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.