One of the pleasures of this time of year is the flight of Common Nighthawks over our neighborhoods and towns as they make their way south. Almost any open area with a good look at the sky is ideal. Ballfields, parks and big backyards are prime spots around sunset. Just sit back and look up, and you’re likely to see a few of these graceful nightjars at about 200’ in altitude, often mixed in with Chimney Swifts.
Nighthawks are fairly common in the summertime, so much so that it’s easy to forget that their time with us is fleeting. In the winter, they’re thousands of miles away in southern South America. They’re headed all the way to places like Paraguay.
I love this piece about nighthawks by Chicago birder Edward Warden from two years ago. Edward is the President of Chicago Ornithological Society, and I’m not sure anyone appreciates nighthawks and their nightjar kin such as Whip-poor-wills as much as him. He calls nighthawks the “most quintessential urban bird.”
Unlike most birds of the Chicago area, which require journeys to public parks, recreational natural areas, or preserves on the fringes of development, nighthawks come to us. They married cities and nature before we even knew how to appreciate or talk about those things in the same sentence. Every time I hear the buzz of nighthawks, I am reminded not only of what wildlife is returning to urban areas but the wildlife that didn’t wait for us to notice before doing so.
As an aside, Edward’s also done something extraordinary in creating a checklist of the 414 moss species in the Chicago region. I’m sure he’s the only person I know who appreciates bryology as much.
As adaptable as they are, nighthawks are yet another common species in steep decline. Even the gravel rooftops they favor in urban areas may be fewer, and as an insect eater they’ve suffered from a drop in mosquito numbers.
Author Edward Abbey writes of the nighthawk in his 1968 classic Desert Solitaire, set in what is now Arches National Park in Utah:
They feed in the twilight between evening and night and again in that similar twilight, unknown to most Americans, between dawn and sunrise, at which times aerial insects are at their most abundant. In my sack on the cot out back of the trailer, I am awakened many a morning by the sound of their wild cries and thrilling plunges through the air.
Abbey’s “wild cries” are most likely a booming sound that males make with their wings as they court females in early summer. Nighthawks may also do this when intruders threaten their nests.
As a fan of Chicago art, I also love Edward Hopper’s realist masterpiece, “Nighthawks,” which I’ve taken some liberties with in the photo illustration below.
For a longer read about Chordeiles minor, check out Laura Erickson’s classic article, “The Uncommon Common Nighthawk.”
“Convoy” story comes full circle
A quick detour to the high plains. A long ride to the Mountain West recently had me telling my family all about the 1978 film “Convoy,” a film by director Sam Peckinpah. The main character is Rubber Duck, a trucker played by Kris Kristofferson who is the reluctant hero of an uprising against Ernest Borgnine’s ruthless sheriff.
When we got to Livingston, Mont., we did a little reading about the historic Murray Hotel in the center of town. A mercurial film director lived for years on the top floor. That director? Sam Peckinpah, of “Convoy,” and also “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway.”
Long story short, we were rained out of our last night camping in Yellowstone and it occurred to us that we try to get a room at the Murray. We did get a room, and, as it turns out, we were on the top floor!
The Illinois Ornithological Society’s Big Sit is on its way later this month. A Big Sit is where individuals and teams stay in one spot and count as many birds as possible in a 20’ diameter circle. Check out all the details here…..Shout-out to the aforementioned Brad Semel of Illinois Department of Natural Resources, one of the leaders of the effort to protect Monty and Rose. Brad returned recently from a deployment fighting wildfires in northern Minnesota…..Dickcissels most likely nested at Somme Prairie in Northbrook this summer. It’s a great win to have these grassland birds breed in northern Cook County.
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