Photos of the Week – January 2, 2020

Kim and I didn’t make it up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week, as originally planned, but I made a quick trip this week. The area received around 7 inches of snow, which blew up into big drifts on the leeward side of the hills (and road banks). I waited until the roads cleared enough to travel safely and then drove up in time to catch the late Tuesday afternoon light. I hopped on my ATV and headed out into the snow, hoping to find scattered bunches of bison.

Three bison graze near the eastern edge of their 10,000 acre pasture at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

The first 15 to 20 minutes of driving consisted of me carefully scanning ahead to avoid jamming the ATV into deep snow. It was hard to tell where the snow was or wasn’t deep because vegetation height varied enough to camouflage snow depth. I was working really hard to scan for deep snow, bison, and other nice photo opportunities all at the same time. For the most part, I failed in all three efforts.

Eventually, I started finding bison tracks and guessed that if I followed their paths, I’d avoid the deeper pockets of snow. My hypothesis was that the bison knew the terrain better than I did, and would stick to shallow snow as much as possible. That hypothesis proved mostly accurate. In only a few cases did the bison tracks venture into deep snow. I figured that was due either to bison that got distracted, were looking for a challenge, or had discovered my plan to follow them and were pranking me. It might well have been all three.

My trusty transportation through the snowy hills.
The drifts on the southeast side of the hills were three to four feet deep – great for photos of snowy patterns, but not fun to plow into with an ATV…

After a half hour or so, including some time following bison tracks, I realized my mind had started unconsciously picking out routes that avoided deep snow. As a result, I was able to relax and scan for photos and bison without worrying about burying the front end of the ATV in a drift. I was reminded of Mark Twain (I think?) writing about the ease with which riverboat captains could read the Mississippi River in the old days, piloting their boats effortlessly around snags and shallows. Feeling an odd (and undeserved) kinship to those captains, I relaxed, increased my speed a little, and started making better progress across the vast landscape. Soon after, I spotted my first group of bison in the distance and navigated a winding path across the snow-covered prairie dunes in their direction.

I spent the next hour or so quietly observing and photographing a couple different small bunches of bison. In both cases, I pulled my ATV slowly up close to where they were grazing, turned the engine off, and soaked in the silent snowy landscape around me, the stillness broken only by occasional gentle grunts by the bison. They seemed completely unperturbed by me and were intently focused on eating. That suited me just fine.

Before the sun dropped too low, I also wanted to test out the new drone we’d recently purchased. I had picked out the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom because of its relatively small size (transportability!) and the zoom capability of its camera. I’d taken it out for a couple quick test flights around home, but I was really hoping it was going to be good for photographing bison from the air. The smaller size and (related) quietness of the rotors, I hoped, would let me get close to the bison without disturbing them. In addition, I wanted to test the ability of the zoom lens to get even closer, at least optically, so the bison didn’t just look like little dark spots in a big horizon. My previous drones had such wide-angle lenses that they were great for capturing big landscapes, but not so great with bison.

‘Dallas Mavic, Drone on the Range’ lifting off and preparing to photograph some bison.
This group of bison didn’t seem at all bothered by the little drone.

I had the drone approach very slowly, watching from a distant hilltop to gauge the reaction of the bison. They were definitely aware of the drone’s presence, but didn’t seem particularly worried about it. Some of them lifted their heads to find and track the drone’s progress, but others kept their heads down and grazed on. I gradually moved the drone lower and closer, constantly watching for any kind of nervousness or shying away by the bison. Eventually, I stopped and had the drone hover, maybe 30 feet or so from the herd. (I’m guessing on that distance because I was several hundred yards away at the time.) I zoomed in with the lens and was satisfied with the results.

This photo was captured from around 30 feet (I think – I watching from a great distance) away from the bison, and only about 10 feet off the ground. The bison were aware of the drone, but other than eyeing it, didn’t seem bothered.

Pleased with the test run of the drone, I flew it back to me, packed it into its pleasingly small carrying case, and stowed it on the ATV rack. Then I started the long meandering ride back to headquarters as the sun dropped below the horizon. The total lack of clouds in the sky took away any chance of a colorful sunrise, but apart from that mild disappointment, I felt like the four hour drive had already paid off – and I didn’t have to leave until late morning the following day. I hoped there would be plenty more opportunity for both ground-based and aerial photography before I had to drive home. (I was right – but you’ll have to wait a little longer to see those images.)

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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.

6 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – January 2, 2020

  1. Chris,

    That looks like a really nifty ATV, perfect for your intended use. Would you mind sharing the make and model?

  2. The late afternoon blue shadows and the golden grass…so pleasing against the snow. And the bison look so healthy, so robust and filled out! That’s nice to see.

  3. I so enjoy reading your adventures. Everyone is different but all are interesting. Thank you for taking on adventures like this one. It is especially appreciated!

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