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.

Tripods, Thistles and Cricket Butts

If you’re looking for bonus content, this week, click here to read a blog post I wrote for The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog. I was asked to write about pollinator conservation and why we should be focusing on the incredibly diverse native bee community rather than honey bees. You might find it an informative read.

Tree crickets feed on a native tall thistle flower (Cirsium altissimum) in restored prairie.

Over the weekend, I met up with former fellow Evan Barrientos, who was back in Nebraska for a short visit. Evan is now the Communication and Marketing Coordinator of Audubon Rockies, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was in the state for a meeting and then hung out at the Platte River prairies for a few days before heading home. We met up Sunday morning to talk and do some photography. It was cloudy and breezy (10-15 mph winds) but we ventured out with our cameras anyway.

We mostly walked and talked for a while, but eventually, the skies lightened enough that we got our cameras out and started shooting a little. As we did, we shared some good-natured banter about whether or not to use a tripod. I almost always carry my tripod so I can stabilize my camera while photographing flowers and insects. Evan often does too, but said he’s been trying to go without it more lately and left it in the truck while we were walking. We argued about whether or not a tripod does any good when the wind is already whipping plants around anyway.

Here is Evan, displaying his technique for photographing a small hover fly on a big bluestem flower in the wind. Looks like a lot of work to me, but is probably a good muscle workout, if you’re looking for that.

My position was that with a tripod, I could at least control the movement of my camera and really only worry about the plant’s movement (with or without an insect on the plant). Evan said that since the plants were moving so much anyway, the little bit of camera shake from hand-holding his camera was irrelevant. Young people…

I enjoyed watching him clench his body into uncomfortable positions and shoot hundreds of rapid-fire shots, hoping one of them would be sharply focused. Maybe he managed to luck into a few good shots by doing that, I don’t know. I do know that my technique of using a tripod (or sometimes just folding the legs together to form a monopod) let me get some really nice photos of tree crickets – and other subjects.

Most of the tree crickets we say on tall thistle were head down and totally engrossed in feeding on nectar (I assume?) from the flowers. They reminded me of dabbling ducks in wetlands.
Here’s a better view of one of the tree crickets. Notice how tack sharp this image is, despite the breeze. Tripods are really helpful tools… I also showed Evan my little trick of using nearby vegetation and “tying” a flowering stem to my tripod to dampen its movement in the wind. He pretended to pay attention…

I’m mostly kidding about all of this, of course. Evan is a great photographer and you can enjoy his work on his blog, The Naturalist Lens. When he eventually finds time to edit his photos from yesterday – and if he was lucky enough to get something good from the day – he’ll probably post them there, or on his Instagram account (@evanbarrientosphotography). Feel free to visit those sites and harass him until he does so. Let’s see what the little whippersnapper came up with!

Another tree cricket butt.
Yet another tree cricket butt. I’m not sure why I was so enamored of this subject, but I thought it was both funny and cute that the crickets were diving headfirst into the flowers for food.
This crab spider was waiting for a tree cricket to venture close enough for it to have breakfast.

Just to show that the tripod worked for photographing subjects other than tree crickets and crab spiders on 5 foot tall thistles, here are a couple more example photos from the morning. I’m sure Evan has some nice images too, but I wonder if his back hurts from standing so funny… (My back hurts too, but that’s just from being old!)

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) has gorgeous flowers but is invasive in North America. This particular plant will probably be sprayed with herbicide within the next few days.
Buffalo bur (Solanum rostratum) is often seen as a weed, but only because it establishes well on bare ground, is spiny, and not usually eaten by cattle. An alternative view is that it is a beautiful native plant that helps cover bare ground to prevent erosion and employs the cool strategy of requiring buzz pollination, wherein only bees that can vibrate their bodies at the right frequency can cause pollen to be released. Bumblebees are one common group of bees that can do just that.

Photos of the Week – August 17, 2019

We were at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week. It was a quick trip, with little time for photography. I did manage a few shots, though, so I’m sharing them here.

A few of us went for a short walk up the hill behind the headquarters Thursday afternoon. I don’t remember who spotted the first one, but we suddenly realized we were in the midst of an impressive congregation of walking sticks. We were finding 3-5 per square meter for a while. After we walked another 20 meters or so, the numbers thinned, but we were still seeing them here and there. Imagine how many we must have missed! It appeared to be a meeting of potential lovers, given the kind of activity many were engaged in…
This salt marsh caterpillar species (I think?) seems to become a photographic subject for me at least once or twice a year, including this handsome individual.
We drove to town for supper and on the way back, the sun was rose big and orange over the horizon. By the time we got back to the headquarters and I could escape with my camera, most of the moon’s color had gone, but I did manage one decent photo of sand bluestem in front of it.
With a rising full moon, star photography was tricky, but I wandered down to the Norden Chute to see if I could use the moonlight’s illumination of the falls to my advantage, while still getting a few stars in the background. It’s not my all-time favorite photo of the Chute, but it was worth the (pleasantly quiet) time I it took to play around near the water.