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.