WORDS ON BIRDS
Migrating Nighthawks Provide Evening Entertainment
August 26, 2017
Last week, I talked about some local spectacles going on in the bird
world. The staging egrets and shorebird migration continue on Plum
Island and elsewhere. The swallows continue their show at Plum
Island, their numbers still climbing this past week.
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.
Nighthawks 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. I would
like to share with you once again, Doug Chickering's observations of
this migration event 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.
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.
Bird Watcher's Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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