Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Nighthawks Moving Through Area Now
August 29, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     I was driving down Route 95 after work on Wednesday evening when I noticed a couple of birds swooping back and forth over the highway in the Boxford stretch. As I got closer to them, I could see that they were nighthawks. Their long bodies and long-pointed wings flashed a bit of white. Then I noticed there were four more ahead of me and then a group of five more, all flying erratically and feeding on insects as they go.

     Nighthawks are migrating through our area now, as they do every late August and early September, often peaking around Labor Day. Of course Labor Day comes a little later this year so this weekend might bring the peak numbers of them through. 

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

     Now we only occasionally hear their “peenting” call midsummer in Boston, Lowell or Lawrence. There have been high numbers of nighthawks migrating already reported in the western part of the state. 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. So check the evening sky around your house the next few days.

     Bob Stymeist of Arlington has been leading a “Nighthawk Watch” for the Friends of Mount Auburn since 1985. On a couple of late August evenings, they watch the northern sky from the tower in the middle of Mt Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. This year’s report was posted on the Massbird list serve on Thursday of this week:

     “It was a magical night atop the tower at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Eighteen participants on a Friends of Mt Auburn Cemetery counted 138 Common Nighthawks, the 9th highest single night total since 1985, the record was 432 on August 22 2000, only once since 1985 did we fail to find a single bird. Tonight we had several groups of multiple birds, 21, 17, 21 and 14 some coming overhead.

     “This was the third night of Nighthawk watches, the first had only 3 birds and Tuesday night we had 23. Every night we were treated to fantastic sunsets. Other birds tonight included an Osprey, six Turkeys and 7 Cedar Waxwings as well as 40 or so Chimney Swifts buzzing our heads as they came right by the tower.”

     Meanwhile, the numbers of swallows, egrets and shorebirds continue at Plum Island. Some more interesting birds are appearing. Last Saturday, a Baird’s sandpiper was working the shoreline north of Emerson Rocks and Parking Lot 7 and a black tern was fishing out in the ocean from there along with the resident least terns. 

     An immature little blue heron was in among the gathering of snowy egrets at Stage Island Pool. There were two western sandpipers with all the semipalmated sandpipers below the platform on Stage Island. Other shorebirds included short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, stilt, white-rumped and spotted sandpipers. All of them took to the air as a dark peregrine falcon came swooping in low over the marsh. 

     The falcon perched about a hundred yards away and, through the scope, we were able to read a partial number on the bands on its left leg. Turns out that this was a first year bird that fledged from the Tufts Medical Building in Watertown. One of our customers is the head of maintenance for that building and has kept us up to date on the peregrines that nest there. Small world – especially for a peregrine!

     The North Pool Overlook gave us good views of three stilt sandpipers feeding with several greater yellowlegs. Along the edge of the drained pool we two green-winged teal and three blue-winged teal. Bill Forward Pool also had a number of shorebirds feeding on the mud. I was able to locate another western sandpiper among the peeps along the edge of that pool.

     The highlight of the afternoon had to be the female least bittern that was, very uncharacteristically, out in the open, hunting for fish from the exposed mudflat in North Pool behind the Hellcat Trail. This usually secretive bird spent hours out in the open, across from the dike behind Hellcat. The water was so low that there were no nearby cattails where the bittern could hide and still fish as it usually does. It was a rare opportunity that gave many visitors life looks, and great photos!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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