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 9, 2021

I like my camera bag. In fact, I’m pretty disappointed with Lowepro® for discontinuing it and not replacing it with a similar option. Sure, it would be nice to have a more convenient place to put a water bottle (come ON, Lowepro®!) but it has the fundamental qualities I was looking for. It’s big enough to carry a camera and several lenses, along with lens and sensor cleaning swabs, a few small tools, extra batteries, etc. It also has an extra compartment big enough to carry a light sweatshirt or rain jacket (or, more awkwardly, a water bottle). Most importantly, it has a big comfortable hip belt to help distribute the weight and it’s a sling bag that I can quickly rotate across the front of my body so I can open the bag and quickly grab my gear without having to take the bag off first.

My bag weighs about 16 pounds when it’s full of camera gear (not counting a water bottle), which is almost half of what I would want to carry on a backpacking trip. It’s enough weight that walking around all day with the bag feels very different than walking around without it. Despite that, I almost never walk prairies without the bag. Whenever I talk myself out of carrying it, I regret it. Sometimes I regret it because a burrowing owl will land within 20 feet of me and stare at me, daring me to try a photo with my stupid cell phone. Other times, I’ll come across a box turtle, or an assassin bug that has just captured a shiny green bee on a gorgeous flower.

I’ve carried my heavy bag during long hot days collecting field data and frigid blustery slogs across wet prairies to check fence. On those occasions when photography is not the primary reason for my trip, I often tote that bag all day and never get the camera out. When I get back to my truck, I’ll unstrap the bag, toss it gently on the seat, and stretch my back – enjoying the bliss of being suddenly 16 pounds lighter. Sometimes, I’ll ask myself if it was really worth carrying the bag all day when I knew it was going to be a windy day with bright blue skies and intense sunlight that would have made photography difficult anyway. I’ll then remind myself about the burrowing owl, box turtle, and assassin bug. Then I’ll sigh, climb into the truck, and drive home.

Now, while it might seem that way, this isn’t a blog post about how hard my job is, or a plea for sympathy because I have to carry a semi-heavy bag around while I get paid to wander around in prairies. I know how fortunate I am, believe me.

Nope, this post is about something else completely.

This post is entirely about needling Sarah and Kate, our two Hubbard Fellows, about NOT CARRYING THEIR CAMERA GEAR when we went out into the prairies this week! I met the Fellows and Cody (our land manager) on Tuesday afternoon and we spent a couple hours looking at potential research and burn sites. It was mostly cloudy and windy – not the best conditions for photos. Still, I carried my camera bag with me. Did the Fellows bring along the camera gear we bought for them?

No. No, they did not.

And so, when Sarah spotted a gorgeous little redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) and Kate picked it up so we could all admire it, did the Fellows pull out their cameras like I did and get some nice photos of this beautiful little friend?

Nope. (hee hee)

Purely coincidentally, I got some really nice photos of a redbelly snake this week! Here they are.

Here’s a shot of the snake showing both its tiny size and its bright colored underside. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/14, 1/125 sec.

Redbelly snakes are similar to brown snakes (Storeria dekayi). They’re a little smaller than brown snakes (8-11 inches maximum) and have a red belly instead of pale gray or white. These snakes are found throughout a lot of the eastern United States but in Nebraska they’re only in a few counties along the Central Platte River – right where our Platte River Prairies are located. They’re usually tied to riparian woodlands and similar habitats, where they eat earthworms, slugs, and sometimes insects. The ones I’ve seen over the years have usually been in prairies and cropland, but usually near woodland. They are likely more abundant in woodlands but I don’t spend much time in the trees!

Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.
Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.
Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.
Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/100 sec.

(As usual, I get most of my information on reptiles and amphibians from Dan Fogell’s terrific book, “A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Nebraska”.)

