Square Meter Photo Project – September

Maximilian sunflower dominated the plot at the beginning of September.

September was another phenomenal month for my square meter photography project.  There were lots of new species to add to my running total, but I also continue to be inspired by the simple process of trying to find beauty within a tiny space.  The month started with a continuation of the Maximilian sunflower flush from August and the myriad insects visiting those blooms.  However, as the sunflowers wilted, I continued to find plenty to photograph, including a few species I’d been hoping for and one (a vertebrate – see below) I’d never expected.

Bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) on Maximilian sunflower.
Indiangrass in full bloom.
This damselfly was curling its long abdomen up above its head.  I caught it half way into its curling motion.
Maximilian sunflower against a cloudy sky.
A bold jumper (jumping spider) stops to look at me for a moment.
A metallic sweat bee (Augochloropsis fulgida) on Maximilian sunflower.
This Cope’s gray tree frog was the only vertebrate I managed to photograph all year (in my little plot).  It really made my day when I spotted it!

The growing season is quickly winding down now, and most of the plants in my little plot are well on their way toward winter dormancy.  Cold wet weather has greatly reduced the number of insects moving around, and even on warm days, the numbers are pretty low.  I’m going to keep photographing through the end of the year, but I’m guessing my species totals aren’t going to change much.  Right now, I’m enjoying photographing fall colors, and waiting for the first frosts and snows to bring some highlights to the browning leaves and stems.

With the tremendous help of several smart people, I’ve put together a reasonably good summary of the species I’ve found within the plot so far.  Counting a few from October as well, I have now photographed 98 different species of plants and animals in that square meter of prairie – all in 2018!  And yes, I’m really really hoping I can find at least two more…

That species list includes 12 plant species, 21 flies, 15 beetles, and 14 bees, along with butterflies, moths, mantids, spiders, ants, bugs, hoppers, aphids, barklice, grasshoppers, mites, and katydids.  Many thanks to Julie Peterson, James Trager, Mike Arduser, and Jim Kalisch for their identification help.

I spooked this milkweed bug off the butterfly milkweed plant in my plot and then spotted it a few minutes later crawling up a sunflower.
Wilting Maximilian sunflower blossoms.
An Arabesque orbweaver dangles on a silk thread.
Can you spot the tiny black beetle?
A syrphid fly on a dried Maximilian sunflower leaf.
This monarch was warming up and drying off when I arrived at my plot one morning.
This is a photo I showed earlier this month, but it was worth an encore.  Butterfly milkweed seed hanging on its pod.
A Maximilian sunflower leaf drying out as Autumn nears.

I’m really hoping this project will help raise awareness of and interest in prairies among people who might not otherwise think twice about an ecosystem they assume is just a bunch of grass.  Additionally, I’m hoping people will see how accessible the diversity and beauty of prairies can be.  I didn’t go looking for the best quality prairie in central Nebraska for this project – I chose the closest example of a restored (planted) prairie to my house.  Once I chose the spot, I just sat down and started paying attention.  Anyone can do the same thing in any prairie anywhere.  

If you think this project might be helpful to your own efforts to convince your friends or neighbors that prairies are interesting, feel free to send them to the web page I’ve created for the project.  I’m exploring several other ways to expand the reach of this effort, so stay tuned for more information on those, but for now, I’ve tried to synthesize the project within a single web page.

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 – September 6

Well, August was an awesome month for my square meter photography project.  An unbelievable number of insects visited my little plot of prairie during the month, many of them drawn by the abundant and very charismatic Maximilian sunflowers.  After a lot of sorting and decision-making, I ended up with well over 150 high quality photos from the month.  I’m sharing 18 of those with you here.

I started this project with the hope of inspiring people about the beauty and diversity of prairies.  What I didn’t expect was the degree to which I, myself, have been inspired and affected by the project.  The diversity of life I’ve recorded has been amazing, but the process of slowing down, focusing in, and appreciating what I find in a tiny space has become a powerful experience for me.  Rather than feeling like I’m missing other photographic opportunities by returning over and over to the same little spot, I actually find myself wishing I was there when I’m not.

Anyway, I hope you’re enjoying these updates along the way.  I’m working on some ideas for how to share the entire project after the year is over.  If you have suggestions along those lines, please feel free to share them!

This beetle is feeding on the leaf of a Maximilian sunflower plant.

