Photo of the Week – May 11, 2018

It turns out a broken ankle really cramps my style.  Despite that, I managed to get out into the prairie a few times this week.  While I’m pretty slow, spring is progressing at lightning speed.

Green grass is spurting up through last year’s thatch, flowers are erupting here and there, and most grassland breeding birds have returned, filling the air with song.  I paused a few minutes to watch some mound building ants this week, and their frenetic activity matched the crazy speed of the prairie all around them, as both plants and animals seem to be rushing to make up for lost time after an extra long winter.  Last night, a big spring thunderstorm passed through, bringing much needed moisture, and adding even more wild energy to the landscape.

Here are a few photos I managed to get this week.  If you haven’t already, get out and visit a prairie near you.  Things are HAPPENING!!

A very active colony of mound building ants in recently burned prairie.
Ants rapidly coming and going from of many tunnel openings into the colony.
Rain drops on spiderwort leaves in my backyard prairie garden this morning.

Photo of the Week – April 20, 2018

The prairie is finally waking up (again) around here.  Before last weekend’s blizzard weather, plants were starting to green up, but all that stopped for a while last weekend so we could enjoy one last (?) snowstorm.  We didn’t end up with much accumulation on the Platte River, but our Niobrara Valley Preserve got over a foot of snow.  Yesterday afternoon, the sun was warm and bright along the Platte, so I took a few hours to enjoy the latest reboot of spring.

This tiny orb weaver spider was starting a web in a recently burned patch of prairie. The grass was only a few inches tall, but the spider was using the breeze to string silk between the young shoots. I laid on my belly for quite a while and watched it work.
I’m not sure if it finally noticed me or just needed a rest, but after working for quite a while, the spider retreated to this little hiding place. I waited for several minutes, but it apparently wasn’t going to keep working, so I left it alone.
I noticed this open hole in a fresh pocket gopher mound and thought maybe I’d catch the gopher bringing a load of dirt out of its tunnel. I sat quietly near the hole for a few minutes until I looked more closely and decided it didn’t look as fresh as I’d first thought. I don’t think anything had disturbed the soil at the mouth of the hole since the snow melted. Pretending not to feel foolish, I moved on…
This roundheaded bushclover (Lespdeza capitata) leaf had what I think were probably fungal spots on it. While it wasn’t fresh green growth, I thought it was interesting and attractive enough to be photographed.
While it doesn’t look like much, the yellow-flowered sun sedge (Carex heliophila) shown here was my most exciting discovery of the day. We can’t get it to establish from seed, so we’d moved some plants from a nearby remnant into this restored prairie back in 2011.  Since then we hadn’t been able to find any (tiny plants under tall grass). Since the plants were blooming yesterday, I went looking in an area that was grazed last year and found hundreds of them! The plants survived and are spreading quickly via rhizomes.  This was the first one I found.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are playing their annual role of supporting early pollinators until native wildflowers get rolling. Yesterday was the first time I’d seen any blooming, but I saw several flies (including this one) and a honey bee already feeding from them.

It’s supposed to cool off again this weekend, but the forecast doesn’t show temperatures dropping below freezing – at least for the next week.  Maybe spring will actually catch on this time?  It’ll be interesting to watch plants like windflower (Anemone caroliniana) that started to grow and then got frozen off – multiple times.  Will they still bloom, or will they just give up and wait for next year?  Regardless, it’s sure nice to see something moving around in the prairies besides dead plant stems being blown around by the wind.  Let’s go spring!

Photo of the Week – April 13, 2018

Spring is here, but only for a few more hours.  We saw some nice green-up this week, with temperatures in the mid to upper 70’s.  Tonight, we’re supposed to get 5-7 inches of snow along the Platte River and as much as a foot and a half up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Next week?  More warm weather.

I did my best to enjoy the warm weather this week.  Between prescribed fires, I got my camera out of the bag a few times, and found both flowers and invertebrates (or at least one) to photograph.

Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) was popping out of the ground this week.
I rescued this leopard frog from fire as it was hopping into danger during our prescribed burn this week.
Rosettes of fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) keep some color through the winter, but their winter red is transitioning to green now.
I spotted this juvenile wolf spider scooting through a patch of bare sand and it sat still just long enough for me to photograph it.
Sun sedge (Carex heliophila) started to bloom on Thursday. I know that specifically because I checked on it Tuesday and Wednesday, desperately hoping for some color to photograph. By midday on Thursday, it was finally starting to bloom on the south-facing slopes of hills at our Platte River Prairies.

