Family Time on the Niobrara

It’s family vacation time for The Prairie Ecologist.  The objective for this week is to see how much fun two adults and three kids can squeeze out of The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  Ok, I’m actually doing a little work too, setting up this summer’s data collection efforts.  But I’m mostly taking vacation…

The visit got off to a good start when we arrived last night because the boys found the rope swing over the creek.  That provided a good half hour of fun, and would have gone on much longer except that bedtime was looming.  After the boys went to bed, Kim and I enjoyed a little quiet time listening to whip-poor-wills, cricket frogs, and nighthawks before heading to bed ourselves.

The boys - entertaining themselves the way boys should.

The boys – entertaining themselves the way boys should.

After breakfast this morning, we drove out into the Sandhills and found a small group of bison cows and calves resting on a hillside.  We watched them from the truck for quite a while.  The kids did a great job of staying quiet, and the bison were very relaxed.

A recently born bison calf.

A recently born bison calf.

As the sun rose higher and it started getting warm, we slipped down into the woodland between the Sandhills and the river and explored a spring-fed creek Kim and I had found last winter.  The kids had a great time splashing around and trying to dam up small sections of the creek, and Kim and I enjoyed looking at the ferns and other woodland plants.  The cool and humid conditions along the creek contrasted starkly with the hot dry prairie just upslope.

Walking along the spring-fed creek was a welcome relief from the

Walking along the cold spring-fed creek was like being in a different world.  It was over 80 degrees and sunny in the Sandhills prairie less than 50 yards uphill

It was a great day, and it would be hard to pick a favorite experience, but if pressed, I’d probably go with finding a pair of twin pronghorn fawns.  I was driving through the hills by myself in the mid-afternoon, trying to figure out some research logistics when I saw a pronghorn across the valley.  As I got closer, it looked like it was feeding, but it was so engrossed in the activity it didn’t notice me until the truck was less than 100 yards away.  It finally spotted me and bounded up and over the hill.  I saw something dark move near where the pronghorn had been so I got out and walked over to investigate.  Much to my surprise, I found a fawn that was still wet from being born – I assume the mother had been licking it, which explains her preoccupation as I drove up.  As I bent down to take a quick photograph of the fawn I noticed the second one (already dry) right behind it.  I snapped a couple of quick photos and slipped away so the family could reassemble itself without further delay.

Pronghorn fawns (the second is to the left and behind the one in the foreground). The newest one was so recently-born it was still wet.

Pronghorn fawns (the second is to the left and behind the one in the foreground). The newest one was so recently-born it was still wet.

After supper, the boys and I hiked up the ridge north of the river so they could work off some energy before bedtime.  They had a great time, and loved the view from the top.


We’ve been here less than 36 hours, but it already feels like we’ve been here a week.  …In a good way…

Two more days to go!