The Beauty and Complexity of Prairie in 30 Seconds

I frequently give presentations on prairies to various groups of people.  With some audiences, I discuss fairly technical strategies for prairie restoration or management.  Often, however, my primary goal is to introduce my audience to the idea that prairies are more than just a lot of grass.

I think it’s fair to say that most of the general public has very little feel for what prairies really are.  That makes it difficult to sell them on the value of prairie conservation.  My presentations are always heavy on photographs, and I try to tell a lot of interesting natural history stories about the diverse plants and animals found in grasslands.  I hope that when I finish, audience members will walk out thinking prairies are a little more fascinating and worth their notice than they’d previously thought.  Maybe that spark of interest will grow into eventual support for prairie conservation among at least a few of them.

As I was preparing for another of those presentations this week, I thought (not for the first time) about the need to spread that spark of interest beyond the small number of people I can speak to in person.  Online video is one medium that can help accomplish that, so I took a crack at making one.  Since I’m a person who almost never watches a video longer than a minute or two, I kept mine very short.

So – here is my very simple attempt to provide a glimpse of prairie life in about 30 seconds.  There are no stories, just a cascade of images designed to showcase the diversity of plants, animals, and prairie landscapes people might not know exist.  If people want to learn more, they will hopefully explore a little more on their own.  Maybe they’ll even find a blog they could follow…

If the embedded video above doesn’t work for you, try clicking here instead.

And, Grant?  If you’re reading this, this one’s for you pal.  If the photos don’t do it for you, try reading this short essay by Doug Ladd, one of the smartest people I know.

Beaver Crossings

Karen Hamburger, a longtime volunteer with us, recently passed along another batch of trail camera video clips from our Derr Wetland Restoration.  You might remember seeing some of her video in an earlier post.

This time, much of her footage was centered around beaver dams.  There were quite a few video clips of beavers repairing dams or swimming past, along with otters, muskrats, ducks, and other wetland creatures.  However, Karen also captured some more terrestrial species using the beaver dams.

I often use beaver dams as a convenient bridge to cross a stream, and I know I’m not alone in that.  It makes sense that those same dams are important crossing locations for many wildlife species as well.  Karen’s trail cameras documented some of those crossings, including species such as bobcat, raccoon, coyote, and white-tailed deer.  See below.

In addition to wildlife, Karen’s camera also caught another creature crossing a beaver dam at our wetland.  Not once, but twice, she documented photographer Michael Forsberg working his way across the stream with camera in hand.

Mike has been photographing the wetland for many years, and has his own set of camera traps (trail cameras) at the site.  He has also been helping us capture timelapse imagery from the site through both the Platte Basin Timelapse Project and Moonshell Media.  This time, Mike got caught on the other end of the camera.

Beavers play important engineering roles in landscapes. Their dam construction activities change water flow patterns, flood low-lying areas, and create important habitat for many plant and animal species.  Karen’s videos are a good reminder that beaver activity not only affects wetland species, it also affects movement patterns of terrestrial species by providing stream crossings.  As beaver dam locations change, wildlife have to adjust their travel accordingly, and it’s fun to think about how those movement changes could ripple through ecosystems.  The location of a stream crossing for both predators and herbivores affects where those animals choose to forage, for example.  The fate of a plant or small mammal could well be decided by where a deer or coyote can cross a stream – which may be determined by where a beaver family decides to place a dam.  Fascinating!


Media Coverage of Our Restoration Work

Our friends at Platte Basin Timelapse (PBT) created a very nice radio piece about our restoration work that aired on NET Radio (Nebraska Educational Telecommunications) today.   The link below includes that audio, along with a transcript and short video of our staff harvesting, mixing, and planting seed.  You can also see video of me describing what we’re doing and why.

It’s always difficult to distill the complexities of land management and restoration into sound bites and video clips, but this was a very good description of our work.  I really appreciate the time and consideration that Ariana Brocious, Peter Stegen, and others at PBT put into this project.

If you’re interested, you can see and hear the story HERE.

Ariana Brocious (with headphones) and Pete Stegen (green coat) collect audio and video footage as we prepare to overseed a degraded prairie back in January of this year.
Ariana Brocious (with headphones) and Pete Stegen (green coat) collect audio and video footage as we prepare to overseed a degraded prairie in January of this year.



