Photos of the Week – January 31, 2020

We got some light snow this week. Then, as soon as the sun came out, that snow began to melt. I was on a conference call when the sun emerged and I had a hard time sitting still during the remainder of that call… As soon as we signed off, I was out the door and heading to our family prairie, hoping to get there before the snow disappeared. I made it, but just barely – I could almost see the snow patches shrinking as I walked around.

We don’t normally have a stream on the property, but the ‘drain’ that leads to the pond was full of water – the result of recent rains and snow melt perched on the frozen ground. Judging by tracks, the consistency of the slushy ice in the so-called stream was just enough that the raccoons could almost run across the top. The exceptions, where the tracks suddenly got much deeper and filled with water, revealed a story that would have been entertaining to watch in real time.
I wandered between patches of tall and short vegetation, looking for tracks and other signs of life and activity.
Coral berry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) in a snow bank.
There were lots of small mammal tracks, especially where vegetation was short. Ok, maybe it was just easier to see the tracks in those open areas, but it really did seem like they were more abundant where vegetation was sparse.
The best story I found was this one – here’s my interpretation. A mouse was hopping from the top left of the frame toward the bottom right. As it reached the bottom of the frame, it must have spotted the hawk (owl?) coming at it and suddenly reversed its course. It made it about three feet before the raptor swooped in from the top right and snagged the mouse where you see the wing print (and where the mouse tracks end). The raptor then ‘bounced’ once and landed in the center of the frame, where it shuffled forward a little while it either got a better grip on the mouse or consumed it. You can click this image to see a larger version of it.
More mouse tracks. I didn’t see any indication that this particular mouse was caught by a raptor.

Winter prairies, as my last post discussed, can seem empty of life at first glance. Certainly, there is much less going on than during the chaotic revelry of the summer, but fresh snow can help reveal some of what’s actually happening. I didn’t come away from this trip with the kinds of photos I was hoping for, but it’s hard to complain. The tired adage about ‘a bad day fishing’ applies here too, and I fully recognize the privilege I enjoy that often allows me to drop everything and head to a prairie at a moment’s notice.

The stories hidden in winter prairies are fewer and harder to find, but that also makes them more gratifying to discover. If you’re fortunate enough to live where fresh snow reveals stories in prairies near you, I hope you’ll be able to go on your own expedition.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – January 31, 2020

  1. Ah, yes, the signs of the ‘freeway’ of animal tracks sometimes is quite rewarding.
    Will never forget the site of the trail of small animal tracks in the snow leading to a large depression and ‘sweeps’ of a hawk or owl feathers to the sideds, that ‘ended’ the small animal tracks. “GOTCHA’!
    Like I love to preach, “Look down and always amazing surprises!”


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