BEYOND THE GATES - Discover critters of Kansas in backyard
A buffalo rests on the Kansas prairie at the Plumlee Buffalo Ranch in Alma. Visitors can tour the ranch and see a herd of these gentle giants up close. Photo by: Julie Fiedler, POST.
Story by: Julie Fiedler
1ST INF. DIV. POST
Every so often, I'll catch a glimpse of some kind of critter and find myself curious to know more. I recently indulged this inquisitiveness and explored three unique spots showcasing local wildlife, all within a 30-minute drive of Fort Riley.
From cockroaches to crawdads, the Insect Zoo at Kansas State University, Manhattan, has plenty of creepy crawly critters on display. Note: If the idea of watching hundreds of cockroaches crawl around in terrariums isn't your bag, I recommend skipping the insect zoo and strolling around the gardens, while more intrepid Family members explore inside.
Inside the charming building, visitors will find a surprisingly robust collection of insects. A petting area near the entrance provides an opportunity to touch live centipedes, spiders and roaches under staff supervision. With live and taxidermied specimens, as well as stuffed animals and rubber versions, the zoo caters to every age and level of squeamishness.
Terrariums of roaches house intriguing species, like the death's head roach, the Madagascar hissing roach and the giant lobster roach.
One counter with a row of jars containing various larvae made me think if there were Pinterest for entomologists, this is what it would look like. Distaste for maggots aside, the collections were rather fascinating.
Round the corner into a darkened cavern-like hallway, and you'll see all manner of spiders, like the Antilles pink toe with light red feet and the Mexican fire leg with rust-colored legs. Full disclosure: I do not like spiders. For me, being separated from the hairy, eight-legged arthropods by a glass terrarium is too close for comfort. As such, I walked through the spider portion with the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end solely for you, dear readers.
Housed in the cavern was perhaps my favorite specimen: two emperor scorpions which glow in the dark under black light.
Another room showcases walking sticks disguised as different types of plants and leaves, crawdads in an aquarium, shiny multi-colored beetles and moths, bees, katydids, grasshoppers and more.
With a discounted admission fee of $1.50 for military, a visit to the Insect Zoo is an inexpensive and fun way to enjoy some of the smaller critters found in Kansas and far flung parts of the world.
For more information, visit www.kstate.edu/butterfly.
MILFORD NATURE CENTER
With hiking trails, a nature-themed playground, nature center, fish hatchery, bird watching station and butterfly enclosure, the Milford Nature Center offers a variety of ways to explore and engage with Kansas wildlife.
"We have a multi-faceted facility," said Assistant Director Vanessa Avara. "Our mission here is to teach people about the nature of Kansas."
The center features live specimens, as well as static displays of wildlife.
A personal favorite was the prairie dog habitat with tubes and a main area set up along a hallway where visitors can watch the little critters run, eat and sleep.
Another neat feature was a tactile display, where visitors reach into drawers to touch artifacts like bones, pelts and tree fungus and guess what the objects are.
"Kids are learning while they're having fun," said Sean Lamb, naturalist, Milford Nature Center. "It's a great resource for the local community to utilize."
Additionally, an outdoor enclosure showcases impressive animals, like bobcats, hawks, kestrels, owls and eagles. The outdoor animals have undergone rehabilitation and can't be returned to the wild, so the center cares for them and displays them for educational purposes.
Although I don't fish, I found the hatchery fascinating. The facility is home to walleye, striper, sauger and saugeye production. Visitors can learn about spawning, yearling phases and nearly everything between.
With a survival rate of merely 5 to 10 percent in the wild, the fish would likely die out if it weren't for the handful of warm-water hatcheries like this one that help stock local lakes and waterways.
Behind the hatchery are several raceways, or outdoor containers, of various species of fish, like catfish and striper. While koi are used as feeder fish, simply watching them swim and swirl in their raceway was mesmerizing.
Ask a staff member for information, and you might find yourself petting a snake, feeding fish or learning about Kansas wildlife.
With free admission, the Milford Nature Center makes for a great budget-friendly destination.
For more information, call 785-238-5323.
PLUMLEE BUFFALO TOURS
You've most likely seen photos of buffalo. Perhaps you've even seen a herd at a distance from the road. The Plumlee Buffalo Tour provides an opportunity to see these gentle giants up close with husband and wife team Larry and Shirley Plumlee as your guides.
Bumping along over limestone rocks in an all-terrain vehicle, Shirley joked, "They don't call this the Flint Hills for nothing."
With the Kansas wind whipping through our hair, Shirley drove me across the hills to watch the buffalo roam and graze.
"You really get more of a taste of being out on the farm," Shirley said.
Shirley and Larry started raising buffalo 10 years ago, when a friend of Larry's convinced him to buy two calves.
Calves weigh about 30 pounds at birth, but can grow to be 1,000 pounds. Looking at the massive mammals, I wouldn't have guessed they could jump six feet or run 30 mph. While they are territorial, they have grown up around the Plumlees all their lives and are docile, usually calmly roaming the 300 acres.
Watching them graze is incredibly relaxing. They don't make much noise, except to grunt in communication with one another. Several times, buffalo came within feet of the ATV and barely rustled the grass.
Visitors should keep in mind it is a working ranch, and the buffalo are raised for their meat. However, that operation is done off site. Since Shirley and Larry cater tours to the interest of each particular group, visitors can request to focus on other aspects of the operation, like simply watching the buffalo.
"We just let nature take its course," Shirley said.
Spring is calving season, and visitors stand a good chance of seeing baby buffalo now through June.
At the tour's origination point, visitors can get a hands-on feel by touching buffalo horns and hides. Buffalo meat also is available for sale.
Tours usually last about one to one-and-a-half hours and can accommodate two to 50 people.
Plumlee offers a military discount.
For more information, visit www.plumleeranch.com.