Bison, birds and plants all part of Nachusa Grasslands’ annual Autumn on the Prairie

Bison herd was one of the event’s main attractions

A bison and her calf watch one of the bison tour wagons pass by the herd during the Nachusa Grassland's Autumn on the Prairie on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

FRANKLIN GROVE – A little morning rain didn’t stop the Nachusa Grasslands from showcasing its flora and fauna Saturday. In fact, the biggest residents of the 4,100-acre site seemed to bask in it.

“The rain was good,” Deputy Director Cody Considine said. “We could use some more.”

Considine was one of several Grasslands officials and volunteers who helped direct about 800 visitors to tours and tents during the annual Autumn on the Prairie event.

A dozen guided hiking tours with chances to see autumn wildflowers, grassland birds and dragonflies complemented a “Discovery Tent,” where kids could see aspects of the prairie ecosystem and touch hides and seed pods.

A live birds of prey display, offered by the Northern Illinois Raptor Rehab and Education, also gave visitors an opportunity to see owls, falcons and hawks up close.

But the big draw was the prairie’s biggest resident: bison.

“We have around 100 or so this year, with I think about 30 calves,” one of the volunteer guides said as he led a trailer full of visitors out on the prairie. “We’re lucky today. The herd is right here and been staying here for awhile. Look at that big bull there. He probably weighs around 1,700 pounds.”

With a little encouragement from edible treats, half of the herd – including bulls, cows and their calves – politely watched as a steady stream of tractors and trucks pulled the trailers past them about 250 yards west from the visitor center.

“It was really nice,” said Annalyce Harris, 10, of Rochelle after she completed one of the tours with her family. “There were a lot of little ones.”

The Kruis family of Wauconda took a bison tour and then stopped at the Discovery Tent, where Gwen, 3, had a lot of questions for Friends of Nachusa Grasslands volunteer Heather Herakovich.

“Why is this so big?” Gwen said as she pointed to a long seed pod from one of the prairie plants.

“Why are they so small?” she said, pointing to a display of a mouse, vole and shrew.

Herakovich explained how each prairie plant and animal adds to the diversity of the native ecosystem.

“We saw the bison, too,” said Gwen’s dad, Mark Kruis, a biologist who once worked at the Grasslands. “They were right next to the trail. They weren’t here when I was here.”

At the birds of prey tent, Lily Delacruz, 6, of West Dundee was having a stare-down with Athena, a great horned owl, and Twilight, a barred owl.

“One of them just blinked their eyes,” Lily said as her grandmother chuckled.

Brantley Chisamore, 2, of Rochelle gave a resounding “Oh, yeah” when asked if he liked the bison.

“They were eating grass,” he said as he checked out one of the static displays with his brothers Easton, 5, and Wyatt, 4, at the visitor center.

The 4,100-acre Nachusa Grasslands is owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy.

The Friends of Nachusa Grasslands is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2008 by volunteers dedicated to providing for the long–term care and management of the grasslands.

“It consists of large remnant prairie, woodlands and wetlands being reconnected through habitat restoration to create one of the largest and most biologically diverse grasslands in Illinois,” according to the Friends of Nachusa Grasslands website. “Working hand in hand with conservancy staff, a dynamic community of volunteer stewards collect and plant seeds; manage invasive species; repair wetlands; and conduct controlled burns in order to preserve, protect and share this precious endangered ecosystem.”

Autumn on the Prairie takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the third Saturday in September. Next year’s date is Sept. 21.

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Earleen Hinton

Earleen Hinton

Earleen creates content and oversees production of 8 community weeklies. She has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.