I stepped out on my front porch for a couple of evenings this week to watch for the first signs of the common nighthawk migration through our area.
I have not seen any yet but I am confident I will as August wears out. Nighthawks form loose flocks in the evenings starting about the third week of August, moving in a general southern direction often at fairly low altitudes. These congregations of birds are easily seen even without binoculars if you are lucky enough to be in their path.
Just a few decades ago it was not too difficult to observe this movement. The numbers of nighthawks in a single flight often numbered several dozen birds; even approaching a hundred individuals on good nights.
Now, thanks to a long-term decline in their population, such numbers are extremely rare. Numbers now are more often than not reduced to single-digit observations. A persistent and patient observer can still see some birds however.
Looking for common nighthawks is casual and peaceful birding at its best. Find an area that gives you a good view of the surrounding sky and scan just before dusk for thirty to forty-five minutes. Nighthawks are fairly large birds with long narrow wings that make them appear even larger.
Watch for their erratic flight with deep wing beats. They can occur anywhere. I’ve seen them in busy parts of the city as well as rural areas. \
Fans attending Carolina Panther’s night games often will see nighthawks diving through the lights at the stadium, mistaking them for huge bats.
A few pairs of common nighthawks still nest in the inner city. The species, a ground nester, adapted to the flat gravel roofs of urban buildings and began to extensively utilize them for nesting.
The movement away from this type of rooftop to a synthetic rubberized material has led to speculation that this may be at least one cause for the specie’s precipitous decline. Declines in large insect populations may also have played a part. Despite their name, they are not hawks at all. They belong to the goatsucker family that also includes another familiar yet declining species; the whip-poor-will.
Taylor Piephoff is a local naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.