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.

It’s ‘The Prairie Naturalist’ Too

My current job title is “Director of Science”, which I have to admit is a pretty cool title. It’s almost as good as the best job title I’ve ever held, which was “Land Steward”. I’ve worked hard to get my current job title, but also to shape the job description that goes with it. Specifically, throughout my career, I’ve fought to keep myself in the field, where I’m consistently able to explore and study prairies up close.

All the photos in today’s post are from the last couple of weeks, and illustrate minor discoveries of sorts that I’ve made while acting as a naturalist. In this case, I’ve been keeping track of the kinds of insects that visit spiderwort plants, and the vast majority are flies. As a result, seeing this bee feeding from spiderwort was noteworthy. Ok, it’s not an observation that will change the world, but it was interesting, nonetheless.

I’ve fought those battles because my sanity and well-being depends upon the sense of discovery I get whenever I’m in a prairie or other natural area. I recognize that I’m really fortunate to have been able to shape my career as I have, but even if I had to work outside of the arena of conservation, I’d still find time to be a naturalist. Heck, even now, I’m in the field during the majority of my work time, but I still spend a lot of my off hours in prairies.

I’m guessing most of us in the conservation arena got here because we were inspired by outdoor experiences as kids or young adults. I remember collecting snails in the road ditch across from my house when I was 6 or 7 years old, for example, and regularly riding my bike to the fishing pond across town when I was in 3rd grade. My aspirations for college were to get a degree and become a park ranger in a remote place where I could somehow get paid for exploring nature (like many people that age, I didn’t have a very realistic idea of what jobs are like).

I’ve seen many butterfly species feeding on minerals left behind by evaporation around mud puddles, etc. but I’d never seen a regal fritillary doing so until I spotted a couple along the trail at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas.

There is certainly a lot more to my job duties than simply “exploring nature”, but I will defend that facet of my job vigilantly. I encourage everyone else in conservation to do the same. Not only does spending time as a naturalist help keep us inspired and energized, it’s how new discoveries and forward leaps in natural history happen. Despite the wealth of knowledge we have about the natural world, there are still gargantuan gaps in our understanding. Many times, we don’t even know what questions need to be asked, let alone how to answer them. As a simple example, I direct you to a short post written by Katharine Hogan, our Hubbard Fellow a few years ago about something I’ve noticed as well. We don’t yet know why all those silken strands sometimes appear in prairies, but I bet the answer will be a doozy when we find it!

I first learned about clustered broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata) while at the Cedar Point Biological Station in college. It’s a parasitic plant, and I was told at the time that it pulls nutrients from fringed sage (Artemisia frigida). I spotted several last week at Cherry Ranch in western Nebraska, and most were next to sage, but not all of them. I went looking for more information and found that its host plant selection is much broader than I’d previously thought. Aha!

Aside from the scarcity of natural areas in many places, it’s never been an easier time to be a naturalist, and it’s a pursuit open to anyone, of any level of experience. First of all, of course, there’s no requirement to identify what you see in order to enjoy finding it. However, if you do want to learn what species you’re admiring, there are now countless digital resources to help you, in addition to the standard books and experts that have been around forever. In addition, not only can you easily share discoveries with friends and potential friends through online communities, your discoveries can contribute to the growth of global scientific knowledge through programs like iNaturalist, Journey North, Bugguide, and many others.

Everyone knows that convergent ladybird beetles (and other species) feeds on aphids, right? Well, just yesterday, I spotted this one clearly feeding on pollen, so I went in search of more information. It turns out pollen and nectar are both important sources of food when aphids aren’t readily available. I certainly wasn’t the first to discover that, but it’s the kind of discovery that can be made by any of us if we’re observant.

The old adage about stopping to smell the roses applies just as much today as ever. It’s what makes life worthwhile. When I’m working in the field, I frequently interrupt what I’m doing to follow a trail or check out a spider web. I feel no guilt about that at all. First of all, I consider it part of my job to increase my experience and skill as a naturalist – and to pursue opportunities for scientific discovery. And second, it’s a tiny investment in my job satisfaction and energy level, from which my employer will reap many benefits. I would encourage everyone reading this to carve out your own naturalist time, regardless of whether that happens at work or not. Besides being good for you, it will be good for the world too.

Photo of the Week – June 14, 2019

The far western end of Nebraska bears little resemblance to the visual image most people have of Nebraska. A combination of geologic forces and climate have joined to create a landscape that appears desolate and/or beautiful, depending upon one’s individual aesthetic. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of wide open space, maybe because I lived there for part of my childhood. As is true across the state, the panhandle is mostly privately-owned, though there are some prominent exceptions within the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills landscapes, as well as the Oglala National Grassland.

Our staff stands on an escarpment at Cherry Ranch with Travis Krein, the rancher who leases the property from us for grazing. Travis is a smart and thoughtful rancher, who has been a strong partner for us over many years.

The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch, south of Harrison, Nebraska, is a prime example of the beauty and remoteness of the panhandle. The roughly 7,000 acre site supports populations of swift foxes, lark buntings, burrowing owls, and many other wildlife species. Plant communities include sedge meadows and mesic prairie down low and western mixed-grass prairie at higher elevation, much of which is dominated by threadleaf sedge, aka blackroot sedge (Carex filifolia), along with a strong diversity of grasses and wildflowers.

Dwarf Indian plantain (Castilleja sessiliflora) was thriving in large populations on some of the rockiest hilltops.

The site is also bisected by the upper reaches of the Niobrara River, which is considerably smaller there than it is as it passes through our Niobrara Valley Preserve, nearly 200 miles downstream. Most spectacularly, the ranch is characterized by a number of rocky escarpments, which provide both stunning views and distinct plant communities. The site is not currently open to public access, but hosts a number of research projects, as well as a working cattle operation.

The Niobrara River winds aimlessly through the landscape at The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch.

A small group of staff visited Cherry Ranch this week to discuss management with our lessee and explore/photograph the various habitats of the site. We had a great trip, full of wildlife and plant observations, the highlight of which was two gallivanting badger cubs that let us watch them for a few minutes. I was disappointed that we didn’t find a prairie rattlesnake, but that sentiment wasn’t unanimous. We spent part of an early evening on the site and then returned the next morning to catch the sunrise. The Fellows will likely have stories and photos to share in the near future, but here are a few of the photos I took during the visit…

Drone photography is really helpful for showing the scope and beauty of the grasslands at the Cherry Ranch.
Cattails are getting a little thicker than we’d like in a few stretches of the river, so we’ll be using some flash grazing by cattle to periodically thin them out. Travis has had success with that in the past, as have many others across the state, including our own experimentation in the Platte River Prairies.
Mary, one of Hubbard Fellows, waits for the sunrise atop one of the rocky ridges.
Early light.
Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) was one of many spectacular flowers blooming at the site. Uncharacteristically, I found myself photographing the landscape much more than individual plants and insects this trip.
I’m pretty sure these are gumbo lilies (Oenothera caespitosa), but there are a lot of Oenothera species out west, though not nearly as many as there are Astragalus species, especially on rocky outcrops!