Photo of the Week – November 10, 2018

A goatsbeard (Tragopogon dubius) seed hanging on the flower stalk of hoary vervain (Verbena stricta).  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

Despite being a little slow to fully embrace it a dozen years or so ago, I’ve become very grateful for the world of digital photography.  One of the best perks, of course, is that it costs nothing but sorting time and storage space to take lots and lots of photos.  When I was shooting slide film, I was very selective about how many photos I took because I knew it cost me about 33 cents each time I clicked the shutter.  As a result, I didn’t take as many chances as I would have liked, and often didn’t take enough images of a particular subject to get what I really wanted.  

Today, I don’t mind taking way more photos of something than I think I’ll need to make sure I’m happy with the final result.  A great example of the benefits of this strategy occurred back in June of this year.  I had finished spending some time at my square meter photo plot, and was doing a quick meander through the rest of the nearby prairie when I spotted a goatsbeard seed that had gotten caught on the flowers of a hoary vervain plant.  I liked the color and texture the seed/flower combination, so I stopped to photograph it.

The seed was barely attached to the flower in one place, and a gentle breeze caused the seed to slowly rotate around on that fulcrum.  In my head, I had only a vague concept of the image I was trying to capture.  There was something about the fuzzy, webby texture of the seed and the strong vertical arrangement of the flower stalk, but…  As the seed shifted around, I just snapped away – kind of like trying to refine an idea by just talking it out.

Just when I was starting to get frustrated by not getting what I wanted, the breeze picked up just for a second and blew the seed into a new position, where it hung for a few moments.  That was it!  I slid my tripod a few inches closer and got exactly the shot I had been searching for the whole time.  It’s become one of my favorite photos from this year, both because of its simple beauty and because I had to wait for it to happen.

This is definitely the image that captured the essence of what attracted me to the tiny scene in the first place.

Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017

When photographing invertebrates, I can split most critters into two categories: those that hunker down and those that flee.  Those that hunker down are awfully nice because I can set up and photograph them thoughtfully, playing with various angles and compositions for each individual.  The ones that flee are a completely different matter, and I often end up chasing lots of different ones around, hoping to get close enough for any kind of photo and/or find one that is slightly less skittish then most.  Of course, all of this is on a continuum; even insects that end to hunker down can be pushed past their comfort level and eventually hop, drop, or fly away.  Learning where those thresholds are for various invertebrate species has been really helpful over the years.

Katydid nymph on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) earlier this week.  Katydids are usually pretty easy photo subjects.

Katydids and grasshoppers tend to be hunkerers, especially if I catch them in the middle of a meal.  Often, if they’re feeding on a flower, for example, they’ll slide around to the far side of the flower when I get close.  That’s actually nice because it lets me finish my approach while they’re not looking directly at me.  Then – and here’s a little trick you’re welcome to use – I can reach my hand out to the other side of the flower and they’ll slide back toward me to get away from my hand.  Sometimes, of course, they’ll hop off the flower when they see my hand, but usually they seem reluctant to abandon their food.  In most cases, I can repeat the hand trick at least 3 or 4 times before it starts making them nervous.

…and another one on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

Other invertebrates that tend to hunker and allow photographs to be taken include stink bugs, aphids, and caterpillars.  Crab spiders (one of my favorites) fall into this category too, but they can sometimes be a little touchier than katydids and others to the hand trick.  Sometimes, it works well, but some crab spiders can be more difficult to lure onto the side of a flower where I’m at.  If I can approach slowly enough that they don’t move away in the first place, that’s always the best.  Once they hide beneath or behind the flower, it seems like about 50% of them will either drop off the flower or refuse to be baited when they see my hand.

…and another one.

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so at our family prairie photographing insects because the wind was fairly calm and there were some nice diffuse clouds creating nice lighting conditions.  During that hour, I concentrated on two different subjects; katydids and damselflies.  The katydids, as per usual, were pretty accommodating, and the main challenge was the slightly swaying flowers they were feeding on.  The damselflies were a whole ‘nother story, and I ended up chasing them around quite a bit to get a few decent photos.

A damselfly rests briefly on an ironweed (Vernonia sp.).

Damselflies definitely fit into the category of insects that flee.  The nice thing about damselflies and dragonflies (as opposed to bees, moths and butterflies, for example) is they tend to be territorial.  That means that when they fly, they don’t usually go far.  Sometimes, if I’m patient, they’ll return to the same perch I flush them from.  That said, they can still be really difficult to get close to.  Staying low to the ground (keeping my head below the horizon line) seems to help, especially if I can avoid having my shadow pass over them.  A slow and steady approach usually works best, but it’s far from foolproof.  During the vast majority of attempts, they fly off just as I get in photography range.

