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.

How Can it Be 10 Years Already?

In September 2010, I launched The Prairie Ecologist blog. My book on prairie ecology and management had just been published and, though I was proud of it, I was frustrated by not being able to update it as I learned more and developed new ideas. I also wanted a more interactive forum for discussing ideas about prairie management and restoration. A book can transmit information but it’s one-way communication. I really wanted to learn from others and get their responses to some of my ideas and experiences.

Here’s a photo I took in September of 2010. You can see my taste in subject matter hasn’t changed much… This is a salt marsh caterpillar (along with an ant and inchworm) on pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) in our Platte River Prairies.

In addition, I wanted to share the beauty, diversity, and resilience of prairies with a general audience – one that might be interested in nature, but not necessarily in grasslands. I felt my combined interests of photography and writing might lend themselves to that mission, and a blog seemed like a reasonable platform to try. I had only a vague idea of what a blog was at the time, but with the help of Bob Lalasz (The Nature Conservancy) and others, I started to learn.

I hope those of you who have been around since the early days still find the blog engaging and worth your time. The number of people who follow the blog, or at least check in regularly, is pretty staggering, given my low expectations and inexperience when I started. Over 5,000 people are currently subscribed, but many others are regular readers. Some of you also follow my Instagram account (@prairieecologist), where I post lots of photos and natural history blurbs.

While the blog has been running for 10 years, I know that quite a few current readers have only been aware of the blog for a few years at most. Because of that, I wondered if you might have questions for me, either about prairie topics or about me, personally. This might turn out to be a terrible idea, but I figured maybe I’d solicit questions and try to answer as many as I can.

Here’s what we’ll do: If you have a question for me, ask it in the comments below and I’ll try to answer it in one of three ways. I’ll either answer directly in the comments, answer it in a blog post later this week, or try to incorporate an answer into a blog post in the future. Questions can be about whatever you like (within reason, of course). As an attempt to get you started, I’ve invented a few questions and answered them below.

Above all, THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for supporting this goofy blog and for helping me justify my blogging time to my bosses…

Ok, here are my answers to a few example questions. I’m sure you can come up with better ones.

Question: How do you know so much about invertebrates when you studied birds in graduate school and focused on learning plant identification/ecology during your early career?

As I’ve said many times, I’m not an entomologist, I’m an insect enthusiast. I’ve learned most of what I know about invertebrates by photographing them and then trying to figure out what I just photographed and learn about its back story. I use Bugguide.net and an assortment of very generous friends to identify species. Once I know what it is, I go looking for whatever information I can glean from online and print sources, as well as from those generous friends I already mentioned. Often, I use my own blog as an information source to help me remember facts I know I’ve previously learned and reported!

Question: You’ve written several times about river otters, mostly complaining about never seeing one at the Platte River Prairies, despite it being one of the places in Nebraska with the highest density of otters. It’s been 10 years now (and more than 25 years that you’ve been working on the Platte River). Surely you’ve seen one by now, right?

Next question.

Question: You write a lot about cattle grazing as a prairie management tool. Are you getting paid by the livestock industry?

I’d like to say this is a goofy question, but I’ve actually been accused of this. No, I’m not getting kickbacks from anyone for talking about cattle. The truth is that I think cattle (and bison) grazing creates some unique habitat structure and provides some prairie management options that can’t be replicated through other approaches. Grazing is not appropriate in every prairie, but where it’s feasible, I’ve not found a substitute that can create the kind of habitat heterogeneity that helps many prairie creatures thrive. In addition, the vast majority of prairie acres remaining in North America are on ranches, so developing and testing approaches to grazing that promote plant and animal diversity has obvious (I think) relevance to conservation.

Cattle grazing is an incredibly flexible tool for prairie management because we can vary the timing, intensity, and duration of grazing. That allows us to create a wide variety of habitat conditions for animals and growing conditions for plants.

Question: I bet you haven’t changed in appearance at all in the last 10 years. Is that true?

Absolutely. The difference between 38-year-old Chris Helzer and 48-year-old Chris Helzer is nearly impossible to see. Here are two photographs that demonstrate that.

