It’s ‘The Prairie Naturalist’ Too

My current job title is “Director of Science”, which I have to admit is a pretty cool title. It’s almost as good as the best job title I’ve ever held, which was “Land Steward”. I’ve worked hard to get my current job title, but also to shape the job description that goes with it. Specifically, throughout my career, I’ve fought to keep myself in the field, where I’m consistently able to explore and study prairies up close.

All the photos in today’s post are from the last couple of weeks, and illustrate minor discoveries of sorts that I’ve made while acting as a naturalist. In this case, I’ve been keeping track of the kinds of insects that visit spiderwort plants, and the vast majority are flies. As a result, seeing this bee feeding from spiderwort was noteworthy. Ok, it’s not an observation that will change the world, but it was interesting, nonetheless.

I’ve fought those battles because my sanity and well-being depends upon the sense of discovery I get whenever I’m in a prairie or other natural area. I recognize that I’m really fortunate to have been able to shape my career as I have, but even if I had to work outside of the arena of conservation, I’d still find time to be a naturalist. Heck, even now, I’m in the field during the majority of my work time, but I still spend a lot of my off hours in prairies.

I’m guessing most of us in the conservation arena got here because we were inspired by outdoor experiences as kids or young adults. I remember collecting snails in the road ditch across from my house when I was 6 or 7 years old, for example, and regularly riding my bike to the fishing pond across town when I was in 3rd grade. My aspirations for college were to get a degree and become a park ranger in a remote place where I could somehow get paid for exploring nature (like many people that age, I didn’t have a very realistic idea of what jobs are like).

I’ve seen many butterfly species feeding on minerals left behind by evaporation around mud puddles, etc. but I’d never seen a regal fritillary doing so until I spotted a couple along the trail at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas.

There is certainly a lot more to my job duties than simply “exploring nature”, but I will defend that facet of my job vigilantly. I encourage everyone else in conservation to do the same. Not only does spending time as a naturalist help keep us inspired and energized, it’s how new discoveries and forward leaps in natural history happen. Despite the wealth of knowledge we have about the natural world, there are still gargantuan gaps in our understanding. Many times, we don’t even know what questions need to be asked, let alone how to answer them. As a simple example, I direct you to a short post written by Katharine Hogan, our Hubbard Fellow a few years ago about something I’ve noticed as well. We don’t yet know why all those silken strands sometimes appear in prairies, but I bet the answer will be a doozy when we find it!

I first learned about clustered broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata) while at the Cedar Point Biological Station in college. It’s a parasitic plant, and I was told at the time that it pulls nutrients from fringed sage (Artemisia frigida). I spotted several last week at Cherry Ranch in western Nebraska, and most were next to sage, but not all of them. I went looking for more information and found that its host plant selection is much broader than I’d previously thought. Aha!

Aside from the scarcity of natural areas in many places, it’s never been an easier time to be a naturalist, and it’s a pursuit open to anyone, of any level of experience. First of all, of course, there’s no requirement to identify what you see in order to enjoy finding it. However, if you do want to learn what species you’re admiring, there are now countless digital resources to help you, in addition to the standard books and experts that have been around forever. In addition, not only can you easily share discoveries with friends and potential friends through online communities, your discoveries can contribute to the growth of global scientific knowledge through programs like iNaturalist, Journey North, Bugguide, and many others.

Everyone knows that convergent ladybird beetles (and other species) feeds on aphids, right? Well, just yesterday, I spotted this one clearly feeding on pollen, so I went in search of more information. It turns out pollen and nectar are both important sources of food when aphids aren’t readily available. I certainly wasn’t the first to discover that, but it’s the kind of discovery that can be made by any of us if we’re observant.

The old adage about stopping to smell the roses applies just as much today as ever. It’s what makes life worthwhile. When I’m working in the field, I frequently interrupt what I’m doing to follow a trail or check out a spider web. I feel no guilt about that at all. First of all, I consider it part of my job to increase my experience and skill as a naturalist – and to pursue opportunities for scientific discovery. And second, it’s a tiny investment in my job satisfaction and energy level, from which my employer will reap many benefits. I would encourage everyone reading this to carve out your own naturalist time, regardless of whether that happens at work or not. Besides being good for you, it will be good for the world too.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

12 thoughts on “It’s ‘The Prairie Naturalist’ Too

  1. I rediscovered something interesting today. I was brushing the ripe seeds of Senecio into a bowl. After I finished and looked in the bowl I noticed all these green insects, small beetles, and tiny spiders. The most interesting find of all were these tiny orange-yellow inch worms. It made me think of your meter plot photography project. I began wondering how many more things you might have discovered if you had shaken the plants over a piece of paper.

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  3. I began exploring the natural world only a decade or so ago, and with every passing year have become more deeply engaged. I have yet to spend a day — or even an hour — ‘just looking’ without finding something that’s interesting, puzzling, or delightful. That day may come, but I’m not holding my breath!

  4. It’s one of the aspects of my job I have always loved…and always felt guilty about doing. I don’t get to do it very much (hardly at all) any more. Most of my day is either teaching or on the computer. How sad is that?!? I need to make the time to get out and explore more often. HAHAHAHA.

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