Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Time for Swallow and Nighthawk Migrations
August 15, 2020
By Steve Grinley
The annual swallow show is in full swing on Plum Island! Plentiful fruit and insects on the Parker River Refuge attracts tens of thousands of swallows in mid August, and this birding spectacle is one worth seeing before they are gone in the next week or two. Thousands of swallows are still “staging” in the cattails of North Pool and feeding on the evening insects. The swallows form large, swarming clouds as they feed, and you can watch others skim insects off the surface of the pools.
You can still see large congregations of swallows anytime during the day all along the Refuge road, as these birds gather and move along the dunes and marsh. In addition to feeding on flying insects on the wing or plucking insects off the top of the water, many swallows gather to feed on the bayberries growing on the bushes along the road and in the dunes. Please drive slowly along the refuge road as these birds will also land on right on the pavement.
The vast majority of birds are tree swallows, but it is fun to try to find barn, bank, cliff or rough-winged swallow among them. You might also find a purple martin in the mix. We saw a few martins still hanging out around the Lot 1 gourds early last week and saw a larger number of them perched on the antennae south of Lot 2 the same day. A few days later they all seemed to have vanished. Soon the swallows will depart as well.
Another event that happens later in August is the nighthawk migration. Common Nighthawks will be migrating through our area, as they do every late August and early September, often peaking just around Labor Day. Look for them before sunset flying from north to south.
Nighthawks are not hawks but, rather, members of the goatsucker family, cousins to the whip-poor-wills. These are mostly nocturnal birds that feed primarily on insects. Nighthawks were more common decades ago in larger cities where they nested on flat, gravel rooftops. But as gravel roofs give way to modern roofing materials, nighthawks moved elsewhere. Now we only occasionally hear their “peenting” call during midsummer in Boston, Lowell or Lawrence.
The majority of nighthawks migrate further inland, so Worcester County and west usually have the highest counts in the state. Still, many nighthawks can be seen along more coastal routes, especially if evening winds are generally from the west and northwest.
Some nighthawks seem to follow north-south highways, especially lit ones. They are also attracted to other lit areas such as parking lots, train stations and ballparks. They take advantage of the concentration of insects near the lights.
Nighthawks migrate singly or in small groups, flying erratically across the sky, often feeding on flying insects as they go. The white stripe across their long, pointed wings is a diagnostic field mark that is often readily seen. So check the evening sky in the next weeks and see if you can spot these migrating birds!