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October Morning on the Niobrara

Botanist Gerry Steinauer shares photos taken of a fall day near the central Niobrara River.


Early morning sunlight highlights the autumn colors of the central Niobrara River Valley. The red-leaved shrub on the bluff is smooth sumac and the yellow-leaved tree on the floodplain is cottonwood.

Photo by Gerry Steinauer

Photos and story by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist

In an early October day last year, dawn arrived cool and crisp on the central Niobrara River. Although the sun was still below the horizon, its rays painted the eastern sky a light blue and the scattered clouds muted reds and purples. When the orb peaked above the skyline, the bluff tops were first to be illuminated, then the sunlight slowly slid down the valley flanks, finally settling in the floodplain, where it flashed the autumn-yellow leaves of ash and cottonwoods to glittering gold.

Unlike the floodplain trees, the bur oaks growing on the river terraces and in bluff ravines showed only a hint of fall color, a slight browning between the leaf veins. The hardy oaks had previously dropped their acorns, and early-rising squirrels scurried about the forest floor gathering and stashing the bounty as winter fare. Some of the rodent-buried nuts would sprout roots yet that fall.

A basswood leaf lies partially submerged in a spring-fed stream that flows from the Niobrara’s south bluff onto the floodplain. Photo by Gerry Steinauer.

In the nearby prairie, frost clung to the dried, browned stems and leaves of grasses and the still-green leaves of late wildflowers, mostly sunflowers, goldenrods and asters. A few of the flowers held lingering blooms; it would be a race to create seed before succumbing to the harder frosts to come.

As daylight filled the valley, a white-tailed deer, after a long night of foraging, waded into the river’s shallows and drank before bedding down for the day. Meanwhile, downstream, a lone Canada goose rose from its sandbar roost and flew low up the braided stream, its shrill honking announcing to all that morning had arrived on the Niobrara.

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