Friday, December 9, 2011

Prairie Pothole Region

Level I Ducks Unlimited conservation priority area, the most important and threatened waterfowl habitat in North America

The Prairie Pothole Region is the core of what was once the largest expanse of grassland in the world, the Great Plains of North America. Its name comes from a geological phenomenon that left its mark beginning 10,000 years ago. FOR MORE, Visit

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

QUEST: Great Plains Photographer

Article by Michael Farrell of QUEST Nebraska.

I first became aware of Mike Forsberg’s work Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild two years ago when I was asked to introduce him and his slideshow presentation of images from his book at our local Audubon preserve where I was board chairman.

Over the next year and a half, I traveled through ten states following Mike with a video production crew to some of the most remote, endangered and stimulating environments to produce the PBS documentary, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild. Today’s wildlife photographer has to be proficient with all sorts of new technology — such as walkie-talkie triggered cameras and infrared camera traps — that didn’t even exist just a few years ago in order to create striking images that can compete for the shrinking print market. To illustrate this, there is a scene in producer Gary Hochman’s Your Photos on QUEST: Great Plains Photographer story where you see Mike setting up a camera trap in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A month later, Mike returned to the scene and retrieved the digital photos stored on his camera, captured when the mountain lion and deer shown in the story set off the traps.

When most of us think about the Great Plains, we think of very long, flat and boring stretches of interstate highway – endless concrete slabs running east to west. Or we think about flying over the patchwork quilt of vast stretches of irrigated corn, wheat and milo fields or cross-fenced prairie cattle country dotted by windmills, stock tanks and two-track jeep roads that look like ant tracks from above.

But to Mike Forsberg and the scientists, land-owners, conservationists and educators who helped him achieve his goal of publishing striking images and words about the last remnants of the wild and untamed prairie, there is much more to and much more at stake in the Great Plains.

Hidden away in remote, nearly inaccessible places are remarkable creatures most of us will never see or even know exist: black-footed ferrets emerging from their underground dens at dawn; a million Mexican free-tailed bats exiting a gypsum cave at dusk; nesting willets in the vast pot-holed Missouri Coteau region; prairie grizzlies and mountain lions caught at night in Mike’s ingenious camera traps.

And for each of the species Mike captures with digital photography, there are also the people who have dedicated their lives to caring for and about them. We met Jill Morrison and her husband Dave Clarendon who have spent the past three decades fighting to keep the not-so-habitat-friendly coal-bed methane wells off their ranch near Sheridan, Wyoming. Jill and Dave have seen the water quality decline and the wildlife that supported a secondary outfitting and guided hunting business retreat much higher into the mountains.

We spent a night from dusk to dawn with Travis Livieri four-wheeling around a massive prairie dog town in the Conata Basin near Badlands National Park in South Dakota trying to capture and inoculate the elusive black-footed ferret. Ferrets, who prey on prairie dogs, were thought to be extinct until a rancher’s dog brought in a dead one a few decades ago, setting off a massive effort to live trap the few remaining individuals. After a few failed tries, a captive breeding program finally resulted in success. Travis, then a graduate biology student, was on the first team that reintroduced the ferrets to their natural habitat.

Mike Forsberg is enormously dedicated to his self-imposed task of photographing everything of meaning and consequence in the remaining natural world of the Great Plains. He hears birds when no one else does and knows them by their call. He has remarkable distance vision. He clambers up steep hills like a mountain goat with a load of photo gear. He dresses in camouflage and blends in with his surroundings, keeping still for hours at a stretch.

What I learned from this experience of a lifetime is that “the lingering wild” is as much a part of Mike Forsberg as it is a part of this rare, beautiful landscape that has once more come into stunning focus for me.

