Two bison in a corral await their turn at Bison Vet Day at Kankakee Sands.
Waiting their turn Two Kankakee Sands bison in line for Bison Vet Day. © Rick Katz

Stories in Indiana

Indiana Nature Notes for November

Alyssa Nyberg Restoration Ecologist

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Bison Vet Day

Bison Vet Day may be one of the most important days at Kankakee Sands each year. Certainly, it is by far one of the most emotional—for humans and for bison. Inside each Bison Vet Day are profound emotions of anxiety, awe, exhilaration and relief.

Months of work have gone into the preparation for this one day: building of new corral pens and observation towers, meetings with TNC Bison Managers from across the United States, conversations with the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), coordination with veterinarians from the Indianapolis Zoo, our Bison Manager Olivia Schouten poring for hours over spreadsheets and genetic data, and mentally, emotionally and physically preparing to work with the 111 bison of our Kankakee Sand bison herd.

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The early morning of Wednesday, October 26 was hushed. A light drizzle and fog encircled us as we waited for Bison Vet Day to begin. Our language was one of whispers, hand gestures and facial expressions. Around us we could hear the muffled sounds of 100 bison in the corral—their deep breathing, hoofs churning up the sand, bodies rubbing against bodies. Over the radios we hear “2 to 1 ready, squeeze chute read, data team ready, vet team ready.” It felt as though we all, both humans and bison, took a collective breath. It was then that the first bison came running wild-eyed into the squeeze chute, and skidded to an abrupt stop with a snort, stare and stomp.

Once a bison is on the scale and secured in the squeeze chute, the vet team and data team work together as quickly and quietly as possible to record data on the individual: note its weight, confirm gender, check ear tags and microchip data, pull tail hairs for genetic testing, administer vaccinations, record injuries, treat wounds if needed, reference the listing of individuals who will remain at Kankakee Sand, and those who will be removed to maintain appropriate herd size.

All this happens in approximately 90 seconds. It feels like a lifetime when the 1000-pound bull bison is in the squeeze chute—steam rising from its nostrils and its sides heaving with each breath—but it’s just 90 seconds.

And then the doors of the chute are opened and the bison leaps out, all four legs off the ground—a thousand pounds airborne for an instant—before it touches the earth and then runs down the alleyway and out onto the Kankakee Sands pasture, getting as far away from us as quickly as it possibly can. And so it goes for eight hours, bison after bison after bison, until Olivia calls over the radio “last bison coming down the chute”.

Then it’s over. We are momentarily frozen, blinking, muscles finally relaxing; then come the smiles and quiet nods and the deep long breath.

This year we are humbled and honored to share 21 bison with the Forest County Potawatomi Community in Wisconsin who are restoring bison to their land. We join twelve other Nature Conservancy chapters with bison herds in supporting the InterTribal Buffalo Council, Tanka Fund, and other Tribal Nations in their goal of bringing bison back to tribal stewardship. This year, 850 bison from TNC chapters will be restored to tribal lands and communities.

Back at the office, we share a meal and review the day, thinking of ways to improve for next year, but always, always, with full respect and admiration for the bison that are a keystone species on our prairies here—shaping the land, the prairie, and ultimately, shaping us too.

We are grateful to the ITBC for the opportunity to partner, to the Indianapolis Zoo Veterinary Team led by Jeff Proudfoot who have been providing veterinary expertise since the establishment of our herd in 2016, to our TNC Illinois partners who assist on this day, and to several volunteers who help make the day go more smoothly with their technical expertise.

Above all, we’re grateful for the bison who quietly, purposefully and strongly deepen our relationship with the natural world.

About the InterTribal Buffalo Council
According to the ITBC website, it “is a federally chartered Tribal organization, formed in 1992 as a gathering of 17 Tribes. Today, it now has a membership of 79 Tribal Nations and growing every year, sharing a mission to restore buffalo to Indian Country to preserve our historical, cultural, traditional, and spiritual relationship for future generations. To reestablish healthy buffalo populations on Tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people. Returning buffalo to Tribal lands will help to heal the land, the animal, and the spirit of Indian people.”

Nature Notes for October

Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Gracing the Sky

October is loud and raucous on the Kankakee Sands prairie. It can also be dark and ominous. It begins in early morning. You hear them long before you see them. Off in the distance is a lone tree or perhaps a small cluster of trees. Their branches begin to tremble. Growing ever louder, a chattering, clambering ruckus rumbles out into the chilly morning air.

And then it happens…one single black bird lifts off and flies away from the tree, and then another and another and another until there is a mass exodus of more birds taking flight than you could have imagined were in that tree. The sky comes alive with red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and starlings.

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The long flowing stream of birds reminds me of walking down the hall with my grade school classmates—all of us streaming along in a not-so-straight line—two to three abreast chatting, some walking fast, others slow; there’s a break in the line, and then a small group runs to catch up. These morning elastic bands of birds, ebbing and flowing, can undulate across the sky for minutes at a time, spanning for miles.

