Winter Overseed

by Dee Hudson Photography and Jay Stacy

My alarm blares before sunrise and I quickly pull on my five layers of clothing for my upper body, my two pairs of socks, my face mask, my thermal underwear and jeans, and my North Face boots. I am now prepared to help overseed a prairie planting on this cool winter morning!

Dressed in layers for the winter when I photograph or work in prairie restoration.

Dressed in layers for the winter when I photograph or work in prairie restoration.

There is a slight cloud cover this morning and the temperatures are in the upper twenties — perfect conditions for what we need to do. I meet Jay Stacy, a land steward for Nachusa, at the Headquarters at 8 am. Jay is all prepared to overseed a 16-acre restoration that he first planted in the Fall of 2012. He has mixed 270 pounds of collected seeds* and placed them in eight 40–gallon barrels, already strapped into the back of a truck bed.

Bill Kleiman (Preserve Director) and Jay review the Kubota tractor operation and safety precautions before we depart. To do my part in keeping safe, I must make sure that I never stand behind or in front of the wheels when I help Jay. Getting squashed under a tractor tire is not on my agenda for the day, so I will follow this advice!

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Jay Stacy overseeds his 2012 prairie restoration.

My job is to transport the seed out to the field, while Jay drives the tractor. To overseed with the tractor, rather than hand–seeding the entire field, Jay waited until the weather conditions were just right. The ground needed to be frozen to drive the tractor across the surface, as to not damage this beautiful restoration planting. So, Jay planned this overseed to follow four nights sub zero weather, on a day when the temperatures would then reach the low 30’s (so he did not freeze to death on the tractor!). The two inches of snow cover across the field just added a nice cushion.

Jay Stacy, with the first load of seed in the pendulum seed spreader.

Jay Stacy with the first load of seed in the pendulum seed spreader.

The Seed Mixture
This is the 2nd winter overseed for this planting, the 1st occurring in the 2013 winter. For this overseed, Jay prepared three separate mixes, gauged to the soil type and drainage of the various parts of the restoration. The mixes contain forbs, sedges, non–dominant grasses and 40 pounds of Little Bluestem grass. Generous amounts of Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and Northern Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) were in all three mixes.

Three 40–gallon barrels of overseed sit next to a restored prairie.

40–gallon barrels hold the prairie seed.

Mix 1
This mix targets gravel soils and contains species like: Downy Yellow Painted Cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), Purple Prairie Clover (Petalostemum (Dalea) purpureum), and Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida).

Purple Prairie Clover in bloom

Purple Prairie Clover

Mix 2
One area in the planting turns out to be wetter than first thought in 2012, so plants that like the wetter side of mesic** were added to this mix. Some of the moisture–loving plants included are Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) Gayfeather (Liatris Pycnostachya), and Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris).

Gayfeather flowers with a stormy sky in the background.

Gayfeather

Mix 3
One area in the 16–acre planting has sandy soil, so Jay created an overseed mix with some of these plants: Prairie Coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), Western Sunflower, (Helianthus occidentalis) and White Aster (Aster ptarmicoides).

Leadplant and Prairie Coreopsis blooming together.

Leadplant and Prairie Coreopsis

Pulling a pendulum spreader behind the tractor, the overseed planting was finished in early afternoon with a good seed distribution across all three areas. Jay accomplished all the overseed work while I provided him with coffee, lunch, a warm truck and some comic relief.

Seeds rest on top of snow from an overseed for prairie restoration.

The newly spread seeds dot the snow.

Seed Collection
While Jay collected the majority of seed, his efforts were greatly enhanced with the assistance of Tim Sherck, Jeff Cologna, Sheryl Honig, Tim Know, and yours truly. I cannot speak for the others, but I find seed collecting to be fun and relaxing, especially as we collect together. Also, seed collection is very rewarding, for when I see the new restorations in bloom, with butterflies, birds and bison savoring my efforts, I know I have done my part to restore the land back to its native state.

If you want to volunteer at Nachusa Grasslands, check the website for opportunites and the Saturday workday schedule.

* All forb seed weights represent the weight of a processed product, thus seed head & stem weight are included in the weight. All grasses (like Side–oats Grama, Little Bluestem, and Northern Prairie Dropseed) are pure seed weights.
**Mesic is a type of habitat that has a moderate level of moisture, midway between dry and wet.

