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 – January 17, 2020

First things first – I really appreciate all the positive attention for the goofball post I wrote on Monday that included the parody field guide for roadside wildflowers. I write a lot of posts on topics I feel are important, and that I hope will be useful and shared widely. Some of those posts have done pretty well, but none have blown up as quickly as this week’s dumb collection of blurry photos. It’s a weird world we live in. Still, I’m still glad people enjoyed the field guide – especially after I spent a stupid amount of time working on it over the recent holiday break.

Now back to my normal boring posts… : )

Last Saturday, the day started frigidly cold. It was near zero degrees Fahrenheit and there was just enough breeze to cut through all but the thickest head coverings. All in all, it was a great day to stay in bed. So, obviously, I threw on my insulated coveralls and headed out to a nearby wetland to slide around on the ice with my camera.

Frost covered much of the ice and the lower parts of emergent plants. As I walked across the ice, it was clear which areas had been frozen for a while (mostly opaque ice) versus what had very recently been frozen (clear and dark). There was even a little bit of open water in one part of the large wetland. At one point, a put my foot down and a single long crack zipped out from beneath my boot and extended 40 yards or more. That seemed like a good indication that I’d gone far enough in that particular direction – even though the water below me was only a few feet deep.

The sunrise came with very little color in the sky because there were no clouds. Still, it created interesting patterns of light and shadow because of the low angle of the light.

Only one vehicle drove past the wetland while I was there. I heard it coming and quickly stood up to avoid any chance of them wanting to stop and ask why I had been lying down on the ice. I tried to look nonchalant as they drove by, but I’m pretty sure they noticed the white glaze up and down the front of my coveralls. While I’m sure they were curious, they apparently decided that unfulfilled curiosity was preferable to the risk of stopping to talk to someone who was clearly not in his right mind.

Older cracks in the ice had refrozen, but still created interesting patterns across the wetland’s surface.
How many times must these leaves have had to drag back and forth in the wind to create those markings in the ice?
Umbrella? Skirt? Regardless, it was an attractive little accessory on this wetland rush.

Several inches of snow fell here last night. I’m hoping I can clear enough work off my plate today to get out this evening and walk around (assuming the forecast holds and the clouds open up a little before sunset). I may or may not come back with photos I like, but I’m never disappointed with the overall results of deciding to venture out in the cold.

Finally, A Practical Guide for Roadside Wildflower Viewing

If you’re a fan of wildflowers, I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing I have – all the field guides out there have one massive flaw. They’re designed for people who are slowly ambling about in prairies and other natural areas with nothing better to do than stop and stare closely at the minute details of flowers.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with kneeling down and staring closely at wildflowers. I mean, we should all be so lucky to have the free time and – apparently – lack of responsibility to spend our days wandering around in fields of blossoms. I’m sure at least some people who do that are perfectly nice, and probably not at all dangerous.

Detailed close-up photos like this one are of no use in identifying wildflowers seen from the window of a moving vehicle.

But what about the silent majority who prefer to experience wildflowers the way General Motors intended – by whizzing past them in a fast, comfortable automobile? How are nature-loving-from-a-distance drivers supposed to learn the names and habits of the wildflowers as they speed blissfully past them at 65 (85?) miles per hour?

Well, at long last, I have bravely stepped into the void to create the wildflower guide that has been missing for as long as field guides and automobiles have awkwardly co-existed on this earth. Today, I am introducing my new book, “A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers At Full Speed“. This free, self-published eBook is available right now at THIS LINK.

The wildflowers in the book are arranged by both color and blooming date (within color classes), just as you’ll see in other field guides. However, in this guide, the flowers appear as they actually look when you see them from the road. This much more realistic portrayal of wildflowers will prevent the frustration that comes from staring bleakly at field guide photos that bear little resemblance to what you see out your car window.

Here’s an actual photo from the Field Guide. Black-eyed Susans are a common roadside wildflower. They can often be distinguished from upright yellow coneflowers because the darker brown/black streaks are embedded within the broader yellow streaks in black-eyed Susans, whereas those dark streaks are usually above the yellow in upright yellow coneflowers.

I’m not asking for any monetary compensation for this book. It is offered as a free service to all drivers hungering for a way to learn more about wildflowers without having to stop and walk around like some kind of animal. In the event that you find this field guide useful, you can compensate me by donating toward your favorite conservation organization. There are numerous great organizations to choose from, including a very nice one that kind of rhymes with ‘Duh, may sure gun fervency’.

(Yeah? You try rhyming it!)

Another image from the field guide, showing wild bergamot, aka bee balm. Note the pale green smears amongst the pink, which are characteristic of this species. The limited width of the pink streaks also helps separate this species from similar flowers such as shell-leaf penstemon, though the two also bloom during different seasons.

The current iteration of the book includes many of the most common wildflowers seen in Nebraska and nearby states, but I hope to expand both the number of flower species and the book’s geographic relevance in future editions. In the meantime, I have attempted to apply for a copyright of this book’s concept, but I apparently called the wrong number because I all I could hear was hysterical laughter as I tried to explain my plan. I’ll keep trying. In the meantime, please don’t steal the idea.


Disclaimer: This book should never be used while actually driving. Always use a designated passenger to look up flowers. I mean, they’re going to be staring at their phone anyway – they might as well do something useful for you at the same time.