Photos of the Week – May 23, 2023

Courthouse and Jail Rocks on a smoky evening.

Last Thursday, most of Nebraska was covered in a blanket of smoke from wildfires in Alberta. The smoke was as thick as I can remember seeing from far-away wildfire activity.

I was driving west to the Nebraska panhandle for a couple days of meetings and tours. I wasn’t going to arrive in time for a planned group dinner that evening, so I decided to take a short detour to visit one of my favorite spots in the state. I spent 5 years of my childhood living in Bridgeport, Nebraska and have fond memories of clambering around Courthouse and Jail Rocks south of town. I’ve visited that site a few times recently, and now appreciate it for different reasons.

Panorama (multiple images stitched together).

The site is mostly known today as a landmark for European travelers following the Oregon trail to the west. The rocks must have had names in many indigenous languages, but I’ve been unable to find references to those online. The sandstone, volcanic ash, and clay that makes up the structures is fairly easily eroded, but apparently some harder rock on top of these two kept them from eroding as much as their surroundings.

A combination of sandstone and clay leads to beautiful erosion patterns.

When I was a kid, the main attraction of Courthouse and Jail Rocks was the opportunity to climb around on the rough topography. I don’t mind that today, either, but I also appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the rocks and enjoy finding and photographing plants and animals at the site. The public area isn’t particularly large, but it’s big enough to be interesting, and it’s surrounded by wide open spaces, which makes it feel less constrained.

Narrow-leaf musineon (Musineon tenuifolium). I think?

When I visited last week, there were several flowers blooming prominently, but the most abundant, by far, was a species I think is called narrow-leaf parsley, or narrow-leaf musineon. It was growing right out of the clay banks, often by itself. In places, there were long cracks in the clay and it appeared the plants were spreading along those cracks via rhizomes, creating trails of yellow flowers. I had a lot of fun photographing the plant , even though a lot of the shots looked similar to each other. I narrowed it down to just three photos for this post.

Same flower species,very similar composition.
Hey look, more musineon. This time on the left side of the photo!

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that I’m a big fan of crab spiders and can’t walk past one without trying to photograph it. That held true last week.

And, of course, I found a crab spider on one of the flowers.

Other species were blooming too, of course. Recent rains have probably helped boost the abundance and size of some of those plants. There was a species of Cryptantha, I think, with creamy white flowers, that grew in the bare clay much like the wild parsley. I don’t know what species of Cryptantha it was, though. I found a few other flowers as well, and managed to photograph a couple of them before the sun dropped too low and it got too dark for photos.

Cryptantha sp.
Hoary vetchling (Lathyrus polymorphus), aka showy vetchling, showy peavine, and other names.
Wild begonia (Rumex venosus).

If you find yourself traveling through Nebraska and have a few minutes, I highly recommend a stop at Courthouse and Jail Rocks. It doesn’t seem like a well-visited site, despite its easy access from several nearby highways. It could use a little fire or grazing, or both, but is in good-enough ecological shape to satisfy botanists or ecologists looking for a quick hike. Plus, there’s just something very attractive about a couple bumps of clay and sandstone sticking out above the horizon!

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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.

5 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – May 23, 2023

  1. Love your blogposts, interesting and I always learn something new. While not a question about this post, I do have one. I was at the chiro today and saw your caterpillar photo in the latest Nebraskaland issue. Very cool! Do you know what kind of caterpillar it is?


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