For many of you, the snake photo below will elicit a strong visceral response.  The spider photo below might do the same.  While it varies in intensity, humans seem to have an innate fear of both spiders and snakes.  New research now provides further support for the idea that fear of spiders and snakes is something we’re born with, not something we learn.  The European study showed that 6-month-old infants responded more strongly to images of spiders and snakes than of other creatures, even when those images were nearly identical in terms of color and brightness.  It’s a fascinating study to read, and is available for free by following this link.

This red-sided garter snake is about as harmless as you can get.
This big female wolf spider is impressive, but poses no threat to humans.

I handle both snakes and spiders fairly regularly, but I’ll still admit that my first reaction upon seeing one – especially when it’s a surprise – is to step backward.  Then, my logical brain kicks in and I step forward and pick up the cute little critter to look at it more closely.  I may be instinctively afraid of snakes and spiders, but it’s nice to know my brain has the ability to override that instinct – and I think most people have that same ability.  Dating back to my time working at a nature center in college, I’ve probably helped thousands of people overcome that initial fright response and touch, or even pick up, their first spider or snake.

My kids and I came across this bull snake along a gravel road.  We didn’t pick it up because it was acting aggressively, but we did spend a few minutes admiring it before it scooted off into the grass.

I think it’s important to help people understand that most snakes and spiders are harmless, and that even those few that could potentially pose a danger are not actively trying to attack them.  First, it might help save the lives of snakes and spiders living in and around those people’s houses.  That’s great, but probably won’t affect the fate of the world.  More importantly, however, I hope making people more comfortable with snakes and spiders might also help them feel more comfortable wandering out into prairies and other natural areas.

I’m not sure how many people avoid exploring tall grassy places out of fear, but I’ve definitely met people who fall into that category.  It’s hard enough to convince people that prairies are worth visiting without also having to convince them they won’t be ambushed by a vicious snake or spider.  I take every opportunity to reassure people that our prairies are safe, and try to prove it by going out of my way to catch and admire the snakes and spiders we see while hiking around.  Among my prairie conservation outreach strategies, demonstrating the harmlessness of snakes and spiders is surely not the most impactful, but I figure it doesn’t hurt.  If nothing else, people tend to care more about places they’ve visited, so anything we can to do encourage more visits to prairies seems worthwhile.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of people across the world would find this photo to be beautiful versus creepy (or both?).

Photo of the Week – May 30, 2014

I made another trip up to Griffith Prairie last week.  It looked pretty much as it had the week before – still lots of ragwort blooming –  but the photographs I returned with were very different.  This time, I came home with a bunch of photos of dumb invertebrates.

(I don’t mean that invertebrates as a group or concept are dumb, rather that the particular individuals I photographed seemed not to be very smart or savvy.  I’ll explain in a minute.)

Since I’d spent quite a bit of time photographing landscapes on my previous visit, I decided to put my macro lens on the camera and look for insects this time.  It was immediately clear that the long winter had dulled my insect photography skills…

First, I had to get my brain refocused on the idea of finding small creatures.  That part actually came back fairly easily.  Second, however, I had to work on my approach once I spotted those small creatures (come in low and slow).  I started by tracking some damselflies that were flitting just ahead of me as I walked.  I’d wait for one to land, then creep slowly toward it.  Unfortunately, just as I’d set my tripod down and lean forward to focus, the damselfly would fly about 2 feet further away and I’d have to repeat the whole process.  That highlighted the third aspect of insect photography I had to recapture… patience.

This was not the first damselfly I tried to photograph...just the one that finally let me get close enough to get a picture of it.
This was not the first damselfly I tried to photograph…just the one that finally let me get close enough to get a picture of it.

I did finally manage to get a photo of a damselfly.  I think it was a matter of following several different ones until I found one that wasn’t as skittery.  Of course, that’s probably a bad sign for the potential survival of that individual damselfly, since skittery is a good tactic to avoid predation.  I often wonder whether the insects I photograph are the ones that are not long for the world…

This returns us to the “dumb insect” topic.  Do you suppose smart insects look different from dumb ones?  I’ll probably never know because the only invertebrates I can photograph are the ones that are too dumb to run, jump, or fly away!

Here is a selection of some of the invertebrates that hung around on ragwort flowers long enough for me to photograph them last week.  I wish them the best, of course, but I’m not optimistic about their long-term survival…

This tiny beetle was on several ragwort plants.  Most of the beetles turned away or jumped to safety when they saw me coming, but this one didn't.
This tiny beetle species was on several ragwort plants. All of the other similar-looking beetles turned away or jumped to safety when they saw me coming, but this one didn’t.  It appeared to be enjoying its pollen dinner too much to bother running away.  It’s probably inside a bird or spider by now.


