Photo of the Week – November 3, 2017

While at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week, I hiked around in the former pine savanna on the bluffs north of the river.  I’ve always enjoyed the patterns found in the bark of ponderosa pine trees, especially after a fire.  Because of the big 2012 wildfire that swept across the Niobrara Valley Preserve, we have thousands of dead ponderosa pines, and (among other things) that means lots of great bark patterns.

Ponderosa Pine Bark pattern. Niobrara Valley Preserve

Not only are pine bark patterns interesting to look at, it’s also fun to try to find images of familiar objects in them.  It’s a little like cloud watching, but instead of gazing dreamily into the sky, you stare at dead burned trees.  It’s probably not for everyone, but one perk is that you don’t get a crick in your neck while doing it.

I didn’t see any particular picture in the first photo shown here, but I did in the next two.  I’m curious to know if any of you see what I see, or if you see something completely different.

So far, people have seen a giraffe, a scorpion, and a happy turkey in this one…


This one brings to mind a couple different Looney Tunes cartoons for me.

It’s probably a good thing I don’t live at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Among all the other things that would distract me from getting work done, I might spend too much time just wandering around looking for pictures in tree bark…

Photo of the Week – April 22, 2016

Carolina anemone, aka windflower (Anemone caroliniana), is one of my favorite spring wildflowers.  Like many early bloomers, it’s beautiful but inconspicuous.  Despite its gorgeous flower color(s), it can be really hard to see unless you’re within a few feet of it.

The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).
The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).  It’s hard to enough to find it when it is blooming.  When it’s not, the leaves (foreground) are so small and inconspicuous, they are nearly impossible to spot.

Earlier this week, the Fellows, Nelson, and I spent a couple hours hiking our Platte River Prairies, practicing some plant identification and talking ecology and management.   I’d mentioned the anemone as a species we might see if we were lucky, but we didn’t find it.  After our hike but before I headed home, I decided to revisit a hill we’d hiked earlier because I wanted to photograph some groundplum (Astragalus crassicarpus) flowers there.  After I finished with the groundplum, I stood up and walked a few steps downhill, and there, not 10 feet from where the four of us had stood a few hours before, was a small patch of Carolina anemone.

There were only five plants and they were in various stages of blooming – and in various shades of blue.  I spent a few minutes photographing them and then called Evan (one of our Hubbard Fellows) in case he wanted to come see and photograph them too.  Evan said something about a friendly little contest…  After describing the location to him, I drove back to town.

Last night, Evan sent me four of the images he came away with from that little patch of windflowers.  Have I mentioned that he’s an excellent photographer?  Also, he cheated by finding and photographing a crab spider on one of the flowers WHICH IS TOTALLY UNFAIR!

Anyway, without making it an overt competition, here are four photos each from Evan and me.  It’s always fun and interesting to see how different photographers interpret the same subject matter.  In this case, notwithstanding Evan’s crab spider, WHICH HE PROBABLY PLANTED, we were working with the same five flowers.  I put my four photos first, followed by his four.

My photos…





And now Evan’s photos…





It sure is nice to be back in wildflower season again.  I’m glad to live at a latitude where we have a true winter dormant season, but part of the reason I like winter is that it increases my appreciation of the return of the growing season each year!

Photo of the Week – July 30, 2015

During our trip to the Grassland Restoration Network workshop in Minnesota last week, several of us got up early enough to catch sunrise at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie on two beautiful mornings.  I shared a few photos from those outings last week, but thought I’d post a few more today.  I’ve got lots more…it wasn’t hard to find subject matter to photograph!

Leadplant and wildflowers.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and other wildflowers abound on The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie near Glyndon, Minnesota.
Woundwort (Stachys palustris).
Marsh hedge nettle, aka woundwort (Stachys palustris).
The cool dewy morning allowed me to get pretty close to this resting monarch butterfly...
The cool dewy morning allowed me to get pretty close to this roosting monarch butterfly…
Beetle on Flodman's thistle.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.
This beetle was feeding its way across the top of this Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) – at least I think that’s what I think the thistle species was… it’s always dangerous to guess when I’m far from home.
Common milkweed.  The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie - Minnesota.
Common milkweed flower buds can be just as attractive as the open flowers…
Bee on milkweed.  TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.
This bee spent the night on a milkweed leaf and wasn’t quite warm and dry enough to fly off when I spotted it.  If you look carefully, you can see pollinia stuck on two (maybe three?) of its feet.  If you’re not familiar with the fascinating (and unlikely) story of how milkweed is pollinated, you can learn more here.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).  The Nature Conservancy's Bluestem Prairie - Minnesota.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia).  This is a species we don’t find very often in the Platte River Prairies (though it’s fairly common nearby) so I always enjoy seeing and photographing it when I can.  As with other “composite” flowers, coneflowers are actually collections (composites) of two kinds of flowers – the ray flowers that look like petals and the disk flowers in the center.  Occasionally, as in this case, a genetic signal gets crossed and ray flower pops up where a disk flower should be.

