KST Cover



Project Nighthawk
Collaboration between KSC, Audubon New Hampshire, AVEO, Antioch, and a cadre of citizen scientists has created nesting habitat for a threatened species – right up on our campus rooftops.

Nighthawk photo by Bill Schmoker:

When you are walking around the Keene State campus, have you ever wondered about what's on the rooftops? Maybe some shingles, maybe some tar and gravel. So long as it keeps the weather out, it does the job.

What if a roof could offer more than a top to a building? It could offer an appealing nesting place for birds that are a threatened species in the state. It could be an example of how ordinary people can become active participants in everyday science. It could be an experiment in habitat restoration. Suddenly those rooftops are a lot more interesting.

Because nighthawks, city-loving birds about the size of a robin, like to lay eggs directly on peastone, obliging volunteers created this inviting boudoir on the roof of the Science Center.

Bringing science and birding to the rooftops of Keene State College took the collaboration of Becky Suomala, Ken Klapper, David Moon, and Gordon Leversee. The story of how the four came together to bring the Audubon New Hampshire nighthawk habitat restoration project to the College is a story of fortuitous timing and plot development.

Suomala: a biologist with Audubon New Hampshire who is coordinating a habitat restoration project based on a 1980s study done by University of Maine graduate student Vincent Marzilli. When peastone nesting patches were introduced into urban environments, nighthawk populations in Maine went up. Suomala's goal is to establish peastone nesting areas that might appeal to pairs of common nighthawks summering in Keene and Concord. She needs a Keene representative for the project.

Klapper: a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene looking for a manageable master's thesis that is directly connected to the region and wildlife conservation. His original project, a look at the relationship between deer population and the population of songbirds, has become too large. He learns about the nighthawk study and gives Suomala a call to see if he can help out.

Moon: executive director for the Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory (AVEO), which is housed on the Keene State College campus. He is an advocate of citizen science and learns about the Audubon nighthawk project from Klapper while they are working on an informal bird-breeding survey at Stearn's Hill in Keene.

Leversee: dean of the School of Sciences and Social Sciences at Keene State College, who established a partnership with AVEO through the Continuing Education Department, and helped Moon move the AVEO offices into the Science Center on campus in 2004. He is also an avid birder with an interest in nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. " What we want to do is build a community of scientists in the largest sense," Leversee said.

Special thanks goes to the Melanson Company, which donated peastone roofing materials to the project.

What Leversee envisions is not simply a community of scientists with collegiate connections. Both Leversee and Moon share a passion for citizen science, where people are trained in the basics of gathering scientific data and then allowed to participate in projects. Moon began his interest in citizen science as the educational director at Stonewall Farm in Keene. People who visited the farm were excited to be actively involved. Moon wanted to expand on his own involvement with citizen science projects and started AVEO in 2002 to accomplish that goal.

"I knew that programs where people could actually do community science were really starting to take off," Moon said. "It seemed like the Monadnock region was a good area to do this."

Once AVEO moved to the KSC campus, it got access to resources unavailable to most small organizations, from website development to increased resources. Keene State benefits because its partner creates programming and opportunities for students through its involvement in a variety of scientific studies based in New Hampshire. Giving Klapper and Audubon New Hampshire access to the rooftops at Keene State expanded the collaboration to include people in the area who are eager to be involved in a local wildlife project as citizen scientists.

Keene has been host to a dwindling nighthawk population for years. As with any population change, scientists like Klapper and Suomala want to know why. " Is there a relationship between the decline of these birds and what's happening on rooftops?" is the pertinent question, according to Klapper.

Nighthawks, which aren't hawks, were known to nest in the cities of Concord and Keene. The robin-sized birds laid their eggs directly on the peastone gravel used on area rooftops. Peastone, once a common roofing material, has often been supplanted by larger gravel mixes and other choices. Marzilli had shown in his Maine study that there was a positive relationship between an increase in peastone nesting patches and an increase in nighthawk population. Suomala and Klapper are trying the same experiment in Keene and Concord to see if they can get similar results.

In late May of 2007, just after the nighthawk mating season began, Moon, AVEO Science Director Brett Amy Thelen, and Klapper built three 9-by-9-foot peastone nesting patches at Keene State. Two are on the Science Center roof and one is atop the Redfern Arts Center. They hoped that as nighthawks migrated back to South America in the fall the birds would notice the patches and return to nest there this spring.

A return of the nighthawk population would be a welcome sight for some. " People associate the sounds of these birds with summers in the city," according to Thelen. Nighthawks have a distinct call known as a peent, though when Klapper imitates the bird it sounds more like a shrill door buzzer – eernt. The birds feed at dusk and make an impressive display as they swoop and dive for moths.

In addition to the peastone patches, Moon and Thelen helped Klapper organize a group of citizen scientists in Keene who dedicated a few evenings to scouting the city for any signs of nighthawks. At least four individual birds were identified during these patrols. When the mating season begins this May, the citizen nighthawk patrols will come out as well with the hope of spotting a few more birds using Keene as their summer home.

Establishing collaborative relationships with other scientists doesn't always happen as easily as Project Nighthawk. Fortunately for Klapper, he said, "things just really started flying" when he contacted Suomala in May. With any luck, nighthawks will start to find the rooftops at Keene State College just a bit more appealing because of the Antioch, AVEO, Audubon, and College collaboration.

For more information about Project Nighthawk, or to find out how to become a citizen scientist volunteer, visit:
Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory
Audubon New Hampshire