Inspiration for art

In a previous post, I showed the art I have been making to raise funds for research.

Here are the places I visited that inspired this art.


Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota


The geology at Devils Tower National Monument.  The pink rock is a phonolite porphyry, an igneous rock comprised of alkali feldspar. 


Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin is an amazing place of great biodiversity at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers in the the Driftless Zone, where glaciers have never touched.  The topography is unlike anywhere in the Midwest.


Selling art for research

Below are some new works showing biodiversity in Northern Plains that I am selling on my etsy site. I also sell cards and candles with the images there and calendars and other such merch at my RedBubble site.


Spirit Mound, South Dakota, with Tree Swallows, Eastern Amberwing, Cup Plant, American Bumblebee, Butterfly Weed, Cricket Frog, Dickcissel, and False Dragonweed, and Bull Snake.


Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota, with Ferruginous Hawk, American Bison, Coyotes, Western Kingbird, Yellow-bellied Racer, American Copper (Butterfly), and Buffalo Bean.


Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin, with Bald Eagle, Barred Owl, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Wood Pewee, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk , Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Prothonotary Warbler, Striped Skunks, Tall Bellflower, Yellow Ironweed, Black Rat Snake, and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

2017-10-01_13-06-28_296 (2017-10-01T20_13_02.095)

Spirit Mound, South Dakota, with Tree Swallows, Eastern Amberwing, Cup Plant, American Bumblebee, Butterfly Weed, Cricket Frog, Dickcissel, and False Dragonweed, and Bull Snake.

White Nose Syndrome Series Starts!

I have been doing some freelance writing for USFWS’ Northeast Region on White Nose Syndrome, a disease that has wiped out many bat populations in the northeast and is spreading west.  It will all culminate in Bat Week at the end of October.  I am a nighthawk researcher, but bats and nighthawks are both aerial insectivores that share many of the same pressures.

My first article, Unlocking the mystery of White-nose Syndrome at the leading edge, was posted this week on the White-Nose Syndrome web site!

Infrared Technology and Nests

Taken with iPhone8,4,iOS 10.3.2

Common Nighthawk rooftop nesting site.  The red is is the rubberized roofing material used as a substrate under the gravel. Here the gravel is in greens and blues surround the rubberized material. The eggs are the green ovals of the edge of the red patch in the upper right corner.

Last week, I used an infrared photo of a rooftop nighthawk nest to illustrate the importance of climate change research.

I tried to use this technology to find eggs and chicks, but as you can see above, there is no unique heat signature for eggs that I can use.  Nighthawks are extremely heat tolerant, and so their body temperature (and the eggs they incubate) match their surroundings pretty closely.  However, it’s been a great tool for visualizing this very phenomenon.

Other researchers like those in this great video on Marbled Murrelets, featuring my undergraduate research advisor Dr. Jim Rivers, use infrared to great effect in their nest searches.

Coming Out

Taken with iPhone8,4,iOS 10.3.2

Thermal image of rooftop nighthawk eggs (green ovals at the pointy end of the blue pencil) right after a female had left them.  Not too bad at 98 degrees Farenheit.

I’m coming out as a climate scientist.  There, I said it.

It seems absurd I have to say it, but that is the way of things these days.  I study a bird that’s extremely heat tolerant, but even they have their limits.  The mean maximum operative temperature (i.e. temperature experienced by the organism which incorporates wind effects) for Common Nighthawks  in my study 2014-2016 was 132.8 degrees Fahrenheit. I can’t really avoid the topic.

So, I have to look at the trends in temperatures, wind, cloud cover, and rain over time for my region and decide at what threshold these extremely heat tolerant birds can no longer survive.

The prognosis?  Mean temperatures in the Great Plains are expected to increase by 3.6°C to 6.1°C over the next 100 years (Preparing for a changing climate: the potential consequences of climate variability and change: central Great Plains. Colorado State University, 2002). For an excellent graphic that illustrates the temperature trends by global regions, check this out.



Sites where CONI satellite transmitters were deployed. Source: Elly Knight, WildResearch

Phew! Try to say that 10 times in a row! Common Nighthawks are given the CONI abbreviation in the American Ornithological Society bird checklists.  Put that together with the concept of migratory connectivity and voila! You get CONIctivity!

Ahem.  So, one question for many neotropic migrant (birds that migrate from the New World tropics) researchers: What is happening to these birds the rest of the year?  For Common Nighthawks, this is important.  In a previous post, I detailed the 9-month process that is the migration of this species.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, eBird, has done a very good job of tracking migration by species based upon birders’ data.

However, if we want real time data, by the bird from a specific region, that will require satellite transmitters, which I detailed in a previous post. The great thing about this technological development is that we are not required to recapture these birds to download data.  Nighthawks are very difficult to capture.  They do not passively fly through nets when going from point a to b, their vision is extremely advanced, they are mostly active at dusk and dawn, and they tend to fly high unless they are actively defending a territory.

So, a team of researchers across North America (see picture above) set out this summer to attach transmitters at a number of locations and luckily we had a few tricks up our sleeves to catch these wily birds.

For this study, we hope to answer some needling nighthawk questions.  In particular, in some of these regions where they breed, nighthawks are increasing in numbers, and at others they are decreasing.  Is this a function of where they breed or their migration path?  We’ll find out in the coming year if the birds follow much the same path and timing, and where they stop and turn around.

An Unusual Field Season


Lady Sisyphus and a male who might be trying to persuade her to abandon her eggs and start a new clutch with him. She is not having it.


For nighthawks this was an unusual season.  This year, only 14 of last year’s 22 breeding females returned to their rooftop.  They could be at other rooftops, they might have died during the migration season, or they might be skipping the nesting season and just hanging around. This is my last field season in South Dakota, so I will never know.

Nighthawks returned 2-3 weeks later than last year, possibly due to the May Gulf of Mexico storms (that also wiped out some early nests on the Gulf).

On the flip side, June was a very mild month.  So many of the chick and egg die-offs associated with high-wind thunderstorms and heat waves didn’t happen for the first brood this year.

And one lucky bird, whom I have named Lady Sisyphus (pictured above), finally hatched an egg, the first in five attempts.  The chick died, sadly, but hey, that’s progress.