Photo of the Week – September 21, 2018

I spent much of this week in northern Nebraska, attending various events and staying at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It rained much of the time, but I caught a break in the clouds Monday evening and happened upon the bison in our east herd as the sun was going down.  I spent about an hour and a half tagging along with them as they moved slowly toward the setting sun.  If you haven’t spent much time with bison, one of the things you notice immediately is how quiet they are.  Apart from some contented grunting, the primary sounds I heard as I accompanied them was the crunching of their hooves in the grass and the sound of them tearing mouthfuls of food from the prairie.  It was very peaceful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the sun going down over the hills.

Photo of the Week – August 31, 2018

Earlier this week, we spent a few days collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It was a quick trip up and back, but we still managed to see quite a bit of wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn, grouse, lizards, monarch butterflies, lots of grasshoppers and bees, and much more.  We also found ourselves close to bison a few times, and I managed to get some decent photos of them.  Here is a selection of those bison shots.

The red calves we saw back in May have grown quite a bit, and have changed into a more standard bison color.

A yearling cow stares unflappably back at me…

After driving into a bunch of bison in our west pasture, we watched as one after another of them stopped and took a dust bath in the same spot, rolling around in a frankly ridiculous, but apparently effective manner.

More dust bathing…

I couldn’t quite convince my son that we have a two-headed bison at the Preserve now, but he had to look carefully at the photo before he was sure.

This big ol’ bull was off by himself and lying down in the grass as we drove by in the evening. He stood as we approached, looked us over, and then turned and walked away as if he couldn’t care less – which is probably accurate.

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 – December 7, 2017

A couple quick comments before I share this week’s photos…

First, a brief celebration.  This little prairie blog surpassed 1,000,000 hits a few months ago, which is both shocking and humbling.  In addition, more than 3,500 people now subscribe to the blog via email and/or Twitter.  Most gratifying to me, however, is that as of today, there have been 10,000 comments in response to posts and photos on this blog.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the discourse that occurs here.  Out of those 10,000 comments, there have been only a handful that weren’t respectful, constructive, and/or informative.  While I don’t reply to all comments, please be assured that I read every single one, and aside from that aforementioned handful, I appreciate them all very much.  Whether you’re expressing your appreciation for a photo or thought, asking questions about topics we’re exploring, or sharing additional information, the comments are my favorite thing about writing this blog.  Please keep sending them!

Second, thanks to Brandon Timm, biology teacher at Aurora High School (Nebraska), I can now say I’ve appeared on a podcast!  Mr. Timm has a podcast, called My Science Story, in which he interviews a variety of scientists, discussing both their work and the path they followed to get where they are.  His main objective is to inspire students to see themselves as potential scientists, but the podcast is also a great way to catch up on what some fascinating scientists are up to these days.  If you’re interested, you can listen to the episode I appear on HERE, but please also check out his other episodes.  I think you’ll be impressed.

Ok, now the photos:

A hybrid of sandsage and sandhills prairie in Garden County, Nebraska.

While I tend to turn my camera toward small insects and flowers, I often find myself in some pretty extraordinary landscapes, especially the Nebraska Sandhills, where I am surrounded by nothing but open grassland as far as I can see in every direction.  Using photography to capture the sense of immensity and pleasant isolation I feel in those landscapes has turned out to be a big challenge for me.  Even with a wide angle lens, it’s really hard to portray the expanse of grassland and sky around me.  In the above photo, for example, there is nothing but grassland between me and the horizon at the top of the photo (several miles away), but while it’s a nice image, it doesn’t do justice to what I was seeing.

Wetland, dunes, and sky. Cherry County, Nebraska.

In this second photo, I wanted to show both the foreground vegetation as context for the wetland and vegetated sand dunes behind it, and the clouds gave me a great sky to work with as well.  However, the photo seems about three times too narrow to portray what I saw as I stood near the edge of the clear water.  Sure, I could have stitched multiple images together in a panorama, but when I try that, I’m usually disappointed by the result.  I can show more of the landscape, but the scene seems to become somehow smaller rather than larger.  I’m not sure I can verbalize why that is.

Sandhills prairie. Cherry County, Nebraska.

This last photo comes about as close as I’ve gotten to showing off the expansiveness of the Sandhills.  Ironically, it was shot with a zoom lens set at about 54 mm, which is far from a wide angle.  However, I was able to get up high, include a vehicle in the foreground for some context, and include an awful lot of landscape between me and the distant horizon.  It’s the depth of the image, rather than the width, that makes it work for me.  But even this image is a poor representation of reality.

