Birdwatch

Dawn Patrol

Look for the common nighthawk
at sunup or sundown

By Susan Campbell

Common nighthawks can be found all across the Sandhills and throughout Piedmont North Carolina, but they are neither “common” nor are they “hawks.”

For one thing, nighthawks feed exclusively on insects, which they dine on mostly during the night. Nor do they grab their prey using their talons as true hawks do. Instead they use their oversized mouths to snap up beetles and other insects in mid-air.

Nighthawks take to the skies mainly at dawn and dusk when insects are most active. Given their aerodynamic prowess, though, nighthawks are very successful predators at any hour. Due to their terrific night vision, they’re able to hunt quite effectively in total darkness. It is not, however, unusual to see them feeding during daylight hours, especially when they have young to feed. Look for them in early summer, when cicadas, grasshoppers, larger wasps and other bugs are especially abundant. Their characteristic low “peee-nt” call and erratic moth-like flight is unmistakable.

Common nighthawks spend much of their day perched on pine branches. Invisibility is the goal, and it is easily attained with their mottled black, gray and white feathering. Their nests also are well camouflaged. On the forest floor, females simply scrape out a spot to lay their speckled egg, which blend in well with the mineral soil and miscellaneous debris typical of native arid terrain. Females perform a feeble “broken wing” display when disturbed. This is the only defense they have to draw potential predators away from the eggs or young.

A great place to encounter a nighthawk is at an airport or any other large open area. There, you’ll likely hear the unmistakable “booming” of males during the early morning. The unique noise is not a vocalization but comes from air passing over the wing feathers of breeding males as they dive through the air.

Unlike some other species, the urbanization of the Triad and Sandhills has not taken a big toll on nighthawks. For instance, the abundant insects drawn to floodlights at the Piedmont’s many athletic fields and other outdoor venues provide nighthawks with excellent habitat to support their families. And nighthawks are one of only a handful of bird species that seem perfectly at home nesting on flat rooftops. It is not unusual to see or hear nighthawks at summer baseball games or early fall football games throughout the region.

Found in so many open areas in the Eastern United States in summer, common nighthawks begin to move south in early fall — often in large flocks. They migrate long distances to winter destinations in Central America and northern South America. But all across Piedmont North Carolina during August and September, you can spot them just before dark in the evening or early in the morning. So you have lots of time left to spot a nighthawk this season — keep an eye out! OH

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.

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