Nachusa Grassland Promotes Scientific Research

by Dee Hudson Photography

Graduate student, Heather Herakovich, gathers research data about grassland bird nests.

Graduate student, Heather Herakovich, gathers research data about grassland bird nests.

Bison, Grassland Birds, Dung Beetles, Bees, Small Mammals, Invasive Species, Bacteria & Fungi — these are all topics of ongoing study by Professors, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at Nachusa Grasslands. I had the opportunity to photograph Nachusa’s first Science Symposium last Saturday, as an interested audience gathered at the Franklin Creek Grist Mill to hear several researchers present their work.

Researchers at Nachusa Grasslands

The presenters at Nachusa Grassland’s first Science Symposium. Front row: Julia Brockman, Kim Elsenbroek, Shannon McCarragher, PhD., Heather Herakovich, Elizabeth Bach, PhD. Back row: Nicholas Barber, PhD., Angela Burke and Sean Griffin.

Researchers study the microbes in the soil.

Researchers study the microbes in the soil. Photo Credit: Natural Resources Conservation Service

The ongoing research is amazing and exciting to hear about!

Microbe Research
Dr. Elizabeth Bach and graduate student, Kim Elsenbroek, both study microbes (bacteria & fungi) in the soil and how they affect the success of prairie plants. Dr. Bach asks, “What are the microbes doing? When are they most active? How do the microbes affect the plants throughout the growing season? How do the microbes cycle nutrients?” Kim Elsenbroek compares the microbe activity in the soils of remnant (original unplowed prairie) versus successful and less successful prairie plantings.

Insect and Mammal Studies

At Nachusa, Dr. Nicholas Barber's research focuses on beetle communities.

At Nachusa, Dr. Nicholas Barber’s research focuses on beetle communities.

How does the beetle community change following a prairie restoration? How has the introduction of bison affected the beetles? Answering these questions are important, because beetles are known to be a good indicator of ecological health. By the way, Dr. Barber is holding dung beetles in his hand!

Angela Burke

Angela Burke discusses her research with Jeff Walk, Illinois’s Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy; and Bill Kleiman, Project Director for Nachusa Grasslands.

How are the small mammals (mice, voles etc.) responding to bison introduction at Nachusa? To find out, Angela Burke baits live traps with peanut butter and oats to capture the mammals. After she gathers her data, she microchips them and releases the animals back into the prairie. The meadow jumping mouse has been her most exciting find, while the deer mouse has been her most common.

A bumble bee on White Wild Indigo

A pollinator, the bumble bee, visits the White Wild Indigo at Nachusa in early summer.

Graduate student, Sean Griffin, studies the most important pollinators in prairies — bees. How does prairie restoration change the bee communities? To collect the bees, he sets up his brightly–colored traps on warm, sunny days. His research compares bee populations in remnant prairies to those in restored prairies.

GPS Collared Bison

A female bison fitted with a GPS collar.

Seven female bison fitted with GPS collars provide hourly location points for graduate research student, Julie Brockman. Do the bison prefer restored or remnant prairies? How are bison affected by human activity? To learn more, read Julie’s article on page seven of the 2014 Prairie Smoke magazine.

Grassland Birds
I had the wonderful opportunity to assist Heather Herakovich this summer as she searched for grassland bird nests. Read more about my experience in my May 28 blog titled Searching for Grassland Bird Nests.

A Lark Sparrow nest with four eggs.

Three Lark Sparrow eggs and one Brown–headed Cowbird egg are found in the nest. The Cowbird does not build a nest, but rather lays her eggs in other bird’s nests and allows that bird to raise the young Cowbird.

With the decline of tall grass prairies, nine grassland species are near–threatened or vulnerable. Heather looks for changes in nest density since the introduction of bison. How does nest density compare in restorations versus remnant prairie? Will the nests have more brood parasitism? (see photo)

Invasive Species

Dr. Shannon McCarragher

Dr. Shannon McCarragher presents a poster with her scientific research.

The last presenter, Dr. Shannon McCarragher, looks at the ecological impact the non–native honeysuckle (Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii) has on the native White Oak tree in a savanna. How much light does the White Oak require to establish a healthy savanna?

Mary Vieregg

Mary Vieregg organized Nachusa’s first Science Symposium. This photo is courtesy of Kirk Hallowell.

Many presenters speaking on Saturday were recipients of scientific research grants from the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. The Friends . . .

“ . . . may award monetary grants to qualified candidates conducting scientific research significant to Nachusa Grasslands. Research projects should focus primarily on prairie and savanna land management practices, such as prescribed fire, seed collection, weed control, general or specific flora or faunal populations, and natural areas restoration.”

