A Few Days at the Refuge


Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge, South Dakota

Recently, I volunteered for a few days at Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge here in South Dakota.  I arrived early every day for some sunrise birding at the lake.  Double-crested Cormorants, Franklin’s Gulls, Pied-billed Grebes, Western Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, and Northern Shovelers graced the shoreline. All were in their winter non-breeding plumage:

That was just preamble, though.  I spent most of my days collecting forbs at the easements managed by the wildlife refuge.  The forbs will then be used to re-seed other easements.  These are acquired by US Fish and Wildlife for Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA) with money from Federal Duck Stamp purchases.

Wetlands and grasslands have been converted to cropland in the past 10 years for biofuel production.  Between Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, the area of grasslands converted would cover the state of Kansas. The protected lands managed by National Wildlife Refuges is crucial for migrating and resident species.

Some of the species at these grassland easements I encountered included Woolly Bear caterpillars, Blazing Star, Northern Harriers, Pin Cushion Cacti, Blue Grama, crickets and Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels.


Woolly Bear Caterpillar and Blazing Star


Pin Cushion Cactus

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” — William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Recently, I noticed that a nearby high school, Tripp-Delmont/Armour, has a nighthawk as its mascot.


Tripp-Armour Nighthawk mascot

This, of course, doesn’t look anything like a Common Nighthawk. Nighthawks don’t have talons or a sharp beak characteristic of raptors.  Nighthawks are noisy birds that eat insects. That’s all they have for defense.  Noisiness. They have no need for a sharp beak or claws.

I was curious how they came to have a nighthawk as their mascot.  Armour is in a rural area dominated by row crop agriculture.  Nighthawks don’t use row-crop areas.  However, Armour was once covered in grasslands.  How old is their mascot?  Did they adopt the mascot in a time when many nighthawks were plentiful in the area?  Did the grasslands then get converted to row crop over time, and the nighthawks disappear? Then did they forget what a nighthawk looks like?

These were my questions when I contacted the school secretary for Tripp-Delmont/Armour, Karen Nusbaum, who wrote:

“The Nighthawk mascot came about when we co-oped with Armour.  Armour was the Packers and we were the Wildcats (  Nighthawk??—-just something that was different enough between the two mascots)   2005 was the first year in football & full sports in 2007-08.   My husband grew up in this area  & he doesn’t remember seeing any (unless he didn’t know what they were)     Sorry, I don’t have more info.”

Very interesting.  So there’s no meaning in the mascot choice.  Just a cool sounding bird.

Tripp-Delmont/Armour is not alone, however.  A quick google search yielded a few other schools in the U.S. with the nighthawk as their mascot.

There’s the Newtown Nighthawks:


And the University of Maryland University College Nighthawks:


More raptors with a cool sounding name.

The nighthawk could do worse than this reputation. It was once synonymous with late night drinkers like the Nighthawks Tap in Lacrosse, Wisconsin (which has since closed), the many breweries and restaurants nationwide and the Edward Hopper painting below.


Nighthawks represented for Hopper a particular feeling: “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

This is ironic given the declining status of urban nighthawks.  Perhaps as urban gravel rooftop nesting habitat is replaced by more high-tech materials, so goes the way of the grittier hangouts for urban folks as gentrification sweeps through a city.

Support Bat Research!


Silver Haired Bat

Support Silver Haired Bat Research! Bat research dovetails with nighthawk research because both are aerial insectivores, and bats are facing many of the same struggles that nighthawks are: climate change, habitat loss, among others. 

My Canadian colleagues have a video, and the more clicks they receive by 2/28/17, the more likely they are to win a grant for their Silver Haired Bat research.




Missouri River species: False Map Turtle, Piping Plover, Belted Kingfisher, Cedar Waxwing, Orchard Oriole, Least Tern, Bald Eagles

It’s permit time for wildlife biologists.  This means we are renewing our state and federal permits to work with wildlife in the summer.  It’s a crucial part of the work we do.  Local and national authorities have a vested interest in ensuring ethical science.  In addition, it’s a crucial part of understanding the science and organisms under each of their jurisdictions to see a periodic review of our work.

My permit application each year includes the following information:

Project Title: Habitat associations, nest microclimate, and heat stress of Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) in urban and natural sites

Justification: Common Nighthawk grassland nesting sites are in decline (Tallman et al. 2002), and this trend has accelerated with high prices for corn and soybeans. The study area is currently dominated by row-crop agriculture (Tallman et al. 2002). Nighthawk nesting ecology studies have been conducted in large continuous grasslands (Lohnes 2010, Ng 2009), but not in smaller, patchy grasslands characteristic of agriculturally dominated landscapes.

Natural nest sites typically occur in grasslands with limited disturbance (Brigham 1989, Wedgewood 1991). In contrast, urban nests are typically located on flat, graveled rooftops (Brigham 1989, Brigham et al. 2011). Because Common Nighthawks appear to choose nest sites that enable effective nestling thermoregulation (i.e., nest sites that allow for more air movement to facilitate heat loss [Fisher et al. 2004]), a preference for rooftop nesting habitat with higher temperatures has the potential to become an ecological trap, especially if climate change produces even higher temperatures (Fletcher et al. 2012), leaving Common Nighthawks with few alternatives to the fragmented natural grassland habitat.

Objectives: Determine 1) the local distribution of Common Nighthawks, 2) the effect of changing patterns of land use, and 3) whether microclimate affects nesting success in rooftop sites.

That’s the thumbnail of what I do.  This process helps me clarify my objectives.  It also keeps my research relevant when I consider how my research might be of use to South Dakota Game Fish and Parks.  What benefit can I provide to regulators and managers?  What questions can I answer?

