Eclipses and Birds


What do birds do during an eclipse?  Much depends on the day cycle of the species.  Is its diurnal, nocturnal or crepuscular?

As usual, Cornell Lab of Ornithology put out a great post on this subject.


  • Diurnal aerial insectivores like Purple Martins dropped from the sky and roosted.
  • Chimney Swifts that start circling their roost site at dusk began to do so.
  • Crepuscular nighthawks were active.
  • Nocturnal migrants dispersed.

More locally here in South Dakota, Dr. KC Jensen, of SDSU, reported the dawn chorus of many birds.


The Mythos of Nighthawks



There's this thing that nighthawk researchers encounter.  People don't know what a nighthawk is. Confusion about nightjar naming conventions is nothing new.

In fact, nightjars are often called goat suckers, presumably because people feared they were feeding from their livestock at night.  The irony is that nightjars are insectivores and were likely feeding from the insects attracted to their goats, providing an ecosystem service.

Sometimes it's because they have another name for this bird.  Here's an anecdote from a fellow researcher:

"I once ran into an old moonshiner while netting bats in West Virginia, and he told me this long story about the bullbats coming through in huge flocks in fall. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out what the heck he was talking about (in fairness, probably most of that was due to his West Virginia moonshiner accent). He was adamant they were really bats." – JB

Bullbats, in case you didn't know, are another name for nighthawks.  They have many names. Here's a list, courtesy of Idaho Fish and Game:

Common Nighthawk

Asseri Nighthawk


Cherrie's Nighthawk

Florida Nighthawk

Howell's Nighthawk

Mosquito Hawk



Pacific Nighthawk

Sennett's Nighthawk

Will O The Wisp

Booming Nighthawk


Burnt-land Bird

Eastern Nighthawk

Long-winged Goatsucker

Moth Hunter




Western Nighthawk


Pork-and-beans struck some of us researchers as particularly funny. That's what background actors say when they have to mouth words but not say anything whilst looking busy. Goes along with the ubiquity of nighthawks, once upon a time, I think. Another researcher noted that could be a bastardization of the nighthawk calls,

peent and boom


Finally, there's this account that came up in my nighthawk Google alert.  I'm always looking for others' research, but occasionally I get a fascinating bit of folklore:

"The Rolling Rock story of the Blackfoot explains why the Common Nighthawk (

Chordeiles minor

), referred to in the story as a bullbat, has such a small beak and sizeable mouth. It is said that Napi was cold so he borrowed a robe from a large rock but would not return it.  The rock got angry and began to chase Napi, so he called the nighthawks for help.  After the birds destroyed the rock that was rolling in his pursuit, Napi rewarded the nighthawks by pulling their mouths wide and pinching off their beaks so that they were "pretty and queer looking" (Grinnell 1913: 166-167). In another version of the story, Old Man asked the nighthawks for help, but subsequently changed his mind and accused the birds of spoiling his fun by destroying the rolling rock.  He punished them by tearing off their bills and splitting their mouths open wide, accounting for their appearance today (Wissler and Duvall 1908: 24-25). The nighthawks later retaliated by defecating on Old Man as they flew over his head.  Today, Blackfoot elders ascribe great significance to archaeological sites where Common Nighthawks nest."


The Winged: An Upper Missouri River Ethno-ornithology

 (K Chandler, WF Murray, MN Zedeño, R James… – 2017)


Perseverance Nevertheless

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Nature Conservancy has been highlighting the good news in conservation.  Nevertheless, there is so much to worry about these days.

Earlier this year, President Trump ordered a gag order for Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency employees, and the result was remarkable. Fearing that public information about contaminants and climate change would be removed from their web sites, EPA began migrating their data to  outside web sites that archivists and coders created. National Park Service employees moved their outreach efforts on climate change to rogue Twitter pages. Thus, like with Elizabeth Warren, persistence can happen, nevertheless.


This has been a tumultuous year politically, what with conservation funding up in the air and the encroaching effects of the Anthropocene I’ve mentioned here, here, here , here, here and here.  And yet, there is hope.

Leave it to the considerable efforts of the Nature Conservancy to find the silver lining in these 12 conservation-oriented stories of progress.

Swainson Who?

Ever wonder why there are so many animals named Townsend or Wilson or Audubon or Swainson? To this day, 19th Century naturalists rule our lives.  At least, that’s how it feels to students of biology who memorize long lists of species.

I mentioned in a previous post about the fight between Wilson and Audubon on classifying nightjars, but if you’d like a quick read on these luminaries of the past, check out this post on the Audubon web site.

Migration Mysteries Solved


Satellite Transmitter on a Common Loon. Source: USGS

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we spend much of summers chasing birds to look at their breeding habits. For the rest of the year, migrating birds spend their time elsewhere.  I’ve mentioned what happens to migrating Common Nighthawks  here and here, but what about the rest of the birds?

Until recently, bird migration has been largely understudied, due to lack of funds to travel to Central and South America. Some organizations, like Golondrinas, have targeted scientists in the southern hemisphere to fill in the blanks.

But, now due to expanded efforts to recruit citizen scientists in other parts of the world, like Cornell’s eBird, and the lower costs and smaller sizes of satellite transmitters that permit scientists to download data without recapturing birds, the mysteries of the other months of the year are starting to be solved.

If you would like to see the larger migration patterns of a year generated by eBird data, check out this animated movie found at this post. Biologists pair the data with land cover analysis from ArcGIS to discover which habitats are crucial to the annual life cycle of birds.

More information is always needed, especially as we face the increasing challenges of the Anthropocene that include land use and climate change, pressures on the land due to food and water shortages, ecotoxins, and invasive species.

Neglected Species


The mighty Pheasant

Recently, Oregon Public Broadcasting posted a two-part series on the challenges Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife face in protecting their threatened non-game species, like bats, amphibians and turtles.

This is a challenge that many wildlife managers face.  How to fund conservation for animals the general public either fears or is apathetic toward?

Here in South Dakota, the Ring-necked Pheasant hunt brings in much-needed tourism to our state.  The pheasants have had a positive effect on grassland conservation, but they are an exotic species that does compete with native grouses and partridges.

This is also an important area for migrating and breeding waterfowl.  Much of the Duck Stamp money has been used to protect wetland areas.  This benefits not only waterfowl, but also the arthropods, fish, native plants and amphibians that rely on wetlands.

These species that receive side benefits of these conservation actions are a rare few. Agencies will continue to face challenges in funding nongame species, especially as federal conservation funds are cut back.

Women in Science

In 2016, students at University of South Dakota started a Women in STEM (WiSTEM) group.  We’ve met to network and organize outreach efforts.

In April, we attended South Dakota’s Women in Science day in Pierre.  It was a day filled with workshops we (and other women around the state) led, teaching middle to high school girls.


Jillian shows the students an Ornate Box Turtle, a threatened prairie species in South Dakota.


Students make demagnetized and magnetized goop, without and with copper flakes, respectively.


Students learn about solar power.


A student holds a young Fox Snake.