Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birds Putting on Shows This Holiday Weekend
August 30, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     If you are looking for something to do this holiday weekend, the birds are putting on quite a show. One “show” that goes on this time of year, often peaking around Labor Day weekend, is the nighthawk migration. If you find a vantage point where you have an open view of the northern sky this weekend, watch and see how many nighthawks pass by. These birds migrate alone 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 usually readily seen. 

     Nighthawks are not hawks at all 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 move elsewhere. 

     Though we only occasionally 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. 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.

     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 past week he had 22 nighthawks on Tuesday and 35 on Wednesday evening. In the 29 years Bob has been leading theses trips, he has tallied 5107nighthawks passing over the tower! The highest single evening totals were 432 birds on August 22, 2000 and 363 birds on August 24, 1999. There was only one evening, August 18, 2008, that he didn’t see any nighthawks!

     Meanwhile, the swallows, egrets and shorebirds continue their show at Plum Island. Tim and Nancy Walker of Boxford visited the island one evening this week and reported on their amazing evening:

     “Nancy and I arrived at Hellcat Dike at 6:30 PM. There were virtually no birds in the South [Bill Forward] Pool, so we started scanning the North Pool muddy area. Nancy found a sandpiper doing the Dowitcher thing, but it wasn’t a Dowitcher, it was a Stilt [Sandpiper], all grey with strong barring on the side. 

     “While I was looking at that [Stilt Sandpiper], a rail walked behind it. Small bill, so Sora! Plum Island Lifer! Got Nancy on it, and then while I was watching, another one was in the reeds next to it. Only this one had a longer bill, and the black and white barring stopped at the legs. Virginia Rail!!

     “Dave Brewster then showed up with his friends from Beverly. We were able to
get them on both birds. He then told us about the evening show for Tree Swallows. We were up in the Tower looking north and all you could see were dots of Tree Swallows. There had to be 10’s of thousands, all swirling around. A group would break off, swirl around, then corkscrew down over the marsh, double back and then land in the reeds. This went on for at least 30 minutes. 

     “All the while there is a gorgeous sunset and Herons and Egrets coming in to roost in the South [Bill Forward] Pool. Just at dusk, there were several Black Crowned Night Herons.

     “As we were leaving, we heard the Whip-poor-wills. It was a very enchanted evening.”

     Have an enchanting Labor Day Weekend!

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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