I guess you’ll just have to go look for yourself.

Photo of the Week – September 15, 2017

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.

Sunrise over the Sandhills and Niobrara River, with sunflower skeletons in the foreground.

The flurry of sunflower blooming was nearly over, but a few plants held on to their last blossoms, much to the delight of the bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, and other insects feeding on their pollen and nectar.

Wild rose (Rosa arkansana) had a great fruit year in the Sandhills, especially in recently-burned prairie. 

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolium) is one of the last flowers to bloom in the Sandhills season, and patches were scattered about the prairie.

Smooth sumac in the the middle of its transition to from green to red.  In this burned area, skeletons of previous growth are surrounded by the regrowth from the base of the plants.

Photo of the Week – August 24, 2017

Today at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, we were hosting a field trip for a group of land managers from around the Sandhills.  As our caravan of pickups was traveling across our east bison pasture at around 5pm, Gerry Steinauer (state botanist for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) was sitting in the passenger seat of my truck and writer/photographer Bill Allen was in the back seat.  We had spotted a small group of bison and were detouring across a gravelly flat toward them.  Out of nowhere, Gerry suddenly called out to stop the truck.

He jumped out of the truck and knelt down next to a tiny plant with a pink flower.  The plant was prairie fame flower (Talinum parviflorum, aka Phemeranthus parviflorum).  It’s the most common of the three fame flower species in the Sandhills, but is still a plant that can be difficult to find.  It tends to grow in well-drained coarse sand or gravelly soils and doesn’t get very tall.  When it’s not blooming, its small succulent leaves are only a couple inches tall, so it hides well – even in the sparsely vegetated habitat it prefers.  During its blooming season, Gerry says fame flower doesn’t start flowering until about 4pm, so it’s not very visible for most of the day.  As a result, it’s always a pleasure to see one.

Prairie fame flower. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

As we started walking around the truck, we kept seeing more and more fame flower plants in bloom, so all three of our truck’s passengers grabbed our cameras and proceeded to start taking photos.  I think I’ve seen maybe 5 or 10 fame flower plants in bloom during the last 20 years, and we were seeing at least 100 flowering plants within  20 or 30 yards of the truck.

Before long, the rest of our caravan visited the bison and then came back our way, trying to figure out why we were crouched and/or laying on the ground.  We showed them the fame flower and they at least pretended to be impressed, which was kind of them.  (That’s not really fair – they were genuinely interested in the plant, though maybe not enough to stretch out prone in cactus-infested prairie to photograph it.)

Fame flower up close.

As we finished our drive across the pasture, our brains were programmed to see the little flowers, and we ended up spotting a couple more good patches of it.  The field trip had gone really well, with lots of thought-provoking discussion , but finding this big patch of fame flower put a perfect finishing touch on the day.

Photo of the Week – July 20, 2017

Wow, this was a hot week.  About the time I stopped hiking hills and collecting data at the Niobrara Valley Preserve yesterday, my truck’s thermometer said it was 111 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sure, it was really hot, but I figured the truck was probably estimating a little high until Kim said she looked at the official weather report from Valentine (nearby town) and it said the high recorded temperature there was 112 degrees.  That’s pretty hot for northern Nebraska.

One of the reasons I was trudging through the hills in the heat was to look for lizards, but I’m pretty sure they were smarter than I was and were hanging out in cool shady places, because I didn’t see any after about 11 am.  The insects in the prairie seemed less affected by the heat, however, and I saw lots of them, including quite a few gorgeous red assassin bugs.

These assassin bugs didn’t seem to be affected by the extreme heat. I spotted them near where I parked my truck on a hill and they were still there over an hour later when I finished walking my transects.

Wasps also seemed to be particularly abundant this week, especially on the blossoms of sand milkweed and other wildflowers.  I enjoyed looking at the diversity of wasp species, but my enthusiasm diminished very suddenly when one of them (I’m pretty sure) stung me in the back.  I think it must have gotten itself wedged between my pack and my back.  It wasn’t MY fault it got stuck there, but I now have a large ugly welt anyway.  Man, that hurt!  A lot.

The day before I got stung, I spotted a wasp (probably not the same one) in a patch of bare sand, and thought about photographing it.  I glanced down at my bag just long enough to extract my camera, but when I looked back the wasp had moved a few feet and was now grappling with one of those red assassin bugs.

