Prairie of the Week – December 6, 2018

Picture this, if you will:  A foolhardy photographer has made his way onto a large frozen wetland slough in a prairie along the Platte River.  After his boots punctured the thinner ice along the edge of the slough, he has carefully, with dripping boots,stepped up onto the marginally thicker ice beyond and is now army crawling across the frozen surface, trying to ignore the cracking sounds all around him each time he moves.  He knows his life isn’t in danger (the water is only a few feet deep and he’s 50 yards from his truck), but there seems a very good likelihood of submerging the camera equipment he’s carrying and of getting suddenly and uncomfortably wet and cold.

From a distance, it’s hard to see what the photographer is risking so much to photograph.  Every minute or so, he appears to stop and aim his camera at the base of rushes and other plants protruding from the ice, even changing lenses several times to get different perspectives.  Of plant stems in the ice?  What a loon.  …Actually, that’s a patently unfair slam on loons, which have infinitely more sense than this chucklehead seems to have. 

Let’s hear the explanation in the photographer’s own words, for whatever that’s worth.

Yeah, I get it.  And I’m glad (as I very often am) that no one was ACTUALLY watching as I slid myself and my gear across the ice earlier this week.  But what I was chasing were little cone-shaped pieces of ice suspended above the frozen surface of the wetland.  I found them strangely attractive and an intriguing mystery.  What caused the ice to form a cone in the first place, and why were those cones so far above the surface of the surrounding ice?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to those questions, but I have hypotheses.  I’m guessing there are pieces of relevant information, including that it both rained and snowed recently, that temperatures have been hovering right around the freezing mark over that same time period, and that there is water flowing out of the slough and – probably – lowering the level of the ice. 

Even with all that information, though, I’m still struggling to understand exactly what I was seeing.  I’m thinking maybe the raised cone-shaped ice was formed by snow/sleet/frozen rain accumulating at the base of the plants – both because of wind eddies around the stems and maybe also water running down the stems from above.  I’m pretty sure the elevation of the ice went down in the days prior to my little photo adventure.  But how did the cones become detached from that ice?  

Whatever happened, it created an awful lot of those little cones across the top of that particular wetland slough and others like it.  I’m guessing a more experienced and smarter person than I could have drawn helpful inferences from the uneven surface of the ice.  There were shallow cavities in some places and raised areas in others, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was driving that pattern.  Instead, I focused on photographing the cool little cones and trying not to get anything other than my waterproof boots wet.  In that, at least, I was successful.

They were even attractive from above!
The connection on the left side of this stem between cone and frozen wetland surface is probably a big clue to what was happening.  I have no idea what it might mean.

Prairie Limericks 2018

Thank you very much to everyone who took the time to write prairie limericks!  Including them all here would have created a monstrously long post, so I just chose some of my favorites.  I’d encourage everyone to go read the others in the comments section of my initial limerick post.  There are some very talented and creative writers following this blog!!  I’m very impressed and humbled.

Ah, the splendor and intricacy of the limerick…  the perfect vehicle with which to espouse the wonders of prairies.  Or to make fun of prairie ecologists.  Or both!  I hope you enjoy these spectacular examples of prairie limericks as much as I did.  If you didn’t have time to contribute this time around, save them – I’ll try to remember to do this again next year.  (Remind me if I forget!)

My prairie friend, Chris, is a meanie.
He hates trees from his toes to his beanie.
But trees have their place
in earth’s greater space
If you hate ‘em you’re just a weenie!

Sandy Benson

With bluestem so bushy and bold,
and Indian grass turning gold,
the prairie’s rich treasure
provides far more pleasure
than goods that are purchased or sold.

Linda Leinen

There’s this Helzer guy named Chris
known as The Prairie Ecologist.
He teaches us much
about prairies and such,
so his blogs should never be missed!

Chris Muldoon

I wish I had a prairie
With its own prairie fairy
She’d lay down free seeds
And magic the weeds
Making management so much less hairy

Inger Lamb

Those cows that are happily grazing,
Purport to do something amazing!
More carbon in soil,
And yet I recoil
When methane so loudly is blazing!

Jon Fisher

Whether grazing with bison or cattle,
One’s decision can cause a pitched battle.
But in prairies today,
Both grow fat on good hay,
And will rarely be felled by atlatl.

Karen de Boer

When grasses start whispering poems,
their stories at last will be known.
They gather together
through fair and rough weather —
the bluestem, the muhly, the brome.

Linda Leinen