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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nighthawk Spectacle

If you haven’t been out at dusk gazing at the sky, perhaps you have missed it. The good news, however, is that you’ve still got about two weeks left to catch a glimpse of Common Nighthawks during their annual migration. Where are they coming from and where are they going? I wish I knew exactly. In a general sense, they nest throughout our region and north into Canada; they winter in South America. On any given night, however, they are almost as likely to be flying north or northwest as they are to be heading south.

From my perspective, having watched them for more than a decade, it seems as if they prefer to fly into the wind or at an angle to the wind, as opposed to with the wind as migrating raptors do. My guess is that this helps insects get swept into their mouths, making for a convenient meal as they go. Their erratic feeding flight is noticeable even at long distances.

Common Nighthawks are easily recognized by their long, pointed wings with prominent white slashes near the base of the primaries. Their flight can be rapid and direct or groups of birds may circle in kettles, just as Broad-winged Hawks might do, and then head off in a “stream.” Tonight, one such stream carried more than 200 birds through my field of view in about ten minutes time!

Over the course of the past eleven years, the Nighthawk Watch from Haverford College has generally recorded 1700-3100 birds per season. This year, we appear to be on track to set a new record. Come join us at the Observatory from 6-8 PM any evening between now and September 11. Cloudy nights with little wind make for ideal viewing conditions with a glorious sunset as an added attraction.

Where else can you count 648 migrating birds in two hours as we did tonight? Total 2011 count to date: 2757 Common Nighthawks (plus 1 Osprey, 1 Kestrel and 1 Great Egret).

All photos courtesy of Andy Pesthy.

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