Just because the wasp is on top of the assassin bug doesn’t mean it was getting the upper hand, as you’ll soon see.

Actually, grappling is probably a misleading term because it looked like a pretty one-sided battle.  After a half minute or so, the assassin bug flipped the wasp over and it was clear who was winning.

Getting stung by a wasp on a super hot day wasn’t fun, but this wasp was having a worse day than I was having.  You can see the assassin bug’s proboscis inserted into the abdomen of the wasp, and the bug’s toxin is apparently pretty fast-acting because the wasp was done twitching by this point.

I photographed the scene quickly and then got up to leave.  I must have moved too suddenly for the assassin bug’s liking, though, because it took off and flew a few yards away, leaving the wasp behind.  Even after I kept moving away and left the area alone for a few minutes, the assassin bug didn’t return, so I came back and took one final photo of the dead wasp.  I’m hoping maybe the bug returned to finish its meal later.  I feel bad…

The dead wasp.

I think the wasp pictured above is a male, though I’m not confident of that.  I don’t see a stinger, anyway.  While I was driving home yesterday (with the air conditioner blasting pleasantly), I wondered to myself whether or not assassin bugs can tell male wasps from female wasps.  Apparently wasps can tell the difference, so it doesn’t seem completely crazy that other insects could as well.  It would sure be handy to know whether you’re about to attack a stinger-wielding female or an unarmed male…

Everyone thinks about this kind of thing while they drive, right?

This wasp hung out on a yucca pod just long enough for me to photograph it.

I’m definitely a generalist, rather than a specialist, when it comes to ecology and natural history.  I know a little bit about a lot of species rather than a lot about a selected group.  If I had to narrow myself down, though, wasps would be a group of organisms I’d like to study.  I mean look how cool the blue one above is!  Or maybe I could study assassin bugs.  They’re pretty amazing too.  Or moths…  Or grasshoppers…  Or flea beetles?

Maybe I’d better stick to being a generalist.

Prairie Noise

I just finished a great but very long day at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  We were collecting sweep net data and counting flowering plants to evaluate the impacts of various fire and grazing treatments.  There was a lot of action in the prairie – an up close encounter with a pronghorn mother and twins, coyotes calling to each other just over the hill, 5 species of prairie clover blooming, wasps and bees everywhere, and loads of robber flies and assassin bugs going after those wasps, bees, and other insects.

However, what was most noticeable in the prairie today was the sound of cicadas.  The really loud incessant sound of cicadas.  They were calling to each other from perches on grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs, and flushing in front of us all day as we moved through the grassland.  The cicadas were most abundant and noisy in the depressions between hills, where they were protected from the moderate breeze.  I snuck up on one to get some video of it and then realized that I hadn’t yet figured out how to use the video function on my new camera.  After that cicada flew away unphotographed, I figured out the video function and then stalked a few more cicadas until I found one that let me get close enough to get both photographs and videos of it.

Often incorrectly called “locusts”, cicadas are pretty common during the heat of the summer, and they come in a variety of species.  As with many other animals, the males make loud sounds to attract females.  When a bunch of them are calling simultaneously, the sound can be incredibly loud, especially for such small insects.  Here’s a quick video from today:

Swarms, Squadrons, and Skies

(See the note at the end of this post about our free Plant Identification workshop this Thursday – July 6, 2017)

Last week, my wife and I were both at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, working with other staff to evaluate some of our fire and grazing treatments.  We finished the bulk of the data collection by Wednesday, but Kim and I stuck around another couple days after the other visiting staff left.  On Wednesday evening, we both felt like spending some quiet time in the prairie by ourselves so we took off in opposite directions.  As it happened, neither of us got to be alone on our hikes.

I took my ATV up into the hills to find a nice place to walk with my camera as the sun went down, and as I was driving up the hill, I felt something me on the top of the head.  It felt like I was driving through tall grass that was slapping me gently as I drove through, but all the vegetation around me was knee high or less.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on until I stopped and got off the ATV.  At that point, I realized I was being swarmed by some kind of tiny insect.