There was only one stiff sunflower plant in my little plot, surrounded by many more Maximilian sunflower plants. I tracked the progress of that stiff sunflower plant, anticipating the diversity of insects I would find on its flowers.  However, as soon as that sunflower bloomed, it was attacked by a horde of little beetles. I will admit being emotionally affected by that attack…

Once Maximilian sunflowers started to bloom, they drew insects like huge magnets, including lots of these little hover flies (aka flower flies and syrphid flies)

It wasn’t just the flowers that attracted insects. Early in the month, I found this cavity with something shiny and brown inside it. I never figured out what was in there, and didn’t want to bother it since it was inside my plot.

A few weeks after the previous photo, I found another cavity in another Maximilian sunflower stem. Same kind of insect? I have no idea.

Soldier beetles were astonishingly abundant this month, both on sunflowers and elsewhere.

While soldier beetle abundance was on the upswing, Japanese beetle abundance was declining. I haven’t seen one in a couple weeks now.

Many of the insects I’m finding are really really tiny, including what I’m pretty sure are itsy bitsy wasps. If you look very closely, you can see one silhouetted against this flower.

Another example of tiny insects – I only saw this little fly because I was photographing the leaf axil of Indiangrass and the fly entered the frame.

I had seen this plant hopper species elsewhere in Lincoln Creek Prairie, and was thrilled to finally catch one in my plot.

This aphid was feeding on a Maximilian sunflower before it flowered.

The smoke from western wildfires created hazy skies last month, but that haze made for some nice photo light, including a photo of the sun itself.

I thought this plant hopper (?) was just an empty exoskeleton until it started moving while I photographed it. Astonishingly cool.

Sunflowers weren’t the only bloomers in August. Grasses were also in full bloom, including this big bluestem plant.

Indiangrass started blooming right at the end of the month, and this hover fly took advantage of the easy access pollen.

This hover fly was resting between flowers on a dewy morning.

After seeing them all over the prairie around me, I finally found a mantis inside my plot. This one is the European mantis.

While I was following the above European mantis around the plot with my camera, I came across this Chinese mantis, also in the plot. Two mantis species in the same day!

 

Square Meter of Prairie Project – July 2018

Quick note – registration is still open for the 2018 Grassland Restoration Network workshop (September 5-6) in Illinois.  Click here for more information and/or to register.  It’ll be worth your time!

The square meter photography project continues!  Throughout this calendar year, I’m trying to document as much beauty and diversity as I can within a single square meter of prairie along Lincoln Creek in Aurora, Nebraska.  Today, I’m sharing some of my favorite images from July.  If you want to look backwards, you can click to on these links to look at selected photos from June, May, and January.

July was a little slower than I’d expected, to be honest (August, however, has been really hopping).  I was surprised how few pollinators showed up to feed on the butterfly milkweed plant in my little plot.  (I’m sure it didn’t have anything to do with the loony guy and his camera looming nearby.  There were lots of insects hanging around on butterfly milkweed plants elsewhere in the prairie…)  Regardless, there was still plenty going on in the plot last month.  Here are some highlights.

One of the few bugs I did see on the butterfly milkweed plant in my plot kept playing hide and seek with me.  This was the only photo I could get on this particular day.

A few days after the above photo, I saw the same kind of bug again, but this one was more tolerant of my lens in its face.

Morning dew drops.

I’m not sure what this beetle is, but I saw it a few times last month.

This tiny spider was hanging out one day.  It looks similar to the lynx spider I was seeing in June, but the eyes are wrong – and it seemed to be making a web.

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

A leaf-footed bug (I think?)

I believe this intricately-patterned little beauty is a leaf hopper. Any guidance as to species would be appreciated…

Square Meter of Prairie Project – June 2018

Another month has passed, and I’ve managed to carve out some more time staring at the little square meter of prairie I’m photographing this year.  In June, activity really picked up as lead plant (Amorpha canescens) and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) started blooming within the plot.  However, there was plenty to photograph besides just those species and the many insects they attracted.  I continue to be inspired by the diversity of life I’m finding in a very small plot of land.  Hopefully, I can pass along some of that inspiration, both during these periodic updates and when I somehow assemble all of this at the end of the project.  Here are just a few of the photos taken during June within one single square meter of Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

I’ve seen quite a few beetles in the plot, including several different species during June. Thanks to Bugguide.net, this one has been identified as Coleothorpa dominicana, in case you’re interested.

This is a completely different gray beetle, and I don’t know what it is, but there were several in the plot late in June.

