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The Common Nighthawk

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Birding by Sound

Most of us, vampires excepted, are light-seeking, day-loving critters who go through life thinking that night time was invented for sleeping. Yes, some of us work the graveyard shift, but no matter how many years you have under your belt going to work when everyone else is going to bed, it never feels right. It always seems backward, because it is. We are wired to be awake when the sun comes up and to go to sleep when the sun goes down. I see a pattern here…

When it is “normal” to be awake during the day this behavior is called the diurnal cycle. And there are a lot of animals that share in the diurnal cycle, such as dogs, gulls, and most songbirds. But some animals “wake” up at night, such as bats and owls, and go about their business of making their way through life when the stars are out. This is the nocturnal cycle. That is why most birders do not have a lot of owls checked off on their life lists. They’re sleeping when these birds are awake. 

But there is a third way of sleeping and waking, located somewhere between the diurnal and nocturnal cycles. And a great many familiar animals, such as deer, live in this cycle. This third way is called crepuscular. And so is our bird of the month: the Common Nighthawk. This bird comes out during the hours of sunset and sunrise, and then enjoys a couple of siestas in between. It actually sounds like an ideal life, at least the siesta part. 

Consequently, if you want to find the Common Nighthawk so you can mark it off of your life list, you’re going to have to get going right after dinner or before breakfast—you pick. Personally, I see far more of them in the evening than in the morning, but that is probably because I’m more active during that time of the day. For me mornings were meant for drinking coffee, not chasing birds. 

So, what is a nighthawk? They are members of the Caprimulgidae family of birds, which is Greek for goatsucker (I swear, you can’t make this stuff up!).  The goatsucker family also includes the nightjars, such as the Poorwills and the Whip-poor-wills. They were called goatsuckers because of the ancient and mistaken belief that these birds would suck the milk of dairy goats during the night. They don’t. They’re insectivores, but their huge maws (and I mean, huge) seemed well equipped for being dairy thieves. 

The reality is that these members of the Caprimulgidae family use their huge mouths as effective aerial insect vacuums. When open, their mouths seem to resemble those of a largemouth bass rather than a bird; the opening of their mouths are encircled with rictal bristles: long, stiff hairs that serve to expand the “capture-area” of their mouths. Quite impressive. Interestingly, when their mouths are closed they sport these preposterously tiny little beaks, disguising the fact that these birds are truly flying mouths. 

Nighthawks also have huge eyes, fitted like oversized marbles in their little skulls. Obviously they use these large orbs to find their airborne prey in the low-light conditions of dusk and dawn. 

If you’ve never seen a nighthawk, you’ve probably heard them on many occasions. These are one of those species that you can better first spot by sound than by sight. Their call is a repetitive, electric-sounding peet. The males will also make a booming noise by flying in a steep dive toward the ground, allowing the air to breeze through their primary feathers. This generates a sound that, to me, sounds like a bull snorting. This sound helps to explain the other common name for this species: bullbat. This sound is used to both court females and to scare away intruders, whether other nighthawks or birdwatchers.  

You are probably only going to be able to catch a glimpse of this highly maneuverable species, partly because they come out when viewing conditions are not very good and when binoculars become worthless. But they are distinctive and if you are in a good habitat, you’ll see plenty of birds. These cryptically brown birds are about robin-sized, but with much longer wings. Indeed, the wings are very distinctive, aptly described as being “scythe-like:” long, narrow, and pointed. Toward the tips (on both top and bottom) are distinctive white patches and these patches seem to flash when reflecting the light of a passing car or street light. 

Prime observing habitats include rivers and deserted areas with tall street lights, such as industrial parks near urban areas. The street lights attract flying insects and these, of course, attract their predators, such as nighthawks and bats. Listen first for their distinctive call and then position yourself so you have a clear, unobstructed view of the airspace above the river or street lamps—all the while trying to protect your night vision. They do not fly high, but neither do they come near the ground like bats will. But really, my experience has been that by the time the bats begin to show up for work, the nighthawks are already calling it quits. They are equipped for low-light conditions, not no-light such as the bats.  

The Common Nighthawk ranges all across North America during the summer months, but they migrate all the way to South America for the off season. So I guess they live in perpetual summer. Some bird authorities warn that this species seems to be declining in population, probably because one of their primary prey—mosquitoes—is widely targeted by humans as a pest to be eliminated. But by eliminating mosquitoes we eliminate nighthawks; not a good trade in my estimation. 

Summer is here and now is the time to track down the Common Nighthawk to add to your life list. They’re really not that hard to find, but they do require a bit more effort than, say, a house sparrow. But they are worth it. They zip around like WWI fighters as they chase insects in the growing night sky. Pretty cool. Happy birding!

(Visit AllABoutBirds.org online to hear the sound of the Common Nighthawk.)

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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A Bird in Hand, Common Nighthawk

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