Bison Bulls on a Snowy Hill – Wishing You a Happy New Year

Kim and I try to spend a few days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve each year during the winter holiday break. Because most other staff are away, we can help keep an eye on the place. Also, Kim can go on some long runs and I can take full advantage of any photography light that happens to present itself. We just got back from this year’s visit. The photography light was a little scarce this year, but I managed to take full advantage of the few opportunities that arose.

These are the two bison bulls this post is going to focus on.

Wednesday morning started out dark and cloudy, but by late morning, it looked like there might be a few gaps in those clouds, so I hopped in a vehicle and drove out to see what the bison were up to. There were several groups close to the gate, so I went over to say hello. In particular, there was a group of four big bulls loafing around that didn’t seem to mind my approach. I hung out near them for a while before the dark clouds covered the sun again. After lunch, another bright window opened up and I returned to that same group of bulls.

Although there were four bulls in the group, I only ended up photographing two of them. I’m not really sure why, except that the other two mostly sat around and didn’t look all that photogenic, I guess. Whatever the reason, I got hundreds of photos of those two charismatic bulls. One looked older than the other, but they were both impressively big.

Neither bull was full of much energy, which suited me just fine. My camera is not sophisticated (expensive) enough to have great autofocus tracking or the other magic that makes photography of moving animals easier. Animals that stand around make excellent photo subjects for me. In addition, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t agitating the bison, since I spent quite a bit of time near them. They certainly didn’t seem agitated.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m really happy with the photos I got of the bison. In fact, it was hard to narrow the field of images to a reasonable number to share in this post. As a result, this post contains a lot of photos of bison standing around. I’ve tried to add a little commentary to spice up your viewing experience a little, but there’s only so much I can do. I’m sorry about that. They really just stood there most of the time. But they sure looked great doing it!

The two stars of the show. The darker-faced bull on the left is younger than the one on the right, but they are both plenty big and mature.

During my late morning visit, I mostly photographed the older of those two bulls. Below, you can see three photos of him – looking at the camera, looking to the right, and looking to the left. The action was thrilling.

Looking at the camera.
Looking to the right.
Looking to the left.

When I returned after lunch, the older bull was lying down and chewing his cud. A few minutes after I arrived (in the vehicle again), he stood up. That was exciting.

Lying down.
Standing up.

The younger bull was already standing when I arrived, and he continued to do that. Once or twice, he took a few steps. He even reached down to grab a little grass from between the patches of melting snow and ate it. Through all of that, I managed to keep him in focus with my cheap camera.

The younger bull standing impassively.
The younger bull looking at me.
The younger bull with the older one in the background.
The younger bull appearing to consider taking a bite of grass.
Looking stoic and tough.

While the younger bull was very photogenic, I kept being drawn back to the older one. There was something about his rounder face that drew me in. Also, given my position, he was looking toward the bright sky behind me. As a result, he spend a lot of time with his eyes only half open. That made him look sleepy, and maybe he was, but I think it was mainly because he was squinting into the light. Either way, it was charming.

I managed to catch him from every angle. That was both because I adjusted my vehicle’s position now and then and because he worked up the energy to swivel around and even take a few steps during the half hour I was with him after lunch.

The older bull with his eyes half open.
The older bull from the side.
The older bull from behind.

About 10 minutes into my afternoon visit with the bulls, the older one suddenly turned to the younger one and sniffed him. Then he turned toward me and provided a fantastic example of the Flehmen response, a little trick some animals use to pull air into a specialized olfactory organ. I’ve mostly seen it used by bison bulls checking to see if a cow is in heat. In this case, I doubt he was investigating the mating-readiness of the other bull, but what do I know? Either way, his sudden movement startled me but I managed to pull myself together enough to capture the behavior with my camera.

The ‘Flehmen response’, as demonstrated by the older bull.
Another photo of the older bull.

A few minutes later, the older bull put his head down and grazed a little. I couldn’t tell what he was eating but it must have been good to spur him into action like that. Pretty quickly, however, he returned to his previous ‘big unflappable bull’ pose.

Grazing.
Here’s the older bull from a different angle, showing the distant river bluffs behind him.

I’ll end with a little photography talk that may or may not interest you. In most of the above photos, the background includes a lot of pale blue sky. That blue sky was what I saw when I was there, but the only reason you can see it in the photos is because I worked to bring it out during my image processing session in Adobe Photoshop.

Because bison have such dark hair, especially on their faces, exposure settings can be challenging. Especially in more intense light, the contrast between that dark hair and a bright sky is more than a camera likes to deal with. As a result, I had to really watch the histogram (showing the range of light intensity being captured) to make sure both the dark and light ends of the range were within the boundaries. It wasn’t always possible, especially when the afternoon sun was fully out and not being diffused by thin clouds.

