Photos of the Week – February 21, 2020

We got a little more snow than expected Wednesday – maybe an inch and a half or so. Thursday morning was sunny and pretty calm, so I snuck out to Lincoln Creek Prairie for an hour before starting my official work day. It was a beautiful morning, but I had a really hard time finding photographic inspiration. Some days are like that. I know it’s the same for writing, and I imagine also for drawing, painting, and other creative arts I have no talent for.

I spent some time photographing shadows of grasses and wildflower leaves on the snow. That was kind of interesting, but the results weren’t particularly striking. I tried photographing the sun itself coming through prairie grasses, but nothing seemed to turn out well. Eventually, along the edge of the prairie, I came across a couple places where the grasses had etched patterns into the snow.

This was not from this week, but from a few years ago after strong winds caused grass leaves to spin around and create great patterns in the snow around them.

We didn’t get the kind of strong winds that often accompany snowfall, so I didn’t see the nearly or fully complete circles around grasses that I sometimes do (see above photo from a few years ago). Instead, there were very subtle scratches in the snow surface from leaves or seed heads that had been pushed back and forth by the wind. The combination of those small arcs with the straight line shadows of the leaves and stems gave me something to play with. Since my brain wasn’t being helpful with any other inspirations, I went with it.

As per usual, once I started seeing something, I saw it all around me, although only a few grasses created these patterns – the situation had to be just right. If a leaf or seed head was too low, it became embedded in snow and the wind wasn’t able to dislodge it. There were lots of others that were hanging just a bit above the snow and couldn’t quite reach it. Only a select number of plants were dangling part of themselves at the perfect height to barely touch the surface and be moved by the slight breeze. (Can you believe I made a whole blog post out of this?)

Even on days when I’m not feeling particularly inspired, a prairie walk in fresh snow is still a refreshing experience. Snow dampens all surrounding sounds, so even on the edge of town it was nearly silent except for the quiet crunching of my own footsteps. Fresh snow is usually a great opportunity to see evidence of wildlife activity, though yesterday was a poor example of that. I think the -1 Fahrenheit temperature might have been responsible a scarcity of animal tracks.

I’m glad I braved the cold (with no wind, it really wasn’t too bad). By noon, the sun and quickly warming temperatures had already melted much of the snow. That means no more grass leaf etchings until the next snow, and who knows when that will happen. Sandhill cranes are starting to invade the Platte River valley already, joining the hordes of geese and ducks already here. Spring is coming.

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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.

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