Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Photos by Eliza

Guest Post by Eliza Perry, one of our 2013-14 Hubbard Fellows (all photos are by Eliza Perry).

The past month has been wild. Instead of writing up a succinct summary, I decided to share a few of my favorite photos I’ve managed to capture in the field (our work is rarely camera-friendly).


From afar, prairie is a striking landscape with dramatic skies and a vast, quaking floor; up close, however, is a far more interesting view. I had never seen a bird’s nest intentionally woven into grass before working in prairie. This particular nest held five dickcissel eggs. Usually these eggs are accompanied by one or two brown-speckled eggs from a crafty cow bird, who transfer their parental burden onto an unknowing other.



Invasive species control will always bring up concerns about inadvertent damage. I don’t know the name of this beautiful flower, but I noticed it while spot spraying sericea lespedeza at our property in Rulo. We recently purchased a new backpack sprayer that provides dense, targeted coverage over a plant, but even so, my worry is always in how many neighboring plants unintentionally receive a harmful or fatal dose of herbicide. We could see patches of dead vegetation from last year’s sericea treatment.

During my first few days of spot spraying this season, soaking invasives seemed like a bulletproof plan in light of the natural tendency toward “more is better.” Since then, I’ve learned that this method is not only harmful to the surrounding plant community, but more importantly, it is often counter-productive because it can “burn” the plant past its ability to absorb the chemical. The result is a damaged plant with an intact root system and ability to regrow and flower. This is an ongoing challenge, but I have learned to mitigate some of my impact through application technique. For example, one key is maintaining high pressure in the backpack sprayer pump to avoid drippage between sprays.



This photo was taken several weeks ago when most of our sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus) was at an early stage in blooming. The young flowers caught my attention immediately because to me they look like fireworks. I invent names for most of the forbs I don’t recognize until I can get a handle on their proper common names, and I called these “firework flowers” until relatively recently when I finally accepted them as sensitive briar.



This photo does not adequately capture the plant or structural diversity present in this area. I took it very early on before I understood the significance of either, but as I reviewed the photos I had snapped in the past two months, this one stood out in a different way than it was originally intended to: as an almost comical juxtaposition of cropland and prairie. Of course, agricultural monocultures serve their purpose, but the measures of success and functionality for the two “ecosystems” are so contrary that it makes for an interesting picture to see the two side-by-side. For one, the presence of a “weed” is considered to be the enemy of crop productivity, while prairies are essentially a collection of tenacious (native) weeds. Moreover, monocultures entail the least amount of variety in land management practices by design, while prairies thrive on highly variable land management and substantial disturbance.



Prairie management involves a lot of equipment and we need to know how to maintain it. Our trailers are particularly important because they allow us to transport heavier equipment like ATVs and skidloaders to properties further away. A few weeks ago, one of our trailers had a small part knocked off. This photo shows Nelson, our land manager, teaching me how to weld it back on. Anne and I are in the process of learning to use all of the exciting hand and power tools in our shop so that we can more effectively help with maintenance and construction projects. Someday I hope we will complete our own.



Leave it to Anne to find a climbing wall in the middle of a prairie!



This photo does not do justice to the number of invasive thistles packed into that truck bed. We found a sizeable forest of musk thistles seeding out at the tail end of our thistle season and decided to remove them from the scene entirely because pulling off all of the flowers would have taken a full day. A dumpster brimming with these villains was a satisfying sight after weeks of focusing most of our efforts on eradicating them.



I have moments every single day in this job when I have to stop what I’m doing to relish the fact that scenes like this are my equivalent to an office. I captured one of these moments one afternoon while scouting our Kelly Tract for Canada thistles. Controlling invasives is a daunting task with some species, and I have found myself feeling defeated to the point of forgetting its importance to our conservation objectives, which has been a good lesson for me. As Chris recently described in a blog post, our goal is to strengthen the overall ecological resilience of our properties, which cannot occur without a resilient plant community.



We rescued this little lady from the middle of a highway on our way to Niobrara Valley Preserve. There was a stretch of ten or so miles in which we saw a high number of box turtles crossing the road, and virtually none before or after. While she certainly looked on at us indifferently, I thought I could detect a hint of sass in her expression and did my best to capture it here.



Once Anne had learned how to safely operate this tractor, she proceeded to mow our most recent restoration site for several hours. The key to our success in becoming comfortable using all these new vehicles and tools is, unsurprisingly, practice. Luckily there is no shortage of pastures that need to be mowed, trees that need to be felled, or fences that need to be relocated. Mowing is one of several land management strategies for knocking back invasives by thwarting their growth to prevent or buy time before they seed out. Mowing “burn breaks” is also an essential component of safe prescribed fire burns.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Weed Whacking with Konstantin

Guest Post by Anne Stine, one of our 2013-14 Hubbard Fellows:

When one considers that the weed-whacker is the modern incarnation of the scythe, Konstantin Levin’s ecstatic enlightenment while cutting wheat with his peasant tenants in Anna Karenina comes across as a little ridiculous.  It is easy to imagine him, a ruddy-faced and awkward aristocrat, smiling beatifically in the center of a line of serious men going about the business of mowing.

Instead of a wheat field in Russia, this is my work site.

Instead of a wheat field in Russia, this is my work site.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Scythes and weed-whackers use the same efficient, swaying pivot through the body. Back and forth, back and forth, the returning stroke hitting the grass missed in the initial swing.  Such work does provide the opportunity for quiet thoughts.  Unlike Levin, however, I did not achieve enlightenment while weed whacking the grass beneath the 14-gauge wire of an electric fence.  Drifting into the repeating beat of the movement, my mind rippled towards the remarkably competent field technicians I have known.

I have been continuously impressed by the manual aptitude of the technicians I have worked with in my academic career.  If something broke, rather than sitting completely stumped, they had the know-how to wire it together and make it work. I hope to gain a measure of this generalized comfort with mechanical workings during my tenure as a Hubbard Fellow.  I’ve already learned to drive an ATV, a tractor, and a riding mower; and to operate weed-wackers and backpack sprayers.  I’ve set electric fence and helped cut free a calf tangled in wire.  I want to write all of my physically competent colleagues and say “See! I’m learning.”

Similar to on a farm, the summer season in our pastures is the busiest time of year.  We’ve spent most of our hours so far as plant executioners- mowing, spraying, and spading invasives, aggressive natives, and other plants growing where we don’t want them to.  The major difference is that our primary product is a restored and healthy prairie rather than cattle or corn.

Thistle chasing has been our primary objective.  The musk thistle is classified as a noxious weed—this means that we are legally obliged to assist in its eradication.  The musk thistle can grow to be well over a meter high, with multiple fuchsia flower heads.  Their leaves are edged in sharp thorns but no hair, and the undersides of their leaves are green rather than white like the native thistles.  Originating in Europe, it gets its name from the supposedly odiferous roots and vegetation.  We attack them with herbicides and spades.  They are prolific seeders.  Sometimes killing musk thistles can feel like a Quixotic quest, like we are fighting the tide with a bucket.

The enemy (with a grasshopper sparrow sitting on it).

The enemy (with a grasshopper sparrow sitting on it).


My weapon of choice.

My weapon of choice.

Killing plants and fixing fences is a full time job in the summer growing season.   I have already gained an appreciation for the broad-based knowledge necessary to maintain a working pasture.  I hope to continue to develop my applied skill-set, and I will keep saying to the world: “See! I’m learning.”