If you find yourself traveling to or through northwestern Minnesota (just east of Fargo, ND), I encourage you to make the time to visit Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area.  You can find directions and more information on the site here.  The Nature Conservancy owns about 6,000 acres of prairie there, and their ownership is bolstered by several other tracts of conservation land right next door.  The prairie hosts nesting prairie chickens and beautiful tracts of northern tallgrass prairie.  It’s worth the trip to see it.

Photo of the Week – July 2, 2015

Independence Day is this weekend.  Fireworks have been going off in my my neighborhood for days now as people who apparently equate noise with patriotism are enjoying their right to put that feeling into action.  Earlier this week, I was photographing a patch of common milkweed in front of our field headquarters at the Platte River Prairies and thought the flowers looked much like fireworks – but quieter.  Maybe prettier too.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

The attention paid to milkweed has increased dramatically over the last year or two as concern over the plight of monarch butterflies has grown.  I’m excited to see that energy because it helps increase interest in broader issues of pollinator and biodiversity conservation.  What’s good for monarchs (plant diversity, natural land cover – especially prairie, land management that favors milkweed, intelligent use of pesticides, etc.) is also good for bees and many other species, as well as broader ecosystem functioning.

I’ve been thinking about milkweed management in our Platte River Prairies for a number of years now, especially related to cattle grazing.  Cattle like to eat the flowers off of common and showy milkweed (A. syriaca and A. speciosa) even in our moderately stocked patch-burn grazed prairies.  The “deflowering” of milkweed and a few others species has pushed us to modify our management somewhat to make sure that every portion of our prairies is completely excluded from cattle at least once every 4-5 years so those species can bloom and reproduce.  So far, that seems to have helped maintain healthy populations of those plant species, but we’re continuing to monitor and adapt our management as we learn more.

Milkweed plants are important to monarchs, but many other species as well.  Their flowers are among the most popular nectar sources for many pollinators, and a number of herbivorous insects have evolved mechanisms to deal with the toxic sap and rely on the plants for food.  Hopefully, the attention brought to milkweed by monarchs will help those other species as well.

Have a great 4th of July!


From the Ashes

Last Friday, I wandered through the small prairie we burned back on March 10.  Even though it is still very early spring, there were already a number of prairie plants popping out of the ground.  I posted photos of this site right after the fire was completed.  Today, I’m posting some photos taken 10 days later at the same site, along with some discussion of the impacts and effectiveness of prescribed prairie fires.

Purple poppy mallow (Calliroe involucrata)
Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) begins its new year of growth.

Most prairie plants grow from belowground buds, making them much less vulnerable to fire than trees and shrubs, which start their new growth above ground – from buds at the tips of branches.  When fire burns woody plants, those aerial buds and living tissue are destroyed, stressing the plants and forcing them to start over from ground level.  However, fire (at least during the dormant season) simply burns up the old stems and leaves of non-woody prairie plants, causing no injury.  Instead removing those dead stems helps stimulate growth in the coming season, especially via increased sunlight, which warms the ground and is available to new shoots as they first emerge.

Scribner's panicum (Panicum oligosanthes), a native cool-season grass.
Scribner’s panicum (Panicum oligosanthes), a native cool-season grass.  In this photo, you can see that the tips of the grass leaves had just started to grow when the fire came through ten days earlier.  Since the leaves grow from the base, those burned tips don’t impede plant growth.

Increased sunlight hitting the ground has helped the small area we burned on March 10 green up much faster than unburned prairie nearby.  Our main objective for the fire was to remove thatch in order to improve the effectiveness of planned herbicide treatment/re-seeding of some smooth brome patches within the small prairie.  The brome is responding very strongly to the fire, and its rapid growth (and the absence of thatch to intercept spray droplets) will make the grass more susceptible to our herbicide treatment.  However, since many other plants are also popping up, we’ll carefully spray only the thickest patches of brome where no other species are growing.

Green sage (Artemisia campestre)
Green sage (Artemisia campestre) growing next to its old stem from last year.

Prescribed fire can be a useful tool when trying to temporarily flip the balance of power from cool-season invasive grasses (smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, etc.) to native warm-season grasses (big bluestem, indiangrass, etc.).  However, timing is critically important.  A dormant season or early spring fire is actually counterproductive unless it is followed by herbicide treatment, mowing or grazing.  Those early fires stimulate the growth of cool-season plants – including smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass – giving them a big advantage over later-season plants which won’t start growth until late April or early May.  By the time those warm-season plants start growing, the early plants will have had a month or more to extract soil moisture and nutrients, and will be big enough to dominate competition for light and root space.

