Want to escape from COVID-19, and from the fear and loathing of this new plague? The wilds of rural Osage County beckon you to self-isolate by getting lost in nature.
“Enjoy Mother Nature’s show, and it’s a different show every day,” says noted wildlife photographer Harvey Payne. He’s referring to the panoply of wildflowers, butterflies, birds and bison that make spring in the Osage remarkable. The visitor center and the bathrooms at the Nature Convservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve are closed, but as long as you don’t mind roughing it, the open spaces are yours. Just pack a lunch, grab your binoculars and camera and head for the hills.
Payne spoke during a telephone interview last week with particular excitement about the possibility of spotting American golden plovers, which migrate through the Osage each spring on their way from Patagonia to the Arctic. You can’t see them here in the fall, because they fly south along coastal routes, Payne said.
The American golden plover can fly 50 miles per hour for 50 hours without stopping, he noted.
“It’s amazing. That’s quite a bird,” Payne said, adding that the golden plover frequently forages in areas that have been burned off. “They fly in here, they fuel up and they make their way north.”
Also bound to be of interest to birders of all backgrounds is the Greater Prairie Chicken. Usually about the end of March, they begin to engage in their mating rituals, and sometimes on a calm, clear day you can hear their “booming” sounds in the distance and see males jumping and fighting, Payne said.
But there’s plenty of less-exotic bird activity to be watched with interest. Payne mentioned last Thursday that he had seen crows and cardinals on their way north, and that robins had already been in Osage County perhaps a week. Additionally, birds that overwinter in the Osage, such as the Northern Harrier, were still around, he said.
“It’s a real good time to be a birder. This time of year you’re going to see something different every day,” Payne said. The critical thing is to get out there beyond civilization, and beyond the dread of the novel coronavirus.
There have been geese, and the vultures are back, and it’s not out of the question that you might see a sandhill Crane.
Along with birds aplenty, there is the bison herd that makes its home at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. This is the time of year for calving, as a wave of new babies will join the herd. If you’re not familiar with the bison herd at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, you might want to consult a copy of Payne’s book, “Visions of the Tallgrass: Prairie Photographs,” which he published along with James Ronda, if you can reasonably find one right now without getting breathed upon.
“Right now, spring really is getting ready to spring, and I think it’s going to be a little early,” Payne said, describing the light freeze that Osage County was scheduled to have last Friday night as “a small setback.” He said warm nights are the key to boosting the productivity of the natural order in spring, and we’ve had several of those.
Already, the close observer can spot different types of colorful butterflies, and plants such as the wild plum are beginning to bloom.
“The wildflowers are going to really start coming on strong,” Payne said, speaking of verbenas and dog-tooth lilies and numerous others. “It’s just amazing being outdoors this time of year.”