On a spring evening, Sharon Dynak spotted a great blue heron while on her regular walk at the Ucross Foundation. It’s a common site for the president of the foundation.
Ucross’ 20,000-acre property is home to hawks, a migratory pathway for pelicans and winter refuge for bald eagles. Dynak loves to see new chicks of the several families of sandhill cranes that live on the property. She recently spotted a nest with three great horned owlets.
The Bighorn Audubon Society recently recognized the diverse bird population at Ucross, naming it an “Important Bird Area.”
This weekend at Ucross, people can celebrate its birds and its new designation at the Wyoming Grasslands Symposium. The free symposium highlights the art and science of grasslands and features lectures by artists such as photographer William Sutton and scientists such as Arthur Middleton. Afternoon workshops include photography and bird walks. There are also activities for kids.
The symposium is a byproduct of a grasslands photography exhibition at Ucross, said Charlie Bettigole, co-director of the Ucross High Plains Stewardship Initiative housed at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which is a sponsor of the event.
“Wyoming Grasslands: The Photographs of Michael P. Berman and William S. Sutton,” hangs at Ucross until June 15. The show features images from across the state.
The high plains landscape reflected in the images encapsulates what makes a residency at Ucross so special for artists. It’s the place, Dynak said.
“It honors the land which means so much to us as artists,” she said.
The photography exhibition is part of a major show that opens at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody in June. The smaller traveling exhibition will tour 14 Wyoming libraries in the next year.
The symposium is meant to celebrate the show’s subject matter and cover how artists, land managers, visitors and other people interact with grassland ecosystems and why they are important, Bettigole said.
The short talks — each is about 15 minutes long — cover a wide swath of topics to appeal to those interested in art or science, as well as those with no knowledge or a deep understanding of grasslands, he said.
People will also get a chance to learn about the “Important Bird Area” designation Ucross received from Audubon. Artists who come for the foundation’s prestigious residencies often become avid birdwatchers, Dyank said.
About 10 years ago, artist Ernesto Scott became so enamored he spent a few years creating 80,000 photographs of birds, narrowing them to 40 for a “Birds of Ucross” exhibition. That work brought Ucross and the Bighorn chapter of the Audubon Society together.
To earn the title “Important Bird Area,” sites have to meet criteria regarding which species use the landscape, and their concentrations, said Jackie Canterbury, president of the Bighorn Audubon Society Chapter. Canterbury will lead a bird walk during the symposium.
A designation from Audubon signifies an area is important for future conservation efforts.
Ucross’ bird population is unique, providing winter habitat for birds like bald eagles and refuge for migratory birds like the bobolink, a ground nesting bird that uses wet hay meadows. Grassland birds, like the bobolink, are impacted by land management, and small changes can help populations thrive, Canterbury said.
Staff at Ucross already know how special the birds are on the property. But the designation brings more awareness and will hopefully bring more people interested in seeing its birds.
“In the West, we talk a lot about building community because of the vastness of our place, and the birds are very much a part of our community,” Dynak said. “And, besides being important members of the community and ecosystem, they provide the wonderful soundscape that we live in. They are the music of Wyoming.”
Screening of “The Ucross Experiment: Cross pollination of Arts and Sciences”
The evening before the Wyoming Grasslands Symposium, people can watch a new documentary about Ucross produced by Ali Grossman of UWTV. The Ucross Experiment: Cross pollination of Arts and Sciences, screens at 7 p.m. May 29 in Sheridan at the Wyo Theater.
The film documents what happens when four scientists are paired with an artist and challenged to create a collaborative project, said Jeffrey Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming.
Lockwood conceived the idea while at Ucross about two years ago. He noticed the increased interest in science and ecological work at Ucross and asked what would happen if the foundation brought scientists as well as artists in to work on a project.
Poet Harvey Hix worked with microbiologist Naomi Ward to create a poem based on Ward’s recently published paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lockwood said.
Geologist Ron Frost and composer Anne Guzzo created a mini aria based on the Powder River Basin.
Sculptor Ashley Carlisle and shrub ecologist Ann Hild created an art installation piece that showed cheatgrass and sagebrush on a scale. The cheatgrass, due to a trick in construction, appeared heavier and represented the ecological weight of invasive species.
Michael Dillon, who studies bees, worked with choreographer Rachael Shaw to document movement of the insects.
While the projects are fascinating, the overarching concept of the documentary is about the importance of collaboration in solving complicated problems in the modern world, Lockwood said.
“This is a model showing what can happen when people with deep expertise and a great deal of humility and a capacity for listening to others work together,” he said.
The film, which premiered in Laramie a few weeks ago, will play in Jackson June 18 and hopefully screen in other Wyoming communities.