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 – November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving morning was overcast with light snow here in Aurora, Nebraska. We had a big family gathering yesterday, but no plans for today, so I ventured out to get some fresh air. I took my camera because I always take my camera, but I wasn’t overly optimistic about the kinds of photos I’d get. Photography in flat low light conditions can be difficult because both color and texture are greatly muted. Accordingly, I looked for strong patterns and clear contrast between prairie plants and the 4-5 inches of snow that was on the ground.

A Maximilian sunflower seedhead poking out of the snow this morning.
Light snow accumulating on a fallen leaf on top of more snow.
Patterns of ice around the edges of a small hole in the snow.

I didn’t see any other people walking in the snowy prairie on Thanksgiving morning, but I wasn’t completely alone. I saw tracks of a big deer that had probably hidden in the little patch of prairie and woods on the edge of town during the recent rifle deer season. Tracks of rabbits and birds were all over the place too, the latter clearly foraging on seeds from a wide variety of prairie plants. I also got a brief glimpse of a vole that popped out of the snow at my feet, scurried about 8 feet across the surface, and then dove back into the snow again.

I spent a lot of time on my knees, exploring small holes in the snow where grasses and other plants were poking out. Yesterday warmed up enough to do a little melting of snow around the edges of those holes, leaving behind interesting patterns. In some cases, the ice crystals on those edges were the subject of the photo – other times, they just helped frame leaves or stems in nice ways.

I nearly decided not to go out this morning. It wasn’t terribly cold, but it was the kind of damp cold that seems to seep right through winter clothing. As I was waffling, the wind picked up, making me even more hesitant to leave the house. Eventually, though, my desire to be outside outweighed my doubt about whether I’d find anything worth photographing in the flat light and windy cold temperatures. I should have known better – deciding to go walk in a prairie is almost never the wrong choice, and once I was there, I had a great time. I hope you enjoy this selection of images from my hike. Happy Thanksgiving!

A big bluestem seed on the snow.
Cottonwood leaf
Tendrils of a wild grape, I think?
Seeds of rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium)

A Surprising Winter Hideout

As I was wandering along the edge of a small prairie today, I saw something stuck to a grass stem. I only half noticed it as I walked past because I was looking at something else at the time. The piece of my brain that did notice it first interpreted it as a piece of cow manure that had gotten stuck on the grass on the way down. (I know it’s gross, but it was my honest reaction.) Upon second look, I saw it was a leaf that had been folded together and apparently stuck together with silk.

Well, that was intriguing, so I took a couple photos of it and then pried it open to see what was inside. The inhabitant was a small jumping spider. The spider appeared dead – all its legs were tightly curled up and it didn’t respond when I touched it. Maybe it really was dead, but I think it’s more likely it was in a state of diapause (dormancy).

When I opened up the silk-lined leaf, I found a cute, but nonmoving jumping spider.

Spiders, like many other invertebrates, have the ability to pause their development and greatly reduce their metabolism in order to survive long winters with no food. In addition, at least many spiders can produce compounds in their blood that act as anti-freeze and keep them from freezing solid. I’m guessing the jumping spider I saw had been comfortably (?) wrapped in its silk-lined winter retreat until I ripped it open.

Well, of course, I felt bad about peeling open the spider’s lodging, but I was also glad to learn what was inside. That poor spider had probably worked really hard to drag that leaf all the way up that grass stem – over 2 feet off the ground – and then attach it to the stem and sew together its shelter. Why so high off the ground? Does that protect it from predators? So many questions…

I did my best to stick everything back together and wished the spider good luck before leaving it to its winter rest.