Migrating nighthawks mark last weeks of summer
Like most birders, I get a little impatient during the summer. Birds are out and about, 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.
Fortunately, on the birding calendar, fall comes early. In fact, migrating shorebirds--sandpipers, plovers and dowitchers, among others -- began arriving here in mid-July!
But as summer winds down, it's the nighthawks I look forward to most -- common nighthawks, to be precise. And there is no better time than late August and early September to observe them, when large flocks are moving south. If you've never seen a nighthawk, or if you admire this birds as I do, now is your chance.
The common nighthawk is a fun bird to watch, and most often you'll hear the bird before you see it. It has a loud, buzzy one-syllable flight call that's unmistakable. Learn that sound, and then it's just a matter of looking up to find the bird.
I highly recommend a visit to www.allaboutbirds.org, where you can listen to nighthawks and other birds. Take time to explore the rest of the site, too. It's loaded with great information about birds and birding, courtesy of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology.
The common nighthawk is easy to identify by sight as well. It's a dark, medium-sized bird with long pointy wings that have white patches near the tips. Watch also for the nighthawk's floppy, erratic flight pattern as it catches flying insects -- its only food source. With that kind of diet it should be no surprise that nighthawks are not really "hawks" at all. They belong to the goatsucker family, which includes the whip-poor-will. (Seriously, you could look it up!)
Nighthawks are most active around dusk or at daybreak, but every now and then you'll see on in broad daylight. Last year I spotted one during an afternoon ballgame at Wrigley Field. That bird landed at the base of one of the light towers and it's the only time I've ever seen a nighthawk sitting still. Common nighthawks breed in this area so they can be observed throughout the spring and summer, though not as often as their name implies.
Nighthawk populations are said to be declining, especially in urban areas where they used to be abundant. One problem is their preference for nesting on flat, gravely rooftops. Only older buildings have them and many are being replaced. The birds you'll see in the coming weeks nested farther north and are heading toward their wintering grounds in South America.
To see them on their way, start watching the skies around 6 p.m. You'll likely see some solitary birds flying quite low, and maybe some swirling flocks up higher. Evenings are best for spotting these charismatic birds.
Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.