Prairie Blizzard Survival

Last week’s blizzard dumped about a foot of snow here in town, and about 18 inches out at our Platte River Prairies.  Combined with wind gusts of 40-50 miles per hour, it was quite a weather event.  Our school was closed for three days while everyone dug themselves out and road crews cleared off streets and country roads.

Knee-deep snow and even deeper drifts buried these sunflowers and many other tall prairie plants. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Knee-deep snow and even deeper drifts buried these sunflowers and many other tall prairie plants. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Blizzards are a part of life out on the prairie.  School closings and sore shoveling muscles are pretty minor inconveniences compared to what grassland creatures without central heat and insulated windows have to deal with.  On the other hand, prairie species have been doing this for thousands of years, so they’ve got it pretty well figured out.  Prairie plants are mostly dormant this time of year, so snow and wind don’t really affect them at all.  Many prairie animals are pretty dormant as well – lots of them spend the winter either below ground (or water) or nestled into deep thatch.  Quite a few mammals, amphibians, insects, and others can slow their metabolisms enough that they can survive the winter without having to search for food or shelter once they’re settled in.

Other animals, however, stay much more active during the winter months, and a blizzard can cause them more problems than it does their more dormant peers.  It’s really hard to gauge how this blizzard might have affected those animals, but during a couple short outings, I’ve tried to see what I can.  It’s not hard to find tracks of deer, coyotes, and various kinds of birds, but that doesn’t say much about what percentage of those animals did or didn’t make it through the storm.  My guess is that most of them did just fine, and the warmer temperatures this week are melting the snow pretty quickly, reducing stress on animals that have a hard time moving through or finding food in deep snow.

Songbird tracks around an indiangrass seed head at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

Songbird tracks around an indiangrass seed head at Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.

I walked through some of our Platte River Prairies on Saturday morning, and can empathize with the deer and coyotes whose tracks I saw around me.  I probably only walked a half mile, but even that distance was exhausting.  Warm temperatures on Friday had begun to melt the snow and then that soft top froze overnight.  Every step I took on Saturday morning sounded like, “Crinch, Foomp!” as my boot would very briefly rest on the frozen crust and then pop through as I put more weight on it.  Repeating that process in knee-deep snow for a half a mile was more than enough for me.  It looked like most of the deer I saw were having the same issues.

Based on their track patterns, I bet it would have been funny to watch the coyotes walk through the snow.  I would see a few sets of tracks up on top of the snow, followed by deeper tracks where they’d fallen through the thin crust.  I imagined a poor coyote walking as gingerly as possible on the crust, only to fall to its chest on the next step and have to flounder back up again.  And for what?  There weren’t many tracks of prey species, apart from birds, which probably just laughed at the coyotes as they flew away from them.

Ring-necked pheasant tracks.

Ring-necked pheasant tracks in our Platte River Prairies.

Tracks from a covey of quail (Northern bobwhite) running around on the snow in our Platte River Prairies.

Tracks from a covey of quail (Northern bobwhite) running around on the snow in our Platte River Prairies.

Speaking of birds, I saw some songbird-sized tracks where tree sparrows (I assume) and others were feeding on seeds from prairie plants.  I also saw numerous tracks of pheasants and northern bobwhites (quail).  The quail seemed to have no trouble staying up on the snow’s crust, but the pheasants’ feet were punching through more often, so they probably had much less fun running around.  Regardless, both species must have found abundant shelter on our properties – probably hunkering down within or behind thick clumps of vegetation to escape the driving snow and wind.  Canada geese were noisily flying over the river Saturday morning, so they apparently weathered the storm.  There were a few sandhill cranes in the river valley (early migrants) before the blizzard, but I don’t know if they stuck around or headed back south to escape the weather.

This Eurasian collared-dove

This Eurasian collared-dove died shortly after the blizzard.  Based on the tracks leading to its final resting place, it wasn’t a peaceful passing.

Collard-doves, of course, are not native prairie species, but it's hard to say whether that had anything to do with this one's death. I've seen quite a few others knocking around town over the last few days, so it looks like most of them survived.