 

Photo of the Week – May 19, 2017

Over the last five years or so, I’ve been learning a lot more about pollinators, and that has changed the way I look at prairies.  As I walk around our prairies, I often think about how I would see the site if I was a bee trying to find enough nectar and pollen to both survive and provision my eggs.  Often, our prairies are full of flowers, but April and May can be pretty tough months.  The flowers that are blooming tend to be small and scattered, and I can walk a lot of steps without finding anything.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) was a welcome sight for this orange sulphur butterfly after its northward migration this spring.

The lack of available flowers in the spring is not necessarily a new thing.  Spring weather is unpredictable, and investing resources in blooming early means risking a late freeze or (in some cases) flooding rains that can scuttle the whole process.  However, many prairies today have fewer spring flowers than they used to, and restored prairies (crop fields converted back to prairie vegetation) are often low on spring flowers because finding seed for those species is difficult.  Flowering shrubs can help make up for a scarcity of spring wildflowers, but they are also less common these days than they used to be.

Shrubs like this wild plum (Prunus americana) can provide critically important pollinator resources when few wildflowers are blooming. This photo was taken back in mid-April.

Prairie managers and gardeners can both play important roles in helping to provide spring flowers for pollinators.  In prairies, allowing shrubs to grow in some areas of the landscape can benefit pollinators in the spring, but also help out increasingly rare shrub-nesting birds during the summer.  Thinking about spring flower availability might also help inform prairie management plans, and enhancing restored, or even remnant prairies, to add missing spring wildflowers might be beneficial as well.  For gardeners, adding native spring wildflowers can be both aesthetically pleasing and extremely important for the bees and other pollinators in your neighborhood.

By the time this monarch emerges as an adult in a few weeks, there should be plenty of wildflowers available for it. Hopefully, it will be competing for nectar against a number of bees and other pollinators that made it through a tough spring season.

Photo of the Week – April 20, 2017

I’ve been enjoying the early flush of wildflowers this spring, and have been trying to photograph them when I get time.  Because I already have quite a few close-up portraits of most of these species already, I’ve been trying to use a wide-angle lens to show the flowers in a broader context.  It means lying prone on the ground with the camera resting either on the ground or on my hand to get both the flowers and the landscape/sky behind them into the same frame.

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) at our family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.

Pussytoes are an easy one to photograph because they are allelopathic and hinder the growth of neighboring plants.  That short vegetation helps pussytoes plants compete with others, but also makes it easier me to photograph them without stray leaves and other plant parts getting in the way.  For other species, I’ve been spending most of my time photographing the flowers growing in sites that were grazed hard last year.  The grazing makes photography easier, but the access to light and weakened grass competition also stimulates more of the plants to flower than in ungrazed sites.  I’ve been collecting data on flowering plant numbers over the last several days, and the data confirm my casual observations.  There are many more flowers in prairie patches recovering from grazing than in patches that haven’t been grazed much in the last year or two.

Prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) in the area of our family prairie we grazed most intensively last year.
Carolina anemone (Anemone caroliniana) at Gjerloff Prairie, owned by Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  They are having a great year in the part of the prairie that was burned and grazed in 2016.
Ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) at the Helzer prairie.
More pussytoes at the Helzer prairie, with a little bit of dried manure for flavor.

For pollinator insects, this early spring period can be very challenging because flowering plants are in pretty short supply.  There aren’t many species blooming, and those that are tend to be spread sparsely across large areas.  At least in the prairies around here, last year’s grazing is increasing numbers of available resources for pollinators, including both short-lived and long-lived plant species.  That appears to be particularly valuable this year, given the number of butterfly and moth species taking advantage of strong south winds to make an early migration to Nebraska.  I can’t remember a year when we’ve seen so many of those insects in April, including monarchs (which we’re now seeing frequently), sulphurs, red admirals and many little moths.

Now, here’s a question I hope someone out there can help answer:  Pussytoes flowers are dioecius, meaning that some plants have male flowers and others have female flowers.  My understanding is that pussytoes is pollinated both by wind and by insects.  If the male flowers produce pollen but the females don’t, what attracts insects to move from male flowers to females and complete the pollination cycle?  Do the female flowers produce nectar?  I see mainly flies, and a few bees, landing on pussytoes.  I don’t think those flies could be accessing nectar from deep inside the flower, and I don’t see any evidence of nectar near the top (or in any part) of the flower.  Also, most of those flies and bees seem to be landing on male flowers, and I rarely see them on female blossoms.  Can anyone help me understand why/how this pollination process works?

Photo of the Week – April 13, 2017

Prairie dandelion, aka prairie false dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata) is different from common dandelion (Taraxacum officianale), the one most people are familiar with in yards and weedy places.  Prairie dandelion is a native perennial wildflower, mainly restricted to dry unplowed prairies, while the other dandelion is a non-native species that seems able to pop up just about anywhere.  I’m actually a fan of both species, and don’t mind seeing common dandelion in our prairies, especially as an important early-season pollinator resource, but it’s always a treat to find populations of prairie dandelion.

Prairie dandelion at Gjerloff Prairie.

Prairie dandelion has a similar appearance to common dandelion, but there are some pretty strong differences as well.  The flowers are much larger, for example, and the leaves are long and don’t have the large serrations that common dandelion leaves have.  Prairie dandelion is considered to be a rare plant in many eastern prairie states, but is found across much of Nebraska – though it is certainly nowhere as abundant as common dandelion.

Close up of two prairie dandelion flowers.

While I was photographing prairie dandelion flowers this last weekend, I noticed a small grasshopper nymph feeding on the petals of one of the blossoms.  I took a few photos of it and moved on.  A few minutes later, I walked back past the flower and noticed the grasshopper had moved into a more visible location, so I took a few more photos of it.  When I got home and looked through the photos, my first instinct was that the second set of photos were better because I could see the whole grasshopper and it was better framed within the image.  Upon more reflection, however, I’m not sure.  Since some of you enjoy voting on this kind of thing, I decided to include both images, and you can tell me if you have a preference between them.  Just leave your vote in the comments section below.

Grasshopper nymph #1
Grasshopper nymph #2

It was a pretty tough winter for prairie photography around here; not much snow, and not even a lot of ice to photograph – with the exception of one notable ice storm.  I’m really glad that flowers and insects are finally breaking up the monotony of drab brown prairie vegetation.  It should be a fun spring.

Spring Obsession

Man, I sure do love Carolina anemone (Anemone carolinianum).  It’s such a beautiful plant in such a compact package.  We have a few plants blooming in our prairie garden at home, but last weekend, I went looking for more of them at Gjerloff Prairie, owned and managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  I don’t visit the prairie often enough to know for sure, but it sure seemed like there were many more patches of anemone than I’d seen in previous years.

There are both blueish-purple and pale lavender-white blossoms at Gjerloff, and sometimes the two were mixed within the same patch of flowers.  Interestingly, the white ones were easier to see at a distance then the blue ones, but both hide pretty well.  I often didn’t see them until I was within 5-10 yards.  They’re short, you see…

While it is a perennial plant, my limited experience tells me Carolina anemone flourishes when the surrounding vegetation is short.  Of course, that could be a function of visibility too, but I’m guessing it doesn’t bloom well when covered by thatch and tall skeletons of plants from the previous season.  (I’d be interested to hear from others about what kinds of response to management they’ve seen with this species.)  In our Platte River Prairies, I most often see them after a summer fire or after a year of intensive grazing.  The portion of Gjerloff prairie I found them in this year was burned and grazed pretty hard last year.  Other plant species seemed to be enjoying the abundant light in the grazed area as well, including numerous rosettes of ragwort (Packera plattensis) and quite a few individuals of prairie dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata), which was just starting to bloom.  …More on prairie dandelion in an upcoming post…

Several different small bee and fly species were feeding on the pollen of the anemone plants last weekend, including the gorgeous little Lasioglossum species shown above.  I’m guessing the anemone is a very welcome resource for those early-season pollinators.  Carolina anemone makes its pollen easy to access, and when you find one plant, there are usually quite a few more right next to it.  That’s pretty handy for a hungry bee or fly searching for something to eat across a still-mostly-brown prairie landscape.

There are lots of great spring wildflowers, but I have to say the little Carolina anemone is my favorite.  At least this week.  Although that prairie dandelion is sure cute too…  Oh, and how can you not like pussytoes?  And violets…  Hmm.

Hubbard Alumni Post – Chicken Wire?!

This post was written (and illustrated) by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows back in 2015-2016.  Evan now works for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon as a monitoring and outreach assistant.

When I worked for The Nature Conservancy near Wood River, NE, I lived close to a restored wetland. In late winter I would gaze longingly out my window at the clouds of migrating waterfowl whirling above the calm water. I wanted to photograph this spectacle but approaching the skittish birds through the open prairie seemed an impossible task. Then I met Michael Forsberg, famed Nebraskan wildlife photographer. I learned how he builds blinds out of garden fence and grass and sleeps in them, sometimes for days, in order to capture the most intimate moments of nature and share them with the rest of us. I wanted to learn this art too, so I decided to try building my own blind on the restored wetland. The result was a successful comic adventure that for some reason I never shared on the Prairie Ecologist, until now.

You could say I messed up from the start. The store was out of garden fence so I bought chicken wire instead, thinking it couldn’t be to different. It could. I spent most of the next afternoon pounding stakes; cutting wire, camo cloth, and grass; and zip tying it all together in the rough shape of a burrito with a hole at one end and a window at the other. The blind was placed right on the water’s edge and would have a spectacular view of ducks waking up in the golden light of sunrise. Or so I thought.

After leaving the blind out for two weeks to let the birds acclimate to it, I set out one March night with my camera gear and sleeping bag, crawled into the blind, and fell asleep to the quite murmurs of roosting mallards. I was so eager for sunrise that I had no less than five dreams of waking up in the blind. In one dream I woke up underwater. In another I woke up to find the wetland dry. When I finally did wake up, I discovered a snafu that I hadn’t even dreamt of: the blind had collapsed on me. The chicken wire couldn’t support the added weight of the morning dew, and in order for me to see out the blind’s window I had to prop the damn thing up with my head. In addition to being extremely uncomfortable, I worried that the floppy and occasionally cursing blob would scare away the birds. Fortunately, it did not. Maybe the birds thought it was too pathetic to be man-made, or maybe it looked like a decomposing tree trunk, but they didn’t seem to notice me at all. I knew I was okay when a Red-winged Blackbird strolled across the top of my head.

Viewed head-on, you can see how a Great Blue Heron’s head is adapted for a lifestyle of hunting prey directly below it. It amazes me how this bird’s appearance changes from Jurrasic to cartoonish with a slight adjustment.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to the blind for giving me intimate glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It’s not often you get to see wild animals behave truly naturally, not at all concerned about a human watching them. Watching a goose bathe in the golden light of sunrise, hearing Blue-winged Teal drakes whisper soft calls to an attractive female, watching beads of water drip from a Gadwall’s impermeable feathers; these were new and beautiful experiences for me. Thanks to the blind, I saw familiar birds in an entirely new way.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.
Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.
A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.
A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.
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A Greater Yellowlegs scans the water for invertebrates. This was the closest I’ve ever been to one.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to that blind for giving me glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It taught me a new way to appreciate wildlife, one that requires you to become a part of the landscape. Hunters and photographers know the value of extreme patience, but in today’s fast-paced society, rarely does the average person sit in a spot for hours and watch nature’s secrets reveal themselves. A blind, I learned, teaches you that patience and provides a window to a new view of nature. I hope to build many more blinds in the future, but never, ever again out of chicken wire.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog- Sprouts

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

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Woolly Plantain (Plantago patagonica) sprouting form a pocket gopher mound.

Watching plants resprout this spring has been really interesting for me. Spending time with Chris Helzer has made me appreciate the small details of prairies, particularly plant diversity and distribution. Through him I’ve learned to read a prairie’s history of management and disturbance even in early spring…and appreciate its minute aesthetics! On March 21 I was taking a sunset walk (looking down rather than at the sky) when I noticed several attractive sprouts growing on the sandy mounds created by pocket gophers as they dig tunnels. I remembered reading how burrowing animals play an important role in plant germination. By providing patches of bare soil, these rodents give seeds an open place to spread their roots and leaves with much less competition from other plants. It was neat to witness this happening for myself!

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On that walk I also found my first flower of the year! Carpeting just a small segment of our trail as it runs through the sandhills were dozens of tiny Sun Sedges (Carex heliophilis) already in bloom. If you weren’t looking for them, you might not even realize what they were. Their flowers were quite small, but in March their waving yellow petals were like thousands of little victory flags. Two nights later, a sudden snowstorm roared through Nebraska. I was eager to see if the delicate flowers had survived, so the next morning I was trekking back to them before sunrise. To my delight, the flowers were still there, poking through the snow. I got on my belly and started photographing. I wanted an image that represented spring’s triumph over winter. As the sun crested the hill it bathed the sedges’ petals in gold. Like dozens of tiny torches, the sedges proclaimed that spring had indeed won.

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Sun Sedge (Carex heliophilis) blossoming in snow.

Photo of the Week – March 24, 2016

Early spring on the Platte River is crane season.  Every one of the half million or so birds in the mid-continent population of sandhill cranes spends a few weeks along Central Platte River each spring.  They roost overnight on the river and spend their days feeding in nearby cornfields, grasslands, and wetlands.  As we go about our outdoor work, there is a constant soundtrack of crane song in the background.  It could be worse.

Those who know me best understand that while I occasionally photograph wildlife, I’m really more about photographing little things like bugs and flowers.  I have quite a few photographs of sandhill cranes, but I get as much or more enjoyment out of photographing the small signs those cranes leave behind.  Plenty of great photographers, starting and ending with Mike Forsberg, spend lots of time each spring making great images of the birds themselves.  I don’t really feel compelled to compete with them.  Today, I present a photo essay on sandhill cranes that features exactly zero photographs of sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes spend significant time feeding and loafing in prairie wetlands like this one we restored from cropfield back in 1999. The cranes feed on invertebrates, and whatever else they can catch, but also spend a lot of time preening and socializing in these areas.
Sandhill cranes spend significant time feeding and loafing in prairie wetlands like this one we restored from cropfield back in 1999. The cranes feed on invertebrates, and whatever other small creatures they can catch, but also spend a lot of time preening and socializing in these areas.
Last week, as I walked along a low ridge between two wetland sloughs, nearly every sharp edge of the plants held a down feather, plucked - I assume - during some aggressive personal hygiene activity (preening).
Last week, as I walked along a low ridge between two wetland sloughs, nearly every sharp edge of the plants held a down feather, plucked – I assume – during some aggressive personal hygiene activity (preening).
Not all the down feathers ended up caught on plants. Some ended up splayed gracefully on the water's surface.
Not all the down feathers ended up caught on plants. Some ended up splayed gracefully on the water’s surface.
Among the most heavily-used wetlands on our properties this spring were some sloughs we excavated last last season on former crop land.
Among the most heavily-used wetlands on our properties this spring were some sloughs we excavated last last season on former crop land.
Sandhill crane tracks feature wide-splayed toes and lack the rear-pointing toe that perching birds have (cranes have a toe there, but it's so short it doesn't reach the ground).
Sandhill crane tracks feature wide-splayed toes and lack the rear-pointing toe prints seen in tracks of perching birds (cranes have a toe there, but it’s so short it doesn’t reach the ground).
Iron deposits in our soils rust where groundwater is high at times but low at others. We use that rusty red color to help us decide how deep to excavate. Cranes, in turn, mine that rusty soil and use it to stain their gray feathers for improved camouflage.
Iron deposits in our sandy soils rust at elevations where groundwater is high at times but low at others. We use that rusty red color to help us decide how deep to excavate our wetlands. Cranes, in turn, mine that rusty soil and use it to stain their gray feathers for improved camouflage – which is particularly important when they get to their nesting sites up north.
A close-up look at a crane feather forms a fascinatingly abstract image.
A close-up look at a crane feather forms a fascinatingly abstract image.
The beauty of cranes extends to the tip of every feather.
Feathers are simultaneously fragile and strong.  When the barbs separate, a bird can easily “repair” the situation by simply running its beak along the feather to reconnect the tiny hooked barbules that hold everything together.