This beautiful orange beetle (Anomoea sp.) was on a lead plant flower, just as it was starting to bloom.

I don’t know what these little beetles are, but they’ve been in the plot every time I’ve visited during the last month or so. They were usually (maybe always?) on Maximilian sunflower.

I was really glad to see butterfly milkweed blooming. I assumed it would attract quite a few insects, both pollinators and insects that feed on the foliage. So far, I’ve actually seen very few insects on butterfly milkweed. Maybe that’ll change soon, but it’ll have to be quick because the flowering period is wrapping up.

The tiny blossoms of lead plant are especially beautiful when seen up close.

Mike Arduser informs me that this bee species is Andrena quintilus, a specialist feeder on lead plant.

This wasp was only a brief visitor to the plot, but it stuck around long enough to be photographed.

This long-horned beetle was eating the pollen, and probably other parts of the lead plant flowers.  While beetles like this can help pollinate flowers, they also damage them, so they’re probably not the intended audience from the flower’s standpoint.

During the last couple weeks, invasive Japanese beetles have invaded the prairie, including my little plot. This one was denuding a lead plant flower stalk.

At any one time, there must be close to 100 ants in my little plot, and there are several different species. This is one of the bigger ones.

About a week after I got my first ever photos of a lynx spider (not inside my plot, but nearby) I found this one INSIDE my plot, and it sat nicely for me.

There are lots of different fly species that hang around the plot, but this is one of the smallest.

Just a few minutes after I photographed the lynx spider, I spotted it again (or another just like it), this time with one of those tiny flies in tow.

This metallic-looking jumping spider ALMOST stayed in the same place long enough for a photo. Even at 1/125 second shutterpeed, I wasn’t able to freeze the movement of this quick little bugger.

About a week after missing the first jumping spider photo, I finally got the same (?) spider to sit still long enough to capture this image.

There are two milkweed plants in my plot -butterfly milkweed and common milkweed – but this long-horned milkweed beetle wasn’t on either of them. It was on Maximilian sunflower, at least when I saw it.

This might be my proudest capture of this project to date, but only because I’ve seen lots of pearl crescent butterflies come into and through my plot, but most of them took off well before I got within photo range. For this photo, I had to stalk very carefully (and get really lucky).

Square Meter of Prairie Project – May, 2018

Back in January, I wrote about a photography project I’m embarking upon this year.  I am trying to photograph all the beauty and diversity I can within a single square meter of prairie.  I chose a little parcel of prairie right here in town so I have easy access to it.  Even on crutches, I can lug my camera gear out to that little square of prairie whenever the light is nice.

Lead plant (Amorphs canescens) leaves were just starting to emerge from buds back in early May.

At the end of May, lead plant leaves were nearly all opened.

My initial idea for the project was to help illustrate how much life happens in prairies, even at a small scale, and to show how dynamic prairies are over time.  I’m still excited about those aspects of the project, but I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how much I’m enjoying the artistic challenge of finding compelling photographic opportunities within a tiny area.

My typical approach to photography is to venture out when lighting conditions are good and wander around widely, looking for something that catches my eye.  When I see a flower or bee that interests me, I’ll stop and photograph it for a while.  Often, I’ll see something else nearby and I might spend 5 or 10 minutes in one spot, photographing a series of subjects.  But that “spot” might be the size of a big living room or so, and I get nervous staying in the same place too long because I’m afraid of missing a better opportunity elsewhere.  Because good photography light is fleeting, I usually keep moving, roaming around and looking for the next great shot.

This tiny insect might be the nymph of a hopper of some kind? It appeared to be feeding on the lead plant leaf.

For this square meter project, I’m forcing myself to go to a single tiny place, stay put, and find multiple subjects to photograph.  I usually arrive and stare down into the space between my four yellow flags, wondering what I’ve gotten myself into – trying not to think about all the great photo opportunities I’m missing while I’m peering into this little square.  No wildflowers have bloomed within my plot yet this spring (there are others nearby), partly because it wasn’t burned this year and there is a thick layer of thatch covering the ground.  What the heck am I supposed to take pictures of?

Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) was in full bloom this last weekend.

Magically, however, as I kneel in the grass and concentrate, I start to see more and more.  A lacewing or fly will pop in for a quick visit (usually quicker than I can capture with my camera).  Miniscule ants patrol the area, often following a fairly predictable pattern.  Patterns of light and texture start to pop out of the background, and as I move around the square, looking at it from different angles, I start to really enjoy the challenge of using what is in front of me.  It’s a little like being given a small box of rsndom objects and being told to create a sculpture.  You just work with what you have and try to find beauty.  I’m starting to love it.

