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.

Photos of the Week – June 2, 2023

A couple weeks ago, I was out in the Nebraska panhandle for a few days with work colleagues. After our job duties were completed, I had the opportunity to wander around on my own at two different sites – The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch and Fort Robinson State Park. Here are some of the photos I took from those two gorgeous, expansive landscapes. I’ll start, predictably, with a mayfly.

I don’t know what species of mayfly this is, but there were many thousands of them at Cherry Ranch the evening we were there. They congregated in the air outside the windshields of our pickups as we toured our board members around the ranch.
The Niobrara River is much smaller at Cherry Ranch than it is way downstream at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
This upland sandpiper was staring me down as I drove slowly past in a pickup. I took a few quick pictures before moving on, assuming it probably had a nest nearby.
During my previous visit to Cherry Ranch, I photographed cliff swallows in their mud homes on the side of a (obviously) cliff. This visit, I got to watch them collecting mud – in their mouths – with which they were making those homes.
Prairie buckbean, aka golden pea (Thermopsis rhombifolia) seemed to be having a great year in the panhandle.
More prairie buckbean flowers.
The yellow blossoms made a terrific foreground for landscape photos.
As evening came on, the mayflies all settled onto overnight perches, which made photography a lot easier.
Mountain lily, aka star lily (Leucocrinum montanum) was also having a big year, blooming in numberous large patches containing hundreds of plants each.
Mountain lily has to be one of the most charismatic wildflowers of the western prairie, but you’ve got to get out early in the season to see it.
Mountain lily with the setting sun behind it.
As I drove out of Cherry Ranch, the sun was setting through the haze from Canada wildfires.
Saturday morning, I climbed the turtle rock trail at Fort Robinson State Park, as the sun rose through smoky skies.
A hazy view of the Fort Robinson headquarters from the turtle rock trail.
A silhouetted tree against a rising sun? Or a dog-like creature with a fiery eye? (It’s the first one)
It was impossible not to use prairie buckbean as foreground for landscape shots.
Nebraska is so flat and boring, it’s amazing anyone wants to live here.
Gumbo-lily (Oenothera caespitosa) is an evening primrose, not a lily, but is an amazing wildflower that thrives in very low-productivity soil conditions (if you can even call it soil).
I was excited to find a bunch of gumbo-lilies at the top of the ridge.
I mean…
I could have stayed up on that ridge top all day.
Oh look, more prairie buckbean. Whatever shall I do with it?
This is an Anicia checkerspot butterfly. It is trying to warm itself in the morning sun.
This is an Anicia checkerspot butterfly. It would like to haunt your dreams.

As per usual, my stay in the Nebraska panhandle felt much too short, but I needed to get home. If you’ve never visited that part of the world, I hope you’ll find a way to remedy that. It’s a great place to go during the ‘official’ tourism season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but if you’re like me and abhor crowds of people, it’s an even better place to go before and after that season!

Plus, if you go early in the year, you can enjoy huge patches of mountain lilies in the prairie, discover gumbo-lilies on high ridge tops, and use prairie buckbean as the foreground for your landscape photography. Just be wary of those Anicia checkerspot butterflies.

I Deleted What I Wrote Yesterday Because it was Bad

I wrote a blog post yesterday, but even as I was writing it, I didn’t like it. For some reason, I kept going anyway, and finished it. This morning, I re-read it and still didn’t like it, so I’m scrapping the whole thing. I’m sorry you’ll never get to read it, though not sorry enough to let you actually read it. I’ve deleted all the text, but kept the photos so you can look at those, I guess.

In my failed attempt at writing, I was trying to talk about a few different things. One was the joy of watching the same site over enough years that you start to recognize both long-term and short-term changes. I’d used the example of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, which I’ve been visiting for close to 30 years now. This year, there seems to be an unusually high number of penstemon plants blooming across the site, so I was trying to describe how cool it was to both see them and to recognize that the profusion was unusual.

Narrowleaf beardtongue (Penstemon angustifolia).
White beardtongue (Penstemon albidus)

That part of the post wasn’t awful. I would have felt ok about sharing that part with you, I think. But then I started wandering down a path the wasn’t really very coherent. I had some good ideas, but couldn’t seem to put them together in a compelling way.

A fisheye lens showing narrowleaf penstemon in their environment.

