Photo of the Week – September 27, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of my square meter photography project has been the chance to closely follow the lives of individual organisms over time.  For example, I’ve closely followed the progress of the two butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants within the boundaries of my square meter plot.  The plants bloomed beautifully back in late June, which was great, though fewer pollinators visited the flowers than I had hoped.  Perhaps correlated with that, only one seed pod was produced between those two plants.  Since then, I have been watching that one pod very very closely…

On the morning of September 24, the pod was just starting to open.

This week, that pod finally opened up, giving me the long-awaited chance to photograph some milkweed seeds within my plot.  As it turns out, it’s a good thing I was vigilant, because that pod opened up and emptied itself out out very quickly.  Within only a few days, the pod went from tightly closed to completely devoid of seeds.

By the afternoon of the same day (24th) the pod had opened up much more, exposing the seeds, which were beginning to dry out and fluff up.
The next day, September 25, the pod was wide open and seeds were beginning to fly out.
I was traveling on the 26th, so didn’t get to check in on my plot.  By the 27th, only three days after the pod opened, it was empty.  Some of the seeds landed close by, but others flew much further away.

While many of the seeds were blown well out of my little plot, a handful got stuck on adjacent plants, giving me the chance to photograph them.  Here are some photos of those seeds as they were coming out of the pod or after they got hung up within the borders of my plot.

Photo of the Week – November 26, 2015

The sky yesterday was mostly overcast and dark, but I looked out my window mid morning and noticed the clouds thinning a little.  I grabbed my camera and drove down to our family prairie for a walk.  It was a beautiful day, with temperatures in the 50’s (F) and light winds.

Sun coming through dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.
Sun coming through a dotted gayfeather seedhead in late autumn prairie. Helzer family prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

I rarely start these photo walks with a particular subject in mind, and yesterday was no exception.  I enjoyed looking at the bright red leaves on wild rose plants, and perused the tracks of various animals along the edge of the wetland.  However, I ended up spending most of my time photographing the seeds of dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) plants.

Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.
Dotted gayfeather seeds still hanging on.

While many plants with wind-blown seeds released the last of those seeds weeks or months ago, most gayfeather plants are still hanging on to most of theirs.  It’s hard to know if there is an evolutionary adaptation involved in that delay, but it sure is appreciated by photographers like me.  …Especially in late November, when wildflowers and insects have disappeared for the winter.

Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.
Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie..
Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.
More seeds.
Dotted gayfeather in autumn prairie. Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.
A big ‘ol jumble of seeds.

On this official day of Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for many things – including my job, which allows me to work in, study, photograph, and write about grasslands and prairie ecology.  More than that, I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to write this blog over the last five (!!) years.  Writing these posts forces me to explore more ideas and think more deeply than I otherwise would, and I learn a tremendous amount as a result.  Thank you for reading, following, and sharing your feedback.

Have a safe and enjoyable holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo of the Week – October 23, 2014

I needed a walk in the prairie the other evening.  There are times when I just need to change focus and think about something besides my own life, and hiking through a grassland is the perfect tonic.

Our family prairie was resplendent in golds and browns as the sun was going down.  As the last light hit the fuzzy seed heads of stiff goldenrod and other late season wildflowers, the plants seemed to glow – as did the numerous thin strands of spider silk strung between the plants.

Stiff goldenrod seeds caught on a stray strand of spider silk.
Stiff goldenrod seeds tenuously held by a stray strand of spider silk.
More stiff goldenrod seeds.
More stiff goldenrod seeds.

As the sun continued to sink, I kept climbing uphill – until I finally ran out of light completely.  Just as the sun was dropping below the horizon, I spotted a wild lettuce plant with its beautiful wispy seeds waving in the gentle breeze.  I had just enough time to capture one image before the sun disappeared.

