It’s been a while since I’ve published a deep, philosophical and ecological essay on prairie conservation. I figured I should remedy that.
But then I went up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week to help with a prescribed fire and got distracted. The morning after the fire, I drove my truck into one of the two big bison pastures at the Preserve. Despite being in their pasture, I wasn’t really looking for bison. Mostly, I was hoping to find some early wildflowers and/or insects and the 10,000 acre pasture was the closest prairie area to headquarters. However, just as the morning sun popped over the horizon, I crested a hill and saw a small group of bison bulls between the sun and me. “Fine,” I thought, “I’ll just grab a couple quick photos and then get back to flower/insect searching.”
The temperature was just below freezing and the bulls’ breathing was creating little clouds around their heads. That, plus the backlighting made me stick with them a little longer than I’d planned. In the above photo, one animal was standing by himself, posing nicely for a shot. A few seconds later, a second bull stepped into the frame and I muttered something about him ruining the shot. However, when looking at the photos later, I decided I might actually like the photo of both animals better than the photo of one. Opinions?
I waited until the bulls grazed their way over the next hill and then started the truck back up and continued my journey. I wasn’t seeing much for flowers, other than lots of sun sedge (Carex heliophila). I stopped and photographed some wind-blown patterns in the sand at a blowout (a bowl-shaped wind-eroded landscape feature) for a while.
After leaving the blowout, I figured I’d go look for the burrowing owl I’d seen a few weeks ago, just to the south of where I was. I didn’t find the owl, but I did come across a group of bison cows and calves. Cows with new calves are often (understandably) skittish about visitors, so I slowed way down to see if they were going to be spooked by my approach. One of the cows stood up, but the rest continued grazing or resting, so I carefully nudged the truck close enough to get some photos and then shut the engine off.
I spent the next 20 minutes or so watching brand new calves (probably 2-3 weeks old?) explore, cavort, and even spar with each other – all under the watchful eyes of their mothers. They weren’t bees, spiders, or any of the other invertebrates I’d started out to find that morning, but I managed to control my disappointment.
The bison eventually sidled off to the south and I let them go, figuring I’d already gotten more than I’d deserved. I started the truck again and turned back toward headquarters and breakfast.
Now, bison calves are clearly cute and charming photo subjects and I felt very fortunate to be so close to them. On the other hand, in the interest of even-handedness, I feel obligated to add that bison calves can also make some pretty goofy faces. Those expressions don’t make them less cute, necessarily, but they do give off a somewhat different vibe. For your edification, I’ve put together a small composite of those bison calf faces. Enjoy:
I’ll try to get back to some in-depth ecology or stewardship topics soon. I hope you weren’t too disappointed by this post and its distinct lack of rigorous content.
Thanks for these photos — they remind me that years ago, I went with the Sierra Club into the sand hills to the Ted Turner bison ranch. There are no fences, and we were warned to drive slowly and not get too near the herd of bison in view.
But the bison had their own opinion of “too near.” Seeing us, they took off in a pounding thunder of hooves, flowing away over the hill. It was thrilling, like “tatanka!” “tatanka!” in Dances with Wolves! But the most enduring image is the baby bison, glued to their mothers’ sides as if with velcro, unbelievably keeping up with every step. So wonderful!
Cute indeed. I used to subscribe to Helzer’s newsletter but got overwhelmed and unsubscribed. The pictures are always great.
Fine. We’ll forgive you this once for posting cute bison calf photos. (Thanks)
Sorry, Chris. That was intended for a friend who had forwarded this to me. I thought I had unsubscribed but am relieved to discover I haven’t. I can look forward to more of your wonderful pictures.
Yeah, it was pretty disappointing having to look at those cute bison calf photos, but we suffered through.
Unrelated question: what are you managing for with a spring burn like that?
That particular burn was primarily aimed at influencing the intensity of cattle grazing (focusing most grazing within the burned area and reducing grazing pressure outside the burn. It also cleaned up some smaller eastern redcedar trees after much of the area had been cleared of some larger trees. It was a burn of about 600 acres within a Preserve of 56,000 acres and a much larger landscape than that.
Thanks! We’re still trying to figure out our burn plan for our very tiny (12.5 acre) prairie remnant. We’ve been trying burns at different times of the year (in the middle of a residential area, so need the fire department’s cooperation, too) to evaluate results, so I’m always curious as to why others burn at various times.
Diane, my best advice to start with what you’re trying to achieve and then think about how/when fire might help you achieve that. What are the challenges you’re facing? What is your vision of success? Etc. I’d also strongly suggest you consider not burning the entire remnant at the same time, especially since it sounds like it is pretty isolated. Unless you have really strong reasons for doing so, burning an entire isolated patch like that risks eliminating species (especially invertebrates) that are vulnerable to fire. If you don’t leave them any unburned refuges, you might kill entire populations and they might not be able to recolonize because of the isolation of the site. Good luck!!
Awww….the little red dogs are such a treat to see in the spring. Thanks for sharing your photos!
Oh, Yeah, a pause to watch a bull buffalo, while driving by on a local farm road, is always worth it. 60 yrs ago while driving south of Eloy, Arizona past the local farms, I spotted a ‘Bull Buffalo’ next to some hereford cows that were used to eat the grasses along the ditches! What? This bull laying down had his back hump as tall as the cow he was ‘attracted to’! Fascinating to someone who never saw a buffalo before in the Arizona desert areas. Now, there is a ‘Rest of the Story’ to this sighting. This bull was bought by a local farmer to be used as a farm field pet for some odd reason. Then the bull saw some female cows on the other side of the fence on another farm! Hah, the fence was no barrier to this bull fascinated by some ‘local girls’. Well he had some good times with his new found ‘harem’. I then heard the farmer tell the ‘other’ farmer with the cows to return ‘My Buffalo bull’! The farmer with the cows, replied, “come and get him”. Hah, that of course was impossible, so the farmer decided he needed to get some local cowboys and a cattle trailer to help sell this bull. Well, it required recruiting the cow to a corral nearby and also then into the trailer to ‘lure the bull’. Then of course let out the cow but not the bull, and then the bull got really ‘pissed’! The truck driver then got upset because the bull was smashing his trailer walls! Hmmmm, let’s start over with a smaller space in the trailer! Yeah, that worked. Well, that is my only Buffalo story from the deserts of south central Arizona. Just like your story today, a Very Fascinating sight to see the Wild Bull Buffalos! Mark Nupen, Anoka, MN
Mark, that’s the reason the cowboys on the Turner bison ranch work the pens on walkways above the bison! LOL!!
do you have any photos Linda Deeds?
Unfortunately, no — only in my head! :)
Considering a new desktop background.. how can those images not make you smile. Thanks for sharing, Chris.
Yep, they’re cute alright, as cute as the bulls are formidable!
Feel free to be distracted by bisons at any time!
I love your posts and sense of humor! Thank you Julie
Thank you! Lovely
With regard to the images with one bison or two, I was torn, as were you. I think I like the single bison image slightly better because the sunlight is brighter and (a tiny bit distracting) between the animals in the image with the two bison. It’s almost a toss-up, though.