Photos of the Week – July 23, 2021

I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve much of this week. One morning, I wandered up into the bison pasture to photograph some bugs and flowers. About the time the sun was getting a little intense for macro photos, I decided to drive up the hill to see if any bison were nearby. Sure enough, a small group of 50 or so was quietly grazing a couple hills to the south.

Based on the way the bison were situated and acting, I figured my best chance for photos would come if I went around to the west of them. They were very slowly moving in that direction, and often, I can get way out in front of them and sit still while they calmly work their way past me. The position of the sun meant I was going to be shooting them with backlighting, which is tricky, but can create some really interesting images if I do it right.

Bison cresting the hill at a fast walk before galloping down toward me. Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/640 sec. (Click for a larger version of the images)
Coming down… Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/1250 sec.

Just when I start to think I understand bison and the way they think, they make me feel like a complete fool. I pulled around to the west of the herd, shut off the engine and got out my camera. I glanced up, expecting to see them sauntering over the crest of the hill between us, but instead saw the lead animals thundering down the slope right at me. Wha??

I was in a vehicle, so not in danger, but it was still a little unnerving. I also had very little time to get my shots in. I missed the first wave, but as a second and third portions of the group hit the top of the hill, I was ready. I even managed to get some of them in focus. For you photographers, I was shooting a little dark (the images looked awfully dark on my LCD screen), knowing I’d open up those shadows later in Photoshop. I knew I needed to avoid letting too much light in because I’d lose a lot of details in the background. I’m really happy with the results.

At the bottom of the hill – and the flies caught up with them. Nikon 18-300mm lens @230mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/1250 sec.

After that crazy 10 or 20 seconds of action, the animals immediately settled down and grazed calmly around me as I caught my breath and took a few more photos. Then they wandered slowly off into the hills again. Just like I knew they would…

Bison cow, front lit. Nikon 18-300mm lens @135mm. ISO 500, f/9, 1/640 sec.
Calf with momma. Nikon 18-300mm lens @210mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/640 sec.
Wandering off to the hills (toward some recently-sprayed sumac plants). Nikon 18-300mm lens @240mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/1250 sec.

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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.

11 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – July 23, 2021

    • Shelley, I’m not 100% sure, but I think they used 2,4D on that site. It certainly killed the plants, but also some of the wildflowers underneath. We’re trying to figure out how to deal with what is a huge problem along the middle Niobrara Valley – a native shrub that has formed patches that just keep getting bigger and bigger. We have (many) hundreds of acres of it on our property and so do our neighbors up and down the valley. We’re starting to get more aggressive with it now because we can’t afford to let it keep getting worse. Stay tuned – I’ll hopefully have some lessons learned to share sometime in the next few years. The patch photographed here is just an early experimental treatment.

  1. My feeling is that spraying with unnatural substances in nature, resulting in unknown consequences, is the wrong thing to do. DDT should have been lesson enough.
    You should instead introduce goats – preferably a wild species who can happily live along the bison – as they mainly eat shrubs etc.

  2. You’re lucky to still have a home where the buffalo roam. The photos are delightful. I remember admiring that sumac on autumn trips to the Konza prairie. There were large patches here and there among the hills; I wonder if it’s becoming a problem there, too. For some reason, the thought of introducing goats to control the stuff seems more problematic to me than the spraying, but I’ve seen what they can do to places in the Texas hill country. They’re sometimes brought in to clear land that’s not otherwise accessible, and they clear it, all right — right down to the dirt.

  3. Love the images, especially the one from behind. People don’t often show herds from behind, yet that is where humans often were with their herds during the transhumant..

  4. Interesting how many comments you got on the sumac. It is problematic nearly everywhere in tallgrass and midgrass prairie and managers are at a loss as to why it is becoming so and what to do about it. In Missouri, we tried wicking with glyphosate and Tordon and broadcast spraying. Wicking can be somewhat more strategic but shorter sumacs are missed and get bigger within a couple years so short term benefit. I was hopeful using more fall burns would help but it has not. Summer burns, which never covered much acreage historic, don’t help much either. So, managers are back to mowing and spraying. Mowing needs more experimenting instead of doing it the same old late summer way.

    • Somebody in the historic ecosystem must have eaten and suppressed sumac when fire doesn’t work.
      Obviously not goats, as they are not native to the US, but maybe prairie dogs or a browsing deer species etc.?
      An incomplete ecosystem is always a problem with no quick or easy fixes.


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