Archive for the 'Prairie' Category

Home Coming

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

We returned home from a 3 week trip to photograph several bird species in eastern Canada and New England to find a wonderful surprise in our back garden – a Queen-of-the-Prairie in bloom.

The Queen-of-the-Prairie (Filipendula rubra) is a tall plant preferring wet prairies. The pink buds and flowers are lacey and fluffy. It is considered threatened here in Iowa.

It is a delight and we hope multiplies. It appeared in the area we call “The Swamp.” Many years ago we buried a child’s large wading pool in which we put a mixture of sand and soil. There are irises and sometimes cardinal flowers and other plants that move about the yard at their own volition.

Like the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganese) that surprised us several years ago and now has four long stems each fitted with a candelabra of lovely orange blossoms, it is in our small urban garden because Linda sprinkles seeds from the packets offered by seed  nurseries at prairie and environmental meetings. She also collects seeds in prairies where we photograph but has never knowingly seen the Queen-of-the-Prairie in the wild. Sometimes we purchase mixed seed packets from reputable native plant nurseries and sprinkle them about and hope for the best. The only seeds that became a problem are the Groundnuts that tangle in all the plants in our front yard. Neither of us has a particularly green thumb and take a casual approach to gardening.

Bob spent time with the Michigan Lilies yesterday while Linda unpacked the pickup camper. When he came in, he asked if she knew the name of a new flower in The Swamp. Early this morning, when the soft light was just over the trees, the edges of the yard were still in shade. The Queen-of-the-Prairie was lit by the sky reflecting down into the area. This separated the blossom from the dark background along with using a fairly shallow depth of field. This is one of Linda’s favorite light conditions for photographing native flowers.

We will be posting about some of the birds we saw – a pair of nesting Piping Plovers in Ontario, over 100,000 Northern Gannets on Quebec’s Bonaventure Island, Harlequin Ducks in Perce, Quebec, Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills and Murres in Maine, and Eider Duck females teaching their ducklings in the surf in Massachusetts. And there was the thrush that sang to us along Lake Michigan at the beginning of the trip.

And then we came home to find the Queen-of-the-Prairie. And there is a bird “soap opera” going on the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower that we must follow.

Butterflies in the Grass

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

The Iowa Prairie Conference was this last weekend at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The fieldtrips were an important part of this well run and productive meeting. Among the many things we saw and photographed on the prairies were several butterflies. We went to three hill prairies on steep sided bluffs and a valley wet prairie with three trout streams, as well as enjoying the prairies on the Luther campus.

Gorgone Checkerspot

This Gorgone Checkerspot (Chlosyne gorgone) was patrolling the ridgetop at the mile-long Solitaire Ridge, a hill prairie. It was worth the climb to get to see him. He would not sit for a sideview to verify his identification but a knowledgeable butterfly person was able to get downhill and look at the underside of his wings with binoculars. The Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) is quite similar.

Solitaire Ridge

Many people (the light colored specks along the incline) made the trek up the steep bluff. We took a slightly easier route along an old road/track up the wooded flank of the bluff to the top of the ridge. The valley below and cliff crown along the ridgetop were spectacular sights and a reminder that the Midwest has rugged areas.

Summer Azures

At the trout stream prairie a friend spotted these two Eastern Tailed-blues (Everes comyntas) mating down in the grass.  They stayed long enough for us to get a couple of images after she had finished making hers. Because of the sun’s angle and some shadows we used an external flash with a Rogue flashbender to direct a bit of fill light into the scene.

After the conference we made a stop at a nearby wildlife management area tucked in the hills where Baltimore Checkerspots had been found the week before. Years ago we had photographed some Baltimore Checkerspot larva while on an Iowa Native Plant Society fieldtrip at the same spot. We only found two adults: a dead one and a this tattered but very much alive one nectaring on Swamp Milkweed.  Another reminder that important species may be short lived but still have important niches to fill in a healthy ecosystem.

Baltimore Checkerspot

Prairies are determined by what lives there – plants and animals. Some are flat, some are rolling and some seem to go straight up when the soil and conditions are right to support the species that make a prairie.


