Jerry and I step lively when we begin our after-breakfast walk to the mailbox on the highway, smiling as we march along, even when our feet slide on the roughly graveled road. Whenever our road through the pasture gets too muddy, we haul pickup loads of gravel from one of the small quarries in the neighborhood, so the gravel varies in size and shape. Several times during the summer, Jerry mows the tallest grass at the edge of this two-track trail, so we are in less danger from lurking rattlesnakes, but we always wear heavy shoes and long pants as protection against snakes, wasps, and other critters that might bite or sting.
I tuck a small notebook in my pocket with a pen, but it doesn’t stay there long. I soon discover that I can take notes while walking. No one else could read them, but if I take the notebook back to the computer as soon as our walk is over, I have an abundance of writing material as I start the day.
Jerry, probably wisely, just walks and enjoys our conversation and the things we see as we stroll. Sometimes we talk political news, because we’ve both looked at our computers before breakfast. Or we might exchange comments on our plans for the day. We notice the traffic, and marvel at how many people are probably headed to jobs in Rapid City at 7:30 in the morning.
Our first challenge is an autogate, also called a cattle guard: a gate with round metal pipes across a 4-foot deep hole. Cattle don’t like the void they can see between the bars, so we can keep them out without having a gate we have to get out of a vehicle to open and shut. But the gates can be tricky to navigate, especially if the pipes are slick with water or snow.
As we tiptoe across the first set of pipes, a killdeer runs ahead of us shrieking what sounds like KILLDEER! KILLDEER! The bird runs along on its thin legs for a few feet and then begins to stagger, dragging one wing in the gravel and crying piteously. This is a well-known broken-wing act created by nature to fool predators into chasing the supposedly injured bird. The parent bird stays just out of reach, feigning injury, until some distance from the nest.
Then with a strident cry– mocking? triumphant?– she flies off, having successfully lured the pursuers away from her eggs or babies. Every morning she does the same thing, never believing we will not harm her.
And all the while, we hear a nighthawk or two calling overhead. We lean back, looking up, and Jerry has to listen to me recite what I’ve learned about these wonderful birds. Two of them make great looping circles overhead, alternating flapping with long glides and dives. When they plummet, they make a roaring sound authorities liken to “a truck rushing past.” Some say the sound is produced by their wings; others aren’t sure, and the dive that produces the sound is difficult or impossible to study in a laboratory.
This Common Nighthawk is strangely misnamed, since it is not a hawk, and it usually hunts at dawn and dusk, but never at night. Its method of hunting accounts for the second part of the name: catching flying insects on the wing is called “hawking.” Though it has a tiny beak, its mouth is huge, perhaps one of the reasons it was nicknamed “goatsucker.” (The mouth is definitely not large enough to milk goats, though the superstition persists in some areas.) The bird eats by flying into clouds of insects, opening its mouth, and swallowing flying ants, wasps, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes or anything else that lands inside.
Researchers say that the parent birds feed their chicks regurgitated insects until the babies are able to hunt for themselves. The nighthawk seems poorly designed for survival: its feet are small and weak, and the sides of its mouth are flexible. The bird can only swallow prey whole in flight, so if a bird is confined to the ground by injury, it is unable to feed itself, because it has an ineffectual beak and claws.
Yet when it flies at dawn and dusk, it seems to be master of the skies.
Just ahead, another killdeer begins to limp along the edge of the road, crying and dragging a wing. Even when we have this sure sign that we are close to a nest, we don’t look for it. Killdeer nests, like those of the nighthawk, are barely respectable, usually a little divot in the gravel, with the eggs laid among similar-looking stones, and devilishly hard to see. We have spent hours tiptoeing around on the hillside watching killdeer or nighthawks fly up, going directly to the spot– and still not being able to see the eggs.
Beside the trail we begin to notice something that looks like broad snowflakes, sparkling as they melt. Looking closer, we see they are puffs of cottonwood down, damp with dew. Taller weeds are thick this year: not only alfalfa that has escaped from the hayfield, but poverty weed, brome grass, kochia and Russian thistle. I abruptly remember that my uncle Harold always called it “Rooshan thistle,” laughing at his own pronunciation, and reminded me to mow it before it could go to seed. For years we never saw it here, but suddenly it’s back, and it’s everywhere.
The second cattle guard is choked with thistles that grow from the bottom through the bars. Since the gate is set solidly on railroad ties and is extremely heavy, we can’t move it to mow the weeds, but we always hope that the cars zipping over it will destroy the seed heads before they can spread their menace.
A bird I’ve been trying to identify for days trills from deep in the grass: chirpchirpchirpchirpchirp CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP! I keep the bird identification book on the dining room table, and have also searched for the bird call online, but the closest I can some to identifying this winsome singer is “some kind of sparrow.” The song pattern seems to follow those of sparrows that are likely to be here, though I haven’t found the exact song. I haven’t been able to get a good look at it through the binoculars since it stays low in the grass. (Please—if anyone knows what it is, tell me!)
A redwing blackbird alights on a dried mullein and trills like a tiny waterfall. A mourning dove coos and darts away. A robin chirps raucously and meadowlarks gargle melodiously from fence posts. Minuscule yellow butterflies drift among the brome grass heads and sweet clover blooms in the borrow ditch. The trumpet-shaped pink and white blooms of creeping jenny wind around alfalfa stalks carrying yellow, purple and lilac blossoms.
