Hubbard Fellowship Blog- Emerging Life

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.

Last week started with beautifully warm weather. Plants, such as this Penstemon grandiflorus, were rapidly sending up tender leaves, eager to rebuild their energy reserves with the sun’s rays.

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On a 60 degree Sunday, I was shocked to stumble upon an ant colony hectically rebuilding their nest.

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I was repairing a bridge in a muddy part of the prairie on Monday when I noticed a couple puddles no bigger than iPhones. To my amazement, they were brimming with all sorts of life. I lay on my stomach and watched them for several minutes, but I probably could’ve spent an hour staring into them. It amazes me how much life a tiny scrape in the ground can contain, and how quickly that life materializes with a little bit of sun and water. How did so many minute creatures endure a freezing winter and explode so quickly with abundance? My guess is that they spent the winter as eggs in the soil and quickly hatched when the puddle filled with water. But with the very imminent threats of freezing or drying out, these critters must reproduce very quickly. Maybe that’s why they seemed so frantic. (I checked on the puddle yesterday and it was dry. I hope they got done what they needed to!)

While the warm weather ushered in many new species, it also encouraged the cranes to start leaving, sadly. As I watched the puddle critters, flocks of cranes circled on thermals high into the sky before catching southern winds and continuing on their journey north.

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Of course, spring is fickle in nature. By Monday, a cold front produced a spectacular lightning storm that rolled over the prairie.

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In the days following the storm, the temperature plunged. Cold mornings frosted the tender leaves of plants that had sprouted under more encouraging conditions just days before. I don’t know how plants and animals survive such unpredictable weather at such a vulnerable stage in their lives, yet somehow they do it year after year.

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Photo of the Week – March 21, 2014

During the big sandhill crane migration spectacle each spring, about 600,000 cranes stop by to visit the Platte River.  Most of them stick around for a few weeks, put on as much body fat as they can, and then head north to nesting grounds.  However, a very low percentage of cranes never get to leave.  Some are killed by powerlines or predators, others just die of old age or other ailments.  We see these dead birds here and there through the spring, and so do the predators and scavengers that take advantage of the abundant food source.

Our crew stumbled upon a dead crane this week, and before the scavengers got to work on it (much) I took advantage of the opportunity to get some close up photos.  It’s not often I get this close to a crane, and I’m guessing the same is true for most of you.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.  As always, you can click on an image to see a larger and sharper version of it.

The combination of gray and brown feathers on the wing are particularly attractive.  The gray is the natural color of the crane’s feathers, but they stain their feathers by spreading iron-rich soil on them.  I’ve actually watched them do this in our restored wetlands, where streaks of iron deposits can be seen in bare sand.  In places where the sand is saturated when groundwater is high and dry when groundwater falls, the iron in the sand rusts and turns a deep reddish brown.  We use those rusted iron deposits as indicators when we’re deciding how deep to excavate wetlands during the restoration process, but they’re also a great place for cranes to find staining compound!

Given the propensity of humans to dye their gray hair other colors, we probably shouldn’t wonder at cranes doing the same kind of thing.  At least cranes can claim (legitimately) they’re doing it for camouflaging purposes.

Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

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Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

While the wing feathers were very pretty, the head of the dead crane was the most interesting to examine up close.  Some of you may know that the red patch on the head of a sandhill crane is not made up of red feathers, but is actually a (relatively) bald patch.  The red cap is a sign of maturity for these cranes – birds hatched last year don’t yet have one.

In cranes, at least, “crane-pattern baldness” is a good thing.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

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