Get ready for nighthawks and hummingbirds
(published 8-5-08)

Except for the most hard-core birders, these are the “dog days” of summer. Things are a bit slow. There are birds to be found, but nothing like the variety of species we enjoy during the spring and fall migration seasons, when every day seems to bring a new surprise.

But now is also a time of anticipation. Two of my favorite annual birding events are just days or weeks away. First, the appearance of migrating common nighthawks. Then, in September, the almost magical influx of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

First let's talk about nighthawks. There is no better time than mid-August to mid-September to observe them, when large flocks are moving south toward their wintering grounds in South America. With a little patience, common nighthawks can be viewed from any backyard in DuPage County.

They are fun birds to watch, and often you'll hear them first. Nighthawks have a loud, buzzy one-syllable flight call that is unmistakable. Learn that sound, and then it's just a matter of looking up to find the bird. A good resource for bird calls is From the home page, click on “All About Birds” and then select the online bird guide to listen to a common nighthawk. (Take time to explore the rest of the site, too. A product of the Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, it's loaded with great information about birds and birding.)

The common nighthawk is easy to identify by sight as well. It's a dark, robin-sized bird with long pointy wings sporting white patches near the tips. Nighthawks are further distinguished by a floppy, erratic flight pattern as they feed on flying insects, their only food source. Given their diet, it's no surprise that nighthawks are not “hawks” at all. They belong to a family of birds called the nightjars, which includes the whip-poor-will.

Nighthawks are most active around dusk or at daybreak, but every now and then you'll see one in broad daylight. They're also known to congregate near bright lights, just like moths. When I go to night baseball games I always watch for them.

You have to be very lucky to ever see a nighthawk sitting still. Their coloration makes them virtually invisible when they roost during the day, typically on the ground or lengthwise on a branch.

The timing for migrating nighthawks varies year to year. In 2007, I didn't see one until August 27. In 2006, August 15 was my first sighting. The species does breed in this region so spring and summer sightings do occur, but its not until later this month that we can observe them in numbers, sometimes in swirling flocks of 50 or more birds. Enjoy the show!

Meanwhile, down on the ground, we are fast approaching the best time of year for attracting hummingbirds. Some of you may have been enjoying hummers throughout the summer. In my yard, however, the pattern has always been a few birds in May, none during the summer, and then lots in September. So be sure to have your sugar-water feeders up and ready by Labor Day.

The volume of advice on how to attract hummingbirds is astounding. Entire books exist on the subject, which says a lot about how much people cherish these unique birds. In general, sugar-water should be viewed as a secondary food source; flowering gardens with lots of red, trumpet-shaped blooms are the best hummingbird magnet of all.

Frankly, I've dropped the ball in terms of landscaping for hummingbirds. I rely instead on two feeders, placed about 20 feet apart. The dual-feeder strategy, which I applied last year for the first time, really does the trick. Hummingbirds are territorial, and some individual birds can be quite aggressive. So it's best to give them some space. Having multiple feeders can not only increase the activity level in your yard but also keep the birds coming back.

If you're in the market for a feeder, I recommend a simple plastic model that's easy to fill and clean. My favorite is the HummZinger, which comes in several sizes. Get the smallest—it has just the right capacity to help minimize waste, since you'll need to replace the sugar-water at least once a week. The feeder is mostly red so hummingbirds are sure to notice it.

There can never be too many hummingbirds outside my kitchen window. Maybe this month I'll invest in a third feeder.

Finally, a mark-your-calendar item: On October 9, the DuPage Birding Club will welcome renowned nature author and artist Julie Zickefoose. She'll discuss and sign copies of her latest book, “Letters from Eden.” All are welcome. For more information, visit or call (630) 487-0323.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.