Photo of the Week – November 14, 2014

The praying mantis is an impressive predator, especially when it’s a Chinese mantis the length of a ball point pen.  The ones who live around here seem to have a particular affinity for sphinx moths.  I haven’t yet watched the capture take place, but I’ve seen the mantises (mantes? mantids? critters?) devouring their fuzzy prey several times, including one I photographed last year.  Almost exactly a year later, I took the following photos at the same prairie.

A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth.  Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.
A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth. Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.

You can see from the photo how well this mantis can hide – it is exactly the same color as the pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) plant it was hunting on, and its shape and texture blend in perfectly.  Other mantis species around the world have even more sophisticated camouflage, which almost seems unfair.



After watching the mantis for a little while, I decided to try out the video function on my camera.  I’ve been trying to do a little more video work lately anyway.  If you’ve always wanted to see watch a mantis eat up close – and who wouldn’t want to?? – here’s your chance.  The barking in the background is from the dogs in the nearby animal shelter who were apparently excited to watch a prairie ecologist take video of a praying mantis…

My favorite shot of the day was this last one.  There is sure a lot of personality in a mantis face…

"Just trying to eat here... do you mind?"
“Just trying to eat here… do you mind?”

Chinese mantises are, of course, not native to the U.S., but as far as I can tell from bug-smart friends, don’t seem to be having any major negative impacts (neither are they providing the kind of “pest control” they are often introduced to provide).  Some introduced species have certainly become major ecological disasters, but it seems the Chinese mantis is just a new predator for prairie insects to watch out for, and for prairie enthusiasts to enjoy watching.

(Now would be the appropriate time for entomologically-savvy readers to correct my ignorance on the topic of the Chinese mantis and its impacts.  Please do.)

Karen’s Wetland Videos

One of my favorite places within our Platte River Prairies is a restored wetland we usually call “the sandpit wetland” because it is a former sand and gravel mining pit.  We restored the site over about 10 years, a little at a time, and it now features a meandering stream and various side channel, backwater, and off-channel pockets.  You might remember the site from previous posts, including this one about sludge and this one (or this one) about timelapse imagery.

The Derr Sandpit wetland (2013 photo).  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
The Derr Sandpit wetland (2013 photo). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I always enjoy walking around the wetland – even if I’m fighting off invasive species – because there’s so much to see.  I have a pretty good feel for the plant community at the site because it’s easy to find the plants and watch their slow movements around the wetland over time.  There are more invertebrate species than I’ll ever be able to count, of course, let alone see, but I can usually find quite a few of them if I look.  However, it’s harder to see and keep track of the larger animals – the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals.  For some reason, they don’t usually show themselves when I’m there…  (Especially the otters…. don’t get me started.)

Our timelapse imagery over the last couple years has helped us keep track of some of the wildlife use at the site, but since those cameras only take photos at regular hourly intervals, catching animals in front of the camera is just a happy accident.  Now, however, one of our longest tenured volunteers, Karen Hamburger, has taken it upon herself to find out what’s really out there.  During the last year or so, she’s been setting a trail camera (actually more than one, since at least one was inundated in a flood) in various places around the wetland and capturing views of many wildlife species.

I finally had a chance to go through some of her favorite video clips the other day, and I made a short 3 minute video montage with some of them.  It includes several bird species, beavers, deer, raccoons, and even (sigh) otters.  We knew from tracks and other sign that most of these animals were around, but it’s one thing to see footprints and another to watch the critters themselves!  This video gives us a wonderful and unique perspective on what happens at our wetland when we noisy blundering people aren’t around.

I hope you enjoy it.


THANK YOU to Karen for all the work to capture these moments for us, along with all the other work she’s done over the years!

If the video doesn’t display correctly above, you can try clicking HERE instead.

Timelapse Bison Photos

Regular readers of The Prairie Ecologist are familiar with our timelapse photography project at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  With the help of Moonshell Media, we set up nine timelapse cameras to capture the recovery of the Preserve from a big wildfire that swept through in 2012.