Even when I had the full histogram captured, the raw (and Raw) images usually had either a bison that looked too dark or a sky that was nearly white. Or both. By later adjusting shadows and highlights, etc. – much like black-and-white photographers do in the dark room – I was usually able to make both bison and sky look like they’d appeared to me on site. However, I also liked the white background look in some of the images, so in several cases, I ended up saving two version of images so I could have one with a white sky and one with blue.

Here are two photos that I liked with nearly or completely white backgrounds, followed by an example of an image with both backgrounds. I can’t decide which I like better. It’s also an interesting philosophical conundrum: which is the ‘right’ way to depict the bison and its surroundings? Neither is the way the camera produced the scene, so both are artistic renditions. The blue sky is more like what my eyes and brain registered at the time, which is usually my guiding star when editing. On the other hand, the bison with a white background is pretty eye-catching, and since one of my aims is to get people to care about conservation, powerful images are important and helpful.

Just because I’m curious, I’ve created a quick poll to see if there is an overwhelming opinion among all of you on this topic. Just as with previous posts, if you don’t see a poll or can’t see a way to vote, click on the title of this post to open it on the website, which unlocks all the functions.

Regardless of whether or how you voted, have a fun and safe New Years weekend and start to 2023. Thanks again for following along, providing thoughtful and respectful comments, and for doing what you can to promote and enjoy prairies! Happy New Year!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

17 thoughts on “Bison Bulls on a Snowy Hill – Wishing You a Happy New Year

  1. I am pretty sure, reading this post to the end and viewing every photo, I have proven to myself, and perhaps to you, that I will read anything you publish, and I will look at any photo that you post. Plus, your patience amazes me. Happy New Year!
    (And if you meant this entire article ironically or tongue in cheek, that was completely lost on me, because I honestly did find it interesting.)

  2. they knew how photogenic they are, wondering about that man in the truck though.
    thanks for cheering me up
    Happy New Year

  3. It seems I could look at Bison bull pics a long time. Such handsome creatures. Very photogenic.

    I voted white background just because I kept returning to it for the contrast against the dark colored bull. But that’s today.

    HNY! Thanks for what you do.

  4. Simply AWESOME photos! I’m not super experienced with editing, I love the blue background. I am curious, how far away from them were you? You mentioned a vehicle, I assume you stayed in it for a quick get-a-way if needed? I enjoyed your entertaining post!

  5. I enjoy your blog and the photos. I’m an amateur photographer and find your conversations about photography, and perspectives educational. Back to your poll – All the photos are enjoyable, but I prefer the more natural view with the blue sky. I take pictures to remember a moment in time, and the more natural the image, the happier I am.

  6. I could look at photos of bison all day. They are such majestic creatures. Your commentary sounds sort of like watching wolves in Yellowstone with the “wolf people”. They watch for hours on end and their commentary sounds kind of like this: “Wolf stood up. Wolf laid down. Oh, there’s a raised leg urination!” You get the idea.
    These photos are nice, and I really do like both backgrounds for different reasons. Your photography is your art. It doesn’t always have to represent the actual scene.

  7. I like the blue sky, and it makes me want to learn to edit photos better than I currently do so. Those bison are super handsome!

  8. It’s such a delight to look at your posts. Such great Photographs!! You are amazingly and impressively dedicated to Ecology. Thank you!

  9. You really had me on a roller coaster with your play-by-play of the afternoon! Looking left, looking right, lying down, standing up!! I feel like I have whiplash! And the blue background is far more eye-appealing!

  10. If I could see snow on the ground, I would like the white background best – it has a wintry feel to it. Without snow, I lean towards the blue background – that version puts me in the scene.

  11. The bison look healthy and happy.

    I struggle with exposure settings but have been timid about working with my camera’s histogram display. In my case it’s trying to get understory grasses and flowers as well as tree bark to show up without washing out the canopy or sky.

  12. Are “your” bison purebred American bison, or do they have some cattle genes? (Sorry if you’ve addressed this in previous posts.) Did you photograph the bison through a fence, or was your vehicle the only “blind” you had to protect you?

    • Hi Scott, my vehicle was my blind and protection. These bison are used to vehicles, so they aren’t stressed by them, especially when approached slowly. Yes, our bison have cattle genes, but the most recent science shows that it’s very likely that all bison in North America have cattle genes, including herds at Wind Cave and Yellowstone that we used to think were ‘clean’. At this point, we’ve pretty much stopped worrying about it except/unless there are observable downsides to those cattle genes. Here’s the study if you’re interested: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-09828-z

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