Not a very smart little fly...
Not a very smart little fly…


I must have seen two dozen crab spiders before I got this photo.  All the rest of them crawled beneath the petals when I approached, or dropped to the ground if I kept coming.  This one just sat there.
I must have seen two dozen crab spiders before I got this photo. All the rest of them crawled beneath the petals when I approached, or dropped to the ground if I kept coming. This one just sat there.


I got several photos of various individuals of this bug species (a true bug - Hemiptera).  Maybe the whole species is not so smart?
I was able to photograph several individuals of this bug species (a true bug – Hemiptera). Maybe the whole species is not so smart?

It was pretty neat to see the diversity of insects and other invertebrates using this one species of wildflower.  There were quite a few more than I’m showing here because most of them didn’t stick around long enough to be photographed (the smart ones).  I’m grateful to those that did.

…and I bet there are some grateful predators out there too.

Platte River Prairies Field Day – July 13, 2012

PLEASE JOIN US for a Platte River Prairies Field Day on July 13, 2012.  The day will include a range of activities, aimed to introduce relative newcomers to what prairies are all about and to allow more experienced prairie biologists/naturalists a chance to interact with a wide range of grassland experts.  This is an event that is designed for both professional biologists and the general public.  Spend the day with us and learn about prairie species, prairie restoration, and prairie management.

Gerry Steinauer, the state botanist from Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, will talk about prairie restoration and help you learn how to identify prairie plants.

Throughout the day, there will be guided tours of our high-diversity prairie restoration work and fire/grazing prairie management, during which visitors can see the results firsthand and discuss the associated challenges and successes.  We hope this will give people a chance to see some of the many options available for doing prairie restoration and management work and provide ideas that could be adapted to other sites.  The objective is not to promote the specific techniques we’re currently using, but rather to share what we’ve learned along the way, and stimulate discussion among the group that helps all of us get better at prairie conservation.

Tour prairies that are being managed with fire and grazing to enhance their plant diversity and habitat quality. Participate in discussions about the positive and negative impacts of various management techniques on a wide range of prairie species.

In addition, we’ve lined up a number of experts on various topics, including prairie ants, spiders, bees, reptiles/amphibians, plants, invasive species, and wildlife management, and those experts will give field presentations on their topics – and will also participate in the tour discussions.  This will be a great chance to learn how to identify prairie species you might not be familiar with, and also to learn how those species live and interact with each other.  If you’re like me, it’s difficult to learn how to identify tricky species when there isn’t someone there to tell you whether or not you’re guessing right!  Also, there’s no substitute for an in-person conversation with someone who is a recognized expert in their field of study.

Prairie communities consist of thousands of plant, animal, and invertebrate species. Come and meet scientists who can help you learn to identify – and identify with – a variety of these species.  Mike Arduser, from the Missouri Department of Conservation will share his expertise on prairie bees and other insects.

There is no cost for attending the Field Day.   We are grateful to Pheasants Forever and Prairie Biotic Research, Inc.  for helping to cover the costs of the event.  We will have some snacks available, and will keep big jugs of cold water, tea, and lemonade so you can fill your bottles as many times as you need to during the day.  Please bring a lunch with you – we’ll provide places to sit and eat, and might even have a slideshow by some nature photographer or other during lunch time.  In case it gets extraordinarily hot in the afternoon, we’ll have some indoor and shady activities planned as well.

Scheduled events will start at 9am and end at 4pm, but we encourage you to come early and stay late.  Trails will be open all day, so you can feel free to explore the prairies on your own as much as you like.  We would appreciate it if you would let us know if you plan to attend – so we can ensure we have enough snacks and drinks and so we can plan hikes accordingly – but you are also welcome to just stop by.

Click HERE to see the official announcement of this event on our website and to get more information.  Be sure to click on “Show Directions” to get directions to the prairies.  PLEASE NOTE THAT THE BRIDGES NORTH OF OUR PROPERTY ARE OUT, SO FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE WEBSITE – DON’T ASSUME YOU CAN GET THERE AS YOU MAY HAVE IN THE PAST.

Here is a list of those people who have committed to help lead tours and/or present information at the Field Day.  We are still pursuing a few more.

Mike Arduser, Missouri Dept of Conservation (bees)


Bill Beachly, Hastings College (spiders)


Pete Berthelsen, Pheasants Forever (wildlife management, pheasants/quail)


Karie Decker, Nebraska Invasive Species Program (invasives)


Dennis Ferraro, University of Nebraska (reptiles/amphibians)


Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy (prairie management)


Gerry Steinauer, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (botany, prairie restoration)

James Trager, Shaw Nature Reserve – Missouri (ants)


Revised Slideshows of Nebraska Nature

At the request of many of you, I’ve added captions to the slideshow photos I posted last November.  Those slideshows can always be found from the home page of this blog (under the Photography Page).  In addition, I’ve provided links to each at the end of this post.

