was Lady-of-the-Lake, which I totally made up.  To your credit, that got the second-most votes (32%).

For the second question, the fake plant was Mountain Oats, which sounds real enough that only 32% of you guessed it was fake.  Almost half of you (47%) guessed Raccoon Grape was the fake plant, though, and it’s actually a native vine that grows in eastern Nebraska (Ampelopsis cordata).  Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of chances to redeem yourselves in the future – but congratulations to those of you who guessed right!

Hubbard Alumni Blog: Platte Meditations

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, a Hubbard fellow during 2015 and 2016.  Evan is currently working for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.

(This is a post that I wrote in January 2016 while during my Fellowship but didn’t get around to publishing before winter passed.) On a sub-zero Saturday morning I got up early to catch some photos of the sunrise. I had planned to go to a prairie, but as I was driving I noticed a line of steam rising on the horizon like the trail of dust a pickup makes as it races down a dry gravel road. Curious, I headed towards the steam and realized that it was coming off of the Platte River. When I arrived at the bridge I was stunned; all along the river, vapor was rising from the surface and glowing in the sunrise. An endless procession of ice chunks slowly floated by, quietly scraping against the snow on the bank. I spent almost two hours photographing, filming, and recording audio, and I never even felt cold (which is saying a lot for me). There was something special about that morning, something about the stillness that made me feel content and peaceful. I wanted to share that feeling with other people, so I created a short video of how I saw the Platte that morning:

There’s really something special about the Platte and I don’t know if I can explain it. Maybe it’s my instinctive attraction to water. Maybe it’s the languid pace of the Platte that relaxes me. Maybe it’s simply the change in scenery and stark contrast between river and prairie. Or maybe I’m surprised by how beautiful it is each time I make a visit because no one ever seems to talk about it. It’s hard to take a trip in Nebraska without driving over the Platte, yet how often do we stop and explore what’s below those bridges?

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Part of the problem is that there’s so little public access to the Platte. I know of a few observation decks and one tiny trail along it, but the vast majority is private property. Even if you set foot on the middle of the riverbed you’re trespassing! This is such a shame because in my opinion the Platte is one of the greatest recreation opportunities in southern Nebraska. On a sunny weekend it is my favorite place to sit and read, and every time a friend visits I make sure to bring him or her to a sandbar for a picnic. As an employee of The Nature Conservancy, I have the luxury of being able to access a couple sections that we manage.

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Fortunately, even if you don’t have access to a section of the Platte the best option is still available to you: kayaking. I did this with a friend twice during the summer and it remains one of my favorite Nebraskan memories. When there’s enough water for a decent flow you can cover 20 miles in an afternoon while hardly paddling. And boy was I surprised how beautiful the scenery was! I expected the river to be bordered on both sides by corn fields, but the section between Minden and Wood River is actually surrounded by trees, creating the feeling that you are far, far away from it all. No place other than the Sandhills has given me that feeling of isolation in Nebraska. Kayaking the Platte requires two cars to shuttle and renting kayaks if you don’t own them, but it is well worth the trouble.

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The Platte River has a long history of abuse, and now it is often taken for granted, in my opinion. But if more people had a meaningful connection to it maybe we would treat it better. I challenge you to find your own special place or activity on the river, if you haven’t yet; get to know this wonderful feature if you haven’t yet. The Platte deserves it.

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Public Access to the Platte:

  • Platte River State Park, Louisville
  • Louisville State Recreation Area, Louisville
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area, Waterloo
  • The Crane Trust Visitor Center, Alda
  • Alda Rd. and Shoemaker Island Rd. (observation deck), Alda
  • Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, Gibbon
  • Lowell Road and Elm Island road (observation deck), Gibbo
  • Riverside Park, Sottsbluff
  • Platte River Landing, Valley

Platte River Prairies Field Day – August 6, 2016

Our next Field Day at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies will be Saturday August 6.  We hope that by making it on a Saturday we will make it more accessible to families and people whose bosses don’t let them out of work on weekdays just to go hike around in prairies.  I hear there are jobs like that…

Bill Whitney (Prairie Plains Resource Institute) and his combine - harvesting grass seed at The Nature Conservancy's Derr Tract - Central Platte River, Nebraska.
We’re proud that Bill Whitney (Prairie Plains Resource Institute) will be on hand to talk about prairie restoration.  He is the godfather of prairie restoration in Nebraska and can tell you anything you want to know about the methods, history, and philosophy of restoration.

Please come out and join us.  We’ll have hikes and presentations on prairie ecology and management, prairie restoration (with Bill Whitney of Prairie Plains Resource Institute), prairie plant identification, and gardening with prairie plants.  You can also look for monarch butterfly adults and caterpillars and catch/learn about prairie insects.  Over lunch, I’ll give a brief presentation on prairie ecology with lots of photos.

There is no cost to attend – just bring your own lunch, bug spray, and sunscreen.  We’ll provide some snacks to eat and lots of wildflowers, insects, and birds to look at.

Click here to see the agenda and more information on the day.

Next Platte River Prairies Field Day – June 22, 2016

Please plan to join us for our next field day on June 22, 2016.  We will have multiple field sessions to choose from throughout the day from 9am to 3:30pm.  There is no cost for attending, and families are welcome.  Bring your own lunch (and sunscreen, insect repellant, and drinking water).

Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension Research Entomologist talks about prairie invertebrates.  Platte River Prairies Field Day, August 27, 2014.
Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension Research Entomologist will return this year to talk about prairie insect identification and ecology.

