Bison on prairie

My first trip to The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve was on November 11, 2003. We started doing Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies in September 2012.

Bison starred at just concluded unorganized non-event accurately labeled “Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies.” This celebration occurred at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, September 26-29, 2018. At Tallgrass, Bison have right-of-way. In seeing them, I am reminded that 60,000,000 Bison once lived on the 200,000,000 acres of the Great Plains, of which Tallgrass is a part. I am reminded this is an important history of our country, facts easily overlooked and forgotten in our loud, shiny, restless urban societies. Fun fact: on our drive over to Tallgrass on September 26, thousands upon thousands of Harley Davidson motorcycles all headed EAST, toward Bikes, Blues, and Barbecue Harley rally in Fayetteville, on highway 412; on our way home today, all Harleys headed WEST and Fayetteville bereft of roar and rumble so beloved by Harley fans. No Harleys at the Tallgrass, but there are several thousand Bison, making our Great Plains, and especially the Osage Hills section north of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Great Again.


Bird migration was on the agenda during in the Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma,and especially The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Some migrants like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Savannah Sparrow, Nashville Warbler, and Lincoln’s Sparrow are FOS – first of season – just arrived from where they nested further north. Some are decked out in their migration plumage, like elegantly brown Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. Flocks of Brown-headed Cowbirds – original name, Buffalo Bird – include patchy young of the year. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Eastern Bluebirds are gathered into impressive and vocal flocks, suddenly dominant reality of a given few trees or bushes. Red-headed Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers shoot overhead in 1 and 3s. We could find a few of the local nesting Neotropical songbirds like Summer Tanagers, but the season of migration is on them, too. Big impressive hawks like Northern Harriers were numerous in their low graceful sweeps over tall grasses. But nothing is so impressive as treetop flocks of southbound Blue Jays. Yes, our familiar yard bird the Blue Jay taken up life in the flock. Over three days we noticed at least 13 flocks overhead and headed south – no doubt missed many, many more — number of individual jays in each up to 82 individuals (average 36). With just a modest boost of north wind, jays depart resting places in the blackjacks and launch forth to freedom of tall grass and seemingly endless prairie sky.

Purple pineapple

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve reminds me of Horn Island in the Gulf of Mexico, just off Mississippi. Both are elemental places removed from norms of time. In one sense, both are easy to reach, by car or boat. On foot, and with a little time, birds, butterflies, and a unique assemblage of flowers emerge from the landscape. In the Gulf, there’s an ocean as shaper of things. At Tallgrass, there are waves of Bison shaping things. All of life follows. Yellow dominates botany of big landscapes in late September. Yellow of goldenrods and prairie broomweed covers thousands of acres. But here’s a closer look: Eryngium leavenworthii, “common” name Leavenworth Eryngo, a most radical botany of spines and sharp points. Arkansans also call them Purple Pineapple and Wicked Queen. By whatever name, Eryngium serves well as spiny emblem for our Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterfly trips. Same fields with Wicked Queen and goldenrods feature patches of a lovely blue, delicate-looking flower, Blue Sage. Native flowers are abundant because the extensively rocky soils – called Flint Hills – were never plowed. On our trip last week we kept a sharp eye out for Bison, and if the Bison were off far enough for safety, we walked their clear trails into fields of flowers.


Monarchs are on our front burner for our late September explorations. Their southward migration flyways include the Flint Hills region of Kansas and Oklahoma, including the Osage Hills section with The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Much of the Great Plains is heavily plowed and herbicided for agriculture leading to something akin a flower desert. By contrast, with dense surface rock and thin soils, the Flint Hills couldn’t be plowed. Native botanical diversity persisted. Monarchs know this. So do many other butterflies and native insects. Whereas much of the Great Plains is unfortunately fly over country, the Osage Hills is a place to stop and refuel. During our recent Tallgrass trip, we saw hundreds and likely thousands of Monarchs. No matter where we looked, it was all about Monarchs. One stopped on a Blue Sage (Salvia azurea), also home to an interesting golden spider, a simple example of a radiating diversity of life. Diversity radiates through the biosphere. This is a key to understanding what makes this Preserve an important place.

Collared lizard

My first trip to the Tallgrass was on November 11, 2003. We had read a long Sunday paper-type article in the paper. Inspired, a birder friend and I left Fayetteville at 6 AM and didn’t get home until 8:30 PM. Between times we saw Harris’s Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks including Harlan’s Hawk, Merlin (prairie race), Northern Harriers, and Bison. Almost 15 years have passed. Give or take, it’s 200 miles from my house in Fayetteville to Preserve headquarters. Depending upon whose driving, 3-3.5 hours. I keep learning new stuff on every trip. This is because it is an expansive landscape, changes constantly across seasons, and over time I have made trips with different people with different interests. Birding trips, botany trips, Christmas Bird Count, even a fund-raiser with several couples ready to make significant financial contributions to TNC. We started doing the “Bison, Birds, Botany, and Butterflies” trip in September 2012. A person could say I don’t require much of an excuse, even at expense of undesirable carbon footprint, to go to Tallgrass. They would be right.

Tallgrass group

Joe Neal

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