A documentary team led by NET Television producer Mike Farrell and photographer Mike Forsberg spent over a year exploring the vast landscape of the Great Plains, meeting people and exploring problems that are having an impact on the area. What they found was both hopeful and troubling. These are just a few of the things they found on their journey, which will eventually become the PBS documentary Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

QUEST Nebraska: Sandhills Hidden Water

QUEST Nebraska: Sandhills Hidden Water

Join renowned nature photographer Mike Forsberg as he documents diverse waterfowl and wildlife across the Great Plains. In Nebraska's Sandhills, Mike visits with University of Nebraska hydrogeologist Jim Goeke to examine how the hidden waters of the Ogallala Aquifer keep Blue Creek open during the winter months -- a haven for geese and trumpeter swans. - QUESTNebraska

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pronghorn trying to swim across Missouri - USA TODAY

Michael's trip to document the pronghorn antelope in Montana trying to swim the inflated Missouri and get back to breeding grounds on USA Today. Thanks to Martha Kauffman, Dennis Jorgensen and Brendan Rohrs at WWF for getting this story and getting the word out. Click title of this article to view the post.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Green Blog: New York Times

Green: For Weary Antelope, a Perilous Swim
Published: June 9, 2011
Record snow and rain this year have caused unprecedented flooding in the Missouri River, resulting in a dangerous and sometimes fatal swim for the prongback antelope during its seasonal migration. Longer-term, some experts worry that climate change could rob the antelope of its ancestral memory and ability to migrate.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Photographers Journal - Nebraskaland February 2011

Anyone who has spent considerable time in a blind no doubt has a spectacular wildlife story to tell. Maybe it was the October teal hunt in the Nebraska Sandhills when a small flock of “white pelicans” circling high above turned into a family of whooping cranes that landed on a sandbar 50 yards away. Perhaps it was hearing a distinctive “rubble rubble rubble” while laying out a goose set in the half light of a foggy dawn on the North Platte River before a family of otters materialized out of the mist and swam through the decoys just feet away from the hunters placing them.

These true stories, retold by people I have met, are just two of thousands of intimate wildlife encounters that we who cherish the outdoors have experienced. They underscore why wildlife and being in the outdoors matter – not because they are nice stories, but because they represent an indelible part of who we are and our natural heritage here on the wide prairies we call the Great Plains. For me, such an experience happened on the banks of a prairie slough connected to the Platte River.

It was late-February on the cusp of spring, the time when huge numbers of waterfowl begin pushing through Nebraska on their way north up the Central Flyway. I had fashioned a small blind out of prairie grass and garden fence that sat on a high bank just feet away from the slough that led to the main river channel. Fed by powerful springs and protected from the north winds by surrounding prairie, this patch of water had been a magnet for wintering mallards most of the winter. Whenever I had a chance, I would slip off to the blind late in the afternoon while the ducks were feeding elsewhere, lay down a small sleeping bag and pad, get organized with my camera gear, food and water, and wait.

When the ducks would come back, as they always did right before dusk, I would have about a half hour to photograph (if I was lucky) before I could no longer see. Then I would quietly settle in for the evening, slide into the sleeping bag and under a red headlamp, eat a sandwich, read a book and sleep to the night murmurings of greenheads and the cracks and groans of ice giving way on the main channel. In the morning the ducks would wake me well before dawn. I would quietly sit up and look out of the coffee-can lid-sized opening in the blind, set my camera in place and wait till it was light enough to photograph the huge rafts of ducks that had settled in overnight, huddled together for safety and warmth just feet away.

Usually the ducks would mingle and preen without incident, then leave in waves about an hour after sunrise to feed. Sometimes, however, an eagle would fly high overhead and the whole roost would blow out quickly, or a harrier in its low, loping flight would trace the winding slough and scatter small groups of ducks at right angles.

This particular morning there was a ruckus on the water just around the bend from my blind. Blocked by prairie grass, all I could see were ducks rising up in flight. They weren’t blasting off the water in terror, though, like when an eagle flies through. They were leaving almost agitated, their voices scolding like they were being shooed away. Then the scattering of ducks stopped. A moment later I heard movement in the grass and footsteps coming that halted just outside the blind. There stood a white-tailed deer, steam rolling off its coat. It looked up and down the slough, then went down to the water to drink. Another deer followed. Then two more arrived, then another and another. Six total, each in succession, came to drink.

The mallards that had roosted right in front of my blind had swam away but were still in clear view. The deer, now all standing ankle deep in the water, turned their attention to the ducks and slowly began to walk towards them. As they got closer their speed picked up,then they began chasing the ducks out of the slough like my dogs chases squirrels out of our yard and up the trees. Once all the ducks had been chased out near the point, the deer kept going and disappeared around the bend. For the next few minutes all I heard was splashing and quacking, with ducks continuously taking off from the slough until the deer either ran out of birds to chase or stopped where the slough met the deeper river. I couldn’t believe what I just saw.

