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Field Season 2019, Day 1: Riley & Erin

The following is our two accounts of first-day field experience, which comprised of orientation to the remnant prairie ecosystem and honing of field skills:

Riley’s Experience

When Erin and I rolled up to the Nessman prairie remnant for directed observations, I immediately felt threatened by the sheer amount of Bromus inermis present at the site. Although it is generally reported to be passive, I did not believe it necessary to disturb the rows of brome grasses that waited on the roadsides. Fortunately, the west ditch had a considerably lower amount of brome, and I felt considerably more comfortable stepping into its diverse collection of cold and warm season grasses, forbs, and legumes. Fortunately, I was not tasked with scouring this site for unknown plants so I was able to create a map of the site in the shelter of the middle of the road. Unfortunately, my partner Erin was not so lucky. Erin spent limited time on the east side of the road (the side with sea of brome), and she was fortunate enough to actually leave the brome sea unscathed. I was pretty impressed by the ninja skills Erin showed to avoid the constant onslaught of Bromus inermis in her personal space, it was cool. However, as Erin moved to the west ditch, there was a change… there was the emergence of an X factor, some may say. When I looked up from my mapmaking, I saw Erin under attack in the west ditch. Not by brome, but by caterpillars. Little known fact about caterpillars: caterpillar is Swahili for “guerilla warfare.” I unfortunately did not know this upon my site visit to Nessman, and I believed for a time that my partner suffered the consequences of many caterpillar attacks. At this point, however, I had known Erin for less that 24 hours and had failed to learn her most important skill: Erin serves as a trusty steed for a wide variety of grounded insects and she can communicate with them via hand signals to say, “Hi my name is Erin and I’ll be your Lyft driver today.” I was so happy to see that this seemingly menacing interaction between caterpillar and partner was actually a mutualistic one… One that I will not forget as I continue my year with the caterpillar whisperer.

Erin immediately before her interaction with a tent caterpillar

Erin’s Experience

Before visiting Nessman I had experienced remnant prairie only a handful of times, and all of those instances occurred earlier that morning. The landscape is gorgeous, diverse, and completely alien to me. I had never been in such a lush grassland before, and after our brief orientation in the morning, I could name maybe one in 100 plants I saw. Before arriving in Minnesota after the long drive from North Carolina, I had only ever seen Echinacea angustifolia on Google Images. Just picking it out from the surrounding prairie plants to estimate the number of flowering heads for our skill-building exercise was difficult. Riley knows his stuff and was an amazing help for any plants I had questions with, and could make a really educated guess even when he was unsure. I couldn’t distract Riley from his tasks forever, though, so I set out on my own to characterize the community for our record. As I carefully stepped over delicate plants and wracked my brain for plant identities and functional groups, I was desperate for something that looked familiar.

When I stumbled upon the first tent caterpillar my mind lit up with recognition before I could even process what I was seeing, or why it reminded me so much of home. I immediately recognized the little fuzzy caterpillar hanging out on a leaf as a friend; it took longer to remember that I spent many springs in my childhood catching the harmless and ubiquitous creatures in jars. Eventually tent caterpillars become far less charismatic tent moths that make unsightly silk nests in trees, but before then they make very good schoolyard pets. I scooped up the caterpillar and examined it for any significant differences from what I remembered in my youth, but it looked just the same as the ones we have back home. The familiar tickly feeling of the caterpillar in my hand was oddly comforting, and I carried it with me for the next few meters of my search before releasing it back to munch on foliage.

As I continued through the west ditch, I was surprised to find many more caterpillars, and not just of the tent variety.

Let us know if you recognize this friend!

Riley and I discussed the interesting difference in plant assemblage between the two sides of the road; while the east was dominated by invasive species, the west seemed to have greater native diversity of both plants and caterpillars. I look forward to visiting Nessman again in the future and hunting for more caterpillars, or maybe moths and butterflies!

Riley being extremely knowledgeable at one of our other sites
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