A dragonfly in the early morning - Pawnee County, Nebraska

Now that I’ve got them labeled, I’d appreciate any help you can give me in identifying species correctly.  I’m pretty confident about the vertebrates and plants, but could sure use some assistance with the invertebrates.  If you see one that I’ve got wrong, or you can identify it more specifically, please let me know by adding a comment below the slideshow.

Thank you – I hope you enjoy the photos.







Why Are We Spending So Much Time Studying Birds?

Believe it or not, I really do like birds.

(And thus starts another blog post destined to draw the ire of my ornithologist friends…)

But here’s the thing.  I just read yet another study of grassland birds in which the researchers looked at the relative importance of variables such as habitat structure (tall, medium, and short grass, amount of shrub cover, etc.) and landscape composition (how much grassland is in the landscape).  It was a nicely designed study, but I found myself wondering how much value these kinds of studies are really adding to our ability to do effective grassland conservation.

A dickcissel sings from the top of a Woods' rose in restored Platte River prairie. Compared to most other kinds of animals and plants, we have a pretty solid understanding of the breeding habitat requirements of dickcissels and other grassland breeding birds.

Yes, we still have a lot to learn about grassland birds and their habitat requirements.  The more we learn, the better able to design conservation actions to help birds.  On the other hand, we already know an awful lot about grassland birds relative to other groups of grassland species like snakes, ground squirrels, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, fungi, and nematodes.

It’s kind of like we’re going to high school but only really studying in art class.  Art is important and enjoyable, but focusing only on art is not going to prepare us very well for dealing with the world.

If I was going to design a grassland landscape to maximize bird conservation, I think I could do a pretty good job based on what we know right now.  I’d start with multiple large blocks of prairie (hundreds of acres in size – much bigger, if possible).  Those blocks of prairie would need to include both upland and lowland grassland areas, and be floristically diverse enough to support an abundant supply of insects and seeds.  I’d include some scattered patches of shrubs and small trees in the landscape, but would place them so that there are still large areas of grassland with no woody vegetation at all.  Management would be important, and I would try to ensure that a variety of habitat structures was available each year, including the whole continuum between very short-cropped vegetation and tall dense and/or weedy cover.  It would be great to have those habitat types mixed together such that each block was a decent size (20 acres or more?) but that they were close enough together that birds species requiring more than one cover type during a season can easily move between them.  I’m sure those more up to speed on current literature might add a few tweaks to this landscape design, but I think this covers the more important components.

Sure, there are still a few holes in our knowledge of, especially in terms of their requirements for migratory habitat, but as a whole we’re in pretty good shape.  I would argue that our biggest limitation is not the ability to predict what birds need, but rather our ability to implement the necessary changes on the land.  However, that only applies to birds.  Does anyone feel they could similarly and accurately predict the landscape scale habitat needs of the smooth green snake, Franklin’s ground squirrel, or the long-jawed orbweaver spider? Not me.

A smooth green snake found in the Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. Very little is known about the habitat and/or landscape requirements of species like this one. We don't even really know much about how many there are. They are considered to be rare in most places, but we find them fairly regularly in our prairies - they're just really hard to see!

It would be different if we were confident that a landscape designed for birds would provide for the needs of all other prairie species.  I think we’re far from being able to say that.  Here’s just one reason I’m skeptical:  Grassland bird species are extremely mobile, and most migrate long distances between breeding seasons.  This allows those birds to find the best appropriate habitat (within reason) each year, even if that habitat isn’t where it was the previous breeding season.  Most other grassland species don’t have that kind of mobility, but many (most?) of them have fairly specific habitat structure requirements.  When the habitat structure where those species are living changes, how far can they travel to find appropriate habitat?  What kinds of terrain can they cross?  These are questions with huge implications for how we should be managing prairies and prairie landscapes, but we can’t do anything but make wild guesses because although we know how birds deal with those issues, we don’t know how most other species do.

I explored this issue of birds as indicators for the conservation needs of other species in an earlier post, if you’re interested in reading more.

Mice are fairly mobile species (compared to wingless invertebrates, for example) but we still know relatively little about their ability to find the kinds of habitat structure they need. When conditions change, do they travel long distances in search of appropriate habitat? Or do they just hunker down and wait for better times? If they travel, how far can they go, and what challenges do they face?

So why are we still spending so much time studying birds instead of branching out to other species and broader questions?  One big reason is inertia.  Scientists rightly like to build upon previous projects, so because there have already been a lot of studies of birds, there is a lot to build upon.  This makes sense in terms of efficiency (study methods are already designed and tested) and from the standpoint of funding availability (it’s often easier to sell a project that is builds upon what we already know than one that is reaching into the unknown).