Just when I thought it was over, I heard splashing again coming towards me. The deer had turned around and started chasing each other. Racing back around the bend, they retraced their steps until they were right in front of me again. They hopped and jabbed and kicked their feet and chased each other in circles, playing in he water. They would take off in a full sprint and race down the slough, out of sight, and back again. Finally, layed out and tired, they stopped, took a final drink, walked up on shore and disappeared into the prairie from whence they came.

There are times as a still photographer where you really wish you had a video camera. This was definitely one of those times, because the pictures really don’t do justice to what I witnessed.

But I do have a bundle of photos to show that the story is true. And more importantly I have the experience, which I will never forget and in my minds eye, like all of us who revel in the outdoors, will only get better with age.

A Photographer's Journal - Mike Forsberg from Michael FORSBERG on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The John J. Dinan Memorial Bird Conservation Area

This article was published in NEBRASKAland magazine, April 2010.

Back in early 2006, a 200-acre tract of land along the Platte River in southcentral Nebraska was purchased by Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary with the help of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The acquisition helped complete the protection of another mile of river channel and created an opportunity to restore habitat for at-risk wildlife, especially the threatened and endangered species that rely on the broad, braided river channels of the Platte.

Lights from the city of Kearney glow in the distance at twilight as thousands of sandhill cranes gather
on a Platte River roost at the Dinan tract of Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary.
Located immediately upstream of Rowe’s western boundary, the site – mostly river channel – already had high conservation value: It contained one of the largest roost sites in the Platte River corridor for sandhill cranes during spring migration and was situated within a five-mile stretch of river which has had more confirmed whooping crane sightings since 1980 than any other five-mile stretch on the Platte. But like most lands brought under the conservation umbrella in the Platte River Valley in modern times, it was in need of a habitat makeover to combat the combined effects of decades of reduced water flows due to a history of dams and diversion. It needed to be reshaped to take on the character of the broad-braided, prairie river it once was if it was going to serve the needs of wildlife far into the future.
Evening light sets off the silk-like seed hairs of common milkweed.
In late-spring 2006, shortly after its acquisition, a major habitat restoration project began. The Commission, Rowe Sanctuary and several other public and private partners used federal, state and private conservation dollars to build sandbar islands in the river channel to supply nesting habitat for threatened and endangered least terns and piping plovers, restore backwater sloughs and prairie, and remove the acres of trees and brush that had encroached on the channel since 1940, when upstream dams and diversions first significantly started to alter water flows and change the character of the river and its habitat.
A remote camera captures a federally threatened piping plover and its hours-old chick at the nest
on a restored sandbar island in the Platte River channel.
The nest islands were the first ever built on the central Platte. Nearly one mile of sloughs were sculpted 30 to 40 feet wide, and the removal of 28 acres of trees and brush was part of the 75 acres of mature trees from a former channel and another 60 acres of small cedars from wet meadow prairie that had been removed elsewhere on Rowe property.

By fall 2006 the restoration was complete. Almost as if on cue, a migrating family of three endangered whooping cranes were observed roosting on its restored braided channels and using the newly created prairie sloughs. The following summer, federally threatened piping plovers and endangered least terns nested successfully on the sandbar islands, marking the first time in a decade that either species had been documented nesting in the channel on the Big Bend reach of the Platte. Needless to say, conservation was getting an early return on its investment.

In early fall, a doe pauses along the woodland edge on its way to the river.
The land was dedicated in April 2007 in memory of the Commission’s longtime nongame bird program manager, John Dinan, who died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 51. The John J. Dinan Memorial Bird Conservation Area continues to be a restoration success story and is managed as part of the five miles of river corridor and adjacent lands at Rowe. Now, almost four years later, whooping cranes continue to be seen on this reach of river, least terns and piping plovers have nested successfully on the nesting islands every year since 2007, and its mix of riparian habitats serve the needs of a vast diversity of both resident and migratory wildlife – everything from cranes to waterfowl, shorebirds to snakes, native fish, otters, mink, bobcat and deer.
Over his 28-year career, John Dinan was keen at identifying threats to the threatened and endangered wildlife he cared so much about. His easy manner, deep knowledge of the natural world and focused, common sense approach also made him just as keenly adept at finding solutions and moving conservation forward. His work and vision on least terns and piping plovers, for example, helped establish the Tern and lover Conservation Partnership, and his careful field observations helped guide the design of the nesting islands on the site that now honors his memory.
In early winter a bobcat moves along a game trail connecting river, woodland and prairie.
Today, the rich diversity of wildlife on the land that bears Dinan’s name is testament to the commitment and impact that he and so many of his colleagues in conservation, past and present, have had working as guardians of the river and its wildlife, protecting part of our natural heritage here in Nebraska for us and future generations.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


