Posted by: atowhee | June 23, 2020


We were making our Malheur Field Station birding trip last week in Harney County.  I pick this timing because it is prime time for Common Nighthawks.
They are among the final migrants to return each spring.  They begin to trickle back in May but hit their stride around June 1.  By the end of June most have courted, mated and moved out into the sagebrush to rear their young.  Then they are seen mostly in flight, morning and evening.  By Labor Day most will, again, be gone for the rest of the year and until late next spring.

But in early June you can’t miss them.  They, in turn, dismiss you.  As you approach a sleeper on his fence rail or horizontal limb, one eye will open just enough for a look of annoyance mixed with indifference.  Flight happens usually if you get within five feet.  Stay in your car and you become nighthawk ignored.  Around June 15, the Field Station is a nighthawk motel, where they sleep all day…between daylight feeding forays.  A re-filled stomach simply leads to more sleep on a railing.


Here, a double:CONI DUBL

The mouth on a nighthawk is wide, from eye to eye.  Yet the beak is a tiny cone on the front of the face, the rest of mouth outlined by unseen lips and bristles behind the facial feathers–which are glorious to see at close range.  The mouth is a large catch-all as fly about the sky taking in insects to swallow.  The beak is almost vestigial though it is still using for combing bugs out of the facial  plumage.  Think of cleaning off your car’s grill back when there were lots of insects. In second image the mouth is traced in black.

The flight of the nighthawk can instantly switch from erratic to swiftly smooth.  In courtship there are vertical dives, beeping like a bus in back-up, a loud explosion at the  bottom of the swoop.  At times bouyant as a paper kite, at others as sharply direct as an attacking Merlin, alternately hovering, or curving through the air so slowly you presume they must be about to lose flight altogether.  Usually they are in sight only brief moments, then somehow vanish into the blue, the gray, the sunset, clouds, whatever mood nature prefers at that time.  Like the neighboring ibis, in flight the nighthawk never fills your vision, nor fulfills your desire to see the whole performance, see one do that again…give me more:

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