Migrating Birds

Every few minutes during the height of the migration season, ~20,000 Snow Geese pass by.

I mentioned migrating cranes in a previous post, but for sheer numbers alone, nothing beats the migrating geese, ducks, and shorebirds that pass through the Prairie Pothole Region.

Check out this video I took in March. 

I’ve been helping out Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge with their spring counts.  Not only do they manage the refuge but countless Waterfowl Production Areas, acquired public lands or easements funded by Duck Stamps. 

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to count thousands of birds as they flush within minutes and try to pick out species.  Most are Canada Geese, Snow Geese, American White Pelicans, and Mallards, but many are shorebirds and other waterfowl such as: Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, American Widgeons, Green-winged Teals, Lesser ScaupsCommon Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneye, and Northern Shovelers.  Most are on their way up to Canada, but some remain in South Dakota for the summer.

Rio Grande

Rio Grande, Taos, New Mexico

Recently, I visited a friend in Taos, New Mexico.  We made a trip out to the Rio Grande.

In March and April, according to eBird, you can see Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Red-naped Sapsuckers, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Pinyon Jays, Steller’s Jays, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Common Ravens, Violet-green Swallows, Mountain Chickadees, Juniper titmouse, American Dippers, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Canyon Towhees, Great-tailed Grackles, all of which I cannot see in southeastern South Dakota.

Crane Migration Season


A gift from my friends who work for the National Wildlife Refuge System

Every Spring, millions of waterfowl and shorebirds migrate through the Northern Plains.  The Prairie Pothole region, with its many lakes formed by receding glaciers, is an important stopover region for migrating birds.  Travelers come from all over the world to see the Sandhill Cranes and later, the Whooping Cranes in the Platte River Valley of Nebraska.  After 4 years of living here, I finally made the trek out to see them.

Here is a video

If you are interested, check out these great websites: Nebraska Flyway and the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary.  It’s quite a show.  At Rowe, they offer tours with spotting scopes to make the most of your experience.

Many of the hotels are very inexpensive, so it makes for a great road trip to see the “flyover states”.

“Things that go burp in the night…”


My collection of North American nightjar Audubon prints: Common Nighthawk, Common Poorwill, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Chuck-will’s-widow. Sadly, I don’t think Audubon described the other North American nightjars as separate species: Antillean Nighthawk, Lesser Nighthawk, Common Pauraque, Buff-collared Nightjar, and Mexican Whip-poor-will.

My Canadian nighthawk buddies turned me on to this blog post about the convoluted and fascinating history of describing North American nightjars by two ornithology luminaries, John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson.  I love the detail about the everyday people who had been farming their land and living with Whip-poor-wills and Nighthawks.  They must have been scratching their heads at the machinations of these two founders of North American ornithology.

It reminds me of a joke. Four guys are on a plane: A priest, a nuclear physicist, a college student and the pilot.  The pilot announces that the plane is going to crash, and that there are only three parachutes, grabs one and jumps out the door.  The physicist stands up and announces that he is on the verge of a break-through with his research that will change the world, and anyway he’s the smartest man in the world and he must survive. So, he grabs a parachute and jumps out of the door.  The priest turns to the college student and says, look son, I don’t have a family, you have a full life ahead of you, and I think you should take the last parachute.  The college student says, I wouldn’t worry about that, father.  The smartest man in the world just jumped out the door with my backpack.

Substitute a 19th Century ornithologist for the physicist and the farmer for the college student, and there you have it.

Anyway, this is a great story about what it took to describe two elusive species.  Pardon me for stealing their post title, but it is awesome.

The Anthropocene and Me


My backyard

Just in time for Earth Day, I thought I’d write a little something exploring simple things we can do around the household for neighborhood critters.  If you feel strongly about the role of science and environmental education in our society, check out the upcoming 4/22/17 March for Science and 4/29/17 People’s Climate Movement March. If you can’t make it to D.C., check out the links above to find a local march.  Local movements are very powerful, too.

Me? I’m joining the Earth Day on the Platz, here in Vermillion, South Dakota, and the Sioux Falls March for Science.

