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 – April 2, 2020

This time of year is one of transition between dormant and active. Last year’s prairie plant skeletons are still prominent. Seed heads are largely emptied, but not entirely. Green growth is starting to appear but the landscape still appears mostly brown from a distance. Here are some photos from our family prairie last weekend that illustrate those transitions.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) rosette.
Let’s make this one a quick quiz. Can you tell what this is? I’ll put the answer at the end of the post.
Common milkweed pods (Asclepias syriaca) were empty, but caught the warm evening light nicely.
I’ve always been captivated by Illinois bundleflower seed pods (Desmanthus illinoensis). The shape and patterns of the pods are great, but I’m also surprised how many seeds remain in the pods through the winter, given how precariously perched they appear.
I don’t know much about what eats the seeds. They look big and nutritious, but from what I understand, the seed coat is strong enough that the seeds pass through most animals intact (including the rumen of cattle).
A long-jawed orbweaver ( think?) spider made its web in the branches of an eastern redcedar tree I cut a couple weeks ago.
Last light of the day on the hill above the wetland.

The ‘mystery’ photo above is a close up of the dried seed head of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), otherwise known as bee balm.

Backyard Nature is Coming Alive!

First, and most importantly, I made a mistake on the Quarantine Quiz I posted earlier today. It’s fixed now, but if you get blog posts via email or looked at the quiz right when it was posted the answer to #2 was wrong. Both A and C are butterflies and B is a moth… Sorry about that – I got in a hurry and was sloppy.

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a backyard or similar small area and it’s currently safe for you to spend time there, now is a great time to become more intimately familiar with its inhabitants. Here in Nebraska, spring has progressed just enough that early garden flowers (crocus and daffodils) are blooming, weeds are germinating in the vegetable garden (two are even starting to flower!), and invertebrates are starting to move around.

A small fly feeds on pollen from gray field speedwell (Veronica polita), one of the first garden ‘weeds’ to bloom each spring. We have some lovely patches in our yard right now.

I spent a couple hours outside yesterday, taking advantage of some high thin clouds and a surprising gap in my video conference call schedule. Most of that time was spent lying prostrate in the garden, suffering the laughing and pointing of my kids through the windows and the occasional double take from the few people out walking past our yard. At first glance, there wasn’t much happening, other than the obvious crocus and daffodils, and birds hopping around looking for food. Once I stopped moving and really looked closely, though, that changed, and I had no trouble finding subject matter for my camera’s macro lens.

A juvenile wolf spider, which also paused just long enough to get a shot of it. This spider was only about 1/2 inch in diameter (including legs).
A false milkweed bug (Lygaeus turcicus) pauses just long enough for me to photograph it.
The same kind of small fly shown earlier, but this time feeding on shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris).
There were quite a few of these little bugs, but I don’t know what they are – apart from being true bugs (Hemipterans)
This speedwell flower fell off (wind?) and landed in a photogenic way.
The prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana) in our prairie garden is just starting to leaf out.
This brand new little plant (probably Cannabis sativa) had a lot of character as it began to emerge from its seed beneath the ground.
There was a lot of this going on between false milkweed bugs yesterday.
Another fly on another speedwell. (I have hundreds of these from yesterday, but limited myself to sharing just two.)

If you have safe access to a yard, park, or other place where you can experience the coming of spring in person (without other people nearby), I encourage you to do so. Here in Nebraska, at least, there really is a lot of action out there, although most of it is hard to see until you go looking for it. Don’t be fooled by the apparent absence of life when looking from a distance.

My short time in the garden yesterday sure made me feel better. I hope you can find similar solace.

Be safe, friends.