Photo of the Week – March 31, 2016

Many of you remember previous posts about the wildfire that swept across the Niobrara Valley back in July 2012.  About half of The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve burned during that event.  Through some funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund and assistance from Moonshell Media, we set up an array of timelapse cameras to document the recovery of our site from that fire.

I’ve spent much of this week looking through many thousands of images from those cameras.  The cameras (when they are working properly) take one photo each daylight hour.  Between April 2013 and today, that is approximately 14 billion images – or so it seems through my weary and bloodshot eyes.  As I’ve been poring through these photos, looking for stories they can tell us, one thing that keeps my fire stoked (so to speak) is the periodic discovery of dramatic light and/or scenes captured by the automated cameras.  Today, I’m sharing a selection of those accidental masterpieces taken by one particular camera that was set up to peer downstream from near the top of the bluff north of the Niobrara River.

April 2013, just before the first growing season following the wildfire. The ground was still bare and punctuated by the skeletons of ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees killed by the fire.

April 2013, just before the first growing season following the wildfire. The ground was still bare and punctuated by the skeletons of ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees killed by the fire.

When we set up this camera, my hope was to watch the re-greening of the hills beneath the dead ponderosa pine and eastern red cedar trees and maybe catch a nice sunrise or two.  Both objectives were achieved, along with some other really gorgeous photographs – some of which happened only because the camera malfunctioned.

October 2015. This image caps off the third growing season of recovery from the wildfire. Bare slopes formerly underneath an overgrown canopy of pine and cedar trees

October 2015. This image caps off the third growing season of recovery from the wildfire. Bare slopes have grown a covering of grasses, shrubs, and other plants.  Many of the plants seen here are annuals, yet to be replaced by perennials, but those are slowly spreading on the slopes as well.  A number of yucca, sumac, and other shrubby plants have regrown from their bases and we are waiting to see how that transition continues.

August 2015. A beautiful foggy morning.

August 2015. A beautiful foggy morning.

May 2013. This photo wasn't supposed to have been taken because the camera was only meant to shoot during daylight hours. However, the controller somehow decided to take this photo at 9:13pm and it is a beautiful one.

May 2013. This photo wasn’t supposed to have been taken because the camera was only meant to shoot during daylight hours. However, the controller somehow decided to take this photo at 9:13pm and it is a beautiful one.

November 2015. A serene photo taken in the middle of a snowstorm.

November 2015. A serene photo taken in the middle of a snowstorm.

December 2013. This is one of the few sunrise photos we got that had much color in the sky.

December 2013. This is one of the few sunrise photos we got that had much color in the sky.

August 2014. Annual sunflowers dominate the foreground of the image, as they and other annual plants cover the hills in the background.

August 2014. Annual sunflowers dominate the foreground of the image, and they and other annual (and some perennial) plants cover the hills in the background.

August 2014. A foggy morning with the same sunflowers seen in the previous photo.

August 2014. A foggy morning with the same sunflowers seen in the previous photo., but taken a week earlier.

June 2015. Flowering stalks help highlight the abundance of yucca on a cloudy summer evening.

June 2015. Flowering stalks help highlight the abundance of yucca on a cloudy summer evening.

January 2014. A hazy sunrise on a cold winter morning.

January 2014. A hazy sunrise on a cold winter morning.

March 2014. Fog, frost, and a sunrise through silhouettes of trees make this my favorite photo of the three years of timelapse images fromthis camera.

March 2014. Fog, frost, and a sunrise through silhouettes of trees make this my favorite photo of the three years of timelapse images from this camera.

So, there you go.  A beautiful series of images that also show what happens following a wildfire.  Ecological processes don’t stop after a fire, they just shift into a different gear.  We have done nothing to aid or enhance the recovery of the woodland at this site.  To this point, we’ve just been watching for signs of trouble – invasive plants that might take advantage of the situation, serious soil erosion issues, etc.  There hasn’t yet been any reason to step in and act.  Plants and animals are thriving on the slopes shown in these photos, though the composition of those communities has changed pretty dramatically – and continues to change.

Ecological resilience is about the ability of natural systems to absorb shock and keep functioning.  The pine woodland is gone from these hills, and it will probably take many decades to show up again because they are pretty far away from unburned pine woodland that could provide seed.  In the meantime, we will do our job as land stewards and try to facilitate the most biological diversity we can, using the primary tools available to us – prescribed fire and grazing to manipulate plant competition and habitat structure, and spot-treatment (as needed) with herbicides to control invasives.

We hope to keep these timelapse cameras going for at least several more years.  Hopefully, that will help us continue documenting the amazing resilience of nature, and the specific stories playing out at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  If nothing else, we should be at least get some more beautiful, if accidental, photographs to enjoy.