I talked about why beardtongues (the common name for some penstemon species) got their name. One of its five stamens (male flower parts) is sterile and lies at the bottom of the flower’s opening like a large fuzzy tongue. As far as I understand, that sterile stamen (known as a ‘staminode’) serves no reproductive purpose other than to give us a reason for a fun plant nickname. I guess that part of yesterday’s writing was ok.

Also, I was trying to describe the color variation I see in narrowleaf beardtongue flowers, which can be anywhere from lavender to sky blue – often with a combination of both colors present. That variation makes the plants even more interesting, I think, but I couldn’t apparently come up with a very good way of writing about that.

I also speculated about whether or not the color variation had anything to do with topography or soil type. In the end, I decided that since plants representing multiple colors were often growing next to each other, it seemed unlikely that those factors were important. I could have just saved time and not speculated in the first place.

The flowers of narrowleaf beardtongue can be very pink on some plants.
The same species (narrowleaf beardtongue) can also have very blue flowers.
White beardtongue, at least in my experience, always has white flowers.

After that, I think I blathered on for a while about how much fun it was to photograph the penstemon plants across the prairie. I don’t remember exactly what I said because I’ve deleted it, but it must not have been all that enthralling if I trashed it, right? Either way, I did come back with a ton of penstemon photos, some of which I’m sharing here.

A big cluster of white beardtongue, photographed with a fisheye wide-angle lens.
A spike of narrowleaf beardtongue with very pink flowers.

Where I really went off the tracks, I think, was when I started trying to tie a conversation we had during a recent staff call to the the penstemon bloom-boom. “Bloom-boom” is a term I just invented, by the way. You can tell I’m in a better writing space today because I’m coming up with words like that. When I tried to write a blog post yesterday, my brain wasn’t working nearly as well, which is why I’ve deleted everything I wrote then.

You’re welcome to borrow ‘bloom-boom’ if you like. Giving me credit would be nice, but it’s not necessary. You’re welcome.

More narrowleaf beardtongue.

Let’s see. Oh, right. I was mentioning that in my deleted post from yesterday, I’d tried to link the penstemon bloom-boom to a conversation we had about the value of expressing joy and gratitude for unexplained phenomena versus working to explain them.

You know, the more I use the term ‘bloom-boom’, the less I like it. Maybe you shouldn’t use it out in public. Or if you do, maybe don’t link it to me. We’ll see. If it gets popular, I’ll try to claim credit for it.

Still more narrowleaf beardtongue.

Anyway, I had some good ideas in yesterday’s post, but I got pretty sappy as I tried to describe them and that never works well for me. I’m usually at my best when I’m irreverent, or at least goofy. Trying to be sincere and earnest often turns out to be boring writing. That’s why you’ll never get to see what I wrote yesterday.

Basically, I was saying that trying to understand why things happen in prairies is important because it helps us adapt our prairie management. At the same time, I tried to argue that sometimes it’s enough (and maybe crucial) to just let ourselves celebrate what happens without trying to explain it. You can see how that slid quickly into gross territory, can’t you? Blech.

Hey, look – narrowleaf beardtongue!

I ended yesterday’s disastrous post by talking about the importance of storytelling as a way to connect people to nature. That seemed pretty forced when I re-read the post. I mean, it’s a topic that really is important, but I think I shoehorned it into yesterday’s writing in an awkward way.

(A shoehorn, for you young people, is a small metal tool people used to own but never seemed to use to slide their feet in and out of shoes. There was always one floating around our house when I was growing up, but I don’t remember anyone actually using it for anything shoe-related.)

A tiny grasshopper nymph on narrowleaf penstemon.

Anyway, there are a lot of penstemon plants blooming at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this year. The two beardtongues in flower now are pretty great, and it looks like shell-leaf penstemon, which will open soon, is having a good year, too. I took a lot of photos of the flowers, including some of the insects crawling around on them. Then I tried to write something dumb and schmaltzy about all of that and failed.

An ant exploring a narrowleaf beardtongue blossom.
A tiny wasp.
And, of course, a crab spider looking for a meal.

I apologize that you don’t get to read a blog post about penstemon this week. I guess you can just look at these photos and enjoy them. I’ll try to be better in the future.

Have a great holiday weekend if you’re in the U.S. If you’re not in the U.S., do the best you can with what you have, I guess?

One last gorgeous example of narrowleaf beardtongue.