Posted by: atowhee | June 10, 2019


Why Malheur in June?  The flocks of birds and birders often prefer Malheur in May.  Many landbirds are migrating through, the mosquitoes are not usually dominant yet, wildflowers have begun to bloom, the days are long enough for twelve-hours of birding.  But, yet, I think of early June as the perfect time to be here.  And I have a single, concrete, though fluffy, reason for that preference.

Whether cloud or clear, windy or calm, the sky becomes a performance space.  Whether single or in talkative flocks, the Common Nighthawk is back at this time and staging the annual whirlwind tour of the Malheur Basin.

In a bird-rich place like Malheur there are many fine aerialists.  The silent White Pelicans open their large black and white wings to ride lazily on solar-powered updrafts.  A hundred or more may circle, rising ever higher, sun glinting off the snowy wings that gleam like polished platinum.  A dun-colored streak flashes past on some urgent mission, a Prairie Falcon moving faster than the wind can blow.  When there is wind you may admire young ravens sport in the sky, riding the gusts and unseen currents with abandon and  absorption.  Swallows, as ever, bring a purposeful poise to their speed to feed.  You know they are up there catching insects but their turns and swoops bring every element of fine choreography.  A Golden Eagle may be hundreds of feet overhead, the large, stiff wings extended, seemingly lighter than the air itself.  Even if attacked by some lesser mortal, say kestrel or Red-tail, the eagle may simply flip over onto its back offering its deadly talons as the reply to any aggression.  Black Terns are dark scimitars across the sky, dipping down to the surface of a lake or marsh, soft screeches emitted to release what seems to be intense energy as they grab their meals from the air or water.   Their buoyant flight is part butterfly, part paper airplane but all action all the time.  They appear to stop and reverse direction without any effort, their wing and tail movements so fast our primate eyes can’t comprehend.  It becomes a high speed aerial show that absorbs your attention and demands your admiration.

And yet, somewhere above all that, are the aerobatics of the nighthawks during their short summer here in Malheur and other parts of North America. Arriving last among the migrants and leaving mostly by early September, theirs is a performance season akin to a summer festival.  Step right up, folks, and see how flight can be ballet, ski jump and gymnastic display all at once.

There is no consistency to nighthawk flight beyond the bird’s shape, size and coloration.  When the wings are extended each one is sharply marked by a white line running between front and back edges.  It is a bold badge contrasting with otherwise dark wings.  The flying by each bird is jazz incarnate.  A circling swoop can suddenly become a head-first dive.  Irregular angular zig-zags can instantly turn into a steep climb or an impossible stop, the bird suspended in the air without speed or crash.  The whole bird seems to become a force bent on improvisation: circles, plunges, arcs and angles, turns and returns, all so fast and so unpatterned as to be impossible to recall.  There is no sense of repeat, nothing predictable, nothing to help a person’s brain recall or describe exactly what the bird did in the past two minutes.

We watched one flying about at a modest height then it suddenly swerved into a nearby tree.  There it folded its wings, softly, soundlessly settled onto its belly, paralleling a horizontal limb.  As we watched there was no sign it was going to land or even slow down.  None of the back-flaps of many decelerating or perching birds. It was as if a tiny motor had just been switched off, going from speed to stasis with no evident slowing, no collision, no head through the windshield.

There are two visible Ferruginous Hawk nests along Hwy 205 south of Burns right now.  One is in a dead tree about Milepost 9, north of Wright’s Point.  The other is in a lone juniper just north of MP17.  Both are west of the highway and each has nestlings in it right now.


  1. […] Why bird in June with all those buzzing mosquitoes?  Love of Nighthawks, click here for my apologia. […]

  2. […] Any air travel can be exhausting.  Discomfort, unseen danger, turbulent weather, strange places and faces, unpredictable food quality. Even if you never have to check luggage or go through security shoeless.  Even if you have no shoes. Exhausting.  Especially if you have to flap your wings all the way…This guy had winitered in South America and was recently returned to Malheur…a trip of over four thousand miles in many cases…often they are seen passing through Ecuador, on the way further south…this is a bird that weighs just over 2 ounces, that’s one-eighth of a pound, that’s roughly one-fourth of the weight of the ordinary Norwegian rat that shares cities with humans the world over and never has to fly or travel far for food.  This fellow has to catch all his own food on the wing. Here are two more at ease at Malheur Field Station, one just plunked down on the ground, where they always nest and often “roost” or should we say “rest’?Not all resting places have to be artificially horizontal, the nighthawk willing to take a slant on life:In this previous blog I explained why the June return of these birds draws me back each year. […]

  3. Reblogged this on Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog.

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