Family Time on the Niobrara

It’s family vacation time for The Prairie Ecologist.  The objective for this week is to see how much fun two adults and three kids can squeeze out of The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Ok, I’m actually doing a little work too, setting up this summer’s data collection efforts.  But I’m mostly taking vacation…

The visit got off to a good start when we arrived last night because the boys found the rope swing over the creek.  That provided a good half hour of fun, and would have gone on much longer except that bedtime was looming.  After the boys went to bed, Kim and I enjoyed a little quiet time listening to whip-poor-wills, cricket frogs, and nighthawks before heading to bed ourselves.

The boys - entertaining themselves the way boys should.

The boys – entertaining themselves the way boys should.

After breakfast this morning, we drove out into the Sandhills and found a small group of bison cows and calves resting on a hillside.  We watched them from the truck for quite a while.  The kids did a great job of staying quiet, and the bison were very relaxed.

A recently born bison calf.

A recently born bison calf.

As the sun rose higher and it started getting warm, we slipped down into the woodland between the Sandhills and the river and explored a spring-fed creek Kim and I had found last winter.  The kids had a great time splashing around and trying to dam up small sections of the creek, and Kim and I enjoyed looking at the ferns and other woodland plants.  The cool and humid conditions along the creek contrasted starkly with the hot dry prairie just upslope.

Walking along the spring-fed creek was a welcome relief from the

Walking along the cold spring-fed creek was like being in a different world.  It was over 80 degrees and sunny in the Sandhills prairie less than 50 yards uphill

It was a great day, and it would be hard to pick a favorite experience, but if pressed, I’d probably go with finding a pair of twin pronghorn fawns.  I was driving through the hills by myself in the mid-afternoon, trying to figure out some research logistics when I saw a pronghorn across the valley.  As I got closer, it looked like it was feeding, but it was so engrossed in the activity it didn’t notice me until the truck was less than 100 yards away.  It finally spotted me and bounded up and over the hill.  I saw something dark move near where the pronghorn had been so I got out and walked over to investigate.  Much to my surprise, I found a fawn that was still wet from being born – I assume the mother had been licking it, which explains her preoccupation as I drove up.  As I bent down to take a quick photograph of the fawn I noticed the second one (already dry) right behind it.  I snapped a couple of quick photos and slipped away so the family could reassemble itself without further delay.

Pronghorn fawns (the second is to the left and behind the one in the foreground). The newest one was so recently-born it was still wet.

Pronghorn fawns (the second is to the left and behind the one in the foreground). The newest one was so recently-born it was still wet.

After supper, the boys and I hiked up the ridge north of the river so they could work off some energy before bedtime.  They had a great time, and loved the view from the top.


We’ve been here less than 36 hours, but it already feels like we’ve been here a week.  …In a good way…

Two more days to go!


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.
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8 Responses to Family Time on the Niobrara

  1. Eliza says:


  2. Pat says:

    Wow! Twin newborn pronghorns! I think you should stop worrying about that otter. This is the good stuff.

  3. James C. Trager says:

    What a great family/nature time.
    I must get there some day!

    • Mary Voges says:

      Yes, James…I would love to tag along with you and Jan on a field trip. Chris, you bring so many ‘wonder’ful sitings and observations to your post. Thank you

  4. Joanne says:

    One of my favorite posts, made me homesick for the “hills” in a good heart-touching way.

  5. Denise Westlake says:

    I love your work! God is blessing me through His rich blessings to you.

  6. Pingback: Photo of the Week – May 27, 201 | The Prairie Ecologist

  7. Patrick says:

    Chris – I always new about the bison population at the NVP, but haven’t heard much about the pronghorns there. Great to see them fawning there! What sort of population do you estimate it carries? And what do you know about their migration patterns?


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