Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Common Nighthawk Migration

For the past couple of weeks I have given supper short shrift  -  quick meals out of the freezer or whatever leftovers I could put together -  because during the second half of August supper time is when the Common Nighthawks pass through on their fall migration. Every evening for the past several years Vermont birder Don Clark of Grafton has has been observing the migration at Westminster Station near the Connecticut River, a perfect wide open location with good views in all directions.

Other birders, both local and from across the state, have been joining  him in spotting and counting the passing migrants for the annual record. They fly in small flocks, starting as barely visible dots on the distant sky, then turning into tiny ciphers fading in and out of view, and then suddenly they are right overhead, flashing their white wing patches, with little time for the lens to lock onto the target. When actively feeding their flight is erratic, banking and curving, suddenly veering off into a different direction. And before you know it  the opportunity to catch a good shot has passed. I found it helps to set my camera on continuous autofocus, have a fast memory card and then fire away until the buffer is full at about 100 shots, if set on JPEG Fine, or 19 when shooting RAW.

Male Nighthawks are distinguished by a white sub-terminal tail band which is absent in females and juveniles. 

I am including these two shots, the one above and one below, because the legs are extended. They weren't coming down to land, but maybe they did so for some other maneuver that escaped me. 

The birds are often flying with their huge mouth agape when hawking flying insects, but  I only caught two of them doing so.

I apologize for these blurry shots, just using them to illustrate this behavior.

Common Nighthawks are long distance migrants from continental North America, usually along river valleys and lake shores, to their wintering quarters in South America. They have been listed as critically imperiled in the New England states.  In the past, migratory flocks often numbered in the 1000's  According to Don Clark the highest number this year at Westminster Station was 641 on 8/22, but on most evenings the counts were much lower, often in the 100's or low 200's. 

Here's a link to a  video featuring  recordings - the peenting nasal call and the boom made by the wings when the bird is diving - narrated by Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney. Great photos too, much better than mine.

Finally on the last day, just when the numbers of passing Nighthawks had tapered to almost nothing, we were treated to two Bald Eagles circling above.

Happy Fall Birding!


  1. Thanks for this great post Hilke! I was unaware of these Common Nighthawk behaviors.

  2. Hi Hilke

    I really enjoyed this post. I loved seeing the nighthawks in action. Happy fall.


  3. awesome sights! no mistaking those white wing slashes on those beautiful nighthawks! well done, hilke! thanks for sacrificing your suppers!

  4. Nice photos! So exciting to see all of those birds above your head!
    Wow, I never seen an eagle in real life!
    Have a nice weekend!

  5. I watched a similar type of bird in the UK - and I had difficulty keeping my binoculars on them - so they must be really hard to photograph!

    Cheers - Stewart M

  6. Nighthawks are one of my favorite species! I love everything about them! I do hope they continue to thrive in New England. How wonderful that you got to see them and the eagles as well!

  7. I love these birds. They were the first ones I ever remember wondering about (when I was a child)...they used to fly over our houses every evening (this was in Eastern Washington State and we moved later)....nobody I knew cared a thing about birds and I never did find out what they were until I was grown up and on a camping trip with my husband -- when I saw them again I was so excited you'd have thought I'd discovered the ivory-billed woodpecker! I posted about that a long time ago, with a picture I took that time....but your pictures are a zillion times better. Thanks for the fun memories and the great pix.

  8. What a wonderful sight that must be!


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