During the daytime, these birds are no longer in sinuous lines but are bunched together in a mass of feathers in the sky. Down they go as a group, into the field to eat, then back up into the sky headed south. No, wait—now they’re headed east, up then down, this way and that. Hard to tell who is calling the shots and how decisions are made.

Why the birds come together in large numbers in the fall is not well known. Perhaps for the protection from predators—strength in numbers! Or perhaps for the ease of finding food—all hands on deck to locate the next best place to feast! Or perhaps just because it is fun—the same reason we humans gather together in the cooler months for reminiscing about the year gone by, to share a meal, to party!

With the springtime and summertime breeding season long past, these birds turn their attention from the stressful task of finding a mate, making a nest, raising young and defending territory to feeding and heading south for the winter.

These common grackles, red-winged blackbirds, starlings and cowbirds will soon head to the southern United States and Mexico to ride out the winter. They are known as short-distance migrants—remaining in North America, rather than going to central or south America, or farther yet. 

I love this coming together of the different species. The red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds are all termed New World species that are native to North America. Starlings are termed Old World species, being from Eurasia and Northern Africa.

And yet the murmuration of starlings, the plague of grackles, round of robins, cloud of blackbirds and a herd of cowbirds all come together in a beautiful diverse jumble of ages, sizes, colors and species. I love when humans come together in just this same way, too!

And then again in the evening, as dusk draws near, the chattering, squawking, clambering comes together in a grove of oak trees, and slowly the sounds begin to quiet, and the tree takes one last tremble for the night.

Come on out to Kankakee Sands this October to enjoy this feathery phenomenon!

Nature Notes for September

Just like Kankakee Sands, You'll Be Golden!

It's all too easy to overlook things, isn't it? As we move so quickly from place to place, from task to task, we often miss the nuances and details that make life so interesting. In the fall, with goldenrods painting our Kankakee Sands prairies an amazing palette of sunshine, buttery yellow, and gold, it's tempting just to say, "yep, that is pretty" and move on to other things, focusing our attention elsewhere.

But out there right now, from Early September to mid-October, are 15 different species of goldenrods in bloom, and one of the prettiest is aptly named showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa).

Most other goldenrods—stiff goldenrod, tall goldenrod, Canada goldenrod—have the benefit of being four to five feet tall and grabbing our attention. But none has the same charm as the short, showy goldenrod. Growing only two to three feet tall, this squat little goldenrod has six-inch long, strap-like leaves which alternate up the stem and feel rubbery to the touch. The showy part is at the very top of each of the stalks sits a large, bulbous panicle of many small golden flowers—hundreds in fact! These nectar-filled flowers are visited by a myriad of butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and beetles.

Goldenrods are indeed worth their weight in gold, as they are an important nectar source for the late fall insects. Adult monarch butterflies, in particular, find goldenrods of immense value.

The gorgeous, showy goldenrod is a wonderful choice for a landscaping plant—it is stiff and sturdy, allowing it to stand upright and not flop over. And lucky for us in the Kankakee Sands area with our sandy soils, showy goldenrod does well on sand and in full sun, like many of our prairie plants do.

If you slow down to admire showy goldenrod, you just might find that hidden among the flowers is a perfectly camouflaged, yellow-colored, goldenrod crab spider. There it sits intensely awaiting the opportunity to literally grab its next meal of the aforementioned butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and beetles which are coming in for nectar.

Bright yellow goldenrod crab spider sitting on leaf awaits its next meal.
Goldenrod crab spider Awaiting its next meal. © Alyssa Nyberg/TNC

This is a well-named spider—it holds its front legs back just as a crab would do, and it can walk sideways in crab-like fashion. As its name implies, it is often found on goldenrod plants, but is also regularly found on milkweeds. The goldenrod crab spider has a bit of a secret weapon—it has the ability to change color based on its surroundings; it can become yellow, or green, or white or even pink by shedding its old exoskeleton for a new one! 

Want to admire goldenrods up close and personal and try to find a crab spider on the prowl? Wonderful! Please join us on Saturday, September 24 to celebrate Kankakee Sands’ 25th anniversary. It’s a full day of family-friendly, fun activities – from a morning yoga session and a photography workshop to bison corral tours and hikes at Conrad Station Savanna.

There will also be free food, arts and crafts, and informational displays, as well as staff and volunteers on hand to chat about all things bison, prairie and goldenrod. We’ll be offering prairie walks through the south bison pasture in which you will be able to see a variety of goldenrods in bloom, and together we can hunt for crab spiders!

For more information visit the celebration webpage and just like Kankakee Sands in September, you’ll be golden!

Alyssa Nyberg is restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands project in Newton County, Indiana.