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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: Common Nighthawk

I have mentioned here on different occasions in recent years about how I have missed the sight and sound of the Common Nighthawk over my yard in spring and summer. They used to be quite common - as their name implies - but in the last two or three years, they just haven't been around. I'm happy to say that has changed this year. Any late afternoon, they can be heard as they wheel around the sky searching for flying insects. I saw three in the skies over my backyard just this past weekend. All of which leads me to the conclusion that these birds are more plentiful in the area than they have been in recent years. I didn't realize just how plentiful though until we went to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge last Friday.

As soon as I got out of the car, I heard the sound of nighthawks hunting overhead, even though it was well up into daylight hours. These birds are usually at their most active at dawn and dusk, and they can sometimes be seen and heard hunting at night on moonlit nights or around lights in urban areas. But it's not totally unheard of for them to be flying during the middle of the day and they certainly were on this day. Everywhere we went their voices could be heard.

More typically though, the birds settle down during daylight hours and they are so cryptically colored that they often go unnoticed even when they are right out in plain sight. It was really a matter of chance that, on Friday, I started noticing the birds everywhere I looked!

This was the first one that I saw on a fence post next to the road. These posts are convenient places for many types of birds to perch and rest, or perch and sing as the various members of the blackbird family often do.

After I noticed the first one, I began seeing that every fourth or fifth post along the way seemed to have a nighthawk sitting atop it!

One even perched on the barbed wire. This is an unusual pose because the bird's legs are short and its feet small in relation to body size. It's not really made for perching. When it perches in a tree, often it will sit lengthwise on the limb rather than across the limb as most birds do.

You can see that lengthwise-perching behavior in this bird that was sitting in a tree. You can also see how very well camouflaged the bird is. If its eye is closed and its head is down, it just looks like a bump on the limb and you wouldn't give it a second glance.

The nighthawk is a member of the nightjar (Caprimulgidae) family which is characterized by short bills that open up to very wide mouths. When the mouth is open, it gapes nearly as wide as the bird's head and it uses this big mouth to scoop up insects as it flies about erratically.

This wide open mouth and the fact that the bird often flies over pastures in the late afternoon gave rise to a myth and a nickname, "Goatsucker". The myth goes back at least as far as the third century B.C.E. in Greece where country people claimed that these birds milked goats!

The bird had another nickname in the area where I grew up. We called it "Bullbat." I'm not really sure why but I assume it had to do with the fact that the bird does fly erratically like a bat and it's normally in the sky at the same time as bats, plus it is bigger than the other bats that were around at that time. There is also a sound that the males make during courtship, a kind of basso profundo booming that might recall the voice of a bull. They make the sound by flying high into the air and then going into a steep dive. As the wind rushes through the wing feathers, it causes a distinct "boom" which, if you have heard it, is not easily forgettable. It was part of the background music to the late spring and summer afternoons of my childhood.

The helter-skelter flight of the nighthawk is not so easy to catch on camera, but on Friday, I got lucky.

Two (I assume male) nighthawks were flying low over a meadow and seemed to be engaged in a territorial dispute. I tried to capture the two together but those pictures were just a blur

.Note the very long, narrow wings which give these birds excellent control in the air. The white spot on each wing supposedly can serve to startle insects and perhaps make them easier to catch.

I must have seen a score or more of Common Nighthawks at the wildlife refuge. I don't think I've ever seen so many at one time and place. I assume they must have just arrived on migration and perhaps were hungry which may explain why so many were hunting during the day. Whatever the reason, I was delighted with their presence on this day and delighted with the chance to say hello to a friend from my long-ago childhood.

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