A Family Roundup

During the 20 years of my employment with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, I’ve been involved in at least 20 bison roundups (we usually do two a year – one for each herd at our Niobrara Valley Preserve).  Last week’s was my favorite, hands down.  It wasn’t because the roundup went well – though it went as smoothly as any we’ve done.  It wasn’t even because the weather was perfect – though it was.  Nope, it was my favorite because it was the first time it’s ever worked out to bring my kids along.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year's roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year’s roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I didn’t get to bring all of them, but everything lined up just right for John and Daniel, who were on fall break from school and were old enough to be helpful and safe.  They had a great time, and the experience was far richer for me as well.

Now, to be perfectly clear, we don’t typically involve kids in our roundups, but I was able to supervise the boys personally and make sure they were safely doing work appropriate to their age and ability.  To begin with, both of them just watched the process to learn how the animals are moved quickly through a series of alleys and gates with as little noise and stress as possible.  Later in the day, they were both able to join in the work.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing "quality control" - helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing “quality control” – helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn't effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn’t effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.  Before long, however, he took over a sliding gate.

John seemed to enjoy the experience...

He seemed to enjoy the experience…

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Eric hides behind a gate while bison move past.

Here, Eric is hiding behind a gate while bison move past.

Then he gets to show off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

Then he shows off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town, where they (fruitlessly) waited for the prairie dogs to come back out of their holes.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town.  They learned that no matter how long you wait, prairie dogs don’t re-emerge from holes while you’re sitting there.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

Photo of the Week – August 11, 2016

I made a quick trip up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week.  As always, there was a treasure trove of unexpected finds.  Here are some of them.

Bison calves are growing fast. Their coats have darkened to match the adults, and their horns are starting to look like more than just little bumps.

Bison calves are growing fast. Their coats have darkened to match the adults, and their horns are starting to look like more than just little bumps.

Bison tend not to hang around wooded areas for shade, but they also like to rub on trees aggressively enough to keep them stunted or even kill them. This bull was one of several bison that had evidence of recent rubbing on eastern red cedar trees.

Bison tend not to hang around wooded areas for shade, but they also like to rub on trees aggressively enough to keep them stunted or even kill them. This bull was one of several bison I saw this week that had apparently been recently rubbing on eastern red cedar trees.  Good for them.

Robber flies are amazing predators and always fun to photograph, but this might be my favorite of all time. This gorgeous robber fly landed in a sand blowout and was consuming a leaf hopper.

Robber flies are amazing predators and always fun to photograph, but this might be my favorite of all time. This gorgeous robber fly landed in a sand blowout and was consuming a leaf hopper.

Sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii) is sometimes lumped with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and sometimes considered a separate species. I'm not entering that argument. However, sand bluestem (shown here) does tend to have much hairier flowers.

Sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii) is sometimes lumped with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and sometimes considered a separate species. I’m not entering that argument. However, sand bluestem (shown here) does tend to have much hairier flowers.

How many of you noticed the small larva in the above photo?  I didn’t, until I was going through the photos on the computer the day after taking them.  Look below for a more close-up view of the larva.  You can see it at its original scale just to the left of the bottom left of the inset image.

Fly larva? Whatever it is, it sure is small. Wouldn't you love to know what it's doing there?

Fly larva? Whatever it is, it sure is small. Wouldn’t you love to know what it’s doing there?

This tumbleweed (Russian thistle, aka Salsola iberica) was lodged up against a fence in a big sand blowout.

This tumbleweed (Russian thistle, aka Salsola iberica) was lodged up against a fence in a big sand blowout.

This tiny pale bee (Perdita perpallida) is a specialist in prairie clovers (Dalea species) but I've only seen it on one species - Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa)

This tiny pale bee (Perdita perpallida) is a specialist in prairie clovers but I’ve only seen it on one species – Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa).  Its pale color helps it blend in very well. Thanks to Mike Arduser for ID and information.

What is more evocative of the Great Plains than bison grazing in a prairie dog town as the sun goes down over an expansive grassy landscape?

What is more evocative of the Great Plains than bison grazing in a prairie dog town as the sun goes down over an expansive grassy landscape?