Collared-doves, of course, are not native prairie species, but it’s hard to say whether that had anything to do with this one’s death. I’ve seen quite a few others knocking around town over the last few days, so it looks like most of them survived.

It’s rare to find evidence of the animals that didn’t make it through storms like this.  Animals that die in a blizzard either get buried by snow or eaten by others – or both.  I did find one collared-dove here in town that died soon after the storm, but that was the only obvious death.  Because life on the prairie has always been difficult, prairie species have developed strategies to survive just about any event, including droughts, floods, fires, and blizzards (including blizzards much worse than ours last week).  We humans living in prairie country might think we’re pretty tough, but we have it pretty cushy compared to those creatures who actually live in the prairie itself.

Speaking of which, it looks kind of cold and windy out today.  I think maybe I’ll just stay indoors and cook myself a warm meal for lunch…

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Photo of the Week – February 5, 2016

Now that this week’s blizzard has come and gone, we are left with knee-deep snow all around us.  I made it to a small local prairie yesterday morning and trudged around with my camera for a while.  There was plenty to see, but I spent quite a bit of time just photographing the tracings made by grass leaves blowing in the wind.


An arc in the snow made by wind-blown grass.

It's rare that I see a complete circle made by grasses, but I found several yesterday morning.

It’s rare that I see a complete circle made by grasses, but I found several yesterday morning.

Another one.

A broader mark made by a curve in the leaf blade rather than the tip.

Multiple marks made by

Multiple marks made by curly leaves.

After two days of hearing the wind howl outside and the kids howl inside, it was a pleasant relief to be able to walk in relative silence, hearing only the muffled sounds of my own footfalls.  The morning was calm, but the grass leaf tracings and snow drifts testified to the strength of the winds during the previous days.  I’m hoping to do some more walking in the next few days before the snow starts to melt too much…

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Plant a Prairie February 13!

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.

Have you ever explored a restored prairie and stopped to marvel at how the site was once a cropfield? Do you ever wonder how that transformation happens? Would you like to do it yourself? If so, then do I have an opportunity for you. On Saturday, February 13, 9:00am  you are invited to help seed our newest prairie and wetland restoration at the Platte River Prairies! A potluck celebration will be held afterwards!

It amazes me that prairies like this were cropfields just two decades ago.

It amazes me that prairies like this were crop fields just two decades ago. On Feb 13 you can help plant another.

Last summer, TNC staff and volunteers collected seed from 141 species of prairie and wetland plants, mostly by hand. In August we even hired a contractor to excavate the historic sloughs found on our restoration site. Doing so will greatly add to the site’s biodiversity by creating wetland habitat. Creating diverse habitat is a key part of our restoration strategy, which is why this restoration has sandy ridges, wet sloughs, and mesic ground in between. On February 13 we will start seeding the ridges!

Dirt now, prairie and wetland later. This re-excavated slough and former weed field is ready to be seeded!

Dirt now, prairie and wetland later. This re-excavated slough and former weed field is ready for seed!

Although all steps of our restoration work are equally important, I’m especially excited about seeding this prairie. How often do you get to create habitat? Imagine bringing a grandchild to the restoration 20 years from now, bursting with flowers, birds, and insects, and telling her that you helped plant it. Maybe those prairie clovers over there even sprouted from seeds that you picked with your own hands.

If this sounds like a good use of a Saturday morning to you, please RSVP to! Volunteers should be prepared to walk over muddy and uneven terrain for up to 2.5 hours in cold weather. Please bring water, clothes and footwear suitable for mud and cold, and a potluck dish or drink if you would like to. We will meet at TNC’s Derr House (13650 S. Platte River Dr., Wood River, NE 68883. On I-80 take exit 300; go south approx. 2 miles; turn right onto South Platte River Dr.; big red brick house on top of the hill.) We usually have volunteers come from Lincoln and Omaha; if you’d like to arrange a carpool you can do so here.

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Boys and Sticks

My wife and I are both biologists.  She’s a high school biology teacher and I’m a prairie ecologist.  You won’t be surprised that we think it’s important for our kids to get outside and explore nature.  However, we don’t often take the kids out with any particular agenda or curriculum in mind.  We usually just take them out.

