The common nighthawk is a medium-sized bird somewhat similar to an owl. Before taking on this species as the subject for a Curious Nature column, I hadn’t given this species much thought. However, I quickly realized that, despite the name, this bird was not all that commonly known.
Nighthawks are crepuscular animals, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. During the day, they almost disappear with their dark cryptic coloration and intricate camouflaged patterns. They sit motionless, perched on tree branches, fence posts and even the ground, becoming nearly invisible to all but the most careful observer.
The common nighthawk is the only nighthawk found almost everywhere in North America, and they may travel to different territories depending on the availability of food. They travel great distances to ensure a constant supply of insects, which are usually dependent upon warmer weather. Common nighthawks also have one of the longest migration routes of all North American birds, sometimes travelling up to 4,200 miles.
Impressive Aerial Displays
If you are familiar with the common nighthawk, then it is probably because of its impressive aerial displays. Similar to the airplane aerobatics found at air shows, the common nighthawks are also part of the flying circus. Often times, they engage in their erratic swooping and whooshing to draw attention for a mate, but they also display to claim their territory or ward off predators. Their approach to death defying flight, however, is for the purpose of survival, not entertainment. Just like the young high-flying adrenaline sports junkies, male nighthawks who fly recklessly and still manage to survive receive more attention from the lady nighthawks. It is as if they are demonstrating their prowess in the skies, tilting and diving at high speeds to show off their speed, agility and reproductive fitness.
You are most likely to see this aerial show in Colorado during the summer months, right around dawn or dusk. Nighthawks can be spotted in the skies above tree tops and grasslands; if possible, pick a higher vantage point near a river or a stream. Turn your eyes to the darkening sky where you may also see the frenzied flight of bats, but look closely for a larger bounding bird that flies in slightly more graceful loops. Watch for the telltale white patches just below the center of the wing that indicate you have spotted a nighthawk.
If you are somewhat lucky and very observant, then you will see it. Diving sharply toward the ground, making it to just within feet before the crowd gasps, the nighthawk pulls itself out of the downward spiral with a single dramatic move. The wind rushes through its wings and a deep booming sound echoes through the air as if a race car just zoomed past. The imaginary crowd erupts in applause and cheers of relief as the nighthawk soars back above the tree tops. Surprised at how close it gets to the ground, and amazed at the number of twirls and loops, you will long to see this amazing sight again and again. So this summer, in place of mechanized air shows, go on an adventure into the open fields and wetlands of Colorado at dusk, and watch for the graceful and reckless flight of the common nighthawk. It is assured that you will not be disappointed.
Gina Garrett is the education grants officer and special events coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She longs for the day that her knowledge of birds surpasses her good humor.