Session topics include:

Plant identification and ecology

– Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy

Principles of prairie management

– Gerry Steinauer, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Prairie insects

– Julie Peterson, University of Nebraska Extension

Gardening with native plants

– Kim Helzer, TNC Volunteer and Centennial High School Science Teacher

Edible wild plants

– Cyndi Trail, The Nature Conservancy

Prairie seed harvesting and processing

– Mardell Jasnowski, The Nature Conservancy

How to help monitor monarch and regal fritillary butterfly populations

– Melissa Panella, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Each session will be available at least twice during the day.  We will likely add another couple session options within the next weeks stay tuned for a final agenda to be posted here within the next couple of weeks.   

The Derr House is located 2 miles south of the Wood River exit off of Interstate 80 (Exit 300).  Turn south immediately after the highway curves to the east and you’ll be there.

For more directions to the site, go to: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/nebraska/placesweprotect/eastern-nebraska-platte-river-native-prairie-nature-trail.xml

Hubbard Fellowship Blog- Marvels in the Mud

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

April 2nd was the kind of spring day where you triumphantly open every window in the house. I wanted to get out and explore somewhere new, so I drove to the Fort Kearny Hike and Bike Trail. When I arrived, a bored-looking family was slowly rolling down the weedy trail…in a golf cart. I despaired, thinking that I had driven half an hour to look at weeds with joggers huffing by. Nonetheless, I walked down the crowded trail for a couple of uneventful minutes minutes until it crossed over the Platte River. Much to my relief, there was a staircase inviting visitors to explore the sandbar below. I descended the stairs and started exploring the one place no one else was. It would be another three hours until I returned.

I began by walking in the thicker vegetation, hoping to flush some of the first insects of the year. As I did, several small spiders scurried away. I knelt down to look at them and noticed a few gnats mating on the blades of grass. After a long winter with no insects, these gnats were as exciting for me to photograph as Sandhill Cranes.

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Once I was on my belly, more details revealed themselves and a story began to unfold. A few feet from the gnats I spotted a muscid fly. I’m grateful that winter had made me so appreciative of even the common insects; otherwise I might not have taken a closer look. I did, however, and noticed that this wasn’t your typical potato salad-sucking housefly. It was devouring one of the gnats!

The calls of sandpipers drew my attention away from the microcarnage and I went over to the open part of the sandbar. There, I found a migratory flock of Baird’s Sandpipers foraging in the mud. I sat and watched them, wondering how they could possibly find enough food in the muck to sustain their 3,700-mile migration from Argentina. When they flew away, I thought I’d try to figure it out. A tiger beetle distracted me and I started stalking the speedy predator on my belly. Each time I would crawl close enough for a decent photo he would dart a few inches ahead. For several minutes this continued until he had led me to the muddy edge of the sandbar. There, with my nose inches away, it dawned on me how much amazing life that mud contained.

With my camera flat on the ground I spent an hour discovering and photographing insect after insect, many of which I had never seen before. I’m no expert, but I know my insect families fairly well. Yet two of these species were so alien I can’t even tell what order they’re in! If you know, please tell me!

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These muscid flies reminded me of sandpipers on a much smaller scale. Both patrol the same mudflats, probing the ground for food. The flies, however, let me watch them from inches away.
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This even smaller fly might be contributing to the sandpipers’ food supply. Occasionally I saw the fly press the tip of her abdomen to the mud, perhaps laying eggs or larvae that the sandpipers would certainly slurp up.
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Almost every one of these flies was paired with a mate. Presumably, the male is on top, guarding his female from other males while she tries to go about her life as normal. I don’t know that for sure, but I do know of another species that mates this way.
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This mystery insect delicately unfolded her cellophane wings in front of me. I have no idea what kind of insect it is. A beetle?
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Another mystery insect. I’ve never seen anything like this!
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At first I thought this little jewel was a tiger beetle, but I later learned that it’s a marsh ground beetle (Elaphrus sp.). Never seen one before!
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Springtails were the tiniest and most abundant invertebrates present, but finding them in my viewfinder was impossible because of their size. I only managed this photo because the springtail jumped into the frame while I was photographing the flies in the background.
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Above the muddy valley, a spider hunted for prey.

After completing my goal of photographing every species I could find in that puddle, I got up, stretched my very sore neck, and walked over to the other side of the sandbar. There, I found a small pool with about a dozen small fish huddled together (later identified by Chris as Plains Killifish, Fundulus zebrinus). I began crawling over to them but stopped when I heard some splashing coming from a trickle of water connecting the pool to a larger one. I went to investigate and realized that the splashing was coming from the fish as they struggled to swim through the shallow channel! Like tiny salmon, fish after fish darted through this passage. I wish I knew more about them, but I can only guess that they were on a reproductive migration.

The killifish were extremely wary and freakishly good at spotting me from underwater. I crawled up to their stream and lay still, waiting for them to swim by. I don’t know how they could see me so easily, but I learned that if I moved even the slightest bit they would panic and turn back. After many frustrating failures, I only managed to record a few mediocre videos of this fascinating behavior. To give you an idea of how quick these fish were (and how hard it was to photograph them), these videos are in slow motion at half-speed.

At this point my knees, neck, and elbows could tolerate no more strain. I walked back to my car smeared with mud and drawing lots of puzzled looks. But that was okay, because that mud had given me an afternoon of joy and wonder. If you ever find yourself bored in nature, I recommend you get off the trail and on your belly.