The other issue with skittish subjects like damselflies is that when they do land, they often land in places that don’t work for photography.  That can include perches in the middle of a bunch of leaves that partially obscure them from view, or perches with vegetation behind them that overly clutters up the background.  The ideal situation is when they land on a relatively high perch, or at least one with good clear space all around it.  Trying to wait until they land in a favorable location and then watching them fly away just as I get close is an example of why insect photography is not for the impatient.

Eventually, I found a few damselflies that let me get close enough for some fairly intimate portraits.  The end results – nice peaceful looking insects resting on perches – don’t paint an accurate picture of the effort invested, however.  The grass stains on the knees of my pants and the sweat pouring down my face were better indicators of that.

Since I didn’t document the visual aspect of the damselfly photo hunt, here is a quick recap:

Helzer approaches a perched damselfly slowly.  Very slowly.  He creeps through the vegetation, being careful not to even slightly bump any plants because…DANG!  it flew away.  Ok, now he’s spotted another one but it’s not in a good spot.  He’s bypassing that one in favor of another on a higher perch.  He’s getting pretty close this time, but there’s a stray grass stem in the way.  Oh!  It looks like he’s going to try to carefully slide that stem out of the way.  It’s a bold move, but it’s going pretty well and…DANG!  It flew again.  Hmm.  He’s got another one in his sights now, and he’s working his way toward it, staying nice and low, keeping an ironweed plant between him and his subject.  Now he’s leaning around the ironweed…  he looks like he’s in range…. he’s focusing and depressing the shutter…OH NO!!  He lost his balance just a little and as he reached to catch himself the damselfly flew away again.  What a disappointment!

You get the idea…

One of the best parts of owning our own prairie is that I can do this kind of insect photography and not have to worry about anyone watching me.  The only thing I can think of that might make me look more foolish to passers by is when I’m chasing fruitlessly after a flying bee or butterfly with a net, swiping wildly at it while weaving back and forth in its path.  At least when I’m crawling around on the ground with my camera I’m a little more difficult to see from a distance.

Invertebrate photography can be frustrating, especially when I’m chasing insects in the “flee” category, but it’s awfully rewarding when I actually get a few good photos as a result.  Unfortunately, most viewers of my insect photos don’t give me any extra credit for the degree of difficulty of some photos over others.  The katydid shots in this post, for example, were a cakewalk compared to the damselflies, but unless I’d told you, you wouldn’t have known or cared, would you?  But I know, and I feel a little extra pride in these close-up damselfly portraits.

I’m just glad no one documented the process…

Photo of the Week – May 5, 2016

Wildflower viewing this time of year, at least in the prairies I know best, is more like an Easter egg hunt than a fireworks show.  Spring wildflowers tend to bloom within just a few inches of the ground, nestled among the early growth of grasses and wildflowers that will literally overshadow them within just a few weeks.  Their short stature, small blooms, and (usually) solitary nature don’t detract from their beauty, however, and each “egg” is well worth the hunt.  Earlier this week, I enjoyed a pleasant hour or so finding these colorful little surprises at our family prairie.

Prairie violet is scattered across the prairie, but numbers are highest near
Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida) is scattered across our prairie.  I assume some host caterpillars of regal fritillary butterflies, which are common in our prairie and can only feed on violets, but I’ve never actually found a caterpillar on a violet.  They’ve got to be there.  Somewhere.

Broad patches of pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) have already gone to seed.
Broad patches of pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) have already gone to seed.  Competing vegetation is kept short within pussytoes patches because the species is allelopathic, meaning that it releases chemicals to stifle growth of other plants.

Most dandelion (Taraxacum officianale) plants have also gone to seed. While they were blooming, they were a major source of food for early spring pollinators.
Most dandelion (Taraxacum officianale) plants have also gone to seed. While they were blooming, they were a major source of food for early spring pollinators.

Fringed puccoon, aka narrow-leaf puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) is on the downhill side of its blooming period.
Fringed puccoon, aka narrow-leaf puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) is on the downhill side of its blooming period but is among the most abundant of spring flowers at our prairie right now.

It's not hard to see where fringed puccoon gets its name.
It’s not hard to see where fringed puccoon gets its name.

American vetch (Vicia americana) seems to sprawl awkwardly across its neighboring plants.
American vetch (Vicia americana) seems to sprawl awkwardly across its neighboring plants.  It never seems to be abundant, but I seem to stumble across a few plants each year – and often in different places than I remember seeing them before.

