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.


Inspiration for Art

A couple weeks ago, I showed some of the art I have been making detailing the biodiversity of some of our region’s places. I noticed that when I stopped to take photos and think about what lives here, these places opened up as rich in detail.

Here are some photos I used as inspiration for those pieces:


Vermillion Winter Cornfield Tree


Vermillion Winter Sky used for Cornfield


Spearfish Canyon Quaking Aspens


Spearfish Canyon 


Spearfish Canyon Dane’s Rocket


Spearfish Canyon True Forget-Me-Not


Microprairie Blazing Star and Wooly Bear Caterpillar.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A Feathered Reptile

Occasionally, I see my web site pop up as “untitled”, and it occurred to me today that I should change that.   I had been thinking about nighthawks and other nightjars and what makes them so different.  There is something so distinctly reptilian about them.  Of course, the word “reptile” describes a group of animals that phylogenetically includes all birds, having descended from dinosaurs.

I have been capturing nighthawks at night lately which brings me closer to them than simply doing point counts or nest checks.

Nighthawk eyes are large and dark to capture the light at night.  With the right angle of a lamp, you can catch a flash of eye shine as the light reflects from the bird’s tapetum lucidum, a shimmery structure at the back of the eye that helps nocturnal and crepuscular animals see in the dark. Not all birds or mammals have tapeta, but many reptiles, crustaceans, insects and fish do. It is believed that tapeta re-evolved independently, even though a common ancestor to all of these clades might have had a tapetum and then lost it as the groups splintered off.

What also makes nighthawks especially reptilian is their manner of dealing with stress.  They are shy and retiring in the day, and when a predator approaches or when they seek their prey, they leap into action.  Watching a nighthawk during the day is much like watching a snake bask in the sun.  It is quiet and camouflaged, its large, dark eyes are shut, and it hopes that you do not notice its mottled coat of many beiges and grays among the gravel.

When you approach their nests, they quickly flap away and either stand their ground and hiss a rattling call, feign an injury, or dive bomb with nasally “peent” calls.  There is nothing musical about their calls.  Of course, only the passerine oscines can claim to have a song with their more complex vocal structures.   Nighthawks’ rattle-like hiss, especially when they are being handled, seems so reptilian.

There is also their physiology.  Unlike most other birds, nightjars (along with their sister group Apodiformes that includes hummingbirds and swifts) have the ability to engage in torpor (of which there is some debate over nighthawks’ capability), a state in which energy is conserved by lowering body temperature, respiration, metabolism and heart rate, an especially useful trait if you are dependent on a food source that is ephemeral.  For nightjars and other insectivores, arthropods can be inactive during weather events or during colder or less humid parts of the day, and it is useful to conserve your energy if your food is not accessible. This state of torpor is somewhat a middle ground between homeotherms, those that maintain their body temperature through the production of metabolic heat, and poikilotherms, those that widely vary their body temperature based on environmental conditions.  Birds and mammals are largely homeotherms and non-avian reptiles are generally poikilotherms.  Birds that can use torpor live somewhere in between.

And yet, when you handle them, their feathers are so soft and powdery, softer than other birds whose body feathers are more stiff and oily. One friend described them as feather dusters. It’s almost as if under the cover of night, like owls, it helps them to move quietly and smoothly through the air to capture their prey. It’s hard to imagine that sound stealthiness is as necessary for an insectivore as it is for a carnivore like the soft owls. However, I have yet to figure out why they are so soft, so this shall be my working hypothesis for now.

Behold, a feathered reptile.


Raising Funds for Research

I have been making landscape art for the past few years showing the glorious biodiversity in a region others would dismiss as the “flyover states”. I had an earlier blog post showing the series detailing habitats in this region and the hidden organisms of these habitats.  This year, I made a series largely detailing specific places and their resident organisms.  Here are a few (and more are at my Etsy Page):


Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in the winter, with Grandad’s Bluff, Rough-legged Hawk, Common Merganser, American Beaver, Paper Birch, Northern Cardinal, Catfish and mussels.


Winter cornfield near Vermillion, South Dakota, with Canada Geese, Snowy Owl, Snow Geese, Coyote, Snow Bunting and Horned Lark.


Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, with Quaking Aspen, Violet-green Swallow, Swainson’s Thrush, True Forget-Me-Not, Dane’s Rocket, Wandering Garter Snake, and American Dipper.


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


Broken Kettle Prairie, Iowa (Nature Conservancy land), with American Kestrel, American Bison, Pectoral Sandpiper, Prairie Rattlesnake (the easternmost report of this species), Tree Swallow, Lead Plant, Snow-on-the-Mountain, and Prairie Vole.


Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge with Franklin’s Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Least Sandpiper, and American Toad.

Prairie on a micro level: Northern Harrier (which fly low over prairies looking for prey), Field Cricket, Thistle, Woolly Bear Caterpillar, Blazing Star, Blue Grama, and Pincushion Cacti.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park with Golden Eagle, Mule Deer, Mustang, Mountain Bluebird, Lark Sparrow, Sagebrush, Missouri Goldenrod, Aromatic American Aster, and Sagebrush Lizard.


Palisades State Park, SD: Swainson’s Hawk, Northern Rough-Winged Swallow, Ring-necked Snake, Indigo Bunting.

Platte River, Nebraska, spring Sandhill Crane migration with American Tree Sparrow, Channel Carp,Prairie Skink, and Mink.

Rio Grande,NM:Barn Swallow,Pinon Pine,Sagebrush, Ravens,Kangaroo Rat,lichen,Sagebrush Lizard,Club Cholla,Azure Butterfly.

Niobrara State Park, NE: Snowy Egret, Bank Swallow and nest, Ammonite Fossils, Gadwall, Green Heron, and Spotted Sandpiper.

Nightjars of Bohemia Prairie, Nebraska, with Chuck-will’s-Widow, Eastern Whip-poorwill, Polyphemous Moth, Common Nighthawk, Pasque Flower, Forage Looper, and Common Poorwill

The Nighthawks are back!

2016-10-29_19-40-49_000Every Spring is busy for me.  I have to contact property owners, organize research protocols, test and organize equipment, and organize everything else I am working on to be set aside for the short but glorious nighthawk breeding season. Nighthawks are on the move, it seems, all the time.  They migrate to South America every year and just when they get there, they have to turn around and come back to breed.  I have posts on nighthawk migration here and here.

But, they are back here in South Dakota now, chasing each other around, flying low, calling to each other and establishing pair bonds.  They are fiercely intense and noisy birds.  As well they should be, they have no time to lose. So much so, it’s hard to record this.  But these folks in South Padre Island, Texas, did, where you can see 6-7 birds flying around at any one time.

Earth Day Celebrations and Marches

USD at the Sioux Falls March for Science

Sioux Falls March for Science

Recently, I participated at the annual Earth Day on the Platz here in Vermillion, South Dakota, where I sold my landscape art and handed out pages for coloring.  It was a great opportunity to talk about the biodiversity of our region.  I like to remember this quote from Charles Jordan, former Portland Parks and Recreation Director (when I worked there):

“What we don’t understand, we won’t value.  What we don’t value, we won’t protect.  What we don’t protect, we will lose.”

And with that in mind, I was happy to participate in Sioux Falls’ March for Science.  It was a glorious day filled with people who value the science and people who do the science. The day wasn’t about politicizing science but instead depoliticizing it, and reminding folks that good research isn’t about belief but instead about being informed. 



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”.