This last weekend, we decided to spend our Sunday afternoon enjoying the pleasant weather preceding what we’re being told might be the blizzard of the century. (C’mon man, it’s just snow and wind!  Having said that, if I don’t make it through this storm alive, this will be an ironic last blog post.)  Anyway, we took Atticus (age 10) and Calvin (7) out to our family prairie for several hours.  Once there, we pretty much let the boys do what they wanted, with the exception that we kept them off the softening ice on the wetland/pond.

Boys with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.

Atticus and Calvin displaying sticks they found at the prairie.

I didn’t watch the boys closely the whole time, but as far as I could tell, they spent about 92% of the time they were at the prairie whacking sticks against dead trees.  I’m not kidding.  Sure, they poked around the prairie and wetland a little, saw some animal tracks, found some bones, practiced getting through barbed wire fences, and played with the dogs a little.  But the majority of their experience, and what they’ll probably remember most from the day, was stick whacking.

And that’s just fine with me.  They came away from the afternoon with a positive impression of spending time in nature, and they’re excited to go back.  That’s just perfect.

Boys with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.

Climbing on a dead tree.  With sticks.

Boy with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Calvin Miller (Photographer's stepson)

Calvin and his stick.  (Yes, I was having fun with the sun.)

Boy with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Calvin Miller (Photographer's stepson)

Calvin again.  And the sun.  Again.

Outing at the Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Kim Helzer with Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.

Heading home.  Tired and happy.

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Hubbard Fellowship – How would you like to help?

This post is written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  As part of his Fellowship, Evan is trying to help us build and improve upon our volunteer program. Please consider taking his short survey if you live in Nebraska or would be interested in coming from further away to volunteer with us (we can often provide housing for someone who wants to volunteer for weeks or months at at a time).

Ever wonder, “What’s something I could do in five minutes that would really help Nebraska’s prairies?” Wonder no longer. As part of my Hubbard Fellowship I’m trying to identify ways that the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy can improve its volunteer opportunities. To do so, I’ve created a 10-question survey. DON’T CLOSE THIS WINDOW!

I know, I know, surveys are annoying, but this isn’t for some online store you bought soap from once. This one could really help our prairies and even you. How? It would help us better manage our prairies. The sad fact is, our land needs more stewardship than our staff could ever hope to accomplish alone. There will always be more invasive plants than we can control, more trees than we can cut, more flowers than we can collect seed from…


BUT, this means that there are tons of opportunities for people like YOU to get involved. Volunteers can play a vital role in helping us restore and manage healthy, diverse prairies, but only if we employ them well. We’d like to hear how you think we can do that. If you have ever volunteered for the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy or even just live in Nebraska, please take this 10-question survey. This survey is completely voluntary and anonymous, so don’t hold back. By answering these ten questions you can help us conduct research to more effectively employ and satisfy our volunteers, and that would mean healthier, happier prairies.

To get started, click here:

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at Thank you!

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Photo of the Week – January 27, 2016

One of my favorite winter photography subjects is the kind of “window” created by melting snow around prairie plants.  When the sun is shining, dried plants often warm up enough to melt the snow around them a little faster than the rest of the snow nearby.  Those melted windows or portholes make for very interesting (to me) patterns and photographic subjects.  Last weekend, my boys and I were out at our prairie on a beautiful day.  While they built snow forts on the frozen pond and threw snowballs at each other, I wandered around looking for windows in the snow.

I am an odd duck, aren’t I?


A window in melting snow above western ragweed.  Helzer family prairie.


Another ragweed plant and melting snow.


A jumble of grass leaves and melting snow.


Scribner’s panicum beneath melting snow.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in the world who finds these little windows attractive…

Ok, that’s not true –  I may very well be the only person in the world who pays any attention to them.  I guess it’s not the worst eccentricity I could have (or do have).  At least I don’t go on long rants about imaginary conspiracies involving cute furry semi-aquatic animals.

Oh wait.

