Despite its name, this week’s featured bird is not one seen commonly, and my very first encounter with the species was uncommon indeed. It’s a shame that many of these birds are declining from our skies, but with luck and care, we can all have uncommon common nighthawk encounters.
Name: Common Nighthawk
Scientific Name: Chordeiles minor
Scientific Family: Caprimulgidae (Nightjars)
Habitat: Open, relatively barren areas, such as forest edges, fields, clearings, sand dunes and similar habitats, as long as there are some scattered perches for roosting. These birds can roost equally comfortably on the ground, however, and are likely to be found in gravely areas, suburbs and even urban areas where gravel roofs are abundant. Secondary forests and areas regrowing after a burn are also popular habitats for common nighthawks.
Range: Spends the summer throughout much of the United States, Canada and central Mexico, but not quite stretching its range into the high arctic or Alaska. Is also missing from the very driest, most barren parts of the southwest, including most of southern California, Arizona and southern Nevada. In winter, these birds migrate to South America as far as northeastern Argentina, but they avoid the steepest parts of the Andes Mountains. In between these summer and winter ranges, common nighthawks can be found year-round throughout the Caribbean.
These birds are beautifully plumaged in mottled grays, browns, buffs and tans, with a few wisps of black and white thrown in for good measure. This gives them superb camouflage for their daytime roosting habits and allows them to blend seamlessly with the rough bark of trees where they rest. A small white patch will show on their folded wings, and the darker primary feathers are more featureless than the rest of their plumage. The neck is thick and short, supporting a large but flattened head that has a surprisingly small and delicate bill. The eyes, however, are dark, deep and large – an essential characteristic for these birds’ crepuscular activities (they hunt primarily at dawn and dusk, and large eyes catch more light for better vision). In flight, the long, narrow wings are sharply pointed and have a white patch between the primaries and the wrist, a key field mark for in-flight identification. The white throat is also more visible in flight, but can occasionally be seen as a necklace-like marking on perched birds.
The first time seeing any bird can be magical as you add another lifer to your list, but my first experience with a common nighthawk was more than magical – it was enchanting, mysterious, intimate and astonishing. I was sitting on a second-story window seat in my home, casually looking out over the backyard and the condo community adjacent to our fence, when I saw a fast, swooping shadow dive for a tree. The bird had a large wingspan, but dove into the tree without hesitation, and did not reappear. Knowing it had to be a bird and having the barest hope of what I might find – having recognized the flight pattern and silhouette, even with such a brief glimpse – I grabbed my camera and binoculars and quickly trotted around the block to see if I could find the bird still in the tree I’d seen from my window.
Find it I did, even more beautifully than I’d dared hope. Comfortably perched on a branch just at my eye level, the common nighthawk was settled and sedate, but alert to my presence without being bothered. I watched him and he watched me, both of us calm and unhurried, just allowing the other to take their looks. I was able to walk around the tree to see the bird from different angles, and gradually his eyes closed as he grew comfortable having me nearby and was more interested in his sleep. I left him to his daily nap, returning once or twice later in the day to see if he was still there and safe, until finally he’d flown off into the dusk.
I’ve been privileged to see common nighthawks several times since, but never with the same intimacy or detail – always they’ve been high in flight, wheeling, dipping and diving on their way as they hunt. I don’t even dare to dream of replicating that first encounter, but I’ll never forget it, and each time I see them high above me, I remember the one I first made acquaintance with.