2010 (left) and 2020 (right). It’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?

Question: Gosh, I love what you’ve done with your hair. How do you get it to do that??

I have a very rigorous hair care routine. I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been known to spend as much as $3 for a bottle of shampoo. I think I’m worth it.

Ok, those are examples of the kinds of pithy questions you can ask me. If you have any actual questions, please submit them in the comments section.. Thanks!

Photos of the Week – September 18, 2020

This week, I met up with producers Ethan Freese and Grant Reiner from Platte Basin Timelapse. They were gathering footage for a video project on Nebraska wetlands and we spent a couple hours wandering through and talking about The Nature Conservancy’s Derr Sandpit Wetland restoration project. My role was to walk around with my camera while wearing a microphone. I took some pictures, talked about the restoration project, and answered questions about wetlands and ecology in general. In other words, it was a very pleasant morning.

Hazy sunrise over a beaver pond at the Derr Sandpit Wetland. Tokina 11-20mm, ISO 320, 1/250 sec, f/8.

This is a wetland restoration project close to my heart. The restoration process took more than 10 years to complete, mostly because we had to piece the funding together bit by bit. Financial support came from Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, and even a memorial fund for my mom. That money helped us convert an old sand and gravel mining site to a beautiful mix of stream and wetland habitat.

We started with a long sandpit lake that had a stream entering at one end and flowing out the other. It was surrounded by trees and big piles of sand, and while it was a good place to catch catfish, the habitat value for most other wildlife was pretty limited. We took out the trees and pushed the sand piles into the water. When we were finally done, the stream flowed through the entire site once more, with multiple channels to choose from, depending on the whims of floods and beavers. There are also some isolated wetland pockets, designed to give tadpoles a place to grow up without having to dodge hungry fish.

Beggars-tick flowers (Bidens, sp) submerged in beaver-flooded pool. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/60 sec, f/11.
Beggars-tick flower (Bidens, sp) submerged in beaver-flooded pool. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, 1/60 sec, f/11.

Today, while the site faces a continual inflow of invasive plants from upstream, it also provides a habitat for a wide variety of animals, including freshwater mussels, beavers, lots of water birds, dragonflies, and much more. I’m told it’s a hot spot for river otters as well, though I’m just taking others’ word for that. The plant community is no slouch either, featuring lots of grasses, sedges, and rushes, but also a nice seasoning of forbs like cardinal flower, blue lobelia, beggar-ticks, winged lythrum (Lythrum alatum) and many others. It’s a really special place, and not just because it hasn’t gone dry like most of its neighboring wetlands have during recent droughts.

It was really nice to spend a morning celebrating this particular wetland and its restoration process, along with other wetlands around the state. We talked briefly about the utilitarian values of wetlands (water filtration, space for floodwaters to spread out and slow down, etc.) but I tried to focus most on the fascinating communities of organisms that live in wetlands. I understand how people can view wetlands as stinky mosquito-ridden swamps, but I’d love a chance to tour a wetland with those same people and introduce them to some of the more interesting plants and animals living there. For now, photos will have to do. Here are some more photos from the morning.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

A band-winged grasshopper, well camouflaged on a sandbar left by this spring’s flooding. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/125 sec, f/16.
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) …invasive but beautiful… Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/125 sec, f/16.
Variegated meadowhawk dragonfly. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.
Orbweaver spider hiding on a blade of grass sticking up out of the water. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.
Field mint (Mentha arvensis). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.
Katydid on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/250 sec, f/14.
Grasshopper on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) near the above katydid. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/160 sec, f/16.
Some kind of big skinny fly? For now, I’ll call it the long-legged white-footed fly. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, 1/160 sec, f/20.
Beggars-tick flowers on wetland edge. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 400, 1/100 sec, f/16.

Bonus Content:

If you’d like to see and read more about this wetland, here are a few links to older posts on the same site.

Some great trail camera videos by Karen Hemberger

Timelapse photos of the site from back around 2013

A story about a surprise excess of sludge that appeared during restoration

An update about the sludge as the site continued to mature

Lastly, here’s a feature on the site by Platte Basin Timelapse