Photos of the Week – October 13, 2022

While I adore autumn, the end of the growing season also brings out a slight anxiety within me. I know the prime season for photographing flowers and insects is quickly coming to an end and I feel an urge to take every possible opportunity to rack up photos while I still can. As a result, I’ve gotten out in time to catch a lot of sunrises during the last few weeks in prairies near my home. In addition, however, I’ve also gotten to travel a couple times and do some photography a little further afield. I’m sharing photos of two of those trips today – one that took me to Wilson Lake in Kansas and a second at the much more familiar Niobrara Valley Preserve.

My trip to Wilson Lake in Kansas came because Kim was running a 100K trail race there on October 1. My main role was to be her support crew and meet her as she came by the aid stations. However, she was on the trail for more than 18 hours and there were periods of several hours between aid stations. Between those stops, I had plenty of time to wander around and do some photography.

Pre-sunrise waves of Wilson Lake hitting a stretch of sandy beach. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 400, f/11, 1/100.

It was a breezy day, which was nice for Kim and the other runners, but not so great for us macro photographers. Ok, just me. I was the only macro photographer out there, as far as I know. Everyone else was probably thrilled with the stiff breeze on a hot day, especially those amazing people running up and down steep hills.

Since the breeze kept me from photographing the myriad invertebrates I’d captured on a previous trip to the lake back in September, I looked for other subject matter. I started at the shoreline of the lake before sunrise. (The race started well before the sun came up.)

Sunrise near a rocky shore. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 100, f/11, 1/40 sec.

The rocks and sand on the lake’s edge weren’t moving in the wind, so I hung around to take advantage of the nice morning light. I also got my knees and elbows wet from getting low to the ground with my tripod. After catching some scenery before and just after sunrise, I turned my attention to a couple small animals I’d seen while scouting for scenics. The first was a spider that had apparently spent the night in a small rounded crevice of sandstone just above the shoreline.

I spotted this spider before the sun came up. It was hanging out on the sandstone rock. After the sun rose, I went back to see if it was still there. It was. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/13, 1/80 sec.

Next, I shifted my attention to a bunch of cricket frogs that had hopped away from me as I’d been working up and down the shore photographing the sunset. I might have even spoken out loud to them, letting them know I’d be coming back to photograph them once the light got a little stronger. I’ll never tell.

Blanchard’s cricket frog on algae-covered rock. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/160.
Face-to-face with a cricket frog. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/20, 1/160

By this time, my elbows and knees were getting pretty well soaked and parts of my body were joining that party as well. Kneeling or lying on the wet ground, I’d try to edge close to one frog. As I did, others I hadn’t seen would launch themselves into the water. If I waited long enough, they would eventually re-emerge from the water and come back onto the narrow beach.

My favorite frog photo of the day, and maybe of all time, came about because of my patience with a frog and its patience with me. I’d seen it hop into the lake and hoped it would make its way back to the beach through the frothy bubbles at the water’s edge. Eventually, it did just that and stopped long enough for me to take its picture with the sun behind it and the little thrips that stopped by to see what was happening.

My hat blew into the water while I was taking the photo but I didn’t stop to grab it until I was sure I had the shot I wanted. As a result, my head smelled like lake all day. Nature photography is hard. Not enough people talk about that.

Maybe my favorite frog photo ever, with shoreline bubbles and tiny thrips (the little orange invertebrates). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/320

Many hours later, the sun went down but the trail runners kept going. Sometime after midnight, I was trying to figure out what to do with my free time and decided to play around with some long exposure photography. I could see the headlamps of runners moving across the hilly terrain in the distance and took a few photos showing streaks of light in the darkness.

After that experimentation, I decided to take what I’d learned and set up for one photo of Kim as she came by a particular spot near the road where I was parked. She’d been past the spot earlier in the day so I knew where to aim my camera. I was also able to track her via the GPS signal on her watch (transmitted to my phone because the world is amazing) so I knew when she’d be coming by.

I got my exposure figured out and tested it by opening the shutter and running out in front of the camera with a flashlight. Perfect. Then I just had to wait for her to come by. When I saw her approaching, I opened the camera’s shutter for 25 seconds and was able to get her headlamp streaking past as well as the stars above and the grass below. I think we can all agree that my efforts matched Kim’s at that point.

Kim and her headlamp running through the prairie in the starry night. Nikon 18-300mm lens @40mm. ISO 1000, f/4.2, 25 secs.

Anyway, Kim finished the race and we headed to our tent to sleep through what remained of the night. I think we both felt equally tired and satisfied with our work from the day. She ran 62 miles and I got some really great photos of frogs and light streaks. Well done, us!

(Should there be a comma in the phrase ‘well done us’ or not? No one knows. I’ve written it both ways now so at least one is probably correct. Just to be sure, I’ll add a third option here. Well, done me.)

A couple days after the race, I headed to the Niobrara Valley Preserve to do some evaluation of pastures out in the far west end of the property. My job was to document and report how the grazing and habitat was looking near the end of a drought-filled growing season. I unloaded my ATV from the pickup, loaded it with my lunch, rain gear, and camera equipment, and headed out into the hills.

Blowout grass (Redfieldia flexuosa) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 320, f/16, 1/500 sec.
More blowout grass with leaf circles etched into the sand. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 320, f/16, 1/500 sec.

