Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Migrating nighthawks provide evening entertainment
September 01, 2007
Steve Grinley

     Last week, I talked about a couple of local spectacles going on in the bird world. The egret roost in Salisbury continues to awe-inspire all who visit. The swallows continue their show at Plum Island, though their numbers are past peak. There is yet another “show” going 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 en route. Their white stripes 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 tar and rubberized roofing, 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 good numbers of these birds migrating south in late August and early September. Again, I’d like to share with you Doug Chickering’s observations of this migration event:

     “Late Sunday (Aug. 26) 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.”

     So look to the evening skies this weekend 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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