The cameras are supposed to be taking a photograph every hour during daylight hours to document what happens in front of them.  However, during 2013, we had a few issues with the cameras that led them to take photos much more frequently (and then run out of space on the memory card).  That led to some gaps in our coverage, but the silver lining is that it also gave us some very nice series of photographs over some two to three hour-long periods.

Twice during those frequently-photographed periods, bison were in the frame.  Below are two very short videos made from those photo series.

In the first video, the camera was set to record a blowout area – a site where the sand is destabilized and blown by the wind.  Blowouts are generally disliked by sandhills ranchers because they lack forage and tend to spread unless they are excluded from grazing and allowed to “heal”.  On the other hand, blowouts are ecologically valuable because of the habitat they provide to a wide range of species including plants (including the federally-listed blowout penstemon), tiger beetles, lizards, and many more.   This video shows that blowouts are also attractive to bison.  The video runs from approximately 7:30am to 10am on June 28, 2013.

We put one camera high atop a tall windmill tower to capture a landscape view of burned sandhills prairie.  During this video, the same herd of bison shown above wanders through the frame during a two and a half hour period on the afternoon of October 8, 2013.  As you can see by the color of the vegetation, most plants are in or near dormancy by this time of year, so the bison are picking and choosing what they can find to eat.  The bison at the Preserve get themselves through the winter without supplemental feed from staff, so October food is probably pretty attractive compared to what’s available in February…

These short bursts of timelapse video were not the expected product of this project, but have turned out to be some nice bonus coverage.  Fortunately, the gaps caused by full memory cards are not long enough to seriously disrupt the bigger story of long-term recovery.  I’ll continue to bring you that story as it emerges.


2014 Sandhill Crane Migration – Platte River, Nebraska

March is always a busy time on Nebraska’s Platte River.  It’s the beginning of prime prescribed fire season, of course, and a good time to work on fence repair and tree clearing projects.  But there’s no question that sandhill cranes rule the month.

The early morning scene on the Platte River in March.  Note the abundance of feathers floating down the river...
The early morning scene on the Platte River last week.  Note the abundance of feathers floating down the river…

About 600,000 sandhill cranes spend a good portion of late February, March, and early April along the Platte River before heading north to nesting grounds.  It’s one of the greatest migratory phenomena in the world, and it happens right in our backyard.  Because of that, our staff spends quite a bit of time taking groups of people into our viewing blinds where we watch the cranes land on the river at sunset and take off again in the morning.  It’s an important fundraising opportunity for The Nature Conservancy, and a way to show our Nebraska members what we’ve been working on and thank them for their support.  It’s really gratifying to watch the reaction of people as they see the crane spectacle for the first time.

My son Daniel got his first trip to a crane blind on his birthday this year.  It was very cold, but he was still glad to go.
My son Daniel got to take his first trip to a crane blind on his 10th birthday this year. It was very cold, but he still had a great time.

Because I’m in the blinds fairly frequently, I get quite a few opportunities to photograph cranes – though the number of nights and mornings when the light is favorable can be limited.  Also, I’m really not a wildlife photographer, either in terms of my equipment or aptitude.  Despite that, I usually end up with a few decent photos by the end of each season, though not as many as I should.

This year, I also tried to get some video footage of the cranes – something I have even less experience with and aptitude for than wildlife photography!  Also, my only video camera is the video function on my Nikon D300s SLR camera, and I’m still learning to use it.

You can see two of my attempts by clicking on the links below:

Video 1 – Cranes preparing to leave the river on a cold morning.  This 30 second clip gives you a feel for the density, activity, and noise of a crane roost.

Video 2 – Cranes chasing each other around on a sand bar.  There is a lot of jumping and chasing among cranes.  Some of it is courtship and pair bonding, some of it is just posturing.  This clip is about 30 seconds long.


Silhouettes against the evening sky.
Silhouettes against the evening sky.

In the evenings, the cranes often wait to come to the river until it is getting dark, making photography difficult.  In those cases, the best photo opportunities are usually silhouettes of the birds against the sky as they drop into the river.  On nights when the light is nice and our guests are fully engaged watching the big event, I manage to snap off a few shots.  Both close-ups on a few birds at a time and more wider views can be attractive.