I recently detailed the many bird surveys you can participate in.  One other way to help is to join The Nature Constancy’s Habitat Network. It’s an integrative approach to turning our backyards into wildlife habitat by providing food, shelter and water for a number of migrating and resident species.  And not just birds.

This is especially crucial in a world where natural habitat is lost at such a great rate that we’ve termed the time period in which we live as the Anthropocene.  This is on par with the geological epochs in which glaciers decimated entire continents.  That sounds alarmist, but it’s difficult to downplay it.Unlike the geologic epochs that span millennia, the Anthropocene is marked by change that has occurred over two short centuries.  It’s hard for wildlife to adapt that fast.

What few species that can adapt to habitat in our backyards can benefit by the few things we can do.


  • Well, I planted milkweed in my yard for pollinators.  I did that election night when I couldn’t stand still any longer.  My hands were in the dirt when I heard the results.
  • I have been piling brush and tree fall in my backyard for birds and rabbits.
  • I cut my grass every other week, instead of every week.  That is no sacrifice.  The creeping charlie in my yard supports pollinators.  One night, I saw hundreds of White-lined Sphinx Moths in among the flowers.
  • I don’t use any pesticides or herbicides – who needs them?
  • I have suet and sunflower seed feeders that I regularly bleach to prevent spreading disease among birds.
  • I spray orange spray where ever free-ranging cats bed down in my yard to discourage them from hunting in my yard.
  • I hung nest boxes for the house wrens.
  • In the summer, I have a kiddie pool in which I regularly change the water for overheated birds to bathe.
  • Next up, I’ll put down some boards to create hibernacula for reptiles and other species.

Want to see something cool?


Wolverine (source: Robin Carleton)

Blammo!   That’s a wolverine.  It’s virtually impossible to talk about wolverines without sounding like a late night talk show wildlife guy.

Let me tell you why.

  • Wolverines are members of the mustelid family of mammals, which includes badgers, ferrets, and weasels. As a group, they have one of the highest rates of metabolism of any organisms worldwide.  That means they must always be on the hunt for something to eat, and in turn they need a lot of calories to feed that level of activity.  Is it a vicious cycle?  I call it an elegant adaptation.  This high metabolism perhaps served as the inspiration for the X-Men Wolverine character and his prodigious healing abilities.
  • Wolverines have a polygynous social structure, in which one male mates with several females, each with their own territory within his greater meta-territory.  Not to anthropomorphize here, but the cool part is that he will spend his time moving from one female to another, play with the wolverine pups and move on to his next family.  Check out this amazing episode of PBS’ Nature on Youtube.
  • Another revelation from this episode of Nature: To feed this appetite, wolverines will cache their food and move from one underground pile of frozen food to another while maintaining their large territories. Because of this large territory and intense activity level, wolverines can cover a lot of ground in a day.  One wolverine researcher reported that he needed a helicopter to keep up with his radio-tagged wolverines.  They can dart over a mountain or glacier just as part of their daily routine. They are so hard to track that some researchers have never seen their study subjects, and have been collecting data from fecal samples for decades up until the recent proliferation of motion-activated cameras.
  • This extreme adaptation to mountainous habitat leads researchers  to consider the wolverine as one of the last glacier-adapted species of the Pleistocene.  As climate changes warms the earth’s surface and glaciers recede, so might the wolverine. As a result, wolverine populations are in decline.
  • Wolverines are not listed under the Endangered Species Act because there is a lack of data.  Citizen science to the rescue!
  • Wolverine team mascots are drawn with more accuracy than nighthawks. Grumble, grumble, grumble.
  • Lastly but not leastly, wolverines are so adapted to mountain conditions, they are being trained for mountain rescue. Yikes!


Less Than 2 Percent of Prairie Left


Threatened species of the prairie: Prairie Falcon, American Bison, Black-footed Ferret, Black-tailed Prairie Dog, Dakota Skipper, Purple Coneflower, Great Plains Toad, and Burrowing Owl.

