At first look, the Great Plain’s most striking characteristic is often the vast, open horizon that may invoke a sense of emptiness. While driving along I-80 through central Nebraska, it is easy to dismiss the surrounding land as monotonous – a lackluster flip-book of crop fields where each page is exactly the same. But hidden among the sea of agricultural prosperity lies fragmented islands of prairie entwined with a braided prairie river, remnants of one of the most altered and endangered ecosystems. Unlike the grandeur of mountains, the compelling nature of these connected prairie-river systems warrants curiosity and patience to observe their subtle beauty. They require a closer look to experience the dynamism of their biodiversity; zooming in to observe the details such as life on the stem of a sunflower, or zooming out, to behold the changes across different seasons. In a landscape where over 96% of native prairie has been lost, and water-resource development upstream has severely altered the ecology of the Platte River, recognizing and understanding the ecological, economic, and social values of these places is necessary to ensure that we do not lose what remains.
ABOVE: A composite of four time-lapse images from Mormon Island merged to show seasonal changes
Platte Basin Timelapse has partnered with the Center for Global Soundscapes based at Purdue University to monitor and communicate the variability and biodiversity of these ecosystems. Beginning in winter 2015, audio recorders were paired with PBT’s existing time-lapse camera systems at Rowe Sanctuary, a riparian woodland adjacent to the Platte River, and Mormon Island, a wet meadow relict prairie, to document the rhythms of the river.
ABOVE: On Right: Time-lapse camera system with solar panel and additional sensor equipment. On Left: Sound recorder protected by fencing to deter cattle (apparently microphones are a tasty snack). (Emma Brinley Buckley)
One aspect that we are studying is the interconnected timing of seasonal activities, known as phenology. There is so much we can learn from nature’s recurring rhythms, from species patterns to the impact of climate change. Our technological pairing works for studying phenology because each sensor captures something different. Time-lapse photography sets the ecological stage and bears witness to the environmental changes occurring on the landscape, both drastic and subtle. We can see the climatological, environmental, and seasonal fluctuations; spring green-up, a storm moving across the plains, the pulse of water inundation in a slough, and the slow creep of ice forming and receding over water. Concurrently, sound recordings convey the biological and environmental actors. We can hear the bird songs and anuran choruses of spring, the wind through the prairie, and the sirens of cicadas. Examining how these biological actors are associated with the corresponding habitat can deepen our understanding of the ecological dynamics and changes occurring in these systems through time, as well as offer a creative shift in perspective to perceive the rhythmic beauty of riverine grasslands.
A sign of early spring, one of the most notable phenological occurrences in the Central Platte River Valley is the sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis) migration. Combining time-lapse images with clips of sound recordings from the same time intervals, these soundscape time-lapses show a glimpse of the phenological phenomena, during the spring at Mormon Island and over a 12-hour period at Rowe Sanctuary.
ABOVE: Sandhill cranes on the Platte River in central Nebraska. (Emma Brinley Buckley)