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Myth of the White Buffalo Calf Woman

This post is written by Kim Tri, one of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Kim is an excellent artist, as well as an ecologist, writer, and land steward.  As you can see, her drawings of animals are exceptional.

A new year has come again, bringing with it the cold, dark, and snow, as well as a traditional time for reflection.  Most choose to use this as a time to vow to do new and better things with their lives, but I prefer to revisit the most valued parts of mine.  Usually, I show how much I value conservation through my field work, but this is the off season, when I’m learning to display my passion by sharing it with others.

It is in this spirit that I share this myth from the Lakota tradition, which I think can speak to us all.


The Myth of White Buffalo Calf Woman

(Synthesized from multiple versions)


White buffalo, Pen drawing by Kim Tri

            It was a time of struggle, when there was no game to be found and the people feared starvation.  Every day, hunters went out onto the plain, only to return empty-handed.

            Two such hunters were out one day, and as they walked, they began to see an oddly shimmering pearly figure ahead of them.  This figure resolved into a most beautiful woman dressed all in pure white buckskin.  One of the two men noticed the way the woman shimmered and floated slightly about the ground.  It was by this that he recognized her as a holy being, and he bowed his head in respect.  His companion, however, had only eyes for the woman’s exceeding beauty.  His mind filled with thoughts of how he might possess this woman.  He stepped forward to grab her, and vanished in a cloud of smoke, leaving behind only ashes.

The first man fell to his knees at this display of power.  The woman in white bid him rise and said “It is good news that I bring.  Go back to your people and tell them to make ready for my coming.”

            The young man did as he was told, so that when the woman walked into camp the next day, a holy lodge had been prepared to receive her.  She carried with her a bundle.  Once inside of the lodge she pulled out of it a red stone pipe.

            Then the holy woman showed the people how to properly use and respect the pipe.  The red of the pipe connected the people to the blood and flesh of the buffalo and other animals that fed them, while the smoke that rose from it during prayer connected them to the Great Spirit and carried their prayers up to him.  The flame which glowed inside the pipe was to be passed from generation to generation, as were the seven sacred rituals which the holy woman gave to the people on this day.

            When she was done teaching them, the white-dressed woman departed, promising that she would return to the people from time to time.  As she walked away from the camp, she rolled on the ground and stood four separate times, rising changed in appearance each time.  The first time she stood, she was a black buffalo calf, the second time a yellow calf, and the third time a red calf.  When she stood the final time and walked away, she was a pure white buffalo calf, and it was in this form that the people would recognize her when she returned.


Though most of us may not follow the tradition of the sacred pipe, there are other parts of the myth that I think we could all due well to pay attention to in daily life.  Think of the first hunter, the one who didn’t return to camp.  Instead of having reverence for the white buffalo calf woman and the things she represented, he was consumed with desire.  In striving to use instead of honor her, he was burned by his own desire, as humans can be when they treat the land in the same fashion.

It is interesting to me, as well, that on a search for food to feed the bodies of his people, the hunter returned instead with something that would feed his people spiritually, and it was through this that they regained their connection to the game animals they needed to survive.  (In most accounts of this myth I’ve read, it isn’t expressly stated that the animals returned after the White Buffalo Calf Woman left, but I think it is implied.)  This is a theme I hear often from lifelong hunters; that they go out in search of meat but come back with so much more.

In Lakota tradition, the birth of a white bison calf is considered one of the most holy and prophetic events, even today.  When, in 1994, a white calf was born for the first time in decades, there was widespread rejoicing.  The family who owned the farm where the calf was born was not of native descent, but they embraced her symbolism and opened their doors free of charge to all who wanted to see the calf and pray to her.  Miracle, as the calf was named, was viewed as a figure around which all types of people could find a common hope.  Men such as Chief Arvol Looking Horse called on all to see what the calf meant to all people, that the return of the white buffalo was a reminder to join across the globe and renew the human commitment to the earth, the sky, and all the beings upon it.

