PAWHUSKA — After little more than an hour’s time on this earth, the first bison calf born on the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve walked in front of the camera lens of one the natural area’s greatest champions on Wednesday.
Harvey Payne, a spokesman and advocate for the preserve for more than 30 years, went to the headquarters for a routine task and ended up experiencing a special moment.
“I had to take some things up there,” he said. “Some of the guys were there getting ready to do a (controlled) burn, and Tony Brown, the science director, said ‘I thought you’d be down taking pictures of that new calf.’ ”
Turns out Payne had driven right past the newborn and didn’t see it.
“You know, if that calf is lying down on the prairie it’s darn near invisible,” he said.
With directions from Brown, “I had my camera with me so I boogied down there real quick and found the cow and several others working their way north. … They crossed the road right there where I was,” Payne said.
Bison are used to traffic on the roads, and the best place to be when taking photographs is safely inside your vehicle, he said. A skilled wildlife photographer with many years of experience on the prairie, Payne said that witnessing a newborn moment is always a thrill.
“It couldn’t have been more than an hour old,” he said. “If you look closely in the photograph you can see the umbilical cord, still red, under the calf.”
Typically a cow will move away from traffic areas and other places people frequent, but Payne said he thinks the new mother was headed for a nutritious meal on a nearby field the staff had burned last fall.
“It’s growing and green, I’m sure that’s where they were headed,” he said. “It could have happened anywhere in almost 25,000 acres, but she was right there by the road.
”Sometimes good things happen to silly people. It really is exciting, you feel like you get a little glimpse into their daily life.”
Payne said the earliest new calf he can remember was on about March 13, but in recent years the first calves have turned up closer to the end of the month, so this Ides of March calf was a pleasant surprise.
Preserve staff expect another 600 to 700 calves to be born in weeks to come, making this time of the year a popular one for taking a driving tour of the Osage County facility, according to information issued Wednesday by The Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma.
Last spring, 561 calves were born to the herd of 2,100 adult bison that roam freely on the nearly 40,000-acre preserve. The young calves quickly become active and chase, battle, butt, kick, and race and frolic — activities that aid in muscle development and coordination.
Tourists are cautioned to stay in their vehicles for safety, as a 1,500-pound bison can burst from a stance to a 35 mph charge in a heartbeat.
“Your vehicle is the safest and best place to be,” Payne said. “They aren’t afraid of vehicles and will come close, and you can get good photographs. When you get out you’re something different, a potential threat, and they’re either going to run away or, worse, run at you.”