If we’d wanted to suppress smooth brome solely with fire (and not follow up with herbicide), we would have waited until late April or early May to burn.  That late season burn would have stressed the actively-growing brome and bluegrass and provided direct sunlight to freshly emerging shoots of big bluestem and other warm-season grasses.  More often, we combine periodic fire and grazing to suppress brome and bluegrass and facilitate greater plant diversity.

Here's one of the grasses we would like not to see coming back after a fire - Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis).
Along with smooth brome (Bromus inermis), Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) also responded well to the fire.  This particular plant will likely have a very good year, but the brome and bluegrass in the thicker patches of this prairie will be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide and re-seeded.

The regrowth of prairie plants after fire can seem almost magical.  Fire is absolutely an important natural process and a very useful tool for prairie managers.  However, prescribed fire is not magic, and doesn’t automatically lead to better prairies.  As with any tool, fire has to be applied thoughtfully (and carefully!) in order to meet objectives.

The timing of fire dramatically impacts the way prairie plant communities respond.  Early spring, late spring, summer, and fall fires each have different effects on plants, and those effects are also influenced by soil moisture, the presence/absence of grazers, and many other factors.  Prescribed fire can also have serious impacts on some animals, even during the dormant season.  Many invertebrates, for example, overwinter in the aboveground plant stems or thatch, making them very vulnerable to fire. It’s important not to burn an entire prairie at once – especially if that prairie is isolated from other grasslands.

I'm not sure what species of wildflower this is.
I’m not sure what species of wildflower this is but I’m looking forward to finding out as it gets bigger!

Fire plays many critical roles in prairie ecology – suppressing woody plants, removing thatch, stimulating microbial activity, aiding in nutrient cycling, and more.  However, while fire is important and its effects are both useful and aesthetically pleasing, it is not automatically positive.  Safe use of prescribed fire requires training, experience, and caution.  The effective use of fire requires clear objectives and careful planning that ensures those objectives will be met.

As I’ve discussed before, the actual process of conducting a fire can be very stressful.  However, once the smoke clears and I can relax, its easy to appreciate both the beauty and ecological benefits of prairie fires.  The emergence of bright green prairie plants through black ash is one of my favorite sights, and I love watching plant and animal communities respond and adapt to changing habitat conditions.

In prairies, rising from the ashes is more than a metaphor – it’s a way of life.


Photo of the Week – March 12, 2015

We conducted our first prescribed burn of the Spring this week.  It was very small – about an acre or so – surrounded by gravel roads.  The first burn after a long winter is always a little rocky; everyone’s a little out of practice, the crew isn’t yet used to burning with each other, and equipment hasn’t been fully tested…  So it was nice to start small, though the low humidity and warm day made it plenty exciting, even within a small, safe unit.

After the smoke cleared and everyone headed out, I stuck around and poked around in the ashes a little.  I found a patch of prickly pear cactus scorched by the fire, and liked the patterns of color and texture, so I grabbed my camera.

Prickly pear cactus after a prairie fire.  Fire doesn't kill the plants, but does set them back for a while.
Prickly pear cactus after a prairie fire. Fire doesn’t seem to kill the plants, but does set them back for a while.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
I was mesmerized by the colors and patterns in the scorched cacti.
I was mesmerized by the colors and patterns in the scorched cacti.

I photographed scorched cacti for an embarrassingly long time.  Then, since my knees were already black with soot, I wandered around a little more and photographed a few other interesting post-burn scenes.  I’m a little eccentric that way.  Here are some of the other images from the day – enjoy your weekend!

Tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) on ashes.
Tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) on ashes.
Common mullein leaves, fuzzy and partially blackened by fire.
Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves, fuzzy and partially blackened by fire.
Partially burned seed pods of fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala).
Partially burned seed pods of fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala).
The remains of a milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca).
The remains of a milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca).

Photo of the Week – January 29, 2015

Ok, I admit it – I’m a sucker for crab spiders.

A crab spider on Flodman's thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.
A crab spider on Flodman’s thistle (Cirsium flodmanii) at the Helzer family prairie.  July 2014.

As much as I enjoy looking at prairie flowers, I enjoy them even more when there’s a crab spider lying in wait among their petals.  I must have more than a hundred photos of crab spiders on flowers, but when the lighting is good and I see those long hairy legs and cute little face… I just can’t help myself!

Do you suppose I need some kind of intervention?

“Hi, my name is Chris Helzer and I really like crab spiders.”  (Hi Chris…)

“It’s been three weeks since I last photographed a crab spider…”  (Applause)

Photo of the Week – December 11, 2014

For no particular reason, here are two unrelated photos from the same day.  Both photographs were taken on September 28, 2014 at our family prairie south of Aurora, Nebraska.  I wish I could come up with a pithy and informative way to link the two together, or to a larger theme or lesson.  I can’t.  I just like the photos.  I hope you do too.

