Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Nighthawk Migrate in Coming Weeks
August 17, 2013
By Steve Grinley

     The swallows continue their show at Plum Island with recent days estimates as high as 50,000. There is another “show” that goes on this time of year, often peaking around Labor Day weekend. A watch of the evening skies can reveal migrating nighthawks. These birds 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.

     Nighthawks are not hawks at all but, rather, members of the goatsucker family, along with whip-poor-wills. These are nocturnal birds that feed primarily on insects. They were more common decades ago in larger cities where they nested on flat, gravel rooftops. But as gravel roofs gave way to modern roofing materials, the nighthawks moved elsewhere.

     Though we are less like to see or hear their “peenting” call midsummer in Boston, Lowell or Lawrence, we can usually see numbers of these birds migrating south in late August and early September. I would like to share with you again Doug Chickering’s observations of this migration event that he wrote some years ago:

     “Late Sunday afternoon, the light cloud cover finally broke into a clear blue sky at the western horizon. It broke during the last half hour of my vigil on the back deck, and spilled the tired waning light of sunset upon the line of oaks and pines at the back end of the yard. The trees shone with a dull orange glow as the sun dipped below the horizon. I had been watching four nighthawks as they appeared at the eastern end of the yard, flying high, making their way over head toward the western horizon. When they seemed to have gone, I went in. No sooner had I stepped into the house when Lois called to me to look out of the side windows of the living room; the ones that faced the setting sun.

     “For us the western horizon line is in the shape of a shallow V, comprising of a broken black line of trees. The clouds were a semi-solid sheet that was just short of the horizon. Short enough to admit the light of the sun already below the horizon, to illuminate the back and bottom of the retreating clouds and a swath of clear sky. The clear sky was a shining robin’s-egg blue that was washed in an ethereal light. The illuminated clouds were an incandescent gold at the far edge that drifted into a glowing scarlet then an electric blue and purple. It was a spectacular sunset; like others that have appeared here before.

     “Then from somewhere out of the dim gray skies to my left came four sharp elegant forms, slicing across the brilliant background in long graceful arcs and sudden fluttering turns. The nighthawks, all four, entered this already spectacular scene; soaring and dancing, turning and diving, hawking insects, silhouetted upon a brilliant, almost dreamlike landscape. It was a breathtaking performance as if from a perfect postcard, or from the awesome photograph on the back page of a slick nature magazine; only more so. It was a treat both awe-inspiring and sublime and hung precariously in the twilight.

     “Then the sky dimmed, the colors washed away and the nighthawks got more distant. The clear sky turned a dingy white, the clouds darkened until the illuminated bottoms turned a tarnished silvery color, and then the nighthawks vanished, as if by magic. They had appeared suddenly to offer to Lois and me a brief spectacular moment and then faded to black.”

     A few migrating nighthawks have already been reported, so look to the northern skies near dusk in the next few weeks and perhaps you, too, may experience the nighthawk performance.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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