The common nighthawk is not as familiar a bird in our region as it is throughout much of the Eastern United States. I donâ€™t hear these crepuscular (evening) fliers giving their scratchy call overhead during summers here, though in my earlier life, when I lived in Brooklyn and went to college in Providence, I heard them all summer long. The reason may be that nighthawks have adapted to urban areas because they find flat, gravel-topped roofs agreeable for nesting. We donâ€™t have many of those in the rural Northwest Corner, do we?
However, for the next week or two, nighthawks may be seen migrating south, in our area. By mid-September, they will be mostly gone.
Nighthawks are quite unmistakable. They are roughly dove-sized, but have long, narrow, pointed wings and short tails. Moreover, their flight is buoyant and distinctive, with frequent changes of direction and â€œgear shiftsâ€ (slowing and quickening of wingbeats). With a decent view, a white, square-shaped wing patch near the outer end of each wing should be visible.
Although during the summer they are most active and vocal at dusk and nighttime, nighthawks perform their southbound migration by day, and almost always silently. In early afternoon you may come across a flock circling and bobbing over a field, feeding on flying insects; toward late afternoon, they may appear streaming southward, often in impressive numbers, sometimes following ridgelines in the manner of hawks.
Nighthawks are not hawks, however; they are relatives of whip-poor-wills and belong to the family of â€œgoatsuckers,â€ mainly nocturnal birds that got their nickname from the mythical belief that they suck milk from goats in the dark of night. Not so, but what is true is that goatsuckers are expert at catching insects on the wing. They are endowed with wide mouths and keen eyesight.
Fred Baumgarten is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. His blog is at thatbirdblog.blogspot.com.â€¯