Sandhill cranes coming to the river after sunset.
Sandhill cranes coming to the river after sunset.

This year, my favorite image was the first shot I took one evening.  The sunset was beautiful and the cranes were parachuting gracefully toward the water as I poked my camera lens out the window of the blind.  The resulting photo reminded me of the theme song to a 1980’s TV show – The Greatest American Hero.

"Believe it or not, I'm walking on air..."   Cranes floating down to the river at sunset.
“Believe it or not, I’m walking on air…” Cranes floating down to the river at sunset.


Bonus Coverage

On one of the crane tours I led this spring, I met 11-year-old Jack McDowall and his dad.  Jack is a fellow blogger who is working on a year-long project to photograph and document his bird sightings.  I think many of you would enjoy his photos and the natural history information he includes along with them – including a post from his trip to our viewing blind.  If you’d like to visit his blog, you can link to it here.


Quickest Way to See The Great Plains? Buy the Video.

A couple weeks ago, I posted about the documentary based on Michael Forsberg’s book on The Great Plains.  It premiered on Nebraska Public Television stations last week, and it was even better than I’d expected.  Hopefully, most of you who live in Nebraska got a chance to see it, but for those of you outside the state (and outside the country) it might be a while.  I’ve fielded questions from a number of you about how/when you might get to see the show.  It’s hard to believe it won’t be shown nationally at some point, but there is currently no timeline for that to happen.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that you can see the entire show in your own home – over and over, whenever you want. 

…For only $19.95! 

DVDs of the video are on sale now on Michael Forsberg’s website.  If you’re interested, click HERE to go to his site.

I strongly recommend this video (and not just because I’m in it!)  Forsberg and the NET crew did a fantastic job of capturing the conservation issues and gorgeous landscapes of this wonderful part of North America. They tell a powerful story, using Mike’s still photos and NET’s beautiful video.

Here is a link to the trailer for the show, in case you just need a quick hit while you wait for the DVD to ship.

Watch “The Great Plains” on Public Television Next Week

If you live in Nebraska, you’re in for a treat next week.  You’ll have three opportunities to watch the premiere of The Great Plains, the television documentary of conservation photographer Michael Forsberg and the process of making his most recent book.  The Nebraska Educational Television (NET) program follows Mike around to the same sites he photographed and profiles the wildlife and people in each place.  Along the way, Mike talks about conservation and photography, and about the importance of a wide swath of country that is all but ignored by people that don’t live there.  The show will be on Sunday November 25 at 8:30pm CST, and then will be rebroadcast on November 28 at 7pm and December 2 at 2:30pm.

A film crew in our seed shop, with TNC employees Nelson Winkel (cowboy hat) and Nanette Whitten (background).

We had the opportunity to host Mike and the NET crew at our Platte River Prairies back in the fall of 2010.  They filmed us harvesting seed and talking about the importance of prairies and restoration.  In addition, Bill Whitney and his crew from the Prairie Plains Resource Institute had their combine on our prairies at the time, harvesting seed for both of us, so the film crew got to go along for the ride.

Bill Whitney drives the Prairie Plains Resource Institute combine through our prairie with a camera man in the cab and a sound man hanging on to the back.


Mike Forsberg (left) and the NET film crew, as seen from the top of the PPRI combine…

Mike is a true conservation photographer, and an invaluable resource for the grasslands and other ecosystems of the Great Plains.  He is not only an extraordinary photographer – both artistically and technically – he’s also an excellent naturalist.  Most importantly, he speaks and writes with a passion for conservation that draws people in and makes them want to go out and save the world.  He does tremendous work to highlight the value and beauty of a part of the world that many other photographers fly over on the way to more traditional photographic destinations.

Please click here for a link to a 5 minute preview of the show.  In case you are in a big hurry, the best part is at 4:02 minutes…

Or click here to Mike Forsberg’s website where you can watch a longer (11 minutes) promo from Mike’s website.

And – if you can’t see the documentary (yet) you can certainly see the book that started it all.  (It’s a great holiday gift!)

It was hard not to envision the Beverly Hillbillies as the old Gleaner combine staggered through the prairie with a full load of people on board.