Photos of the Week – January 24, 2020

The ridiculous amount of attention being given to my parody roadside wildflower field guide continues. In addition to continued traffic via Twitter, Facebook, etc., I was contacted this week by reporters from two different prominent online publications, who both wrote articles about the guide. The first was Colossal, an art and visual culture blog with a monthly readership of 1-2 million people (according to them) and the second was Atlas Obscura, which Kim assures me is a ‘big deal’ online magazine and travel company. If you’d like, you can see the feature in Colossal here and the Atlas Obscura piece here.

I’m hoping maybe all this craziness will at least lead to a few more people thinking about prairies, if just for a moment or two. If I’d known what kind of reaction it was going to get, I might have spent more time trying to make the guide into a better ambassador for grasslands and their beauty. Silly me, I thought I was just going through a lot of work to make myself laugh.

When I’m not basking in my new celebrity status as a writer of parody wildflower field guides, I still get out, now and then, and take actual nature photos. (Oh, and I’ve been working on a little science and conservation too, in case my boss reads this.) Last week, I ventured out to our family prairie to catch the sunrise on a very cold morning.

Sunrise at our wetland.

In contrast to some other recent outings on frozen wetlands, where I’ve had to be careful to fall through the ice, I was in no danger at all on this trip. I take that back. I was at risk of getting a really cold nose, since that was about the only part of my body not covered up on the frigid morning. I was also at risk of frustration from cold-related camera issues. If you’ve never tried to handle a camera on a really cold day, one of the challenges you might not expect is that it’s incredibly hard to prevent the glass on the camera from fogging up – and then freezing in that state.

It might seem simple enough to just avoid breathing on the camera, thus keeping the glass frost free. Unfortunately, when you’re wearing a hat, hood, and neck gaiter (like a stocking cap, but around your neck/mouth), the breath coming out of your mouth gets funneled in seemingly random directions. And since taking photos kind of necessitates putting my face right up to the camera, frost is always a problem. Fortunately, on this day, I was able to keep my frosty breath off the lenses, and just had to repeatedly wipe off the viewfinder and LCD screen. (I also kept my spare camera battery in my warm pocket because cold weather drains batteries very quickly.)

An abstract of smartweed stems and ice.
Frost on a stick lying on the ice.

Apart from the minor issues related to cold weather and cameras, it was a great morning. I found muddy coyote and raccoon tracks on the ice. The raccoon tracks informed me that at least a couple raccoons are traveling through (or lodging in?) the overflow pipe on the dam of our little pond/wetland. I also saw that a coyote has been feeding on the big ol’ raccoon carcass that’s been sitting on the top of the frozen pond for the last few weeks. (See Chelsea’s recent blog post on coyotes, raccoons, and their coinciding tracks.)

A muddy coyote footprint.
Elm leaf and ice.

A few weeks ago, when there was still a little bit of open water on the pond, I spooked up a great blue heron when I arrived. I assume it was feeding on the leopard frogs that were active around the edge of that open water. This time, there were no frogs moving around, and no heron either. The only frog I saw looked decidedly dead, and encased in ice.

Frozen leopard frog beneath the ice.
Frost on big bluestem stems drooping into the ice.

I really do like hiking around on cold days, especially when I can explore and appreciate the patterns found in the ice and frost. Having to talk about that dumb wildflower guide so much lately has been making me a little heartsick for the growing season. It’ll be a while before there are wildflowers around to photograph, but as long as it’s cold enough to freeze water, I’ll get by on frost, ice, and snow.

Chasing Little Frost Trees in a Prairie Wetland

Back in late December, I was spending part of a brisk morning exploring some frozen wetland sloughs in our Platte River Prairies. The sloughs were covered with thin ice – just thick enough to slide carefully across in some places, but not in others. As a result, my boots and lower cuffs of my coverall legs were wet, but my feet were still dry and warm. Ok, to be honest, the front of my coveralls were also wet, and getting dangerously close to soaking through. Also, my feet were a little damp and cold. A sane person would have retreated to the nearby warm truck and turned the heater on high.

But you see…

…all across the treacherous thin ice, there were tiny little stalks sticking up above the ice, each covered in frost. They looked like so many tiny white evergreen trees and I was determined to get some good photographs of them. I was running out of time, though. It wasn’t going to be long before I was soaking wet and at risk of more than just a little discomfort.

The challenge facing me was that most of the little ‘trees’ were relatively close to the edges of the sloughs where the ice was thinnest. When I tried to lie on the dry banks and point my camera toward the frost, I was too far away. To get closer would mean putting my elbows on the thin ice – and that would mean both breaking the ice beneath the trees and getting wet. If I could get safely out onto the thicker ice in the middle, I could approach from that side and maybe get my shots. But that had its own set of risks. In my head, I had a vision of me lying on that ice as it cracked and sent me (and more importantly, my camera gear) into the shallow water below.

But the cute little trees…!

Getting desperate, I finally found a path out onto the thicker ice in the middle of one slough and slowly slid myself toward the edge and my tiny targets. In most cases (not all), I was able to get close enough for reasonable photos before the weight of my elbows started cracking the ice beneath them. I worked as quickly as I could to get a handful of shots before finally succumbing to common sense and retreating to the truck.

Now, nearly a month later, I can look at these photos and appreciate the dainty beauty of the little frost trees without thinking too much about my cold wet elbows and the smell of damp outerwear all the way home. I was pretty lucky not to have gotten a lot wetter (and colder!) than I did, and even though it wasn’t a life threatening situation, it could have been a pretty uncomfortable ride home.

Still, it would have been totally worth it. (Did you see those little trees?? They’re so adorable!)