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 Tiny Actor

While wandering through a grassy opening in an oak woodland this weekend, I came across a gorgeous ring-necked snake. I was at Osage Hills State Park in Oklahoma, where Kim was running a 52 mile race. Kim had been running for almost 12 hours by the time I found the snake, but that’s just an extraneous detail – it’s not important to the story.

The ring-necked snake showing why it has that name.

It had rained for a while in the morning but the sun had been beating down all afternoon and I was hot and sweaty. Kim was too, of course, but that has nothing to do with me finding this snake.

I saw the snake because it moved when I walked too close to it. There’s no chance I’d have seen it otherwise. It was about 12 inches long, or so, which is pretty big for a ring-necked snake, and was about the same diameter as a pencil.

Because I had my camera with me, I corralled the snake to see if it would let me photograph it. I put my hand in front of it every time it changed direction until it finally stopped for a moment and coiled up the tip of its tail, showing the bright red underside. That’s a common defense mechanism for ring-necks and I’ve heard two different possible explanations.

The ring-necked snake and its coiled tail tip.

One explanation is that the red color is supposed to warn off potential predators. Red and orange color are often signs of toxicity among animals and there are some who say ring-necked snakes can taste bad to predators. I’ve not tested that.

A second explanation is that the coiled red tail tip is supposed to look like an earthworm and focus a predator’s attack on the tail instead of the head while the snake continues to try to escape. That’s a fun hypothesis, and I can see the logic in it, but I bet the snake hopes the red color is a repellant, rather than a target.

Anyway, I got a few photos of the snake while it showed me its tail, but then it acted like it wanted to leave again. Selfish.

I gently picked the snake up and moved it to a small spot of bare ground. When I released it, it immediately flipped itself over on its back and lay perfectly still – playing dead. It was a pretty good performance, but I had been expecting it, so I wasn’t worried. I photographed it a little more and then walked away so it would think it had fooled me. The whole encounter reminded me of a similar run-in with an even more dramatic hognose snake a few years ago.

The snake was pretty convincing when it played dead.

It’s important to mention here that the snake never acted aggressively toward me. It didn’t try to bite or even pretend to strike at me. Its full attention was on escaping, or, if that didn’t work, fooling me into leaving it alone.

The next thing I say is important to keep in context. The context is this: ring-necked snakes are harmless to people and pets. That’s important to remember because ring-necked snakes do have a venom they can release from small fangs in the REAR of their mouths. The venom helps subdue prey the snake has already grasped and is starting to swallow.

Again, these snakes are no threat to you. Unless you’re an earthworm, but if you’re an earthworm you have to tell me – and explain how you’re reading this.

The placement of those fangs in the back of the snake’s tiny mouth makes it impossible for you, as a normal human person, to come into contact with them. They’re used to deal with invertebrates, or sometimes small lizards or snakes if the ring-necked snake is big enough to eat those.

Ring-necked snakes are pretty common across much of the eastern 2/3 of the U.S., as well as parts of the west coast. There are different varieties (with assorted color and pattern variations) from place to place. Despite their abundance and widespread range, I’ve only come across a couple of them during more than 30 years as an ecologist. They’re small and hide very well.

I was grateful for the chance to see this particular ring-necked snake. I think the snake was grateful that I eventually left it alone. Meanwhile, Kim kept running, not that she’s part of this story.

Photos of the Week – May 11, 2023

I can feel the building momentum of spring. Wildflowers are becoming easier to find, landscapes are looking more green than brown, and we’ve even gotten a little rain.

Plant growth and blooming is still a few weeks behind what my brain tells me is ‘average’, assuming that means anything anymore. Weirdly, some of the grassland birds also seem slow to arrive. Upland sandpipers showed up last week and I finally saw my first grasshopper sparrow on Sunday. I’d been expecting to see both of those birds around the 3rd week of April. I have no explanation for why they might show up late. It’s not like they’re sending scouts ahead to check out the weather and growing conditions… Are they??

Regardless, the logjam seems to have broken and spring is now rushing forward.

I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve for a very quick trip early this week. I gave the Fellows and Krystal, our new technician, a whirlwind tour of some preserve highlights. In about an hour, we saw bison, prairie dogs, and the view from the highest overlook above the river. I didn’t take any photos during that whole time. Sorry about that.

The next morning, though, I did manage a few shots of the Niobrara River as the light filtered through post-rain clouds.

Niobrara River and clouds at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nikon 18-300mm lens @26mm. ISO 320, f/16, 1/160 sec.
Niobrara River and clouds at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Tamron 100-400mm lens @140mm. ISO 640, f/9, 1/400 sec.
Niobrara River, chairs, and clouds at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nikon 18-300mm lens @30mm. ISO 320, f/16, 1/160 sec.


I also found a pincushion cactus about 20 steps away from the chairs in the above photo. It wasn’t blooming yet, but the spines almost looked like little flowers through the lens of my macro lens.

Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 320, f/13, 1/60 sec.


On Wednesday, I snuck out to our family prairie for a quick check of the early grazing there. I was happy to see a coyote bouncing through the grass. I also heard a lot of thirteen-lined ground squirrels where cattle grazed most intensively last year, which should keep the badgers happy. Best of all, the reed canarygrass patches I sprayed last fall seem to have mostly died and the poison hemlock plants I spaded out last summer haven’t returned.

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) was finishing up its flowering season and I saw more prairie violets (Viola pedatfiida) blooming than I think I’ve ever seen out there before. Four of those prairie violet plants were in the brand new prairie seeding we did last year, which was especially encouraging. Violet wood-sorrel (Oxalis violacea) was going strong in a few scattered patches and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) and woolly locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) were just getting started.

Pussytoes and sky. Nikon 10.5 fisheye lens. ISO 320, f/13, 1/160 sec.

I spent a little while scanning pussytoes for invertebrates. There were several little crab spiders hanging out on the flowers/seed heads. As always, I couldn’t pass up the chance to photograph them.

Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/11, 1/320 sec.
Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/250 sec.
Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/1250 sec.

The other activity I noticed on the pussytoes flowers came in the form of (apparently?) foraging ants. I saw a couple different ants crawling up and down the flowers, sometimes multiple times. I couldn’t tell what they were looking for, if anything, and I don’t think I’ve noticed ants on pussytoes before. That doesn’t mean anything, of course, since plenty happens without me seeing it. I did wonder what the ants were searching for, though, and I don’t really have any answers.

Ant on pussytoes. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/11, 1/320 sec.
Another ant on pussytoes. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/250 sec.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) just opened up this week and was starting to pull in some flies and other pollinators. And, of course, crab spiders were there too.

Prairie ragwort. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 640, f/11, 1/320 sec.
Crab spider and ragwort. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/640 sec.
More ragwort. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/11, 1/1250 sec.

Fringed puccoon was still blooming, and seemed particularly abundant where cattle grazed last year. That might simply be because there was less vegetation to hide them. Either way, it was really nice to see them distributed across parts of the prairie that were farmed until being put back to grass in 1962. As I’ve talked about before, we’ve overseeded those areas over the years, and that’s slowly increasing plant diversity, but the puccoon is moving in on its own. Even better!

Fringed puccoon. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 320, f/13, 1/500 sec.

Another season, another set of mysteries…

Why were the grasshopper sparrows so late to arrive? Why are prairie violets having such a good year in our prairie? What were those ants looking for on pussytoes flowers?

It’s going to be a good year.