In these days, when many of the bison in this country are crossed with cattle and their breeding is largely controlled by people, the birth of a white buffalo is not so rare as it used to be.  I don’t think it makes it any less powerful of a symbol, however.  In fact, I think that the more white bison we see, the better we are reminded of our commitment to the land, the sky, and all the beings on the earth.  In this, I think it is one of the most enduring myths, as it can serve to teach us about right living even this many generations removed from its origins.


P.S. I recognize that though the myth is about a white buffalo calf woman, I drew a big white bull bison.  What can I say?  I wanted to draw the most impressive white bison I could.

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Photo of the Week – January 22, 2016

Just as I did last week, I’m posting a few more winter photos from my archives.


Frosty plants on the frozen Platte River, Nebraska.

Laying flat on one’s stomach on a frozen river might not sound like much fun to you, but it does give  you a neat perspective on the world.  (Plus, it spreads body weight to help prevent falling through the ice!)  The photo above was taken on a very cold day when frost had formed on vegetation along the river – especially right above the frozen river surface.


Mouse tracks in the snow.

The above photo shows mouse tracks leading in and out of a hole in the snow.  Winter is a great time to see small mammal activity – especially when snow is on the ground and the temperature is relatively moderate.  Speaking of small mammals, our Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos wrote a fantastic blog post for the Platte Basin Timelapse project about Master Naturalist Mike Schrad and his work to help us evaluate small mammal use of restored grasslands here in the Platte River Prairies.  I urge you to click here to read that post, which includes some beautiful photos.


Frost on ice formation.

Ice patterns are always a favorite photo subject for me.  The freezing and melting of water creates endless fascinating shapes and patterns that are fun to explore and photograph.

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Prairie Word of the Day – Habitat Heterogeneity

Do you know what time it is?  It’s time for another PRAIRIE WORD OF THE DAY!

Today’s Prairie Word of the Day (fine, it’s actually two words) is:

Habitat Heterogeneity

Heterogeneity is really just a longer word for Diversity, which is another way of saying “lots of different things”.  So why use the word “heterogeneity” instead of just saying “lots of different things”?  Well, for one thing, using big words makes a person sound smart, and when you’re a prairie ecologist and no one really understands what it is you do for a living, it’s good to at least sound smart.

More importantly, there’s a nice alliterative (another big word!) feel to the phrase Habitat Heterogeneity, which happens to be one of the most important phrases in prairie ecology.  In fact, I would argue that the foremost objective of any prairie manager should be to create habitat heterogeneity within the prairie(s) they manage.

Habitat heterogeneity simply means diversity or variety in habitat types.  Habitat homogeneity is the opposite – a lot of habitat that is all the same.

Every organism in a prairie has its own unique habitat requirements, so the number of different habitat types in a particular prairie is correlated with number of species that can live there.   Let’s use prairie birds as an example.  Birds such as upland sandpipers like to nest in large patches of relatively short-stature grassland.  Around here, a big hay meadow is great habitat for them, especially if it was cut fairly late in the previous year and is still short in stature when the subsequent breeding season starts.  On the other hand, Henslow’s sparrows want to nest in prairie habitats with relatively tall and dense vegetation.  It would be highly unusual to find Henslow’s sparrows and upland sandpipers nesting in the same patch of prairie because their habitat preferences are very different.  So, if you want both species in your prairie, you have to provide both short and tall/dense habitat.  Other birds have their own unique habitat requirements, including nearly bare ground (e.g., horned lark), relatively short, but with abundant thatch (grasshopper sparrow), tall with lots of tall/weedy wildflowers (dickcissels), tall and nearly impenetrably dense vegetation (sedge wrens), and many others.  Only if your prairie provides all those different habitat conditions will you attract all those different bird species.

Dickcissels prefer

Dickcissels prefer habitat with lots of tall wildflowers or weeds.  They often weave their nest into the stems of a tall clump of vegetation.

