Spider Milk Mystery Solved!

Thanks to responses from two spider experts, the “spider milk mystery” has been solved! Here are my initial questions and their answers:

What the heck is going on???” The “milking” behavior is in fact…get ready for it… SPERM REMOVAL. Yes, as strange as that may sound, male spiders practice the behavior of extracting other males’ sperm from females before mating with them. Why??? Because…  Continue reading

Intro to Bozeman, Montana

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Arrowleaf Balsamroots (Basamorhiza sagittata) blooming above Bozeman, a city surrounded by beautiful public land.

Lots of hiking but little blogging; the last month has been a big transition for me! My job with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska ended and I’ve moved to Bozeman to work for Montana State University Extension as a Natural Resources Educator. Bozeman is a fascinating place. The surrounding area is undeniably beautiful, but this landscape has helped drive the population skyward in the last few decades.  Drawn by an recreation paradise, more and more people are moving to the area, fueling a steady explosion of new homes and subdivisions. On one hand, I admire Bozeman for conserving rather than exploiting it’s natural resources. On the other, it’s clear that this model will still drastically change Bozeman. It’s going to be a fascinating place to live, and certainly a beautiful one.

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It’s incredible to live in a place where bordered by this. I could bike to this spot from my house in 15 minutes.

River Otter Video

While walking along a channel of the Platte River, I turned around and realized that there was a huge beaver grooming himself on a bank just 20 feet from me. I froze, expecting him to dash away, but to my surprise he just sat there in the sun. This was by far the best look I’ve had of a beaver, and I was surprised by how large his head and nose were. He also had an enormous potbelly as he sat hunched over, reminding me of an obese old  man. For several minutes he sat there grooming, which consisted of slowly rubbing his face and armpits, as if taking an invisible shower. It was a beautiful morning, and he really seemed to be enjoying it as he squinted into the sun. I heard a splash behind me, and turned to see another beaver that had crawled out from the water on the other side of the road I was walking on, attempting to carry a stick across it, but I was blocking her path. Unlike the other beaver, she detected me, and after a moment of panicked indecision, dropped her stick, sprinted across the road, and lept four feet off the road and dove headfirst into the water with a loud splash.

Of course, I’m never carrying a camera when something cool that happens, so I returned to the spot the next morning with my gear. I waited for an hour but no beavers showed up. Instead, I was visited by a family of River Otters.

April Prairie

April was a wonderful month on the prairie in many ways. After a long and windy winter, I could finally return to photographing actual flowers instead of seedheads. Plants that bloom in April are regarded “cool season” species because they only grow during spring and fall. They also earn my admiration for daring to expose themselves when a frost or blizzard could extinguish them at any moment. In doing so, they provide spring insects and photographers with much-needed relief.

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Shooting Blind

When I worked for The Nature Conservancy near Wood River, NE, I lived close to a restored wetland. In late winter I would gaze longingly out my window at the clouds of migrating waterfowl whirling above the calm water. I wanted to photograph this spectacle but approaching the skittish birds through the open prairie seemed an impossible task. Then I met Michael Forsberg, famed Nebraskan wildlife photographer. I learned how he builds blinds out of garden fence and grass and sleeps in them, sometimes for days, in order to capture the most intimate moments of nature and share them with the rest of us. I wanted to learn this art too, so I decided to try building my own blind on the restored wetland.

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Marvels in the Mud

Recently, a friend was telling me how she has a hard time getting excited about tiny plants and insects, even though she knows there’s cool things about them. I understand the challenge, but I also think that once you can appreciate the little things, nature is infinitely more fun to explore. This is a story about how little things saved my day.

April 2nd was the kind of spring day where you triumphantly open every window in the house. I wanted to get out and explore somewhere new, so I drove to the Fort Kearny Hike and Bike Trail. When I arrived, a bored-looking family was slowly rolling down the weedy trail…in a golf cart. I despaired, thinking that I had driven half an hour to look at weeds with joggers huffing by. Nonetheless, I walked down the crowded trail for a couple of uneventful minutes minutes until it crossed over the Platte River. Much to my relief, there was a staircase inviting visitors to explore the sandbar below. I descended the stairs and started exploring the one place no one else was. It would be another three hours until I returned.

I began by walking the thicker vegetation, hoping to flush some of the first insects of the year. As I did, several small spiders scurried away. I knelt down to look at them and noticed a few gnats mating on the blades of grass. After a long winter with no insects, these gnats were as exciting for me to photograph as Sandhill Cranes.

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Once I was on my belly, more details revealed themselves and a story began to unfold. A few feet away from the gnats I spotted a muscid fly. I’m grateful that winter had made me so appreciative of even the common insects; otherwise I might not have taken a closer look. I did, however, and noticed that this wasn’t your typical potato salad-sucking housefly. It was devouring one of the gnats! Continue reading

The Crane Post

Even after photographing for 11 years, I’ve only recently learned that taking truly great images requires immense amounts of time and personal sacrifice. Each time I peeled myself out of bed before sunrise to photograph the Sandhill Crane migration, I was forced to ask myself, “Why?” Crane migration is such a popular event out here and so many people have already photographed it. What could I contribute? I wasn’t able to answer this question until after crane migration had passed, but somehow I couldn’t resist returning to the Platte River over and over. I wanted to document a day in the life of a crane on the Platte in both photos and video. When I finally completed my video, I knew all those cold, dark mornings had been worth it.

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Sprouts

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Woolly Plantain (Plantago patagonica) sprouting form a pocket gopher mound.

Watching plants resprout has been really interesting for me this spring. Spending time with my supervisor, Chris Helzer, has made me appreciate the small details of prairies, particularly how many plant species there are and where they’re located. I’ve learned to read a prairie’s history of management and disturbance even in early spring…and appreciate the minute aesthetics! On March 21 I was taking a sunset walk (looking down rather than at the sky) when I noticed several attractive sprouts growing on the sandy mounds created by pocket gophers as they dig tunnels. I remembered reading how burrowing animals play an important role in plant germination. By providing patches of bare soil, these rodents give seeds an open place to spread their roots and leaves. It was neat to witness that happening for myself!

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On that walk I also found my first flower of the year! Carpeting just a small segment of our trail as it runs through the sandhills were dozens of tiny Sun Sedges (Carex heliophilis) already in bloom. If you weren’t looking for them, you might not even realize what they were. Their flowers were quite small, but in March their waving yellow petals were like thousands of little victory flags. Two nights later, a sudden snowstorm roared through Nebraska. I was eager to see if the delicate flowers had survived, so the next morning I was trekking back to them before sunrise. To my delight, the flowers were still there, poking through the snow. I got on my belly and started photographing. I wanted an image that represented spring’s triumph over winter. As the sun crested the hill it bathed the sedges’ petals in gold. Like dozens of tiny torches, the sedges proclaimed that spring had indeed won.

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Sun Sedge (Carex heliophilis) blossoming in snow.