Hill Country

I’m in Austin, Texas this week, attending a conference of science and stewardship staff of The Nature Conservancy from around the country.  Ahead of the conference, I attended a field trip through portions of the Texas Hill Country near Austin.  It was an excellent and thought-provoking tour.  It’s always great to see other sites and talk to their managers about what they’re doing and why.

We spent Tuesday morning at the Conservancy’s Barton Creek Preserve, about 4,000 acres of rocky hills near the west side of Austin.  The site manager, Brandon Crawford, talked us through the ecology and management of the preserve.  The most striking feature of the site to me was the lack of soil.  Most (all?) of the Hill Country has a legacy of serious overgrazing – first by cattle, and then by goats after the land would no longer support cattle.  Many years of that mistreatment resulted in a loss topsoil from the hills, leaving a shallow-soiled landscape with even less soil and vegetation than before.

The rock of the Barton Creek Preserve was create

Many years of chronic overgrazing and subsequent erosion of topsoil led to the kind of sparsely vegetated terrain on the hills of the Barton Creek Preserve.

The tops of the hills at the  Barton Creek Preserve are dominated by shrubby species such as mountain laurel, along with scattered live oak trees and Ashe junipers (similar to eastern red cedars).  Growing around and between those woody plants was little bluestem, along with gramas, dropseeds, and a variety of wildflower species.  It was striking to realize that the Barton Creek Preserve receives about the same annual rainfall as our Platte River Prairies back in Nebraska – our sites look incredibly lush compared to the almost desert-like appearance of the Hill Country grasslands.

f;pwer

It was a pleasant shock for a Nebraska ecologist to walk around Texas prairies in 80 degree February weather and see blooming flowers.  The temperatures are above normal in Nebraska this week, but it’s going to be a while before we start seeing flowers in our prairies.

The shallow soil and sparse brushy habitat at the Barton Creek Preserve supports the black-capped vireo, a federally-listed endangered species that nests in low shrubs.  Brandon works to maintain that shrubby habitat structure by using prescribed fire and mechanical cutting to keep the Ashe juniper from becoming too dominant in uplands.  It’s not an easy job – especially given that prescribed fire is tricky when you’re surrounded on all sides by housing developments – but it is very different from the kind of ecological management I’m more familiar with.  Brandon focuses mainly on creating habitat structure for vireos, but he’s also helping out a number of other animal and plant species that continue to scrape out a living in the hills.

This area was recently cleared of juniper to create the kind of habitat structure needed by black-capped vireos.

This area was recently cleared of juniper to create the kind of habitat structure needed by black-capped vireos.

snail

I was really surprised to see numerous (relatively fresh but empty) snail shells on the dry rocky hills of the Barton Creek Preserve.  Apparently, Brandon’s habitat work supports more than just birds.

Down the slope from the hill tops, much of the Barton Creek Preserve is covered by a kind of “old growth” woodland dominated by live oaks and Ashe junipers.  That woodland is home to another endangered bird species – the golden-cheeked warbler.  Brandon told us the warbler needs about a fifty-fifty mix of oak and juniper in its woodland habitat, with about 95% canopy cover.  So while junipers can cause problems for the vireos on the hilltops, they are a critical piece of the habitat for the warblers on lower portions of the preserve.  At this point, Brandon isn’t using much prescribed fire in those woodland areas, though he’s considering it, and is watching the results of other similar sites where managers are experimenting with low intensity fires that clean out the surface layer beneath oaks and junipers without killing the bigger trees.

overlook

A rocky overlook above Barton Creek.  The woodland in the top right corner of the photo is where the golden-cheeked warblers make their homes.

At our Platte River Prairies and Niobrara Valley Preserve in Nebraska, our management is aimed at creating a shifting mosaic of habitat types and maintaining plant diversity.  By moving fire and grazing intensity around our sites each year, we always provide a variety of habitat types, and we measure success by the diversity of plant and animal species we support.  By contrast, Brandon’s role at Barton Creek is to manage the structure of two distinct and static habitats – hill tops and lower slopes – and his success is primarily measured by whether or not he’s supporting two endangered bird species.  He’s providing habitat for many other organisms too, of course, but in that fragmented ecosystem surrounded by housing developments, just keeping those birds alive is a pretty good accomplishment.

Good land management starts with clear objectives.  Without them, it’s not possible to measure success.  I’ve met a surprising number of land owners and managers who can’t clearly describe what they’re aiming for on their property.  I’m not sure how they know what to work on each day.  Although Barton Creek Preserve has very different objectives from the ones we’ve set for our prairies in Nebraska, the objectives fit the site and it was interesting to learn about how Brandon is working to meet them.  The people in and around Austin (not to mention the warblers and vireos!) are lucky to have Barton Creek Preserve in such good hands.

Ecologists and land managers from around The Nature Conservancy

Ecologists and land managers from around The Nature Conservancy traded ideas as Brandon (black cowboy hat) showed us his work at Barton Creek Preserve.