To learn more about the awarded Science Grants or to apply for a 2016 Research Grant, visit the Nachusa Grasslands website.
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Searching for Grassland Bird Nests

by Dee Hudson Photography

It is 6:30 am on a Wednesday morning, and I am walking miles across prairie grasslands, waving a long stick. What am I doing, you ask? Well, I volunteered to help NIU Master’s student, Heather Herakovich, locate grassland bird nests at Nachusa Grasslands. Heather’s research studies how bison are impacting grassland bird nest density and survivorship. In her research, Heather compares the land that bison now roam to non–bison grassland plantings. The various bison/non–bison fields in her comparison study were remnant or restored in similar years.

Heather gave me my own ‘search stick,’ (light–weight and about a meter long) and my job was to space myself a few feet from her and gently wave and probe the vegetation in front of me as I walked forward. The task is not too complicated for me and is actually rather relaxing on this beautiful morning. There were three of us that morning, (Heather, Jessica Fliginger & I) and we walked in transects (long straight lines) trying to flush birds from their nests. We spent two hours on each designated field in the study.

Heather Herakovich Searches for Grassland Birds

Heather and Jessica walk through the dead vegetation in an unburned prairie planting, searching for bird nests with their search sticks.

Heather and Jessica use binoculars to search for grassland birds.

Heather and Jessica search for grassland birds.

First, we walked for two hours in an unburned field in the Hook Larson Unit. It was harder to walk through this unit, since last years standing dead vegetation was all underfoot. However, the Henslow’s Sparrow prefers to build its nest in this dense layer of dead grass and plants and I would love to find this bird nesting here. During our two–hour walk, we did not find any Henslow’s nests, but we did hear them calling and we spotted a few with our binoculars. This was pretty exciting for me to hear so many Henslow’s in this field, because the conservation status of this grassland bird is listed as ‘near threatened’ by IUCN.

 

Searching for Grassland Bird Nests

This field was control–burned, making it much easier to hike through and search for bird nests.

After two hours of hiking back and forth, back and forth, we found ZERO nests in the unburned field. Yeah, if research were easy, I suppose everyone would be doing it! I was a little disappointed, but mid–May was still early in the nesting season, so more nests could be spotted in future weeks. So, we headed to the next field in Heather’s study, Hook Larson West. This field was quite different from the one we had just walked, for it had been managed with a controlled burn. The ground here was very easy to see and also easy to traverse, with young prairie plants only several inches high.

An Abandoned Lark Sparrow Nest

An abandoned Lark Sparrow nest built next to a stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

Our first task was to relocate a Lark Sparrow nest that Heather had found only three days before. When Heather finds a nest, she takes a GPS reading so she can easily find the nest throughout the season. We followed the GPS reading, but no mother bird flushed from the nest when we approached. Hmmm . . . not a good sign. In fact, we searched for the nest for a bit, already suspecting it had been abandoned. Our first clue that there had been trouble was a lone Lark Sparrow egg on the ground in the nest area, with a hole in the egg — probably caused by a predator. When we finally located the nest, it was empty, clearly abandoned. Now that the nest is empty, on her next visit, Heather will return to this nest with a Robel pole and quadrat to quantify the density of vegetation around the nest (ie. how visible the nest may be to aerial predators) and to quantify the plant composition around the nest.

An Eastern Gray or Cope’s Gray tree frog.

An Eastern Gray or Cope’s Gray tree frog rests on a prairie plant.

While searching for the nest around the GPS coordinates, I made a fun discovery and spotted a tree frog in the vegetation — either a Eastern Gray or a Cope’s Gray.

A Lark Sparrow egg held in a hand.

A close–up view of a Lark Sparrow egg we found on the ground. It looks like an artist spattered and drizzled paint on one end of the egg. The markings create a great camouflage in the grassland.

While transecting this unburned unit, we heard the insect–like call of the Grasshopper Sparrow and the song of the Dickcissel. We also saw a Killdeer several times, but not its nest. There was a lone Lark Sparrow egg found on the ground, but no more nests were spotted until the very end of our time in that field. I actually flushed the female out of the vegetation and first spotted the nest. Very exciting!

A Lark Sparrow nest with four eggs.

Three Lark Sparrow eggs and one Brown–headed Cowbird egg are found in the nest. The Cowbird does not build a nest, but rather lays her eggs in other bird’s nests and allows that bird to raise the young Cowbird.

Once the nest was found, Heather had to work quickly, so the mother was not away from the nest too long. Heather instructed us to not touch any vegetation near the nest with our hands, only using our search sticks to move the plants. Something I learned from Heather that morning is that predators can follow our scents to locate the bird nests, so we have to be careful and leave as little as possible.

The mother left the nest so quickly, but Heather noticed the bird’s tail feathers and believes the identity can be confirmed as a Lark Sparrow. There were four eggs in the nest and three eggs appeared to be from a Lark Sparrow, while the last egg was from a Cowbird. We glanced at the nest contents quickly, snapped a few photos, and then walked a good distance away from the nest to record the important data. Heather keeps track of the species, the date & time, the number of eggs, the number of young & whether the mother was on or off of the nest.

