I was back at the Niobrara Valley Preserve last week to help with a little bison work and a board meeting. My wife was able to come with me, and we stayed an extra night so we could do some hiking Saturday morning before heading home.
Kim and I decided to hike up the bluffs north of the river where the 2012 wildfire transformed an overgrown savanna of pines and cedars into a burgeoning grassland/shrubland dotted with burned tree skeletons. Autumn is well established along the Niobrara River, and there have already been several hard freezes and some light snows. Despite that, we found plenty of color and texture to enjoy while we wandered, as well as a couple very pleasant surprises.
I spent much of this week at our Niobrara Valley Preserve. During most of that time, photography was difficult because of bright sunlight, no clouds, and strong winds, but the place was still beautiful. Most of the colorful leaves had already fallen from the sumac, ash, oak, and cottonwood trees, and I only found a few asters that still had flowers. Regardless, there was plenty of life to be seen. I spotted a kangaroo rat in my headlights as I drove down the lane to the headquarters my first night. Bald eagles were wheeling above the river, and I saw red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and northern harriers hunting as well. Flocks of other birds went here and there, either migrating through or just moving nomadically in search of food. During a couple evening walks, the relative quiet was broken by high-flying squadrons of sandhill cranes passing overhead.
One evening, I climbed up to the top of the ridge north of the river and photographed the landscape as the sun went down. By the time I got back down to my truck, it was pretty dark, and I became very aware of how many shadowy places were available for creatures to hide. I started musing that I still hadn’t seen a mountain lion at the Preserve, even though we know they’re here, and have had several documented recently. Then I realized that it was less important to think about how many mountain lions I had seen and more important to think about how many lions had seen me! I’m pretty sure that second number is higher than the first.
I will be up on the Niobrara again late next week, and I’m really looking forward to it. Even in the dormant season, there’s always plenty to see.