 

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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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Where are all the Weeds?

by Dee Hudson Photography

This prairie field has very few weeds because the steward that tends this unit has excellent weed management! I am part of this exceptional weed removal and I love the results!!! Look at the different beautiful plants blooming!! I see pink Pale Purple Coneflowers . . . yellow False Sunflowers . . . and white Quinine flowers.

The Prairie in Bloom at Nachusa Grasslands

The Prairie in bloom at Nachusa Grasslands.

One of my jobs as a volunteer steward at Nachusa Grasslands is to remove weeds from the prairie fields. For me, this is a familiar task. Growing up in rural Minnesota, my summers as a young girl were always spent helping my father remove the agricultural weeds from his soybean fields. At Nachusa Grasslands, I remove different weeds, but the process is one that is very familiar.

Red Clover Flower

Red Clover Flower

This summer, with the wettest June in Illinois history, one weed has really popped up in great numbers — the Red Clover (Trifolium pretense). The Red Clover is a non–native plant, first introduced in our country to provide food for farm animals. The purplish–pink flower head on the Red Clover is very pretty and one of the colors we scan for as we search for these weeds.

The Red Clover leaves have a light–colored

The Red Clover leaves have a light–colored “Chevron–shaped” pattern.

When the clover is not blooming, it is much trickier to find the plants and the hunt for the Red Clover becomes more like a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ exercise. Thank goodness the leaves are very distinctive! My steward taught me to look for the light colored ‘chevron–shape’ pattern on the leaves.

Jay Finds a Red Clover to Remove

Jay finds a Red Clover in his 2009 Gobbler Ridge planting.

Hello Jay! This is Jay Stacy, the land steward I regularly help and the steward of this prairie field (Gobbler Ridge) we are weed managing today. As we transect Jay’s 2009 prairie planting, we are mainly searching for Red Clover and Sweet Clover. The Red Clover flower heads are beginning to turn brown and if we do not remove them soon, the clover will begin to drop its seeds and then we will have many more to remove next year. In the photo above, Jay has located a Red Clover for removal.

Cutting the Red Clover With Scissors

The Red Clover is cut off close to the ground.

Jay gathers all the stems together first, which is tricky, because the stems tend to spread out into the surrounding prairie plants. Once all the stems have all been brought together, the clover is cut close to the ground.

Applying Herbicide to the Clover Stem

Jay carefully applies herbicide to the clover stem with a paintbrush.

Jay carefully applies herbicide to the clover stem with a paintbrush, being careful not to touch the brush to any of the nearby prairie plants.

Carrying the Red Clover from the Field

Jay transports the Red Clover seeds out of the prairie in a bucket.

This Red Clover plant has to be removed from the prairie so none of the seeds in the mature flower heads plant themselves. We collect the Red Clovers into a bucket and transport them completely out of the prairie to our central weed pile.

Red Clover Weeded from the Prairie

Red Clover collected in one morning.

Whew! Look at all the Red Clover we collected in one morning!! The clover fills the entire truck bed!

Red Clover Spreads

When Red Clover is left in a new prairie planting, it quickly multiplies.

This photo above illustrates what happens when the red clover is not weed managed. As you see, the clover quickly multiplies and begins to crowd out the natives plants and the plant diversity becomes lost — I mainly see Red Clover in the photo above. One of the reasons I love to photograph and explore the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands is to discover all the unique individual forb (flowering plants) and grass species that I never have the chance to see anywhere else.

When you are an ‘outdoor girl,’ there is nothing more satisfying than spending the day in a beautiful prairie searching for weeds. The work is physical, as you walk back and forth across the fields, constantly bending down to the ground to remove the weeds. However, there are some pretty ‘sweet’ rewards! While laboring, I pause to enjoy the raspy call of the Dickcissel (dick-dick-cissel) ,the call of the near–threatened Henslow’s Sparrow or I enjoy a quick glimpse of a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on a milkweed.

Dickcissel, a grassland bird

A grassland bird called the Dickcissel.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

Monarch Butterfly caterpillar on a Common Milkweed

Come visit the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands and enjoy the fruits of my labor and see what treasures you can find!!!

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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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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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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.