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.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – January 24, 2020

  1. Read both articles…congratulations! They were fun and hey…whatever it takes to get folks interested in prairies and prairies restoration! Good job.

  2. Loved the satire and, of course, love your serious posts even more. Next I think Joslyn will pick up your driving photos as the new “impressionism” from the Prairies!

  3. I suppose it is a good thing that there are so many good places to find information on topics we are interested in. Because of that, I had not stumbled upon your site before seeing the cover photo from your really fun/silly guide posted on Twitter by ‘Science Diagrams that Look Like Shitposts.’ I appreciate knowing about you no matter how it happened. You have also inspired me to finish a few similarly silly things I have been playing with for a while. In the same vein, I recommend http://journal.sjdm.org/19/190712/jdm190712.pdf for a more serious attempt at silliness. Finally, as someone whose family comes from prairie country stretching from Wisconsin to Iowa and South Dakota, I am finding your photographs to be really amazing. I am now checking with my Nebraska friends to be sure they know about you. Thanks!

  4. GEE, I can say I knew him when he was just a lowly land manager. And you wonder why I make you autograph all your publications. I’m gonna be rich some day🤞

  5. I grinned when I read, “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.” Honestly? The sense of play that characterized the guide might have been dulled if you’d worked harder on it, and the humor that pervaded the piece probably enticed more people into a second or third read than you’ve imagined. Preserving and restoring prairies is serious business, but prairies are for enjoying, too, and anything that can show people a new way to enjoy them is all good!

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