Jeff Green | Aug 07, 2008
Outdoors - August 7, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - August 7, 2008 The Common Nighthawk Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Lorraine Julien
If you stroll through open fields, or drift lazily about in a boat on a beautiful summer evening, you may be lucky enough to see the Common Nighthawk as it performs its aerial acrobatics in a search for high-flying insects.
That is the only time I’ve managed to see them as they are primarily nocturnal birds and are rarely seen in daylight.
The Nighthawk’s favourite food is large moths, which are scooped up in their huge mouths (it’s to be hoped a few mosquitoes are eaten as well!). Bright moonlight, especially during the phase of a full moon, seems to really energize this member of the Nightjar (or Goatsucker) family in its forage for insects. As the name Goatsucker would suggest, it was once thought that these birds sucked milk from goats! This bird is so in tune with the moon that it’s thought breeding may actually be timed with the lunar schedule.
Nightjars are the most mysterious group of birds in North America. Because of their nocturnal nature, very little is known about their biology, habitat use and population, although they are being studied more closely by conservationists than ever before. Indicative of the species are the long, pointed wings, short legs, large wide mouth with really short bill and large eyes. Their call is an occasional short “peet”. One or two patterned eggs are laid on the bare ground or occasionally on an old stump.
Unless they are in flight, it is difficult to spot Common Nighthawks because their mottled brown feathers provide such an effective camouflage. In fact, the plumage is coloured exactly like bark chips and leaves. There are white patches on the throat, wings and tail but these patches are hardly noticeable when the bird is sitting on the ground.
The Common Nighthawk is closely related to the Whip-poor-will but it is a bit smaller at 8-10 inches. It is not a hawk, as the name would suggest.
During courtship you may see the males interrupt their search for food and make dramatic vertical plunges where they almost hit the ground (or water) before quickly gaining altitude again much like the fighter planes in old war movies. Just near the end of its steep dive, the Nighthawk’s wings sweep into a braking position and the air rushing through the feathers produces a kind of sonic boom. I suppose all of this showmanship is to impress the female nighthawks!
I had a great picture of a Common Nighthawk sitting on its eggs but it was so indistinguishable from the surrounding ground that I knew the picture wouldn’t reproduce very well in the newspaper.