If you are interested in prairie restoration and what happens here in the so-called “flyover states”, I think this video is a great watch.  Some highlights:

  • Prairies in the Northern Plains have declined to less than 2 percent of its historical range. This is in comparison to the 50% loss in tropical rain forest worldwide.
  • A mowed lawn is a sterile area.  If you leave a lawn un-mowed, you will see blooming flowers and other signs of great biodiversity year-round.
  • Trees are not native to prairie.
  • Pesticides take out not only mosquitoes, but pollinator species, such as the beloved Monarch Butterfly.
  • Once a prairie is converted to row-crop, you can never fully restore it.  Invasive species will always attempt entry back into the system.
  • Prairies enhance community water quality.
  • Fire, grazing, hay harvest, brush control and re-seeding are required to maintain a restored prairie.
  • It takes a few years for restored prairies to yield prairie wildflowers and pollinators.
  • Invasive plants include red cedar and elm, plants that are remnants of the shelter belts planted in the Great Depression to mitigate Dust Bowl winds that caused soil erosion.
  • Here in the Prairie Pothole region, prairies are largely small restored tallgrass fragments.  The vast sea of grass no longer exists here.
  • Native remnant prairies are often filled with rolling hills, an image that runs counter to our dismissal of prairies as boring flat places where nothing happens.  The biodiversity of the prairie is often subtle but full of surprises if you take some time to understand it.  Incidentally, Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota has a great interpretative center and guided nature walks. It also a noted Native American historical site.

To visit other prairies, consider Broken Kettle in Iowa or Chippewa Prairie in Minnesota (and other Nature Conservancy lands), or Spirit Mound here in Vermillion, South Dakota.  Many more prairies can be found at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.


Adopt a Nighthawk

Look, as a scientist, I’m not supposed to admit this.  Nighthawks have personality.  So, with that in mind, I thought I would introduce a new effort here.  It’s called Adopt a Nighthawk.  Choose from one of the many lovely candidates below and ensure that nighthawk research will continue here in South Dakota at least until I finish my dissertation.


Harriet has a zest for macrame, energy drinks and truckstop chachkis.

WGI_0054 nest 1 2015

Jackson and Caroline have been meaning to find more time to spend together and have recently discovered tango lessons. This is a two-for-one deal.


Since having kids, Ethel would like more “me-time” and has been thinking about grad school.  Poor Ethel.


For her New Year’s resolution, Genevieve gave up coffee.  Her life has never been the same since.

April Fools!

But, really, if you are interested in supporting nighthawk research, join Wild Research in Canada or Nightjar Survey Network in the U.S., or buy one of my landscape art pieces (sales benefit nighthawk research).


Why are the nighthawks where they are now?

I toyed with different versions of this awkward blog entry title, but really it ties into my previous post, “Where are the nighthawks now?”

As we saw in that post, birds can cover a lot of ground in a year.  Each of these places has to be habitat-friendly for a migrating bird.  Here in South Dakota, birds encounter a number of biome types, called ecoregions.


I study Common Nighthawks in 47d, 46n, 42f and 47a.


47d – Missouri Alluvial Plain – Elevation 1100 – 1200 ft.

The human development of the Missouri Alluvial Plain over the last two centuries has separated the Missouri River from its floodplain.  A system of dams, levees, and stream channelization has largely controlled the flood cycles to allow intensive agriculture in the river bottomland.  Much of the northern floodplain forest has been cut, and oxbow lakes and wetlands have been drained to reclaim additional agricultural land.

46n – James River Lowland – Elevation 1200 – 1850 ft.

The boundary between the James River Lowland and the Drift Plains (46i) to the north represents a broad phenological and climatic transition zone.  This ecoregion is characterized by mesic soils, warmer temperatures, and a longer growing season than the Drift Plains (46i).  These differences are reflected in the crop types of the region.  Winter wheat, corn, and soybeans are more prevalent in this ecoregion’s milder climate.

42f – Southern Missouri Coteau Slope – Elevation 1400 – 2200 ft.

