This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the common nighthawk.
An almost haunting, sharp and nasal “peent” call may signal that a nighthawk is close by. However, their cryptic plumage may leave you wondering just where nearby. A cousin of the camouflaged eastern whip-poor-will, this medium-sized brown, white and sometimes gray bird remains largely unseen during daylight hours, roosting in low-profile tree branches. Most active by their dawn and dusk feeding routines, this nightjar species is a unique one in flight. Their relatively long and narrow wings allow them to swoop in circles fairly erratically over grasslands, open shrub country or clearings in the forest. In flight, look for distinct white stripes that radiate laterally from below where their wing bends (wrists) carrying across their primary flight feathers. Also, males and females have a white patch on their chin, noticeable from below.
During nesting season, novel sounds are associated with aerial stunts when males dive during courtship displays, only to pull up short before their targets (competition, females and even humans), changing their wing shape and allowing air to move over their wings producing a sonic boom some compare to a race car buzzing by. These birds are ground nesters, with little to no prep, and are oftentimes documented laying two-three mottled white and brown eggs on bare soil, pine duff, shallow gravel or otherwise flat surfaces. They subsist on aerial insects (moths, mosquitoes, flies, beetles, grasshoppers, etc.) and are equipped with a wide, open flytrap of a mouth surrounded by hair-like feathers known as rictal bristles. When closed, their beak is otherwise small and inconspicuous.
This species is a long-distance migrant and predominantly winters in South America. From the mid-1960s to the creation of the State of the Birds report in 2014, the North American Breeding Bird Survey documented an overall common nighthawk decline of 61 percent. In order to secure a healthier future for this species, retaining and creating habitat and reducing pesticide use will ensure a more promising path forward.
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