The same diversity of habitat preferences exists in other groups of prairie species as well.  Among small mammals, for example, voles tend to prefer habitats with abundant thatch, while pocket mice are more often found where bare ground is abundant – and there are many others.  Insects and other invertebrates have the same kind of diversity in habitat preferences

Scale is important.  While a bird, mammal, or insect might have a broad preference for a certain kind of habitat structure, it is likely to need some heterogeneity within that habitat too.  A mouse, for example, might prefer patches of prairie with fairly sparse vegetation, but it is likely to need a few clumps of vegetation dense enough to hide in when predators are near.  Insects and reptiles are ectothermic (cold blooded) and need to regulate temperature, so while a snake might like to hide in tall dense so it can bite your ankle as you walk by (I’M KIDDING!), it also needs some places to bask in the sun.  All of this means that habitat heterogeneity is important any many different scales.  Heterogeneity at a fairly large scale (acres) helps provide places for many different animals to live in a prairie, but heterogeneity within the home range or territory of each animal (square meters, or even centimeters) can be important too.

Some habitat heterogeneity occurs simply because soil texture, nutrients, and moisture, along with topography all vary across a landscape.  A prairie is likely to have areas of more productive soils where vegetation grows tall and thick, and less productive soils where vegetation is more sparse, for example.  In addition, water will pool in some areas of a prairie more than others because of topography, altering the habitat for both plants and animals.  However, despite this “naturally occurring” heterogeneity, it’s still important for prairie managers to look for ways to provide more.

This landscape at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa shows the kind of natural heterogeneity that occurs in many landscapes.

This landscape at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in northwest Iowa shows the kind of natural heterogeneity that occurs in many landscapes.  Topography, soil variability, and other factors create a diverse set of conditions for plant growth and habitat structure.  Land management can add to that heterogeneity and improve it even more.

Prescribed fire and haying/mowing do a great job of altering habitat structure at a fairly large scale (acres).  By applying those treatments in different parts of a large prairie each year (and varying the timing of each from year to year), a manager can create a shifting mosaic of habitat patches that supports a wide diversity of animals.  However, both fire and mowing are pretty non-selective – most or all of the vegetation within a burned or mowed area gets the same treatment.  Leaving unmowed patches of grass here and there and varying the height of the mower as it moves across the site can help leave more heterogeneity behind.  Designing prescribed fires so that not all vegetation burns (e.g., mowing around some patches ahead of time, burning on days with lower temperatures or higher humidity, etc.) can also help with habitat heterogeneity – though those kinds of fire might also be less effective at killing trees or accomplishing other objectives.

In prairies where livestock grazing (cattle or bison, for example) is feasible, it is much easier to create small scale heterogeneity because grazers pick and choose which plants, and how much of each plant, to eat at any one time.  By controlling grazing intensity, and varying it across both time and space, managers can create prairie patches that are ungrazed, almost completely grazed, and in various stages of partial grazing – with a mixture of tall vegetation and nearly bare ground.  The uneven application of “fertilizer” from the rear ends of grazers contributes even more to habitat heterogeneity by temporarily altering soil productivity in lots of little spots across the prairie.

These cattle at Konza Prairie in Kansas

These cattle at Konza Prairie in Kansas have created a nice example of small scale habitat heterogeneity by grazing many of the grasses short while leaving leadplant, purple prairie clover, and other wildflowers ungrazed.

Whether it’s fire, mowing, grazing, herbicides or various combinations of those, creating habitat heterogeneity may the most important job of a prairie manager.  We still have a lot to learn about how the scale and configuration of habitat patches affect wildlife and insect populations.  What we do know, however, is that the prairies thrive when they have a lot of different types of habitat.  …When they have habitat heterogeneity.

And that, folks, is your Prairie Word of the Day.

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Photo of the Week – January 15, 2016

I was looking through a couple batches of winter photos from recent years and found some images I’d never posted here.  Since my camera hasn’t left its bag in the last week or so, I’ll post a few of those old photos today.

So – I hereby present:

“Miscellaneous photos I didn’t previously feel were worthy of posting but are better than nothing.”

Or maybe, “I bet you’ve never seen THESE photos before!”


Stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) buried in snow. Aurora, Nebraska.

Frozen stream/wetland. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Frozen stream/wetland. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Sun and shadow contrast on snow drift.

Sun and shadow contrast on snow drift.


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