A wintering flock of Canada geese rests along Blue Creek under a blanket of stars while a waxing moon casts its faint glow on the surrounding prairie. I had set up a tent blind along the creek at this location a couple days prior. When the birds would leave on their evening flight to feed, I would crawl into the blind and spend the night. They would come back at dusk each night to roost, then leave the roost again shortly after sunrise. Blue Creek starts as a series of powerful springs that well up from the Ogallala Aquifer and continually feed the stream on its journey to the North Platte River in the western Sandhills of Nebraska. The powerful spring sources keep water open even in the depths of winter. Combined with its remote location, it is an important sanctuary for wintering waterfowl.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In late January, a film crew for Nebraska Educational Television and I had spent a few days in the western Sandhills of Nebraska, hoping to photograph wintering trumpeter swans and other waterfowl for the documentary film based on the book Great Plains - America's Lingering Wild.  At 20 pounds or more with 8 foot wing spans, trumpeter swans are the largest flying bird by weight in North America. They also are a conservation success story in parts of the northern Great Plains, after having been hunted out of this country over a century ago.

We filmed lots of waterfowl but were unsuccessful trying to film trumpeter swans other than a few distant shots. On the way back to Lincoln, I drove along the north shore of Lake McConaughy on a hunch that maybe they would be holding in a bay fed by a spring fed creek where I had seen them many years ago. With a stroke of luck, there they were, three family groups mingling together on a balmy 50 degree day along the edge of an open channel in the ice. 

I called my wife Patty at high noon and told her I was going to stay for a few minutes and photograph, but she knew better. At sunset I called her back and said I was just leaving for home.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Sometimes a photograph is no further away than the city park you pass by while driving home from church on a Sunday. Here a fox squirrel feeds on the winter fruit of a crabapple tree during a heavy snow that dumped 8 inches of snow in 24 hours in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The snow had been falling for a couple hours and there were three fox squirrels each perched in three different trees, feeding side by side. I didn't think  they would be there after we dropped the kids off at home and came racing back with a camera, but they were. 


This blog hopes to continue in the spirit of Great Plains – America’s Lingering Wild, published in late 2009. The book attempts to build appreciation for this often overlooked and misunderstood landscape, put a face to the wild and human inhabitants, spur honest discussion of the conservation challenges we face here today, and try to get to the heart of why it matters.

Often times these blog posts will be simply photo driven, sharing a new photo and maybe a story of something that happened in the field. Other times there may be longer ramblings, or links to other articles or images by others that in some way have something to say about the Great Plains. Whatever the case, I hope you will find the occasional posts interesting, or funny, or sad, or inspiring, or something, enough to spur thought and conversation.

To be honest, I’ve been leary of doing a blog, so here is the disclaimer: this is not meant to be about me. At its best, this blog will be interactive, and provides a forum to help connect people who each in their own way care about this land, its creatures, their life on the land, and to share their comments and stories.

As a conservation photographer working in this landscape for almost 20 years and having lived in the Plains most of my life, I have learned not to tell people what they ought to think but rather to be a witness and share with them what I have learned through the experiences I have had. Second, I have learned to simply listen. Sometimes it shifts viewpoints. Other times it solidifies them.

The Great Plains is a huge place in the heart of this continent, and personifies the soul of this great country. Its future challenges are complex both ecologically and economically. But have heart. The common threads that tie us all together over this landscape are much stronger than differences that may divide us. Conservation begins with conversation, and builds from the ground up. If this blog, a tiny ripple in a very big pond, helps in its own small way build community in this place we hold so dear, then it will have been worth the effort.

You can find the blog by clicking on the link below. I hope you enjoy it.


Michael Forsberg