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!

Photo of the Week – June 27, 2014

A selection of photos from a prairie ecologist’s family vacation in the mountains of Colorado…

Rocky mountain stream.

A rocky mountain stream not far from the door of the cabin we stayed in last week.  South of Idaho Springs, Colorado.


Slow shutterspeed

Since I don’t see fast flowing water (or rocks) very often in my part of Nebraska, I don’t often get to play with the old photography trick of using a slow shutterspeed to show the movement of the water.


slow shutterspeed again

I spent way more time than I should have on the slow-shutterspeed-trick…


Where the snow is coming from...

We got to climb high enough to see the melting snow that was feeding all those streams.  It was fun to think about the fact that the snow melt we were looking at would be flowing right past us in the Platte River when we got home.  Hell’s Hole Trail.


Boys and I climbed up a ridge one evening.

One evening, the boys and I climbed up a ridge near our cabin just because it was there.


John thinks he's funny

John thought it was funny to pretend he was clinging to the edge of a cliff.  (His feet are solidly on the rocks below.)


Favorite part of mountains are above the tree line.

My favorite parts of the mountains are above treeline where I don’t feel so closed in.  Chief Mountain.


Dan also likes

Daniel (and his brother) lobbied hard to climb Chief Mountain, even though we’d done the same hike only a year before.  The scenery WAS very nice…


Bristlecone pine

Bristlecone pines are found only at very high elevations.  Both the live and dead ones are very picturesque.


Summit lake near Mount Evans.

One cool evening, we dodged some light showers and took a short uphill hike from Summit lake near Mount Evans.  The scenery was enough to take your breath away – though the 13,000 foot elevation helped with that as well…  


Mount Evans and Summit Lake.

A  panoramic view of Mount Evans and Summit Lake from the trail.


Douglas fir cone.

Of course, despite the gorgeous scenery, many of my  favorite photos from the trip were close-ups.  Just as in prairies, close-up photography helps me see details I would otherwise have missed.  For example, did you know Douglas fir cone had these funny little trident-like appendages on them?


Colorado spruce

A close-up of Colorado spruce needles.


Venus's slipper orchid, aka Fairly slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa).

Venus’s slipper orchid, aka Fairly slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa).  My wife found several of these near our cabin.  After I photographed one, I looked it up in one of the field guides in the cabin.  My favorite quote from the guide was: “Although one of our smallest orchids, Venus’s slipper is the most exquisite, as well as the most elusive.”

It was great to spend a week in cooler weather and see some different landscapes, and I really enjoyed the concentrated time with my family.  Pine and spruce woodlands are very pretty, though the alpine meadows above them were certainly my favorites.  I can see how some people really enjoy living in the mountains.  However, while I like short trips to the mountains, I am always glad to get back home to the wide open landscape of the Nebraska prairie.