Photo of the Week – December 13, 2018

I’ve been (pleasantly) buried in data analysis over the last couple weeks.  Despite that, I’ve managed to squeeze in a few short photography excursions into the snowy prairie.  The mild forecast for the next week or two makes me glad I took advantage of the opportunity.  Here are a few miscellaneous photos from those trips.  

Suspended ice above a partially frozen wetland.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.
Aerial drone photo of the same restored stream and wetland shown in the above close-up image.  If you look closely, you might see some waterfowl at the very top left.  See more on next image…
One of the reasons we have put so much energy into restoring this wetland from a former gravel mine-created sandpit lake is the strong groundwater influence.  That groundwater flow helps keep the surface open in the winter, and at least 70 mallards were using that open water on this particular day.
Snow and frost on prairie grasses.  Helzer family prairie.
Rabbit tracks near sundown in the hills at the Platte River Prairies.   This was right after I spooked up a big jack rabbit, but these are cottontail tracks.

By the way, it’s about time for my annual collection of “best photos of the year”.  If you’ve got any nominations, let me know!  I’ve got it narrowed down to about 100 images so far…

Photo of the Week – December 6, 2018

Picture this, if you will:  A foolhardy photographer has made his way onto a large frozen wetland slough in a prairie along the Platte River.  After his boots punctured the thinner ice along the edge of the slough, he has carefully, with dripping boots,stepped up onto the marginally thicker ice beyond and is now army crawling across the frozen surface, trying to ignore the cracking sounds all around him each time he moves.  He knows his life isn’t in danger (the water is only a few feet deep and he’s 50 yards from his truck), but there seems a very good likelihood of submerging the camera equipment he’s carrying and of getting suddenly and uncomfortably wet and cold.

From a distance, it’s hard to see what the photographer is risking so much to photograph.  Every minute or so, he appears to stop and aim his camera at the base of rushes and other plants protruding from the ice, even changing lenses several times to get different perspectives.  Of plant stems in the ice?  What a loon.  …Actually, that’s a patently unfair slam on loons, which have infinitely more sense than this chucklehead seems to have. 

Let’s hear the explanation in the photographer’s own words, for whatever that’s worth.

Yeah, I get it.  And I’m glad (as I very often am) that no one was ACTUALLY watching as I slid myself and my gear across the ice earlier this week.  But what I was chasing were little cone-shaped pieces of ice suspended above the frozen surface of the wetland.  I found them strangely attractive and an intriguing mystery.  What caused the ice to form a cone in the first place, and why were those cones so far above the surface of the surrounding ice?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to those questions, but I have hypotheses.  I’m guessing there are pieces of relevant information, including that it both rained and snowed recently, that temperatures have been hovering right around the freezing mark over that same time period, and that there is water flowing out of the slough and – probably – lowering the level of the ice. 

Even with all that information, though, I’m still struggling to understand exactly what I was seeing.  I’m thinking maybe the raised cone-shaped ice was formed by snow/sleet/frozen rain accumulating at the base of the plants – both because of wind eddies around the stems and maybe also water running down the stems from above.  I’m pretty sure the elevation of the ice went down in the days prior to my little photo adventure.  But how did the cones become detached from that ice?  

Whatever happened, it created an awful lot of those little cones across the top of that particular wetland slough and others like it.  I’m guessing a more experienced and smarter person than I could have drawn helpful inferences from the uneven surface of the ice.  There were shallow cavities in some places and raised areas in others, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was driving that pattern.  Instead, I focused on photographing the cool little cones and trying not to get anything other than my waterproof boots wet.  In that, at least, I was successful.

They were even attractive from above!
The connection on the left side of this stem between cone and frozen wetland surface is probably a big clue to what was happening.  I have no idea what it might mean.