Wild lettuce seeds at sundown.  Helzer Family Prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.
Wild lettuce seeds at sundown. Helzer Family Prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

I stood up, stretched, and enjoyed my long walk back to the truck.  The world looked pretty good…


Photo of the Week – December 13, 2013

Monday morning was cold here.  If I remember correctly, it was about 4 degrees below zero when I decided to go for a walk with my camera.  (Because, hey, what else would you do on a morning like that?)

There wasn’t much wind, so it honestly didn’t feel all that bad, especially since I was dressed for it.  However, my camera was sure cold.  It worked fine, but I had to keep an extra battery in my pocket (so it would stay warm) because batteries don’t last long at very low temperatures.  The biggest issue, though, was that the viewfinder on the camera kept frosting over from my breath.  Those of you who think photography is easy haven’t tried holding your breath every time you put the camera up close to your face…

As the sun came up, the prairie was populated with seedheads wearing little snow caps.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I couldn’t seem to find a single one that photographed well.  So, I ended up with this photo of milkweed seeds, in which you can’t even really tell it was snowy.

But trust me, it was cold.

Common milkweed seeds on a frigid, snowy day.  The Leadership Center Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.
Common milkweed seeds on a frigid, snowy day. The Leadership Center Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Oh, and by the way – I took several versions of this photo and struggled to decide which I liked best.  You might ask, “Chris, why don’t you just put a couple versions up and ask us which we like better?”   Sure, that’d work great.  I tried that yesterday with the bison photos.  Twenty four hours later, well over 100 people voted, some contacting me outside of the blog, and the vote was almost exactly evenly split.  A number of you tried to have it both ways, so your “vote” didn’t really help.  The remainder of you did, at least, express an opinion, but in the end, there was no consensus.

I suppose I could take my cue from the United States government, and decide that since the readership is polarized I should just shut down the blog for a while.  However, as an example to my country, I’ll take the high road and compromise.  Both photos will be included in next week’s “best photos of 2013” feature.  You have only yourselves to blame, though, when you look at through that photo montage and think to yourself, “Gee, this is nice, but it seems like there’s one too many images in it…”

(Seriously, though, thanks for voting.  Both images were obviously popular.  Some people felt very strongly one way or the other.  Others liked them about equally.  It was fun to read the reasons people chose one over the other.  While there were some very thoughtful responses, my favorite was definitely the one from Mary, who chose photo B  because the bison reminded her of her old uncle!  As of the time I’m writing this, the vote count is 53 votes for A and 50 for B…)

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Planning a Prairie Garden

A guest post by Anne Stine, one of our Hubbard Fellows:

It just recently turned cold out, which means I’ve started daydreaming about next year’s garden.  I am a native plant enthusiast, and I have decided that I’ll be planting a prairie garden filled with my favorite flowers that I’ve learned with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska over the past six months.  I’ve poured through the internet searching for propagation information and bloom times.  I want to make sure I have a continuous bloom period, both because it makes for pleasant viewing and because I want to provide native bee habitat across the growing season.  I also need to know which seeds require stratification or scarification. Because I am me, I made a spreadsheet of all this information (at the bottom of this post).

Who wouldn't want flowers like this in a garden?  Blue lobelia and cardinal flower in The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.
Who wouldn’t want flowers like this in a garden? Blue lobelia and cardinal flower in The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Ultimately, I want my garden to be a great pollinator resource filled with unique native plants. If it attracts birds and butterflies too, that’s a huge plus. Lastly, if it’s going to survive my schedule, it needs to be low-maintenance.  I am pleased to note that gardening with native plants can fulfil all these objectives.  My table of appealing native plants, though not comprehensive, will help me design my garden to satisfy these requirements.  I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on favorite native plants and propagation tricks.

Happy plann(t)ing!

Click on the tables below to see a larger/clearer version of them.  Or click HERE to see the same information in a PDF format.



*Information on propagation, soil moisture requirements, and bloom period gathered from the USDA Plants Database, Native Plant Database, and the Missouri Botanical Garden Plantfinder Database.


