Common Nighthawk by Dave Irving

Migrating nighthawks provide a late summer spectacle
(published 8-14-11)

There is an iconic work called “Nighthawks” hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Edward Hopper masterpiece is dark and a little mysterious. I’ve always liked it, including the name.

The painting has nothing to do with birds, of course. The “Nighthawks” are those three customers in the diner. But the picture always reminds me of one of my favorite birds, the common nighthawk. I’ve been watching them since the mid-1990s when I saw my first ones in Chicago. Later this month I’ll be admiring them all over again—a yearly ritual that never gets old.

I love telling new birders about the nighthawk because it’s often a bird they not familiar with and yet one that is easily observed. Mid-to-late August through early September is the peak viewing time for this area. Go outside around dusk and with a little patience you are almost certain to see one or more common nighthawks cruising by. With luck, you might see a large flock.

I’ll never forget an ice cream social we attended at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Glen Ellyn about 8 years ago. It was and maybe still is an annual event, held on the evening of the first day of school. It was good to see old friends, meet Rachel’s new teacher and have a sweet treat. But what I remember most is the nighthawks. Gobs of them were swirling overhead, feeding on the wing. Conditions evidently were perfect for this avian phenomenon.

“Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion” describes the common nighthawk as “a wheeling, drunken-looking, falcon-like bird feeding high overhead at dawn and dusk.” The longish, pointy wings are what liken the nighthawk to a falcon, but the species is not related to falcons or even hawks. Nighthawks belong to a family of birds called the nightjars, which includes the whip-poor-will.

Something I just learned is that common nighthawks are also closely related to owls in terms of DNA composition and morphological structure.

Dunne’s “drunken” reference relates to the nighthawk’s distinctive flight pattern. The wing beat is irregular, resulting in a floppy but darting aerial behavior that is very entertaining to watch. The birds are catching insects, which they accomplish by flying straight into them with their mouth and throat wide open.

The body of a common nighthawk is about the same size as a robin but their long wings make them appear much larger. What you may notice first is the white patches near the end of their wings. These markings are obvious so identification is easy in good light.

As you get to know nighthawks better, you’ll be able to ID them by sound, too. They have a one-of-a-kind call that is loud and buzzy—“beeeez’t,” according to Dunne.

In my last column I mentioned hearing that sound after a June baseball game in Iowa. I never did see a nighthawk that evening but it was cool to know they were in our midst. Like giant moths, the birds are attracted to the bright lights of stadiums and parking lots, where flying insects are plentiful.

Occasionally you might see a nighthawk in broad daylight. Once I spotted one during an afternoon ballgame at Wrigley Field. The bird landed at the base of one of the light towers and that’s still the only time I’ve ever seen a nighthawk sitting still!

Nighthawks are virtually invisible during the day, which gives them another thing in common with owls. Their bark-like coloration helps them blend in with their surroundings, keeping them safe from predators as they roost on the ground or on tree branches. Occasionally they will perch diagonally on a wire. On branches they perch lengthwise. (It’s not just the nighthawk’s flight style that is quirky.)

The common nighthawks we’ll see this month in DuPage County are migrating. They have a long journey ahead, so all those bugs they’re eating will serve as fuel. Their destination is South America, on the east side of the Andes from Ecuador to Argentina.

To see these fascinating birds on their way, start watching the skies after 6 p.m. If you have a decent amount of open sky the backyard patio will do just fine. You’ll likely see some solitary birds flying quite low and maybe some swirling flocks up higher. Calm, clear evenings are best for viewing. Give it a try!

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.