A second reason we study birds so much is that they’re relatively easy to see, hear, and identify.  Since most research is done by graduate students and technicians, picking species that can be learned quickly is very helpful.  I should know – I did my own graduate research on grassland birds!  However, since then, I’ve learned that it’s not that hard to pick up on the sampling and identification skills needed to study other organisms, and that with invertebrate species, there are experts that can do the identification for you.

Of course, the biggest reason we study birds so much is that we LIKE birds so much.  If ground beetle watching was as popular as bird watching, prairie research and conservation efforts might look very different!  The irony, of course, is that we’re essentially focusing a very large proportion of our research and conservation effort on only a dozen or so grassland bird species (in any particular landscape).  At least if we were studying ground beetles, we’d be looking at several times that many species – and while I don’t know that much about ground beetles, I’ll bet they would be equally good indicators of the “health” of the prairie ecosystem.

A sedge wren on velvety gaura in the Platte River Prairies. Tiny birds, with cute little tails and aggressive personalities, sedge wrens are great examples of why birds are so compelling to people.

Look, I get it.  We’re not going to turn this battleship on a dime and move all the bird research funding and effort into smooth green snake and ground beetle research within a year or two.  However, I do think it would be really valuable for those doing bird research to incorporate broader community questions into their projects, whenever possible.  Maybe we could start by asking questions about how well birds really do represent the needs of other species?  Would funders of grassland bird research be open to that line of exploration?  It would allow us to build upon what we know about grassland birds by testing those known parameters on other taxa.  If we could figure out where the needs of birds and other species diverge, that’d be a great step forward in terms of defining future research needs.  Are great prairie chicken landscapes also great grasshopper landscapes, or not necessarily?  Do sedge wrens and massasaugas have similar habitat needs, or at least compatible habitat needs?  If not, how do we balance the needs of both species?  Let’s build on what we know about birds, but do it through some comparative analyses with other species.

Because you’ve got to admit – ground beetles are pretty cute too!

Ground beetles like this one (Pasimachus sp?) are abundant and diverse members of the prairie community. What do we know about their conservation needs? Not much.

Last Gasp of Summer

Below are photos taken a week or so ago from a prairie here in Aurora, Nebraska.  It’s the time of year when everything is preparing for winter.  Most plants are done blooming and entering dormancy.  A few are squeezing a couple last flowers out while they still can.  Meanwhile, insects are scrambling around trying to find something to eat before they either die or find a way to survive the winter.  Any still-blooming flower is literally crawling with insects trying to eat the pollen, nectar, seeds, and any other part of the flower that’s available.  Makes you wonder if it’s really worth it to the plant to make the effort…

A false milkweed bug on a false sunflower. (The photo, however, is real)


Butterfly milkweed seeds ready to fly.


Crab spider (Tibellus sp) on grass.


The same crab spider as above. If I nudged the grass stem it was sitting on, the spider would quickly jump to nearby stem or leaf, crawl to the top of it, turn around, and freeze in this tight position - often making it nearly impossible to see.


I actually saw this cottonwood leaf fall and lodge in the grass. I took the photo about 10 seconds later.


Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) was one of the plant species that still had a few flowers.


This tiny crab spider is dwarfed by a pitcher sage bloom. I'm not sure if the spider was waiting for prey or just resting.


We haven’t had a hard freeze here yet, but it probably won’t be long.  That first freeze brings the end of life for many living things, but just signals the beginning of a long wait till spring for many others.  In the meantime, it’s work work work, tying up loose ends before the winter comes.  That applies to prairie species and prairie ecologists alike!

Photo of the Week – December 30, 2010

I photographed this juvenile wolf spider on an 18 degree (Fahrenheit) day in the middle of the winter.  At the time, I was walking along a frozen creek, admiring the hoar frost on the surface and looking for photos of ice formations.  The presence of a spider on a frozen creek was so unexpected, it took me a few moments to register what I was seeing.  Not only was there a spider alive and moving around in temperatures well below freezing, it was walking fast enough that I had a hard time following it with my camera.  I still don’t understand how it’s possible, but I saw it nonetheless (and have photographic evidence to back me up!)

A juvenile wolf spider walking along a frozen creek - Lancaster County, Nebraska.

When I got home, I did some research and found that it’s not unusual for wolf spiders to be active for much of the winter, particularly on days when temperatures are around or above freezing (although 18 degrees F is well below that!)  During the winter, wolf spiders feed on other tiny invertebrates that can handle cold temperatures – primarily snow fleas (aka springtails or Collembola).

This has become one of my favorite photos for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s a nice photographic image.  More importantly, it’s a fantastic reminder of how resilient and surprising nature is.

On that note…