Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Nighthawk and a Little Doolittle Snipe Snooping

The Salt Lake International Center is a great place to bird for fall migrants during the month of September. It's on the southeast end of the Great Salt Lake and its abundance of trees, open fields, and small streams provide a great stopover point for a wide range of southbound birds. They can rest and/or refuel after crossing the lake. One of the challenges with birding this location is birding right next to a number of office buildings. Some office people are suspicious of people walking around with binoculars and cameras right outside their windows. A few local birders have been questioned by security guards, but most guards now are familiar with our unique behavior and leave us alone. The streets in the area are named after famous aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, Harold Gatty, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, and the Wright brothers. Click here to see of map of the International Center.

I work less than ten minutes from the Salt Lake International Center (SLIC), but I've been van pooling (trying to be a good citizen) to work so I have not been free to drive over to visit the SLIC before or after work. I had meetings that didn't accommodate the van pool schedule this past Wednesday so I drove my own vehicle and thought it would be the perfect time to drive through the SLIC before work. Unfortunately for me, mother nature decided to send a down pour of rain in my direction. I decided to try after work. Unfortunately for me, mother nature decided to send another down pour of rain and a few minutes of hail that caused me (inside my car) to seek shelter in a parking garage.

Not wanting to be completely shut out by the weather I waited until the rain stopped and made the most of the few minutes I had before losing what little light remained under very gloomy clouds. I had noticed a few Common Nighthawks flying before the rain started and saw them disappear behind a couple of trees as the rain grew heavy. I decided to scope out the horizontal branches and edges of buildings in that area hoping to discover a perched nighthawk.  They like to perch on flat rooftops and horizontal branches. I spotted one through a small opening between some tree branches on Neil Armstrong Road .

Common Nighthawk on Neil Armstrong Road Salt Lake City, UT
Common Nighthawk on Neil Armstrong Road Salt Lake City, UT
Nighthawks are typically active at dusk and dawn, during twilight hours, as they forage on the wing over open fields and wetlands. They are often seen flying at night around the bright lights of sports stadiums as they chase the bugs that are attracted to the lights. The bill seems small, but these birds have large mouths because the gape goes back to near the eye. You can see the fine whiskers along the gape in the image below. The gray, white, black, and buff colors provide great camouflage for these birds so they don't build nests-they simply lay eggs on gravel roof tops or on the ground. They winter in South America and breed during the spring and summer months across much of North America.

Common Nighthawk on Neil Armstrong Road Salt Lake City, UT
Here are images of Common Nighthawks in flight. The first was captured at dusk and the other mid morning with full sunlight. The first is likely an adult female or juvenile since it lacks the white band on the throat and undertail. The second appears to be an adult male based on the bright white feathers on the throat and across the undertail.

Common Nighthawk in the Orange Light of the Setting Sun Near Lakeshore, UT
Common Nighthawk Over Soldier Pass in Utah County, UT
As I was driving slowly along Jimmy Doolittle Road to make my way back home Wednesday night I saw some Killdeers feeding in a grassy area. I noticed two larger birds jumping a few inches off the ground and then face planting into the grass. I wasn't close enough to see what birds they were, but the behavior was something I'd never seen before so I drove closer. I saw very long bills on the birds and soon realized they were Wilson's Snipes. They were completely unexpected so I used my car as a mobile blind and did some snipe snooping while I had the opportunity.

Below is the best image I could capture of the odd face-planting behavior. I captured one snipe just after it plunged into the grass. You can see the short tail and wing tips pointing skyward, the two yellow stripes on the back and the crown of the head where the bill disappears into the grass.

Wilson's Snipe Face Planting Along Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
Just as I pulled over to get a closer look this bird blew toward me and began to forage in a drainage ditch. You can see how the bird goes from an alert posture (head raised high) to a more relaxed posture after it realizes I am not a threat (I was shooting from inside my car).

Wilson's Snipe Standing on Alert Along Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
Wilson's Snipe on Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
The long bill of a Wilson's Snipe is used to probe the mud for small invertebrates.
Wilson's Snipe Foraging Along Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
The snipe would stop to preen at times.

Wilson's Snipe Preening on Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
One final image before starting the engine and heading home for the evening.

Wilson's Snipe on Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT


  1. You certainly made the most of taking your car. How wonderful to see the Nighthawks so well, and the snipe. I hadn't heard the term "face planting" before, but it is certainly appropriate!

    1. Thank you, Happy! What phrases do you use in Australia for such an action?

  2. I don't know that we have a special term for it. Maybe I'll introduce it and see what happens!