Tendrils on the tips of American vetch leaves wrap tightly around stems of adjacent vegetation.
Tendrils on the tips of American vetch leaves wrap tightly around stems of adjacent vegetation.  I’m not sure what benefit this might provide the vetch plants.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) might be the most elegant of the flowers currently blooming in our prairie.
Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) might be the most elegant of the flowers currently blooming in our prairie.

 

Photo of the Week – December 17, 2015

Before and after sunrise…

Back in July, a small group of us got up early to do some prairie photography.  We were attending the Grassland Restoration Network workshop in northwestern Minnesota and wanted to catch the sunrise at The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie.

We arrived at the prairie before sunrise, split up, and walked off in different directions, searching for photo opportunities.  Not far into my hike, I found a monarch butterfly roosting on a milkweed plant.  It was cold and wet and not able to move.  The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was nice color in the sky where the sun would appear in just a few minutes.  That sky glow provided enough illumination and color for me to take a few good photos of the monarch before I moved on to see what else I could find.  Before I walked away, I made note of the location so I could circle back later if I had time.

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed. TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.
5:51 am.  The sun was nearing the horizon, but not quite up yet.  The light in this photograph is just reflected from the pre-sunrise glow behind me.  Nikon 105mm macro lens.  ISO 640.  F9, 1/25 second.

About twenty minutes later, the sun was up and I was wandering back near where I’d seen the monarch earlier so I stopped to see if it was still there.  It was, and the rich golden light from the sun was hitting it squarely.  I took some more photos .

Monarch butterfly on common milkweed. TNC Bluestem Prairie, Minnesota.
6:13 am.  The sun is up and is a bright orange color, providing a rich orange/gold tone to both the butterfly and milkweed plant.  ISO 400, F11, 1/100 second.

These are just two of the images I shot of this butterfly that morning, but they are a good pair to use for comparison.  Both are nice photographs.  The first is a little flat, but has just enough color and definition of detail to make it work.  While not as flashy as the second photo, it accurately depicts the subtle beauty of the pre-sunrise world.  The second photo literally sparkles in comparison – every hair, scale, and droplet of water reflects the bright golden sunlight coming from the big orange sun behind me.  The details are much more defined, and it is a stronger visual image.

I’d guess that in a poll, most viewers of these two images would say they like the second better, but I bet there are a few of you who prefer the first.  (And if I hadn’t shown you the second, most of you would probably think the first is a very nice shot.)  I like them both, and am glad I took the time to circle back and get the second set of images.

In photography, light is nearly everything.  Composition is subjective, and it’s always interesting to see how different photographers frame the same scene.  The ability to recognize and use various lighting conditions, however, is what separates good photographers from the rest.  I can’t draw worth a lick, and I stick to very simple and safe color combinations in my clothing because I don’t have any aptitude in those regards.  I can see light, though, and am very grateful for that.  It makes the world a really interesting place to look at and photograph!

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!

 

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 – 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.

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

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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…

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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.

 

Photo of the Week – August 1, 2014

A couple weeks ago, I was walking around in my family’s prairie and spotted this tiny silhouette.  The morning sun was shining through the leaves of a stiff goldenrod plant and a fly was (apparently) warming itself in those rays.  Since I was on the opposite side of the leaf from the fly, I was able to sneak up, get my tripod set up, and take a couple photographs before it flew off.

The silhouette of a fly on a stiff goldenrod leaf.  Helzer Family Prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.
The silhouette of a fly on a stiff goldenrod leaf. Helzer Family Prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.

Have a great weekend!

Photo of the Week – July 10, 2014

When I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve in late June, I did some macro photography, in addition to the sunset photo I showed last week.  Here are four photos from that trip.

Echinacea angustifolia
Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) is in the loamier soil along the edges of the river bluffs, but doesn’t seem to stray out into the sandhills to the south.

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Grasshopper on spiderwort
This grasshopper didn’t really my lens pointing at it, but wasn’t quite nervous enough to jump away.

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If I didn't know leadplant (Amorpha canescens) was a legume, I'd never guess by looking at the flowers.
If I didn’t know leadplant (Amorpha canescens) was a legume, I’d never guess by looking at the flowers.  Leadplant is one of the most common wildflowers in sandhills prairie.

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I keep seeing this caterpillar at different sites.  It must be pretty common - or maybe it just doesn't hide well.  Regardless, I enjoy taking portraits of it.
I think I keep seeing this caterpillar species (salt marsh caterpillar?) at different sites. It must be pretty common – or maybe it just doesn’t hide well. Alternatively, I’m mistakenly calling different species the same thing…  Regardless, I enjoy taking portraits of it.