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.

A Morning in our Family Prairie

I had a nice and unexpected walk in our family prairie over the weekend. I’d planned to head out there Saturday morning before it got too windy and do a bumble bee survey as part of the Nebraska Bumble Bee Atlas project. However, I woke up even earlier than planned, so I took off and ended up out there just as the sun was rising above a few diffuse clouds near the horizon. The windspeed was also less than forecast, so I grabbed my camera and took advantage of the situation.

A damselfly on purple prairie clover, with the rising sun behind it.

As I’ve written many times in the blog, our family prairie is a continuing restoration project. Most of the site was farmed through the 1950s, but there are a few little bits of remnant prairie scattered within the 100 acre grassland. The formerly farmed areas were planted to grass in 1962 and between the expansion of populations from the remnants and seed we toss out in recently grazed sites, plant diversity has been slowly increasing.

Combine that history with the fact that our prairie is an island in a sea of row crops, and every insect or other prairie animal found is like a gift.

“Oh wow, how did YOU find your way here??” “Hey, you’re still around, huh? That’s great!”

The prairie specialist regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) is an example of a species I’m always gratified to see, along with the American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus), which is declining to the east of us. Now and then, I’ll see a greater prairie chicken during June and wonder if it’s nesting. There are many others, both large (badgers and coyotes) and small (tiger beetles, leaf hoppers, and spiders). Most have surely made their way into the prairie during the period between 1962 and now, but I wonder if some might have been hanging on in those tiny unplowed patches and continue to persist today.

An early instar monarch caterpillar on common milkweed.
A lynx spider soaking in the sun on an ironweed leaf.
A different lynx spider on a different ironweed leaf from a different angle.
A prairie skink. I can’t remember if I’ve seen one at our family prairie before and was excited to see it.

Similarly, it’s always a pleasure to see wildflowers, sedges, or even grasses I know weren’t part of the six species seed mix most of the site was planted with. The diversity is getting pretty good in places, but there’s still a long way to go. Fortunately, the trend is going in the right direction, and while I’ve got plenty of invasive trees, grasses, and forbs to deal with, I feel like the site is getting better every year.

Sensitive briar was starting to bloom on south-facing slopes. I’ve seen more this year than ever before, which is gratifying, but it’s still fairly uncommon.
A small katydid nymph on sensitive briar.

I was a little disappointed with the abundance of blooming wildflowers this weekend. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was fairly abundant, and yellow sweetclover (Melilotus officinalis) is an unfortunate constant in the replanted areas, but apart from those two, other flowering species were only found here and there. Sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvus) and prairie larkspur (Delphinium virescens) are becoming more common over time, but are still found in only a few patches. Spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis) occurs as scattered flowering plants and upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) and lead plant (Amorpha canescens) are just beginning to bloom.

Most of the spring flowers are done and the more abundant summer flowers aren’t quite ready yet, so it feels like the prairie is in a bit of a lull. I’ve gotten better over time at looking at prairies through the eyes of various animals. This weekend, our prairie felt a little wanting from the perspective of bees and other pollinators. I’ll try to keep that in mind as I think about what species to harvest for our next rounds of overseeding.

I’m not sure if it was related to the relative scarcity of wildflower blossoms, but I enjoyed a pleasant quarter of an hour lying in a patch of buffalo grass (not one of the 6 planted species!) watching flies and bees feed on grass pollen. I’d love to know how the nutritional quality of buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) pollen compares to other options for those insects. I see the same kinds of little syrphid flies feeding on grass pollen later in the season too, even when there is an abundance of big wildflowers, which makes me think they might be visiting buffalo grass by choice rather than out of necessity. I’m not sure if the same was true for the little bees I saw.

Syrphid fly on buffalo grass
Two syrphid flies mating on buffalo grass.
A small bee feeding on buffalo grass pollen.

As I wandered through the main four sections of our prairie, I was also paying attention to the habitat and plant community responses to our grazing treatments. Habitat heterogeneity looked good (tall and thick in the more rested paddocks and short, sparse, or patchy in the grazed or recently-grazed ones), but that’s the easy part. I was happier to see that smooth brome, while widespread, wasn’t looking dominant in any of the four pastures.

The paddock grazed hardest last year and beginning its two year recovery had the most brome flowering, but the plants were mostly small and spindly. In the other three, the cows were taking care of the brome in the currently-grazed paddock and the other two paddocks had very little evidence of brome unless I went digging through the vegetation to find it. Excellent.

I won’t bore you with all my other specific observations, but I was pleased to see lots of new plants germinating in areas that were grazed last year and recovering now. The seven acres of cropland we planted to prairie this year is starting to show signs of success too, though it’s way too early to be looking at it too closely. Just seeing a few native plants here and there is enough to see that the process is working.

Eastern kingbird hawking insects from a fence.

Once the vegetation dried out, I completed my bumble bee survey. Then I chopped a few musk thistles and poison hemlock plants I’d missed last week and prepared to head home. Just as I was ready to hop in the truck, I spotted an eastern kingbird ‘hawking’ insects from the barbed wire fence. It was sitting on the wire and scanning the area and then periodically zipping out to catch something flying by. I wondered if it was distracted enough to let me get a photo of it. I managed to get close enough for a couple decent shots before it took off after a moth (I think?) that led it about 100 yards away. I let it go and drove home feeling good about life.

If you want to see our family prairie in person, it’s one of the two optional field trips being offered as part of our Conserving Fragmented Prairies workshop coming up on July 25-26. You can read about that and our public field day at the Platte River Prairies on July 9 in my earlier post.