A katydid on stiff goldenrod.  Frequent readers of The Prairie Ecologist will remember that you can distinguish a katydid from a grasshopper by its very long antenna.
A katydid on stiff goldenrod. Frequent readers of The Prairie Ecologist will remember that you can distinguish a katydid from a grasshopper by its very long antenna.


Stiff goldenrod seeds resting on the leaf beneath the seedhead they dropped from.
Stiff goldenrod seeds resting on the leaf beneath the seedhead from which they dropped.


Photo of the Week – October 30, 2014

I’ve always had a difficult time taking pleasing landscape photos in heavy fog.  I love the way prairies and wetlands look on foggy days, but I rarely come away with a scenic photo I’m happy with.  Fortunately, I can (and usually do) fall back on close-up photos…

Water droplets, gerardia and spider silk on a very foggy morning at a Platte River Prairies wetland last week.
Water droplets, false foxglove and spider silk on a very foggy morning.

One foggy morning last week, I waded into the shallow water of a wetland at our Platte River Prairies.  Everything was dripping wet because of the dense fog.  There was a light breeze, but not quite enough to blow the droplets off the plants or spider silk strands.

More gerardia in the fog.
More false foxglove in the fog.

Fog creates a “flat” light.  Flat light can be used for scenic photos, but it’s difficult to portray depth and texture because of the lack of any shadows.  However, that same light can work pretty well for close-ups, especially as the fog thins a little and the ambient light becomes a little brighter.

Droplets on a late-blooming plains coreopsis.
Droplets on a late-blooming plains coreopsis.

There were several patches of sand lovegrass along the sandy edge of the wetland last week.  The plants were bent almost to the ground under the weight of water drops.  Hidden among the sparkles was a cold wet grasshopper…

A grasshopper on a water-bejeweled sand lovegrass flower.
A grasshopper on a water-bejeweled sand lovegrass flower.


Sand lovegrass close-up.
Sand lovegrass close-up.


Sand lovegrass closer up.
Sand lovegrass closer up.

As the fog started to dissipate, the sun popped out periodically, providing a few opportunities for some landscape photos, but by then I was too intent on the little drops of water to pay much attention to the bigger picture.  I did take a few photos of the wetland, but quickly put the wide angle lens back away in favor of my macro lens.

Here's what the wetland looked like as the fog started to lift.
Here’s what the wetland looked like as the fog started to lift…


Water droplets on spider silk.
…but it was the close-ups that continued to catch my eye.  Water droplets on the tip of a grass leaf and spider silk.


Seventeen-Year Cicadas are Back! (in Iowa, at Least)

I traveled to Iowa this week (more on that next week) and just happened to arrive during the emergence of one of the world’s most intriguing insects – the periodical cicada (Magicicada sp).  Made up of seven different species, periodical cicadas are found only in eastern North America and are named for their long life cycles of either 13 or 17 years.

This newly-emerged cicada (Magicicada sp) hadn't completely dried out yet, so it's wings weren't functional enough to fly away from me.  I put it on a stick for an easy photograph.
This newly-emerged cicada (Magicicada sp) hadn’t completely dried out yet, so it’s wings weren’t functional enough to fly away from me. I put it on a stick for an easy photograph.

All cicadas (that I know of) spend most of their lives underground as larvae before emerging for a brief, noisy life aboveground.  What makes periodical cicadas unique is not so much the length of time spent as larvae – though it’s longer than other cicada species – but rather the synchronization of their emergence.  The common dog-day cicada, for example spends multiple years underground as a larva, but we see adults every year because their emergence is staggered across years.  In contrast, periodical cicadas synchronize their emergence so the entire population in a particular area is on the same schedule.  That timing of emergence, however, does vary by region across North America, so while seventeen-year cicadas are out in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri this year, they emerged last year in an area covering states including Maryland, New York, and Virginia.  People living in eastern Nebraska will get a chance to see them in 2015.

Emerging as adults in hordes probably helps ensure the survival of individual periodical cicadas (and their species) because predators can’t eat nearly enough to put a dent in the population.  If periodical cicadas showed up in huge numbers every year or two, there would surely be predators with life cycles timed to take advantage of the abundant food source.  However, the extreme length and synchronization of the cicada life cycle has apparently kept any predator species from being able to take advantage (evolutionarily) of the phenomenon.  Fortunately for us, cicadas are harmless to people, and even the damage they do to trees by feeding and laying eggs in stems is almost always temporary.

There is much more fascinating information about periodical cicadas, but others have already covered it far more completely than I can.  If you’re interested, I strongly encourage you to visit the to learn more.