Uncommonly Pretty – Common Milkweed

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of the easily recognized widely spread native wild flowers in the U.S. and Canada. As a major host of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, school children often learn about it. It is in full bloom in our area. In fact, as it is getting drier the blossoms are starting to fade.

This flower umbel was tightly packed with pink and rose blossoms. Often the umbels are more open and a bit floppy. The plant is usually quite sturdy and may be quite tall (head height) but usually are 3 or 4 feet tall. The thick leaves are opposite with pale veins. They look a bit like a green fish filet.

We have been checking nearby patches for caterpillars to raise. Monarch Butterflies are in short supply in our area and we have yet to find any caterpillars this summer.

The stout main stems were an important source of fibers for making ropes, cords and weaving some matting by the first Americans.  Many parts of the plant were used for food, beverages and medicines in spite of the chemicals that are present, particularly in the sap. Proper preparation was important. The Monarch butterfly uses the poisons as defense against being eaten. Birds learn quickly to leave them alone.

The sky was overcast and there was no wind on the recent photo session where we found this and other mid-summer beauties – wild petunia, prairie clovers, phlox and pale purple coneflowers. Ideal conditions and lovely subjects.

Prairie Idyl

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Humans will probably never recreate the long lost prairies in full. However, they can and do restore some of the features that make a prairie. Yesterday the Iowa Native Plant Society (INPS) held its annual meeting at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Prairie City, Iowa. People drew a collective breath of delight when we all came up a slope to step into a prairie restoration that had be seeded some years ago. It was a prairie poem (idyl).

We visited three different habitats on the 5000+ acre preserve – the prairie planting, a sedge meadow and a savanna in process of reclamation. After the walks and the meeting we went back to the prairie planting in hopes of some photography before the rain arrived. Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) are representative of the variety of textures found in a prairie – from soft and fuzzy to sharp and crisp.

Thor’s hammer pounded to the southwest and moved eastward along the southern horizon. We were able to make a few images before it looked like the rain had circled round and was headed back west in our direction. We headed down the slope and closed the car doors just as the sky fell. The pre-storm light contributed to these images.

There were some sunny blossoms like this Compass-plant (Silphium lacinatum). The diffuse light allowed more detail in the yellow blooms.

One large clump of Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) was vivid magenta – made more so by the quiet light. The orange stamens flecked many of the blossoms.  The whole clump was almost overpowering so we both made some detail images.

Starry Campion (Silene stilleta) is a new member of our image files. It is interesting in growth pattern, leaf arrangement, blossom shape and attitude. We think we captured these characteristics here. Portraits can bring in identifiying features as well as be graceful compositions.

The meeting and the hospitality of the NWR staff made for a sunny day in contrast to the lovely, quiet, pre-storm light that made for good photography conditions. It was the best of both worlds.

Day in the (New) Field

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

There was an open house and tour at the new Hamilton and Tapken Prairie Preserve yesterday. We attended to learn more about the special niches on this ancient sand hill prairie in northeast Iowa near Onslow. Also to see old friends – both human and flora.

Ray Hamilton of Maquoketa and Phyllis Tapken of Monticello bought the 80 acres several years ago and decided the best way to preserve it was for it to become a formal preserve. As is usual in such ventures, several groups and individuals came together to make that possible. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Pheasants Forever, Jones County Conservation Board, state REAP funds and others were able to do so in less than two years.

Members of the Iowa Native Plant Society and Iowa Prairie Network from across the state, as well as the property’s neighbors, were there to walk the prairie. The early Spring flowers were mostly finished and the early summer ones still are coming up.

We did see Violet Wood-sorrel (Oxalis violacea) like this one with a nectaring hoverfly. It likes open woods and was found near a patch of tree along a ridge. The clover-like leaves often fold at the center vein to reveal the reddish cast underneath.

Among the other blooms were Small White Lady’s-slipper orchids, Fringed, Hoary and Carolina (Hairy) Puccoons, Harebells, Prairie Violets, Shooting Stars, Yellow Star Grass, Blue-eyed Grass and more.  There were some small white flowers on long stems that were recently identified as Drummond’s Rockcress – a plant that is considered threatened or endangered in some of its original range.

There will be a trip report on the Iowa Native Plant Society web site with more images. Watch for it. In the mean time, find a prairie to explore and photograph.