Migrating nighthawks mark last weeks of summer
(published 8-19-04)

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.
One lucky sighting ignites a passion for birds (published 8-5-04) One of the questions I hear often is, How did you get interested in birdwatching? Maybe you’ve been asked the same thing. Most birders, I’ve found, rather enjoy talking about their earliest experiences in birding—in particular, the “spark” that triggered their interest and got them going in the hobby. I always like hearing these stories, and I’ve selfishly decided to devote this column to telling my own. For many birders, the spark was a particular bird sighting. That was the case with me, and it happened in 1994 at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. One day on my way to or from the beach I noticed a bright yellow bird flitting around in a thicket. I noticed right away it had some distinctive markings so I crouched down and tried to get a better look. The bird was cooperative, and I quickly realized I’d never seen anything like it. But what could it be? Luckily, our cottage at Kiawah contained a field guide to the birds. Within minutes I was able to match the image in my head with one in the book. Success! No doubt about it, I’d seen a male hooded warbler. The whole process of observation followed by a positive identification was very satisfying. The next day I went to Kiawah’s nature center to ask if “my bird” was anything unusual. That’s when I discovered that the resort had real live naturalists on staff who knew the local birds and offered guided bird walks. Best of all, they’d published a bird checklist just for Kiawah. The list showed all the species that had ever been sighted on the island and their relative abundance during each of the four seasons. Cool! Until then I never realized people were keeping such close track of things. And there on the list was the hooded warbler, rated R for rare. Clearly I’d been lucky the day before, and now I couldn’t wait to see what else I could find. With checklist in hand I was off to the races. I spent the rest of the vacation looking for birds, doing the best I could without binoculars. The treasure hunt was on. Almost overnight, I’d become a birder. I’ve been back to Kiawah many times since 1994 because my wife’s parents now have a permanent home there (more luck). Since that hooded warbler, I’ve seen another 120 species on the island, including my first gull-billed tern two months ago. It’s truly an exceptional place to watch birds, especially shorebirds and waders. And for me, it’s where a spark turned into a flame. Do you have a “spark story” too? Please share, and I’ll try to include your responses in an upcoming column. Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who became hooked on birding about 10 years ago. He can be reached at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.