Stories in North Dakota

May Nature Notes

Spring brings baby bison and nesting piping plovers to TNC preserves in North Dakota.

Piping plover on a beach in front of a lake.
© ©2012 Richard Hamilton Smith

Newborn bison and nesting plovers are signs of spring, and both can be seen at Nature Conservancy preserves in May.

Most bison calves are born in May and June. Pregnant cows first chase off their offspring from the previous spring: yearlings that stay with the herd but can no longer rely on their mother’s care once a newborn arrives. Shortly before giving birth, a cow will move to the edge of the herd or leave the group altogether. The process itself takes less than one hour, the calf can stand on its own another half-hour after birth and run with the herd within one to three hours. Newborn bison are reddish-orange, coloration they keep until about 10 weeks old when they transition to the chocolate brown coat typical of yearlings.

Bison calf nursing.
Bison calf getting milk Bison calf getting milk from its mother at the 2014 spring roundup at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. © Katie Hawk
Bison calf resting in green grasses under a blue sky.
Spring Brings New Life American Bison roam and graze the spring grasses across the more than 40,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. © Morgan Heim

After their first few weeks, young bison become more adventurous and play with other calves. Generally, their mothers are fairly close by. This is a good time to watch the young animals – bison watchers can see them learn from their mothers, begin to graze, and sort out who is dominant in their groups. Bison can be watched at the Conservancy’s Cross Ranch Preserve where the animals roam over more than 3700 acres in the property’s central and south units. Another good location to see bison in North Dakota is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Bison are wild animals, so always view them from a safe distance.

Taking on a Piping Plover Mystery

Why is one of the best nesting sites for piping plovers not producing as many baby birds?

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Piping plovers nest in North Dakota in May. These shorebirds return from their winter along the Gulf coast in April and lay their eggs by mid-May. The nesting habitat they like best is secluded beaches with little vegetation along lake shores, and they find those ideal conditions by the alkali lakes at our John E. Williams Preserve. Piping plovers have declined throughout their range and TNC has been actively managing the birds at the preserve to increase their numbers. During May, June and July the beach areas at the preserve are closed to visitors to prevent disturbance to the nesting birds.

There are many other migrating birds returning to North Dakota in May to see. Avocets, willets and marbled godwits are all impressive shorebirds that nest in North Dakota. Bobolinks are conspicuous grassland birds that return from as far away as Argentina to nest. Western meadowlarks singing from the tops of shrubs or fence posts are another sign of spring that can be seen and heard across the state.