A Red–Winged Blackbird Nest

The Red–winged Blackbird built its nest in a glade mallow (Napaea dioica), a native prairie plant.

Before we parted for the day, Heather took Jessica and I to see another nest found in the Sand Farm planting. This nest belonged to a Red–winged Blackbird.

A Red–winged Blackbird nest with four eggs.

A peek inside the nest reveals four eggs.

If you would like to volunteer to help Heather search for bird nests or if you are interested to read more about Heather’s research, visit her website at http://www.bios.niu.edu/jones/lab/heather_herakovich.html

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A Spring Prairie Burn

by Dee Hudson Photography

I had a great opportunity to photograph a live fire training exercise at Nachusa Grassland’s 2015 Fire Refresher event. To stand so close to a prairie burn and take pictures all day was soooo exciting and all brand new to me.

Like the crew, first I was suited up in a bright yellow fire–resistant Nomex jumpsuit. The fire crews received first dibs, so when the time came for me to ‘suit up’, there were not many remaining outfits. My suit was made for a ‘tall person’ so I did not make any fashion statements that day, as I rolled up each pant leg about six inches. Thank goodness I was quickly lost in a sea of matching yellow–suited bodies. In fact, recognizing other crew members is very challenging, so every crew member has their name mounted in capital letters on their helmets.

The Burn Boss

Crew boss and crew member names are clearly visible on their safety helmets.

I was told by the Burn Boss to be aware of the moving vehicles at all times. I was instructed not to crouch down behind a truck — basically try not to get run over!

Gwen ignites the prairie grass with a drip torch.

Gwen ignites the prairie grass with a drip torch.

Last year I began to take the online fire training courses in preparation for being a member of the fire crews at Nachusa. However, reading about the prescribed burns and actually participating in them are two different things. I sipped my coffee and propped my feet up while taking the online course. Whereas, in the live exercise, once the fire was ignited with the drip–torch it raced across the dry grass.

A prairie burn.

The head fire towers above the grasses as it speeds across the prairie.

There was no time to stand still as I followed the crew. I tried to advance with the fire crew and was immediately hit by the smoke and heat, so I made a hasty retreat.

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For the shoot, I used my Canon 200 mm zoom lens and this proved to be an excellent choice. This lens allowed me to stay well back from the action, yet capture all the details I desired. Even at a distance, the heat from the fire was intense. I had not expected the photography that day to be such a dirty job and I wished I had covered my camera body and lens. There was ash and small particles swirling through the air, with the tiny pieces settling all over my camera and lens.

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Fighting the Head Fire

This particular burn was an exercise to review prescribed burn protocols and give crew members more experience in a safer situation, where senior crew members were on hand to supervise, help and debrief.

John oversees a crew member as he works on a spot fire.

John oversees a crew member as he works on a spot fire.

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The fire fighter sprays the burning embers so they do not jump back and ignite unburned prairie.

What an exciting shoot! I love the atmosphere created by the fire and smoke. I look forward to shooting another burn in the fall and completing my fire training so I can be on the other side of the camera next time.

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Teamwork

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On a Quest for . . . Bison

by Dee Hudson Photography

So, today I am about to shoot some bison, or rather should I say ‘photograph’ bison?

My alarm blares at 5:00 am. Oh my gosh, I’m a night owl, so waking at this hour is very painful. I only hit the snooze button once, and then I am slowly pulling on all my clothing layers . . . my cold weather biking pants and jersey first . . . jeans and a turtle neck . . . a thick sweater. I stop layering there or I will overheat before I leave the house. I check my packing list, throw my food for the day into my cooler and grab my camera gear compiled the night before. I am out of the house in about 40 minutes — probably my record time, since I am not a morning person.

One stop for coffee and I am on my way to Nachusa Grasslands (90 minutes away), trying to arrive soon after sunrise in order to shoot in some nice morning light. Today I am on a quest to photograph Nachusa’s wild herd for possible use in the preserve’s annual report. In the last few weeks though, the bison and I have never been in the same location at the same time. Today, I’m hoping for success!

I arrive at the preserve around 7:30 am and the morning light is very pretty. The sun is just visible behind a thin layer of clouds — my favorite kind of light! Yikes! The temperature . . .
5 degrees Fahrenheit. . . . brrrrrrrrr!!!! As I exit the car, I pull on another layer — a thin coat that blocks the wind and covers the ‘bum’.

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The bison graze in the fields along Stone Barn road.