A tiny ant explores a Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) leaf.  This ant and its colleague were moving up and down the stems and leaves of this plant for several minutes.  I was able to set up my tripod on this backlit section of leaf and just wait for the ant to move into the frame.

Flies have been common within the square meter, but difficult to photograph. This one landed on one of the flags I’m using to mark the plot corners.

I’m shocked that no one has ever written about the value of sitting quietly in nature… (I’m kidding, of course).  Regardless, while it can be a tired cliche, there’s a reason many people have espoused the practice, and it’s been great for me to force myself back into it.  I’m probably more in tune with my natural surroundings than most of my peers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dig in even more.

This stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) leaf was beautifully backlit last weekend.

During my most recent trip to the square, I spent a lot of time appreciating the way light passed through various leaves and made them glow.  It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed or photographed backlit leaves, but I spent much more time enjoying the effect than I usually do.  The pattern of veins and the glowing translucent hairs on the leaf margins were mesmerizing when viewed through my macro lens.  I spent a solid 15 minutes photographing two leaves from different angles and distances.

I’ve always thought common milkweed leaves (Asclepias syriaca) are particularly beautiful when backlit.  This one was no exception.

Now, as I crutch myself down the trail to my little square, I’ve stopped worrying about whether or not I’ll find something interesting to photograph.  Instead, I’ve started getting excited about the chance to sit quietly and search for beauty I would have otherwise missed.  While I’ve found some great photo opportunities along the trail to and from the plot, the vast majority of images – and most of my favorites – from those trips have come from within my four yellow flags.

A Plot-Sized Biodiversity and Photography Project

Today, I’m beginning a new photography project aimed at exploring and celebrating the small scale diversity and complexity of prairies.   I’ve picked out a 1 x 1 meter plot in a small patch of restored prairie here in Aurora, Nebraska, and I will be photographing everything I can within that tiny area over the next year or so.  My objectives are to find and document as much beauty and diversity as I can and to show the dynamic nature of prairie life, even at a very small scale.

Lincoln Creek Prairie, with the yellow flags marking my square meter plot.

The plot sits in a narrow strip of land restored in the 1980’s by Bill Whitney and Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  I picked Lincoln Creek Prairie because it’s right across town from me, and therefore easy for me to get to frequently.  It’s also a great restored site that was planted with a diverse mixture of prairie species (over 100 species) and is well-established.  However, the prairie is small enough that it doesn’t host any grassland-nesting birds or other animal species that need relatively large and open prairie habitats, and suffers from all the other issues that come along with tiny prairies.  I anticipate that most or all of the organisms I photograph during the coming year will be plants and invertebrates, but I’m confident that I won’t find a shortage of subject matter.

A view of the 1 x 1 plot from above

I didn’t pick the small plot randomly, but I also didn’t try to find a spot with more diversity than any other nearby.  Instead, I looked for a place that would catch the light well during most of the year but was out of the way enough to not be disturbed by people hiking the nearby trail.  I freely admit that I chose the exact location of the 1 x 1 plot because it has a butterfly milkweed plant in it – it’s a nicely photogenic species.  This isn’t research, after all, and I don’t have to select my plot in a completely unbiased way!  However, I’m confident that the 1 x 1 plot I chose is representative of the rest of the prairie around it.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with a flower that never completely came out of its sheath last summer.

I began my photography journey within the plot yesterday, and took the photos you see here in this post.  I’ve already discovered one big challenge regarding my plans – it’s going to be difficult to avoid crushing or breaking the vegetation within the plot during my frequent visits.  I don’t see any way to avoid matting down the vegetation around the edge of the plot, but I’ll try not to do any more of that than necessary, and hopefully that won’t excessively impact what I see inside the plot.

The curled and dried leaf of stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)

Right now, the plot is fairly uniformly brown, and perhaps drab looking from a distance.  However, I didn’t have much trouble finding interesting shapes and textures to photograph during the 10 minutes or so I spent there yesterday.  Even without green vegetation or crawling invertebrates, there was plenty to look at.  That bodes well for the coming year, I think!  Stay tuned…

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) seed head, minus the seeds.  Birds, mammals, and/or other creatures likely picked it clean last fall.

A butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seed pod on a curled stem.