Self portrait with swarming insects

It was an almost perfectly calm evening, and there were myriad hovering swarms of these insects scattered around the prairie – often over the top of fence posts or tall shrubs.  Whenever I came close to one of these swarms, it was like my head was a magnet; the whole swarm would kind of just SHLOOOP over to my head and use it as the center for their wild dance.  It was like having my head inside a bubble full of flying bugs. While I was having this surreal experience, Kim was dealing with the same phenomenon a mile away, as she walked along a two-track road through the bison pasture.

I was trying to photograph the beautiful sky and look for flowers or insects, but it was really hard to concentrate with a horde of little critters flying around and crawling about on my head.  They weren’t biting me, but they were awfully distracting.  If I moved fast enough (the ATV was handy…) I could get away from one swarm, but there were so many swarms around, it would just take a few moments after I stopped before another found me.  Once I figured out I wasn’t being attacked, I could relax a little and managed to get some photography done, but I was certainly less focused (ha ha) than normal.

The prairie and sky above it were absolutely gorgeous in the late day light.

I was, of course, also interested in what kinds of insects these were that were swarming around my head, but they were so tiny I couldn’t see them well enough to tell.  I could grab a few of them at a time and look, but I just couldn’t see enough features without some magnification.  They didn’t look like midges, which had been my first guess, but beyond that, I was stumped.  Finally, as I was getting ready to head back to the cabin, I caught a bigger one (a female, I assumed) and it looked a lot like a winged ant.  I took her and few other smaller ones back to the cabin in a little ziplock bag so I could look more closely at them.

The next morning, I pulled the insects out of the bag and used my macro lens to examine and photograph them.  Sure enough, they were tiny ants.

Two of the flying ants that had been swarming around us the previous night.

As I understand it, the kind of nuptial flights Kim and I experienced are often triggered by a combination of temperature and recent rains (it had rained the previous night).  Winged males and a few females take to the sky to chase each other around and mate.  Because of the huge number of flying insects in these swarms, they are an easy target for flying predators like dragonflies and birds.  Sure enough, Kim said she ran across bunch (flock? squadron?) of hunting dragonflies and they did a pretty good job of thinning the horde of ants around her head.  I didn’t think of looking for dragonflies.  Instead, as soon as the light dimmed and closed the photography window I hopped on the ATV and gunned it, enjoying a nice manufactured breeze all the way back to the cabin.

I wish the ants luck with their mating swarms.  We need ants, and if this is how we get more, then I hope they are successful.  At the same time, it’d be nice to have a schedule of when they plan the events so we can plan our quiet evening excursions accordingly…

REMINDER:  On July 6 (THIS THURSDAY!) we are hosting a Plant Identification workshop at the Platte River Prairies.  This is a free event.  Bring your own lunch and water bottle, but we’ll provide snacks and some cold drinks.  You can come and go anytime between 9am and 2pm.  We will have several expert botanists leading hikes through different habitat types and working with you to improve your plant identification skills.  Meet at The Nature Conservancy’s Derr House – 2 miles south of Interstate 80 Exit 300 (Wood River).  Immediately after the highway curves sharply to the east, turn south on the gravel road (Platte River Drive) and you’ll see the TNC sign and big brick house.  Don’t use your GPS, it’ll likely lead you astray.  See you Thursday!

Photo of the Week – June 29, 2017

Monday night, I spent some time exploring the east bison pasture at the Niobrara Valley Preserve as the sun was going down.  The bison have been concentrating their grazing on the east end of the pasture that was burned in March.  Within that patch, most of the grasses have been grazed, along with the wildflowers they like best.  The sky was pretty spectacular, so I spent time photographing the vibrant green landscape and the bright wispy clouds above it.  When the sun was nearly down, however, I noticed the light illuminating patches of woolly plantain (Plantago patagonica), an annual plant that had just finished its flowering season.  I dropped down to the ground and photographed the backlit plants until the sun finally disappeared.

I ended up with two favorite images from those few minutes.  I like them both for different reasons, so I decided to share them both.

Woolly plantain is not a plant most people would call regal or beautiful, though it certainly has its charm.  Because it’s often overlooked, I like that these photos feature it so prominently.  Woolly plantain is a space-filler, a plant that can’t handle competition.  It grows and flowers only when other plants are weakened enough that it can find spaces between them.  A burned patch of sandy prairie grazed by bison creates perfect habitat for woolly plantain, and these photos celebrate the plantain, the prairie, and all of the processes that link them all together.

…Plus, it was pretty dang cool to be lying on my stomach, watching the sun go down over a huge prairie landscape while a big herd of bison grazed in the distance…