Photos of the Week – June 17, 2022

The Hubbard Fellows (Brandon and Emma) went with me this week to The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch in the far northwest corner of Nebraska. It’s a property I don’t visit nearly often enough, and every time I go I promise myself I’ll go back again soon. I’m not very good at keeping that promise so far but I’m going to keep trying.

Rocks, prairie, and sky. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 800, f/16, 1/500 sec.
A big rock formation surrounded by prairie – including some crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), which fortunately doesn’t seem to be spreading too far. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 800, f/15, 1/500 sec.
Prairie in evening light. The stream in the valley is the Niobrara River – far smaller than it is further east where it has been designated a National Scenic River. Nikon 18-300mm lens @95mm. ISO 800, f/11, 1/500 sec.
Brandon Cobb wanders off to explore and do some photography. Tokina 11-20mm lens @19mm. ISO 800, f/18, 1/400 sec.

Cherry Ranch is located south of Harrison, Nebraska in the ‘high plains’ – at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s a mixture of shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie that receives an average of 15-16 inches of rain per year. The upper reach of the Niobrara River flows through the ranch, providing moisture for some wet meadows in the bottom of its valley, but most of the surrounding prairie is high and dry, with lots of exposed sandstone formations.

I’m an ecologist, not a botanist, so I try to keep up with plant identification but can get quickly out of my comfort zone when I stray too far from the Platte River Prairies and my family prairie. I know more 99 percent of the plants I see along the Platte and about 90-95% in the Nebraska Sandhills, but that probably drops to something around 65 or 70% in the panhandle. The diversity of little plants on the rock outcrops at Cherry Ranch and similar sites are even more difficult, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love looking at them.

However, while I think my plant identifications in these photos are right, I’m certainly not guaranteeing any of them.

Purple locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) and stemless hymenoxis (Tetraneuris acaulis) on a rocky hill top. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 800, f/14, 1/320 sec.
Stemless hymenoxis blooming in a rocky spot. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 800, f/14, 1/320 sec.
Stemless hymenoxis in late day light. Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/200 sec.

We caught both a sunset and a sunrise at the ranch this week, taking advantage of some nice photography light (though it was windy). I took several thousand photos and ended up with about 130 that I really liked. It wasn’t just a photography trip, though, so we spent quite a bit of time talking ecology and management with Travis Krein and his ranch hand Lee. Travis manages the place for us and is one of those people who is more impressive the longer you talk with him.

The first thing we looked at with Travis was a stretch of the river where he and Lee have been experimenting with cattle grazing to suppress invasive cattails – something that was Travis’ idea to try. (It’s working well and we talked about some potential variations to try next.) We also had long conversations about bird habitat, invasive species, fencing and grazing approaches, and lots more. I came away feeling both awed at his knowledge and a little more insecure about mine.

Sunrise light hits the rock outcrops. Tokina 11-20mm @18mm. ISO 400, f/18, 1/40 sec.
I think this is something in the Cryptantha genus but don’t know what species. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/80 sec.
Clustered cancer root, aka clustered broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata) is a neat little native parasitic plant that doesn’t make its own chlorophyll. Nikon 10.5mm lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.
I think this is desert sandwort (Eremogone hookeri) but I wouldn’t guarantee it. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.
I’m thinking standing milk-vetch (Astragalus laxmannii) on this one. Beautiful plant! Tokina 11-20mm lens @16mm. ISO 400, f/16, 1/200 sec.
Mixed-grass prairie. Nikon 18-300mm lens @50mm. ISO 400, f/16, 1/200 sec.

It was pretty windy for insects, so I didn’t get to look for bumble bees as I’d hoped, but we still got to see some wildlife. There were mule deer and pronghorn around, as well as nighthawks, lark buntings, grasshopper sparrows, and lots of other birds. A big common snapping turtle was warming itself up along the banks of the river and I spent some time photographing a colony of cliff swallows nesting on a sandstone cliff. It was a treat to see cliff swallows nesting somewhere other than the underside of highway bridges, which is where most of them seem to hang out these days.

Cliff swallows nesting on the exposed face of a cliff. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 500, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Crested beardtongue (Penstemon eriantherus). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/16, 1/500 sec.
Emma Greenlee walks through a patch of needle-and-thread grass. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/640 sec.

Cherry Ranch is a working ranch with no infrastructure to host the public, so it’s not open for hiking or other uses. I’d like to find a way to facilitate some visitation at some point in the future because it’s obviously a gorgeous site, but it’s tricky given the remoteness of the place and a lack of nearby staff. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to get out there more often and share photos and stories with you as a meager substitution.

If you like the look of this landscape, though, there is a lot of public land in the panhandle that’s worth visiting. Chadron State Park, Fort Robinson State Park, Toadstool Geological Park, the Ogalala National Grasslands, and the Wildcat Hills are just a few examples. Those sites contain a combination of grasslands, badlands, ponderosa pine ridges, and other habitats that many would be surprised to know exist at all, let alone exist in Nebraska. I highly encourage you to explore them!

A tiny wasp on exposed sandstone. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/16, 1/800 sec.
A common snapping turtle basks in the sun along the Niobrara River with a spider on its head. Nikon 18-300mm lens @270mm. ISO 800, f/18, 1/320 sec.

Don’t forget about the upcoming events at the Platte River Prairies in July! The first will be a public field day on July 9 for anyone who wants to learn more about prairie and wetland ecology. The second is a workshop on conserving fragmented prairies on July 25-26 that is aimed at biologists working in grasslands. Both are free of charge but we’re asking for people to RSVP. Information can be found in the embedded links within this paragraph. Hope to see you there!