Winter Wildlife Food

As we continue to transition into winter, many wildlife species are watching food supplies dwindle around them.  Flowers have been done blooming for a long time, and now even their seeds are starting to disappear.  A few hardy insects are still around, but most have either died off or have found a comfortable place to spend the winter.

The seeds on this stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) seed head are nearly gone.  Birds likely got most of them, though wind may have knocked some off as well.
The seeds on this stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) seed head are nearly gone. Birds likely got most of them, though wind may have knocked some off as well.

Sunflower seeds are a very attractive late fall/winter food source for many wildlife species, including many birds.  During our fall seed harvest each year, we definitely notice the impact of bird foraging – especially if we wait a little too long to gather seeds.  Large flocks of migrant birds can quickly deplete a stand of sunflowers of their seeds.  That can be frustrating for tardy prairie ecologists, but has bigger implications for resident prairie animals that depend upon those seeds for winter survival.

These annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) have lost all of their seeds already, though opportunistic scavengers might still find some on the ground beneath the plant.
These annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) have already lost all of their seeds, though opportunistic scavengers might still find some on the ground beneath the plant.

Fortunately for resident wildlife, migrant birds don’t get all the sunflower seeds, so at least some are left for winter foragers.  When snow covers the ground, sunflowers and other plants that still hold seeds become particularly important for wildlife.  Some animals have already built up caches of stored seeds to eat when snow covers the ground, but other species – especially birds – have to make do with what’s sticking out above the snow.  It’s easy to see which plants have the best food supply by looking at the tracks in the snow around them!

Both small mammals and birds are foraging around these annual sunflowers in the snow.  (2009 photo)
Both small mammals and birds were foraging around these annual sunflowers in the snow.  Birds (and maybe some small mammals?) can get the seeds directly from the top of the plant, but others pick fallen seeds right off the snow. (2009 photo)

Photo of the Week – November 14, 2013

Last week, I took a short early morning trip out to my family prairie.  As the sun came up, its light was caught beautifully by the fuzzy seeds of various prairie plants, particularly stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata).

A stiff goldenrod seed is ready to fall from a seedhead.
A stiff goldenrod seed is ready to fall from a seedhead.  Helzer prairie, near Stockham, Nebraska.

Species with fuzzy parachute-style seeds trade distance for time.  Their seeds can be carried far from the plant, giving them a chance to colonize new areas.  However, because the seeds have to be light weight, they tend to have short shelf-lives, and can’t survive for very long – they will either germinate quickly or die.  Bulkier seeds often have the ability to survive for years in the ground and then germinate when favorable conditions appear – but they don’t typically travel very far from their parent plant.  Life is a series of tradeoffs!

More goldenrod seeds.
More goldenrod seeds.


And more.
And more.  In this photo, the contrast between the brightness of the seeds and the shadows behind the plant were such that the camera couldn’t capture it all, resulting in a black background behind the correctly-exposed seeds.


Even after the petals (and even the seeds) fall, goldenrod flowers are still very attractive.
Even after the petals (and even the seeds) fall, goldenrod flowers are still very attractive.


Dotted gayfeather also has short-lived, high-flying seeds.  However, once a new plant is established, it puts down deep roots (literally - as deep as 10-15 feet).
Dotted gayfeather also has short-lived, high-flying seeds. However, once a new plant is established, it puts down deep roots (literally – as deep as 10-15 feet).


More dotted gayfeather seeds.
More dotted gayfeather seeds.

Photo of the Week – October 31, 2013

Following the backyard prairie theme from earlier this week, here is a photo I took yesterday in my prairie garden.  I had been looking through my files of recent images, and didn’t see anything I was excited about posting as a Photo of the Week.  The light outside was pretty nice for closeup photography (bright overcast), so I grabbed my camera and went to have a look around the garden.  About 5 minutes later, I had my image.

Sideoats grama seeds.  Helzer Prairie Garden - Aurora, Nebraska.
Sideoats grama seeds. Helzer Prairie Garden – Aurora, Nebraska.

Don’t you love prairie gardens?