In turn for providing us with permits, many states ask that we track heritage species, species designated as threatened in our state.  In 2016, here was the list South Dakota gave me:


Northern Cricket Frog

Cope’s Gray Treefrog

Gray Treefrog

Plains Leopard Frog

Wood Frog

Common Loon

Horned Grebe

Red-Necked Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

American White Pelican

Least Bittern

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Little Blue Heron

Tricolored Heron

Green-Backed Heron

Black-Crowned Night-Heron

Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron

White-Faced Ibis

Trumpeter Swan


Hooded Merganser

Common Merganser


Bald Eagle

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Northern Goshawk

Broad-Winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

Golden Eagle


Peregrine Falcon

Prairie Falcon

Yellow Rail

King Rail

Whooping Crane

Piping Plover

Mountain Plover

Black-Necked Stilt

Eskimo Curlew

Long-Billed Curlew

American Woodcock

California Gull

Caspian Tern

Common Tern

Interior Least Tern

Black Tern

Barn Owl

Burrowing Owl

Long-Eared Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Flammulated Owl

Common Poorwill


Eastern Whip-Poor-will

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Lewis’ Woodpecker

Three-Toed Woodpecker

Black-Backed Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Olive-Sided Flycatcher

Cassin’s Kingbird

Clark’s Nutcracker

Pygmy Nuthatch

Brown Creeper

American Dipper

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher


Wood Thrush

Northern Mockingbird

Sage Thrasher

Sprague’s Pipit

Yellow-Throated Vireo

Black-And-White Warbler

Cerulean Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

Scarlet Tanager

Brewer’s Sparrow

Baird’s Sparrow

Henslow’s Sparrow

Le Conte’s Sparrow

Sharp-Tailed Sparrow

Mccown’s Longspur

Eastern Meadowlark

Cassin’s Finch

Silver Lamprey

Lake Sturgeon

Pallid Sturgeon

Shovelnose sturgeon

Longnose Gar

American Eel

Skipjack Herring


Central Mudminnow

Lake Chub

Hornyhead Chub

River Shiner

Blacknose Shiner

Rosyface Shiner

Silverband Shiner

Topeka Shiner

Suckermouth Minnow

Northern Redbelly Dace

Finescale Dace

Southern Redbelly Dace

Sturgeon Chub

Sicklefin Chub

Silver Chub

Pearl Dace


Longnose Sucker

Mountain Sucker

Blue Sucker

Northern Hog Sucker

Black Buffalo

Golden Redhorse


Banded Killifish

Plains Topminnow


Blackside Darter

Slenderhead Darter

Dwarf Shrew

Water Shrew

Arctic Shrew

Merriam’s Shrew

Pygmy Shrew

Least Shrew

Long-Eared Myotis

Fringe-Tailed Myotis

Northern Myotis

Silver-Haired Bat

Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat

Evening Bat

Eastern Chipmunk

Spotted Ground Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Northern Flying Squirrel

Sagebrush Vole

Southern Bog Lemming

Gray Wolf

Kit Or Swift Fox

Black Bear

Black-Footed Ferret

Plains Spotted Skunk

Northern River Otter


Mountain Lion

Meadow Jumping Mouse

Blanding’s Turtle

False Map Turtle

Western Box Turtle

Smooth Softshell

Spiny Softshell

Lesser Earless Lizard

Short-Horned Lizard

Sagebrush Lizard

Northern Prairie Lizard

Many-Lined Skink

Six-Lined Racerunner

Ringneck Snake

Fox Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

Northern Water Snake

Brown Snake

Redbelly Snake

Black Hills Redbelly Snake

Lined Snake

Smooth Green Snake

A Cave Obligate Springtail

Little White Tiger Beetle

High Plains Tiger Beetle

American Burying Beetle

Belfragi’s Chlorochroan Bug

Powesheik Skipperling

Ottoe Skipper

Dakota Skipper

Iowa Skipper

Mulberry Wing

Broad-Winged Skipper

Regal Fritillary

Tawny Crescent



Flat Floater

Rock Pocketbook

Purple Wartyback


Wabash Pigtoe

Higgins Eye

Yellow Sandshell

Plain Pocketbook

Creek Heelsplitter


Black Sandshell


Threehorn Wartyback


Round Pigtoe

Pink Heelsplitter

Winged Mapleleaf









Stout Floater

Paper Pondshell

Dakota Vertigo

Mystery Vertigo

Striate Disc

Catinella gelida

Cooper’s Rocky Mountainsnail

I have to be honest.  I keep my eyes on the nighthawks much of the time.  But, I’ve seen Bald Eagles, Least Terns, Piping Plovers, and False Map Turtles (and included them in my Missouri River shadow box above). In addition, I’ve seen migrating osprey on the Missouri River, Great Blue Herons while kayaking the Vermillion River (a tributary), Ruby-throated hummingbirds at my feeders, an American Dipper in Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills, and a Cooper’s Hawk tear through a hedge chasing after House Sparrows here in Vermillion. The Eastern Whip-Poor-wills and Cricket Frogs were my buddies the many nights I spent looking for nighthawks on back roads.  Sometimes the Whip-poor-wills came when I played a nighthawk call.  Not that you should do that.  Playing bird calls is considered harassment of wildlife.  I was doing it for science, and I had a permit to do so.

Anyways, it makes sense, right?  Set the biologists on track to find where these rare and endangered species live in exchange for a permit.

Wildlife biology is filled with mutually beneficial relationships:  Regulators and scientists working together (hopefully), and mutualism between animals in a community.  Here’s an example:

Nighthawks and killdeer both nest on rooftops.  Each makes an alarm call when an intruder (e.g. a graduate student like me) comes.  Each species benefits from each other’s presence.


Nighthawks and Killdeer on a rooftop