Winter Projects

The nighthawks leave me alone every winter to do lab work, write my dissertation, fiddle with the statistics and ponder the landscape in GIS.  When I need to take a break, I do a little crafting.  I’ve been making scenes out of cut paper depicting the landscape and organisms of South Dakota.  People call South Dakota a flyover state, but there is a lot of life here if you are paying attention.  I am selling the framed pieces, cards, and calendars on Etsy and at the 10/27/16 and 11/12/16 Vermillion Farmer’s Markets. Sales will benefit Common Nighthawk research.


Snowy Pond with Ring-necked Pheasant, Tiger Salamander, Canada Goose, Snow Geese, Dark-eyed Junco, and Woodhouse’s Toad.


Cropland with Eastern Kingbird, Praying Mantis, Western Meadowlark, Northern Leopard Frog, and Plains Spadefoot.


Backwater with Wood Ducks, Green Lacewing, Clouded Sulfur Butterfly, False Map Turtle, Water Tiger, and Spotted Gar.


Small River with Cliff Swallows, Yellow rumped Warbler, Silver Carp, Great Blue Heron, Snapping Turtle, Paddlefish, Water Boatman, Lethoceres, and Topeka Shiner.


Backyard with Chimney Swifts, Great Horned Owl, House Wren, Eastern Cottontail, American Goldfinch, Sunflower, Common Garter Snake, Monarch Caterpillar, Milkweed, White-lined Sphinx Moth, and Creeping Charlie.

Roadside with Red-headed Woodpecker, Red Fox, American Badger, Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, Big Brown Bat, Chorus Frog, and Pyralus Fireflies.

Rooftop with Common Nighthawks,Turkey Vulture, Mourning Dove, Common Grackle, and Killdeer.

with Bighorn Sheep, Pronghorn, Pocket Mouse, Rock Wren, Black Billed Magpie, and Short Horned Lizard.

Prairie with Common Nighthawk, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, and Bison.

Missouri River with Least Tern, Bald Eagle, Orchard Oriole, Belted Kingfisher, Spiny Soft Shell Turtle, Piping Plover, Cedar Waxwing on mullein, and Cottonwood.

Forest with Gray Catbird, White-tailed Deer, White Breasted Nuthatch, Bluet Damselfly, Cope’s Gray Tree Frog, Red Bellied Woodpecker, and Eastern Hog-nosed Snake. 

Fossils: Pleistocene 2 Mya to present, American Bison; Broadwater 2-3 mya, Catfish, Stegomastodon; Ash Hollow 10-12 mya, Secretarybird mimic, Barrel bodied rhino; Valentine 12-14 mya, Giant Tortoise, Giant salamander; Sharps 28-30 mya,  False sabercat,  Oreodont; Brule 30-34 mya, Mesohippus; Chadron 34-37 mya, Alligator; Pierre 66-75 mya, Ammonite, Pleisosaur, Mososaur.  

Bald Eagles on the Missouri River


Missouri River at Yankton, South Dakota

For the past two years, I had the fortunate job of monitoring a Bald Eagle nest at a Missouri River construction site.  The City of Yankton well project contacted the University of South Dakota Biology Department looking for someone to monitor the nest for any stress that might be caused by the construction.  The nest was across the river and far away from the construction, but the project’s managers were concerned, nonetheless.


Monitoring the Bald Eagle Nest (by Anna Magruder)

In the two years I watched the nest while it was active February to July, I never saw any stress caused by the construction, but the weekly visits yielded some interesting information.

Bald Eagles, no doubt, due to their large size, have one of the longest breeding seasons of any bird.  Eggs are incubated for 34-36 days and chicks reach fledgling stage 56-98 days after hatching.  That’s a long time for the female and male to incubate eggs and feed 1-3 enormous chicks.

During my time, I noticed:

  • The majority of the diet for the incubating female and chicks was fish, notably the jumping and therefore, easier to catch, Asian Carp species (Silver and Grass Carps).  This is good news, given the predominance of the invasive Asian Carp species along this stretch of the Missouri River.  I never observed any housecats or livestock  brought back to the nest, although I have seen Bald Eagles consume sheep in Oregon.
  • The Bald Eagle male and female were hard to differentiate until they stood side-by-side.  The female is notably larger.  Why?  This was one of my favorite discussion questions in my Oregon State University ornithology class (taught by Dr. Bruce Dugger).  Our best guess?  Because raptors are so large and have such a long incubation period, they must start earlier in the season to prep the chicks for migration.  A female incubating eggs in February would benefit by being larger to conserve body heat (see Bergmann’s Rule).  Moreover, a female must have a larger body to accommodate larger fat stores for the long incubation period.  One could also make the case that males, being more active outside of the nest, would benefit by being smaller so that they can use their greater speed and agility for nest defense and hunting.  This is a bit of hand waving, so take it for what it’s worth.
  • Juvenile Bald Eagles are one- and two-year-old eagles with patchy white feathers that move in packs.  Sexual maturity in Bald Eagles starts at year three or four when their plumage is the typical white head and dark body.  During the early period of the breeding season in February, I would sometimes see three or four young eagles passing by the nest.  The breeding pair would sometimes fly out to meet the young birds, grapple, call, lock their talons and/or wheel in the sky together before the young birds would move up the river.  The only juvenile eagle they tolerated in 2016 was a one-year-old (based upon plumage) that hung around the nest tree before moving on.  Was it last year’s chick? I don’t know.  In any case, this stretch of the Missouri River is great for breeding eagles and roving gangs of juvenile eagles. It’s part of the Missouri National Recreational River where the river is allowed to form sandbars, development along the river is sparse, riparian Cottonwood stands (perfect for nesting eagles) are more plentiful, and the river is not channelized.  It’s great for habitat.  Gavins Point Dam is just 6 miles upriver and its output attracts anglers and piscivorous birds like the Bald Eagle.

    Juvenile eagles (through my scope)

A Trip through the Great Plains

Recently, I drove through the South Dakota and North Dakota Badlands on the way to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in Saskatchewan to meet up with other nighthawk researchers.

Of course, in late-September, Common Nighthawks are well on their way to their wintering grounds in South America.  But, travelling through prime grassland nighthawk breeding habitat afforded me the ability to mull over the common landscapes of these places.  One thing I noticed: Grasslands are not entirely flat.  They are often broken up by rocky outcrops.  This is essential to a bird that relies on camouflage.  In the Northern Great Plains, Common Nighthawks are beige, grey and white.  In their northern boreal forest breeding grounds, nighthawks are darker.

Below are some photos from the trip.


Me and the Canadian nighthawk researchers, Source: Anne Brigham


South Dakota Badlands


Theodore Roosevelt National Park


The last mile to the Cypress Hills meeting point was on foot.


Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Saskatchewan