I meet my friend and steward, Jay Stacy, at the headquarters barn. Jay already has a vehicle warmed up and ready for our adventure. Jay volunteered to drive me around for the morning and help me search for the bison herd. We are lucky on this cold day, for the herd is grazing in the fields just off of Stone Barn Road. As we pull into the field entrance, the bison pause their eating to look at us. We watch them a view minutes as I adjust my camera settings and look for some good shots. I roll down the truck window and snap a few images. As I exit the truck, the bison turn around and slowly plod away. Rats!

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The bison move to a new grazing spot.

It is soooo cold, that even with hand–warmers in my pockets, I can not stand outside the truck long before my fingers hurt. Before I head back into the truck to warm up, through my telephoto lens I see two males face off and then begin bumping their heads together.

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Two males lower their heads and butt each other.

After lunch we drive back to the field and the bison are still in the same place they were when we left them in the morning. Now, most of the herd is laying down and resting on the side of a hill in the afternoon sun.

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The female standing in profile is one of seven female bison in the herd fitted with GPS collars. These collars collect daily data for researchers.

I was hoping for some nice images of the whole herd, and I was pleased with my success today. Hopefully during my next visit to Nachusa, I will again be in the right place at the right time to enjoy these magnificent animals.

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Something Different

by Dee Hudson Photography

Light, color, shapes and my favorite subject . . . nature.

During a walk one evening, I decided to experiment a bit with some night photography and see what I could create using any available light.

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I was pleased with the look, capturing ‘something different’ from anything I have ever done before. Could I create more images like this and begin a new series?

During my second attempt, the night was a bit windy, but it worked to my advantage as the movement added to the design. I also love the colors that showcase my subject — this time multiple colored lights were present and I think the effect is rather painterly.

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In the future I hope to apply this ‘look’ to my photography with Illinois prairies.

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Now, I just need to name these images. Any good suggestions for me?

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Photo Place Gallery

by Dee Hudson Photography

This was a very exciting week! My image, Silhouette Glow, submitted to the juried show at Photo Place Gallery was chosen from amongst 1200 images for the online gallery. This show was curated by the incredible Jeff Curto, Professor Emeritus at College of DuPage. I appreciate being selected and I am delighted to be in the company of all the other wonderful artists in this show.

Also in the Photo Place Online Gallery are Carol Byron and Becky Davis, fellow members with me in the ‘Fleeting Moments Artists’ group. Congratulations!!

Congratulations also to Joanne Barsanti, a former classmate and fine artist, on her selection to the Photo Place Gallery. Her image, Preening Egret, was selected for exhibition in the gallery in Middleton, Vermont in March.

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Silhouette Glow © Dee Hudson

Silhouette Glow was photographed in the West Chicago Prairie in Illinois during the winter of 2014. When I captured this image, I remember I was snowshoeing through deep snow during a very cold spell — temperatures in the single digits. The day was nearly done and I was cold and tired, about to finish photographing for the day. As I framed this last winter plant stalk (probably in the sunflower family) in my camera view finder, I instantly knew it was a ‘keeper’. People often ask me whether this image was created in Photoshop. No, it was actually all captured in my camera as the photo appears here. To achieve this effect, I carefully position myself in relation to my light source and my subject and then use a very selective focus. Although this is the ‘look’ I strive for, many times I hike miles through the prairie without success, for it is hard to locate exactly the light I desire and the subject I want.

Basic RGB

Porcupines in the Prairie

by Dee Hudson Photography

Porcupines in the prairie? When it comes to prairies, I am of course speaking about the Porcupine Grass (Stipa spartea).

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The porcupine grass creates an elegant silhouette.

The seed from this grass is one of my favorites because it is so unique–looking compared to other seeds I have seen. The tip of this seed is rather furry and comes to a very sharp point, like a porcupine quill. Even though I was careful while planting these seeds, I still bled from pricking my fingers with the sharp tips.

 The furry and sharp tip of the porcupine seed.

The furry and sharp tip of the porcupine seed.

To plant the porcupine grass I actually jabbed the seed downward, burying the pointed tip into the ground. I would squat to the ground (to get a work–out while I planted!!) and then sink five seeds into the ground in a circle around me. Then I would stand up and toss out another five seeds to self–plant and then I would walk eight to ten feet and repeat the whole process again. As you can imagine, this planting process is very labor–intensive.

The candy cane twisted seed tail.

The candy cane twisted seed tail.

The seed tails are very fascinating. There are two different colored strands that twist around each other, looking rather candy cane–like to me. Apparently these two strands twist at different rates depending on the humidity in the air. So, when the air is dry, the tapered tail end will coil and fishtail to one side or the other and then when there is more moisture in the air the tail will fishtail the other way. Over time, the humidity changes  will allow this seed to literally screw itself down into the ground. It is pretty amazing how nature works!

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As the seed dries, the end coils.

 

To give an idea of the seed size, I photographed three porcupine seeds before planting them in the prairie.

To give an idea of the seed size, I photographed three porcupine seeds before planting them in the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands.