We spent a productive week at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, collecting a mountain of data. Five of us spent our days scrambling across the Sandhills, counting flowering plants, quantifying milkweed populations, and estimating habitat cover. As always, we got to observe far more than what we were focusing on for science. We saw bald eagles, box turtles, a couple different snakes, pronghorn, mice, bird nests, families of northern bobwhites and sharp-tailed grouse, countless kinds of invertebrates, and much more. It was an exhausting, but fulfilling week.
The above photo shows the kind of energy our crew had, though it was also taken just as the week was starting. Hot sun, wet grass, and lots of massive poison ivy patches eventually knocked their enthusiasm down a notch or two, but we all still had a great time. The crew certainly made me feel twice their age (which I am, for at least one of them), and not just because I’m still a little hobbled by my recovering ankle. I appreciated their patience as they waited for me at the end of each sampling grid.
After each day of data collection, I spent the bulk of my evening time trying to build up an inventory of aerial photos and video with our drone. I flew over the river, across open grasslands and prairie dog towns, and among herds of bison. My post from earlier this week showed a small slice of just one evening’s imagery. It’ll probably take me weeks or months to get through all the footage from the last several days, but I do have one tiny video clip to share with you today.
On Tuesday night, I followed a small portion of our east bison herd around for a while. I was skirting the edges of the herd with the drone, trying to get a feel for how close I could get before the bison started to react to the vehicle’s presence. The bison were certainly aware of the drone, but while they edged away when I got too close, they certainly didn’t act frightened or panicked. A few hundred yards from the main group, a lone bison bull was grazing by himself. I decided to test its patience a little (in the name of science, of course). I flew the drone to within 15-20 yards or so of it, and lowered it down to 10 or 12 feet off the ground. Then I just hovered right there while it was eating. (Well, the drone hovered there – I was very safely standing a couple hundred yards away, right next to my truck!)
As I watched through the screen on my controller, the bull glanced up a few times while it grazed, and then eventually raised its head to chew and watch the drone. It chewed and watched for almost a minute. Just as I was getting tired of the experiment and started to push the button to end the video, the bull’s patience apparently ran out.
Oh boy, do I wish I hadn’t hit the “stop recording” button when I did, but you get a pretty good picture of what came next. I don’t know if it would have jumped high enough to hit the drone, but I do know that my suddenly sweaty hands pushed the “UP!!!” button on the controller as fast I could when that bull started its charge. One of the reasons I’m sharing this video is that it’s a great reminder that while bison are incredible and beautiful creatures, they are also unpredictable and dangerous. People die, or are seriously injured, every year on public lands when they ignore the unpredictable and dangerous part of the equation, and try to get too close to these huge animals. Bison aren’t going to chase you down and trample you to death for no reason, but if you invade their comfort zone, they are very capable of defending themselves.
As soon as I flew the drone away, the bison returned to calmly grazing, probably congratulating itself on how easily it had scared away that odd-looking, noisy, and pesky bird. After watching the bull for a while from a distance, I drove slowly closer to it and photographed it as it continued grazing. It was well aware of my presence, but is used to being around pickup trucks. Since I wasn’t coming AT him, he calmly grazed and wandered on his way.
I’m fully aware of how fortunate I am to have my job, and to have access to the places we own and conserve. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone who reads this blog, but even more to people whose financial support allows our conservation work to happen. I wish I could give each of you a personalized tour of our sites, but in lieu of that, I’ll continue trying to do the next best thing – show you the diversity and beauty of those places as best I can through writing and photography. You can also come visit, of course, and hike the trails to see what you can see. In the meantime, stay tuned for more photos and videos.