Photos of the Week – January 9, 2020

I woke up to the first day of a new decade at the Niobrara Valley Preserve – a pretty good spot for the occasion. As the horizon started to brighten, I wasn’t in a big hurry to hop on my ATV and head out because I wasn’t yet sure where I was going. Sandhills? Riverbank? Bluffs north of the river? Just as I decided the bluffs might be the best place to catch first light, I realized the sky had become spectacular. I snatched up my camera gear, threw on my coveralls, and ran for the ATV.

Pre-sunrise color on New Year’s morning – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I headed up the nearest tall hill, knowing there was a nice view from the top. The sky color was still great, but already fading by the time I got up high enough to see the river, so I stopped and quickly composed a couple shots. While the sky was full of color, its reflection off the snow-covered ground was muted. As the color in the eastern sky continued to fade, I happened to glance behind me and discovered the western sky’s color was intensifying. I sprinted to the other side of the hill and set the camera up to photograph the upstream view, just as that sky’s color also began to fade. Ten minutes into my morning jaunt and I was sweating, breathing hard, and feeling like I’d just missed the best of the morning’s show.

Same sky, same river, opposite direction.

As the sky returned to its dull grayish-blue color, I headed north across the river and partway up the steep slope. I took the ATV as far as it would go and then hopped off and trudged through the drifts until I found another nice view of the river. The sun was just starting to peek above the horizon, so I scrambled to find some foreground for a photo. I tried a couple different options, but was finally drawn to the dimpled snow within a yucca plant, accentuated by the shadow and light from the sunrise.

Sunrise, slopes, and yucca, with the Niobrara River in the background.

After taking a few photos of the sunrise, I decided I’d better hurry up and get the drone into the air if I was going to get any aerial shots before the sun got swallowed up by the big bank of clouds just above it. After all, one of the reasons I’d justified this quick trip north was to get some practice with the new drone. I created a makeshift launchpad with a spare sweatshirt, hoping to limit how much snow spray would get kicked up by the propellers and onto the camera lens. It worked like a charm and ‘Dallas Mavic’ lifted up into the sky.

The view of the river, shortly before the sun disappeared for a while behind a bank of clouds. (Drone photo)

I had about five minutes of flight before the light went away, so I headed toward the sun, taking still photos and a little video as I went. Still learning the capabilities of the camera, I tried shooting darker and lighter, and at various focal lengths – testing the zoom lens that had attracted me to this particular model (DJI Mavic 2 Zoom). The light was pretty glorious, so I snapped away freely until the sun finally reached the clouds and the scene became dark and dull.

Looking back to the west and judging the speed of the cloud movement, I thought I saw an open window in the cloud bank that would intersect with the sun for at least a few minutes. I grabbed my gear and headed back down to my ATV and then back across the river to the Sandhills, racing the sun and clouds. A nice relaxed morning in the prairie…

Sharp-tailed grouse sign. You can see faint wing prints where a grouse had burst out of a snow bank and then tracks winding around the same area.

As I rode out into the prairie, keeping an eye on the clouds and the glow of the hidden sun behind them, a short-eared owl ghosted out of the snow, just a few yards away from me. I stopped to watch, and it landed about 10 yards away, glared enigmatically at me for a few seconds, and then floated off and over the horizon. Feeling somehow simultaneously honored and dismissed, I kept moving, trying to find the right place to be when the sun finally reappeared. I spotted several groups of sharp-tailed grouse on the move, some flushing in front of me, others gliding along in the distance. There were tracks all over in the snow, and when the sun finally reappeared, I followed some of them around with my camera.

Wandering grouse tracks.

The window of sunlight was frustratingly small, so I split my time between glorying in the light and scenery and struggling to quickly capture it before it all went away. I had my wide-angle lens on and was wading around in deep drifts, holding the camera up as if I was trying to ford a deep river without getting it wet.

Tracks of mice, birds, deer, and bison, were everywhere. I enjoyed following their trails and trying to interpret what they were doing, but I also didn’t fail to notice they were better at snow travel than I was. The lightweight mice and birds certainly weren’t sinking into the deep drifts like I was, and the bison and deer were smart enough to stay out of those drifts altogether. Meanwhile, my coveralls were glazed white from feet to neck, and only my head and camera remained dry.

Small mammal hole and tracks in the snow on the leeward side of a big dune.

Just as the last flash of sun was winking out behind the resurgent clouds, I spotted a glimpse of red peeking out of the snow and quickly swapped out lenses. My one and only close-up photo of the day was also the last shot of the trip, and captured prairie rose hips within a small ice-rimmed window. The sky was now fully overcast, and it looked like it was going to stay that way, so after taking a pleasantly circuitous route back to the headquarters, I packed up and started the long drive home. Happy New Year indeed!

Wild rose hips peeking out of a snow drift as the light faded and skies became firmly overcast.
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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.

7 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – January 9, 2020

    • Thanks very much! I don’t typically sell prints of my photos – too much work for the reward. It’s easier to stick with digital images (and providing digital images to magazines, books, etc. Thank you for your interest, though!


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