Boys and Sticks

My wife and I are both biologists.  She’s a high school biology teacher and I’m a prairie ecologist.  You won’t be surprised that we think it’s important for our kids to get outside and explore nature.  However, we don’t often take the kids out with any particular agenda or curriculum in mind.  We usually just take them out.

This last weekend, we decided to spend our Sunday afternoon enjoying the pleasant weather preceding what we’re being told might be the blizzard of the century. (C’mon man, it’s just snow and wind!  Having said that, if I don’t make it through this storm alive, this will be an ironic last blog post.)  Anyway, we took Atticus (age 10) and Calvin (7) out to our family prairie for several hours.  Once there, we pretty much let the boys do what they wanted, with the exception that we kept them off the softening ice on the wetland/pond.

Boys with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.

Atticus and Calvin displaying sticks they found at the prairie.

I didn’t watch the boys closely the whole time, but as far as I could tell, they spent about 92% of the time they were at the prairie whacking sticks against dead trees.  I’m not kidding.  Sure, they poked around the prairie and wetland a little, saw some animal tracks, found some bones, practiced getting through barbed wire fences, and played with the dogs a little.  But the majority of their experience, and what they’ll probably remember most from the day, was stick whacking.

And that’s just fine with me.  They came away from the afternoon with a positive impression of spending time in nature, and they’re excited to go back.  That’s just perfect.

Boys with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.

Climbing on a dead tree.  With sticks.

Boy with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Calvin Miller (Photographer's stepson)

Calvin and his stick.  (Yes, I was having fun with the sun.)

Boy with sticks. Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Calvin Miller (Photographer's stepson)

Calvin again.  And the sun.  Again.

Outing at the Helzer family prairie, Nebraska. Kim Helzer with Atticus (left) and Calvin Miller - stepsons of the photographer.

Heading home.  Tired and happy.

How (Not) to Photograph Prairie Dogs – Part 1

I had it all planned out.  I’d scoped out the site, found the prairie dogs, and located an active burrow close to a road ditch with enough cover to conceal me and my camera.  I’d even built a kind of half-blind – a small piece of garden fencing with tall grasses woven into it – with a space for my lens to poke through.  All I had to do was show up at the dog town in the early morning, crawl into position, set the little photo blind in front of me, and wait for the prairie dog to come out into the beautiful early morning sunshine to pose for a portrait.

…Which is how I came to be lying on my belly in a road ditch yesterday, waiting for the sun to come up.  It was a really beautiful day – light winds, a pleasant temperature, and just enough haze on the horizon to soften the light when the sun finally emerged.  As I lay in the ditch, I was even pleasantly surprised to hear prairie chickens booming near the wetland just to the west of me.  In short, everything was wonderful, and just as the sun started to poke through the haze, the first prairie dog emerged from its burrow in the center of the small town and started barking.  “Won’t be long now,” I thought to myself.

Looking back, I now recognize the barking as more of a kind of mocking laughter.   “Hee Hee Hee Hee!,” it laughed mockingly.  “Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee…”

At the time, not being familiar with the local customs of this particular dog town, I mistakenly assumed that once the first prairie dog started barking, the others would soon emerge and begin doing interesting and photogenic activities.  Instead, the lone prairie dog – from a distance of several hundred yards from my little blind – just continued his lone sardonic monologue for about 20 minutes.

“Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee…!”

Eventually, a few other prairie dogs did pop out of their holes and join in the fun – though none of them were anywhere close enough for good photo opportunities.  All the while, the burrow right in front of me, the one I’d carefully scouted several days earlier, remained sneeringly silent. As the sun continued to climb, inching closer and closer to the point at which the light would be too bright for good photography, the only prairie dogs in sight were the jokesters out in the middle of the town.

A spiteful gang of prairie dogs, maintaining a needlessly long distance from the photographer lying at the edge of the town. (This photo is cropped significantly to allow you to see that these actually ARE prairie dogs, and not just little brown specks.)

A small group of 8 to 10 western meadowlarks was milling around in the town as well, each pausing occasionally from feeding to sing the characteristic meadowlark song.  I consoled myself with the thought that if nothing else, I’d at least get myself a decent photo of a meadowlark as soon as one ventured close enough.  It’s funny… I’ve been listening to western meadowlark songs my whole life, but never fully realized the true spiteful tone of those songs.  Especially from a distance of several hundred yards…

A fuzzy long-distance photo of a contemptuous meadowlark with a jeering prairie dog right behind it.

Just as I was about to give up on the whole adventure, I heard a prairie dog start chipping away at close range.  Unfortunately, it was about 30 yards to my left, and the vegetation along the road ditch/fenceline was blocking my line of sight.  Knowing full well how the little escapade would end, I nevertheless backed slowly out of my position and started army-crawling quietly down the road ditch toward the sound.  When I was close enough to the sound, I started moving very slowly – inch by inch – through the tall grass toward the prairie dog.  I could barely see the prairie dog’s head, a mere 20 feet in front of me, through the vegetation.  About two feet closer, and I’d have a clear view.

At about one and half feet, I heard the following sound – “Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee…YOINK!”

And down it went.

A prairie dog burrow, from which - only moments before - a prairie dog was in plain site, laughing mockingly.

Out of nothing but pure stubbornness, I laid there with my camera trained on the hole for a full 10 minutes.  Nothing.  Finally, I grabbed my camera, stomped back to the truck, and headed back to town to catch my first conference call of the day.

But I’m not giving up.  Oh no – I’ve got a plan.  Now that I’ve fully studied the behavioral pattern of the dog town’s inhabitants, I know JUST what I’m going to do next time.  I’m going to get me some FANTASTIC photos of prairie dogs.  Photos that will KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF.  Just you wait.

(“Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!”)