Skillful nighthawks are a sure sign summer’s here

Skillful nighthawks are a sure sign summer’s here

Sometimes I forget that not everyone has the pleasure of having nesting nighthawks close to home. If you look at a range map for the common nighthawk, you will see they are found throughout most of the United States and Canada. However, nighthawk numbers are declining, and many locations that used to have them no longer do.

When you watch nighthawks in the early morning or during the evening, their skillful flying will get your attention. They fly erratically while chasing and catching insects, and they fly very fast.

Each fall they head south for the winter, often in flocks or small groups. They fly through Mexico, Central America and much of South America. Some nighthawks fly over the Southeastern U.S. and into and across the Caribbean. Common nighthawks are permanent residents of some Caribbean islands, but otherwise, they nest in North America and winter in South America. Because they tend to fly long distances, it’s not surprising they have shown up far from home in places such as Iceland, Greenland, the Azores and multiple times on the British Isles.

Ohio birders may be interested to know the oldest common nighthawk on record was recaptured during banding operations in Ohio. The bird was a female and was 9 years old at the time.

Nesting male nighthawks have an interesting display, diving steeply and then making a booming noise with their wings as they pull up near the ground. This can be mating behavior but might be due to an intruder. Nighthawks don’t build nests, but their eggs are well camouflaged. Nighthawk feather colors include black, gray, white and buff, and the birds blend in with their surroundings. Eastern birds tend to be more brownish overall while western birds are grayer. Eggs are laid at a variety of habitats including flat roof buildings in towns and cities.

The long, dark wings have a wide, white stripe across the wings, about two-thirds of the way from the body to the wings. This is quite noticeable in flight. There also is a white, v-shaped throat patch that can be seen in flight.

The very similar lesser nighthawk is found in the southwest and on south into Mexico. It has a very different call, and males don’t have a diving display. This is a bird of the arid brushland and deserts. A third nighthawk species is the Antillean nighthawk, which occurs only in the Florida Keys, where it is uncommon. Again, the calls are different and are the best way to identify this nighthawk.

What we call nighthawks are part of a world-wide family of birds called nightjars. There are close to 90 different species, and nightjars can be found around the world, except for Antarctica. There are some very interesting species including potoos, frogmouths, oilbirds and owlet-nightjars.

One of the most impressive birds I have encountered was a great potoo. This large bird was calling in a tropical jungle near the border of Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. We later got to see it up close, and all of us were impressed. I was fortunate to spend a week with the ornithologists from Louisiana State University in this remote part of the world. During their three-month research stay, the team added more than 50 new species to the Bolivia bird list.

Good birding.

Bruce Glick can be emailed at bglick2@gmail.com.