Insects After a Hard Freeze

In last week’s Photo of the Week post, I mentioned that I’d spent part of a morning photographing white fluffy seeds in autumn prairie.  (It’s not a bad life, all things considered.)  As I walked that morning, I noticed how quiet it was.  In fact, the only sounds I heard were those of my feet crunching through the dried grass.  We’ve had three below-freezing nights in the last week or so (25, 27, and 28 degrees F), and those cold temperatures have eliminated most insects – and their sounds – from the prairie.

Milkweed seeds in autumn prairie.

However, the prairie was not completely devoid of insects.  As I was photographing seed heads of false boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides), I noticed that one of the flower stems seemed much thicker than it should have been.  Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a caterpillar.  Anyone know what kind it is?  I certainly don’t.

A caterpillar on a false boneset seed head.

In fact, there were two caterpillars on the same plant.  Did they survive the cold temperatures right there on the plant?  Or did they drop down into the thick leaf litter below during those frigid nights and find enough warmth to avoid freezing?  Are they larvae of a moth that overwinters as a caterpillar?  Or are they the last reproductive gasp of a moth species that migrates north each year in the spring, produces multiple generations, and then finally succumbs to the winter cold?

A second caterpillar on the same plant.

The coloration of the caterpillars matches fall prairie foliage very well, which makes me wonder whether they are of a species that overwinters as a caterpillar – and has protective coloration to match late fall dormant stems.  Maybe one of you will know some of the answers to my questions and can solve the mystery.  That’d be great, but in the meantime, it’s just as much fun to speculate as to know!

The caterpillars weren’t the only insects in the prairie.  Just a few steps away, I found the insect pictured below.  Can you identify it from the front?

Do you recognize the face of this insect?

The photo below gives you a better look.

An assassin bug sits in ambush on the seed head of a dotted gayfeather plant.

The assassin bug appeared to be waiting quietly for another insect to venture near enough to become a meal.  Based on the scarcity of insects in the post-hard-freeze-prairie, that could be a long wait.  Besides the assassin bug and the two caterpillars, the only other insect I saw was a ladybug, though I’m sure there were others that survived the first cold snaps – including wolf spiders.  Long-time blog readers might remember a post from a couple years ago about a wolf spider I found running around on the ice on an 18 degree F day.

So how do insects do it?  They’re cold-blooded, right?  They should be particularly vulnerable to really cold weather…

Well, a good hard freeze does bring death to lots of insects.  However, their species show up again the next year, so they clearly have strategies for getting through the winter.  Many species overwinter as eggs, but others survive as larvae or even adults.  Most of those that overwinter as larvae or adults seek shelter from the worst of the cold by burrowing underground or beneath deep leaf litter.  Even so, they may have to withstand temperatures well below freezing.  Some insects produce a kind of anti-freeze solution to protect themselves from freezing, while others change the way they store liquids within and between their cells so their cells don’t rupture when those liquids freeze and expand.

…and of course there are lots of other strategies.  You can read a technical description of some of those in this research article, if you’re interested.  Or you could read a more general post I wrote last year about winter survival strategies of a number of animals.

What’s happening to the insects in prairies near you?  Have you already seen the big first freeze die off?  Maybe you live in a climate where that never happens?  I’d love to hear your stories.

First Snow

We got our first snow of the season this weekend.  Last night, I spent a couple hours walking with my camera at our family prairie south of town.  The warm and dry November weather was really nice, but it was good to be out in the snow again. 

Late afternoon sunshine made the tall grasses glow, and set them off nicely against the backdrop of snow.
Ragweed plants caught snow in their branches, making them look like little dancing ladies.
Wind and birds had knocked grass seeds, including this indiangrass seed, from the stems. This early in the winter, seeds are still abundant and tracks of birds and small mammals showed that many of them were being harvested from the snow.
It was nearly dark when I finished my walk. There was just enough light from the last glow of sunlight on the horizon to silhouette this false gromwell plant (Onosmodium molle) against the drifted snow.