The Southern Missouri Coteau Slope differs from the Missouri Coteau Slope (42c) to the north; it has mesic soils rather than frigid soils and a substantial cap of rock-free loess.  To the south, the coteau areas east of the Coteau Slope ecoregions (42c, 42f) become progressively narrower and more eroded.  The level to rolling uplands of the Southern Missouri Coteau Slope are planted in sunflowers, wheat, millet, and barley.  Corn is a marginal crop that does well in wet years.  The stream drainages tend to be grazed.  Willows, green ash, and elm grow in the riparian areas.

47a – Loess Prairies – Elevation 1200 – 1700 ft.

The Loess Prairies of Iowa and South Dakota surround the perimeter of the Des Moines lobe of the Late Wisconsinan glaciation.  Of the two areas in South Dakota, the northern one is distinguished from neighboring regions by its rock-free soil and a paucity of wetlands.  The southern area is more highly dissected, with deciduous woodland and brush on the steeper slopes and in the draws.

(Source: sdakotabirds.com, EPA)

These four ecoregions even within southeastern South Dakota vary quite a bit, and so do Common Nighthawk abundances. The change in landscape and nighthawk abundance are even more marked when you move further west into the Badlands, western grasslands, and the Black Hills where row crop dominance drops away.

Common Nighthawks need gravel rooftops or gravelly parts of grassland and rangelands with shortgrass prairie or heavily grazed tallgrass.  Or, they can thrive in open forests, like those of the Black Hills. Below is a map for all years, all months for the ebird Common Nighthawks sightings in South Dakota.  You can see a concentration of nighthawks in the west in the Black Hills and Badlands and in urban areas like Vermillion and Sioux Falls.  Of course, these sightings have some bias as to where observers tend to be.


Common Nighthawk sightings in South Dakota (source: ebird)

Migrating flocks can show up anywhere because they don’t need gravel areas for camouflaging eggs.  My first sighting of nighthawks in South Dakota was in September, 2011, the year before I moved here.  It was an unlikely spot to see them.  There was a a group of 100 flying over row crop along I-90.  Of course, migrating nighthawks have the benefit of covering a lot of ground in a day and can forage while flying.  Their needs are more simple than a migrant seed eater that needs a forest, as my lab mate Dr. Ming Liu found.

It’s also important for researchers to understand habitat use in the other areas of a bird’s yearly migration.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Golondrinas de las Americas foundation and other organizations supply grants to researchers in South America and Central America.  Last year’s North America Ornithological Conference featured symposia of South America and Central America research.

Newer technologies are helping researchers  throughout an organism’s range with more expansive data.  Satellite tags, like those developed for the Argos system,  are becoming smaller and lighter which enables research of larger array of species.  These data can be downloaded without recapturing the bird, which is crucial for wily birds like Common Nighthawks.

Behold, the future!


Source: Futurama


Sdakotabirds.com source:

Ecoregion summaries from “Ecoregions of North and South Dakota”, U.S. EPA published map. Primary authors: Sandra A. Bryce (Dynamac Corporation), James M. Omernik (USEPA), David E. Pater (Dynamac Corporation), Michael Ulmer (USDA), Jerome Schaar (NRCS), Jerry Freeouf (USFS), Rex Johnson (SDSU), Pat Kuck (DENR/NRCS Liason), and Sandra Azevedo (OAO Corporation).

Where are the nighthawks now?

The short answer?  They are on their way back to North America.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s ebird web site has interactive maps where you can enter your birding data and view others’. You can enter queries for any year since 1900 (they’ve plugged old data into the system) for any species anywhere in the world.  Very cool, huh?

When there are few observations, you can see individual blue markers.  When there are many, the observations show up as pixels of varying degrees of purple. Below are the nighthawk maps for all years, by month.

Here are the nighthawks now in March.  They are coming!


Common Nighthawk observations in March (Source: ebird)

By May, they are well into the U.S.


By July, they are well into Canada. Some stay and breed in Central and South America.


In October, they are making their way back to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.


By January, they have settled into their wintering grounds in Central and South America and Florida.  But in a couple months, they will start making their way back.  No rest for the wicked.


Common Nighthawk observations in January (Source: ebird)