On our left as we top the last rise before the highway is the headquarters of the Great Plains Native Plant Society’s Botanic Garden, a nonprofit organization that has established a collection of native plants on property I’ve loaned to the group. The garden will soon be open to the public, so that we can educate visitors on the excellent qualities of native plants and grasses. Members put out pink flags to mark particular plants for a recent tour; they still flutter in the pale green prairie grass. A huge prickly pear cactus holds four lush yellow blooms big as a dinner plate. Dew sparkles in the hairy leaves of a mullein. Headed downhill, we walk a little faster, a quarter finished with our walk.
Then a nighthawk sweeps low over us and then up, where it meets another and the two spiral around and around until we are dizzy. Playing follow the leader? Disagreeing over territory? Sources say the bird can fly at least 500 feet high; I don’t doubt the figure because a few nights ago I watched one fly higher and higher until it went into a storm cloud.
Nighthawk nests are even cruder than those of the killdeer, with two eggs about an inch long laid directly on gravel, sand, rock or occasionally vegetation like the rosette of a dandelion. I’ve seen eggs that were ivory or pale gray, and speckled with gray, brown or black. Nighthawks nest not only in prairie but on buildings in urban areas; they love flat roofs covered with tarpaper held in place by rocks.
The chicks are similarly nearly invisible in their chosen habitat, with darker gray feathers that seem to mimic their background. Their partly open eyes are just tiny slits. I’ve found nests once or twice, and the chicks are nearly invisible when you are staring directly at them, completely still except for a breeze fluttering their downy feathers. Like the parents, the defenseless chick relies mostly on its coloration for protection from predators.
The Cornell Lab All About Birds website says nighthawks have declined more than sixty percent since the 1960s. Further, recent studies show dramatic declines in many insects, especially in Europe and the U.S.
No bugs means no birds.
But that’s not all the disappearance of bugs means. The Guardian newspaper reported that many entomologists say “an insect Armageddon” is underway, the result of multiple environmental causes: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. These changes will no doubt have crucial consequences. The distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson once observed that “If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
I’m willing to put up with a lot of mosquitoes and flies to keep nighthawks. We never spray to kill bugs, but rely on repellent, with long sleeves and net masks if the critters are really bad. My hand is still my favorite weapon against flying insects.
We hike up the steep slope to the highway and take a long look to our left, uphill. If a car has started down, we don’t try to cross until it passes. The speed limit is 70 miles per hour, which means most cars are traveling at least 75. Often two cars are traveling abreast; none slow down at the sight of two people standing at the roadside.
We cross the first two lanes, and then pause in the median, looking north, to the right, where the approaching cars travel only a half mile before reaching us. They’ve just come up a hill, but that hasn’t slowed them down, and they, too, go screaming past at 75 miles an hour. We cross the two lanes safely, and Jerry tucks the newspaper under his arm before we turn to cross all four lanes back to the safety of our gravel road. I wonder how many of those folks have seen what can happen when something goes wrong with the car– a blowout, say– at that speed.
As we cross the first gully on our road back, we see something we missed the first time: the tracks of deer or antelope in the damp gravel. We saw three deer on our hillside while drinking our first cups of coffee this morning, so these are undoubtedly their tracks, all headed toward the big ridge south of our house.
A few steps farther, though, we see the tracks of a deer or antelope going north; perhaps one of them turned back at the fence. On other occasions we’ve seen them cross these fences; deer tend to jump over them, dangerous if they catch a leg or don’t jump high enough. Antelope look for a place where the bottom wire is a little higher than usual and duck under. My theory is that they use their horns to raise the wire a little while their bodies scurry under it, all at warp speed.
As we top the second hill on our walk back, we notice that the outcropping of limestone in the pasture beside the fence is nearly buried in this year’s lush grasses. Generations of rabbits have lived under these tumbled rocks, which are covered with lime green lichen and surrounded by poison ivy. Apparently the rabbits are immune to the poison that keeps me from exploring the cavities in the limestone more thoroughly. I pick a leaf of silver sage, growing among the greener plants along the road, to inhale its sharp scent.
I’ve filled several pages in my tiny notebook, so I stick it in my back pocket and settle into the rhythm of our return walk, inhaling the scents of the prairie, listening to birdsong, and thinking about what I’ll fix for lunch. Fifteen minutes of paying attention and taking notes has given me inspiration for writing, and motivated me to do further research. Jerry’s ready for his day, too, so he often turns off the trail and heads for his shop, anxious to get back to whatever he is building.
Inspiration, writing, research, more writing: that’s how it’s done. Every day.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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In the U.S., Common Nighthawk populations declined by almost 2% per year between 1966 and 2014, amounting to a cumulative decline of 61%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Canadian populations experienced declines of over 4% and recent data suggest the species’ numbers may have dropped more than half in Canada since the mid-1960s.
“An insect Armageddon is under way, say many entomologists, the result of a multiple whammy of environmental impacts: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. And it is a decline that could have crucial consequences. . . .
“The best illustration of the ecological importance of insects is provided by our birdlife. Without insects, hundreds of species face starvation and some ornithologists believe this lack of food is already causing serious declines in bird numbers . . .”