The staff at NVP are experimenting with a variety of grazing approaches, each aimed at creating habitat heterogeneity in different ways. Several of those western pastures are big (over a square mile in size) and are season-long grazed at a moderate stocking rate (not separated by cross fences). Under that grazing system, habitat heterogeneity arises from cattle favoring some areas over others and creating different habitat conditions as a result. Some places are heavily grazed and others less so. In addition, cattle regularly concentrate in a few places (especially near water tanks) and create patches of bare ground. That bare ground is important habitat for lots of species, from sand wasps and robber flies to kangaroo rats and hognose snakes.

As I was passing a livestock tank in one of those season-long grazed pastures, the clouds were particularly attractive (a storm was approaching) so I took a break to do some photography. I admired some blowout grass on sandy slopes and then used the windmill and cattle as foreground for some sky photos. I even climbed the windmill with my camera to get an ‘aerial’ view. Then I got back to work.

The windmill and livestock water tank that attracts cattle and helps the area of bare sand persist, providing habitat for the blowout grass pictured above as well as lots of other plants and animals. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 320, f/16, 1/500 sec.
A view of the open sand and cattle from the top of the windmill. This is a much bigger-than-average patch of bare sand around a windmill, caused by a combination of topography, prevailing winds, and disturbance by cattle. It might look ugly to some, but is awfully important to a lot of Sandhills species. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11.5 mm. ISO 320, f/16, 1/320 sec.

After a while, the approaching storm hit. Fortunately, because I work in prairies where a person can see storms approaching from miles away (no pesky trees or mountains in the way), I had plenty of time to don my raingear and cover up my camera equipment before the squall arrived. It rained hard for about ten minutes and then cleared up again. Since it was getting late in the day, I figured there was a good chance I’d see a rainbow. Sure enough, I got one.

That seemed like a good excuse for another photography break so I spent a little time chasing rainbows (ok, just the one) before getting back to the job at hand, which was almost done anyway.

Rainbow! Nikon 18-300mm @18mm. ISO 320, f/8, 1/800 sec.
The end of the rainbow! Nikon 18-300mm @65mm. ISO 320, f/8, 1/800 sec.
More rainbow! Nikon 18-300mm @18mm. ISO 320, f/14, 1/320 sec.
Look, the whole rainbow! Tokina 11-20mm @11mm. ISO 320, f/14, 1/320 sec.

I covered something around 10,000 acres of prairie during my rapid evaluation. Despite the severe drought conditions and the lateness of the season, the prairie still had plenty of beauty to share and it was a terrific day. As I neared the end of my big loop, the rainbow I’d photographed earlier appeared one last time. I’d just loaded my ATV back in the truck and was driving out toward the road but stopped to photograph the rainbow over the top of a color-changing green ash tree. It was a pretty great punctuation to what had been a pretty great day.

A road worth traveling. Tokina 11-20mm @11mm. ISO 320, f/18, 1/160 sec.
Rainbow reprise! Tokina 11-20mm @11mm. ISO 320, f/18, 1/80 sec.
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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.

11 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – October 13, 2022

  1. The pictures, no hyphen, just some commas. Are exceptional! Tho not unexpected. And yes as was the previous milkweed book. But the dialog that’s included today …..the why…the why not…the how…etc is what I value. In general, the reason you selected the photo. That followed with a prairie topic. Such as grazing. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for your detailed newsletters, complete with photography. I use Flickr and enjoy nature photography too.

    We live just outside of Austin in SW Travis County where we back up to a former ranch with King ranch bluegrass and other wildflowers/weeds such as broom straw that I try and out compete with native grasses and wildflowers, cover crops/green manure. I am trying to create a bit of the black land shortgrass prairie in our backyard. I have purchased native short grasses from DK Seeds out of San Antonio who offer free shipping.

    A few years ago we visited the Cimarron Heritage Center in Boise City, OK where I came across the Author Timothy Egan’s book, ‘ The Worst Hard Time,’ about the dustbowl era. A woman who lives in our neighborhood grew up during the dustbowl era and told me she to read the book.

  3. The wide open expanse of the dry prairie is so interesting. Much more so than the endless cornfields of what was once the tallgrass prairie.

    I appreciate the thrips. I learned something. I’ve heard about them, but didn’t know what they looked like.

  4. brenda boudinot
    I love the spider, looks almost like a little animal caught by surprise. Kim streaking by is a brilliant shot, reminds me of a Hawaiian relay. The water views are handsome, but my fav is the last, the rainbow over the tree. If you look closely at the cloud it appears to be a crocodile leaning in for a drink of that blue ocean of sky. Beautiful pic.

    (Frog in the bubbles is cool).

  5. I read this entry weeks ago, but wanted to ask you if you would consent to sending me a bigger file of the photo of Kim running with headlight at night? I love this shot, as it reminds me of many days crewing for my ultrarunner hubby (no longer doing that, since hip resurfacing in mid 2000s), in all kinds of weather and times of day. I just want to use it as a desktop screensaver, along with other cherished photos (including Nat. Geo, so you’re pix are in good company). I also really like the cricket frog with foam & thrips headdress. You do get some unique photos, keep it up.

    I like your musings as well.

    Linda Longmont

    I acknowledge that I live in the territory of Hinóno’éí (Arapaho) and Cheyenne Nations, according to the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie; and that Colorado’s Front Range is home to The Ute & many other Native peoples. Reconozco que vivo en el territorio de las naciones Hinóno’éí (Arapaho) y Cheyenne, según el 1851 Tratado de Fort Laramie; y que el estado de Colorado al esté de las Montañas Rocosas es territorio de Utes y muchos otros pueblos indígenas.



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