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Kate Contemplates Cranes, Calendars and Home

This blog post is written by Kate Nootenboom, one of our 2021 Hubbard Fellows. Kate came to us from Portland, Oregon, by way of Carleton College in Minnesota. Kate, along with her fellow Fellow, Sarah, has been very busy learning about The Nature Conservancy and our work, picking up new land management skills, and preparing for a very busy field season coming up. This is her first stand-alone blog post for The Prairie Ecologist, but you’ll hear more from her in the coming months.

When I arrived in Wood River, Nebraska almost two months ago, I was greeted by a pandemic-appropriate welcome committee: not a single person, just a note from staff, a goodie bag, and a Nature Conservancy photo calendar. I flipped this last gift to February and hung it on the wall, and so for my first month of settling in I was greeted every day by a photo of sandhill cranes touching down on a Great Plains horizon.

(Editor’s note: Kate arrived the weekend before her job started. I want to be clear that there were actual people present when she officially started Monday morning…)

Sandhills cranes on Kate’s calendar.

For weeks, this photo served as a reminder of the new place where I, too, had just touched down: the Central Platte River Valley. The famed pinch-in-the-hourglass of the central migratory flyway, and springtime mothership of cranes and crane-watchers alike. As March drew closer and the skies grew ever louder with wings, the photo and I shared our final days of anticipation together.

When March came, I flipped to the next calendar page, and in doing so finally read the caption below the photo. Sandhill cranes, Oregon, USA. The birds that had welcomed me to Nebraska weren’t flying over the Great Plains at all, as I’d assumed, but over my own home state. I’m an Oregonian born and raised, but I had never seen nor heard of cranes in the place I thought I knew best. I texted my dad with the news.

“Of course there are sandhill cranes in Oregon,” he replied. “I hear them every spring over Sauvie Island.”

This double revelation, that cranes had flown through my childhood home and I’d never noticed, shook me (though in my defense, the Pacific flyway is nowhere near as well-trodden as Nebraska’s central flyway). It also offered a poignant reflection on this idea of home, and what it means to know or love a place well enough to call it that.

Migratory sandhill cranes on Nebraska’s Platte River. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

Thanks to walks with Chris through the richly diverse prairies along the Platte River, I anticipate soon passing the milestone of being able to identify more native species in Nebraska than I can in Oregon. I remember passing this milestone in Minnesota as a student, and the complexity it added then to my conception of home. Just the other day, my UPS deliverer asked if I was from Minnesota (inferring from my license plates). I said yes, and we talked about his connection to the Twin Cities and some of my favorite places there. As he drove away, I realized my answer hadn’t been entirely truthful – I’m not from Minnesota. But it also hadn’t felt like a lie.

A license plate doesn’t make a place home, and neither does a mental index of plant names.  But at least knowing the plants means you’re paying attention, and paying attention means you’re beginning to care.

Maybe that’s all home needs to be: a place that you give your attention to, that you care for and feel cared for by. Under those standards it can easily be shifting and multiple. Why assume “home” must be static? Migration is a beautiful and powerful force for many species, including our own, and plenty of people know the truth in feeling at home in myriad places. After all, what is home to a sandhill crane? One may travel thousands of miles in a single season but returns dependably to the same ponds, sandbars, and corn fields along the way (I read recently that some cranes are seen in the same corners of corn fields year after year. Do they feel at home there?).

Sandhill cranes and a full moon. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.

I have more questions than answers on this, and I’m always interested in hearing what “home” means to other people. Is home a place to you? Or several places, or a type of place? Is it a building, or a landscape, or a migratory path? What threshold must you cross (license plates, plant names, or otherwise) before a place counts as home?

These are fun questions to think about, especially in this season of sharing our stretch of the Platte River with the sandhill cranes as they travel along the flyway. I look forward to finding more reasons to think of Nebraska as home, but for now I’ll look up into the springtime sky and listen to its most iconic sandhill soundtrack, and be reminded (just a little bit) of Oregon. These days, home is a bit of a unison call.

Cranes and sunset. Photo by Kate Nootenboom.