Thursday, September 2, 2010

Nighthawk Migration

I was watching the news on TV when an old red pickup truck pulled into our driveway and parked by the pole barn this evening around 6:45pm.  I didn't recognize the truck or the driver, so I got up and went outside to see who it was.  It was  Paula - a prairie farmer from down the road in the village of Pepin - the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  She'd just gotten her pickup fixed (leaky gas tank) and she was driving by, so she stopped to say hi.

Had she not pulled in to my driveway, I'd have never seen the sky darkening with birds.  First a dozen or so, then literally hundreds swirled over my house.  Paula had no idea what I was looking at.

I tapped on the kitchen window and yelled at Tom: grab my camera and come on outside - the sky is full of nighthawks!  I'd seen recent reports on the birding list-servs, but I didn't expect to see such a congregation in my yard.   Nighthawks migrate in flocks (sometimes in the hundreds) through the Upper Midwest on their way to their wintering grounds in Cuba and South America.

Common Nighthawk - Breeding Bird Survey - ©USGS         

Together the three of us stood in awe, heads tilted back, eyes to the sky as we watched these birds silently attack a swarm of insects about 400-feet above us.   We watched until the mosquitoes (down here at ground level) became intolerable.

Ironically, nighthawks are known for eating flying insects - flying ants, grasshoppers, dragonflies, moths and mosquitoes (thus their common name:  "mosquito hawk").  They're active at dawn and dusk, and sometimes during the day when the sky is gray.

It doesn't matter where you live - you can see them where ever there's night-flying insect prey.   In cities, watch for them around baseball fields where night lights attract insects. 

These Blue Jay-sized birds nest on the ground, but the flat roofs of urban buildings also make great nesting sites for them.  

Watch for the erratic, bat-like flight (the origin of their other common name "bull bat."  The word "bull" is a reference to the noise their wings make during their amazing aerial breeding displays). 

Listen for their call - a nasal "pee- enttt."

These amazing birds are in the order Caprimulgiformes, commonly known as "goatsuckers" -  a name created by ancient herdsmen who, seeing these birds flying around their goats at dawn, blamed them for low milk production.

The frogmouth of Australia and Asia, and the Oilbird, potoos, and nightjars (Whippoorwill and Pauraque) of the new world are members of this order.

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