Monday, July 27, 2015

A New Generation of Common Nighthawks

Common Nighthawks are quite common throughout the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months. I first became familiar with them when I noticed them flying circles around stadium lights during evening sporting events.  I learned that they were chasing and feeding on the flying insects that were drawn to the lights. They have very tiny bills as you'll see in some of the images below, but their mouths extend back to beneath the eyes. Their "gaping" mouths are great for snatching flying prey. Nighthawks are mostly active at night, but they are sometimes seen flying in daylight, especially during twilight hours. The distinct wing and throat markings of nighthawks are shown in the image below.

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawks have a rather long migration from South America so they tend to arrive here in Utah a little later than other migrant birds. Once they arrive they seem to get right down to the business of breeding. I'm glad that we consistently have breeding populations along some of our local rivers and in pockets of our local deserts. Males and females can often be seen flying together during the breeding season. During courtship the males will make a steep dive and then curve their wings near the bottom of the dive to create a "whoosh" sound as the air rushes through their flight feathers.

Common Nighthawks in Utah County, UT USA

I was showing an out-of-state visitor to some of Utah County's diverse birding habitats several weeks ago when I happened upon a Common Nighthawk nesting site beneath a Juniper tree. We were walking through a desert area that had a mix of sagebrush and junipers.  As I walked toward a particular juniper a female nighthawk flushed from beneath the tree and landed about 15 yards away.

Female Common Nighthawk Distraction Display Near Nest Site in Utah County, UT USA

She began a distraction display which made me realize we were near a nest site. I captured a short video of this particular female to show her protective display. This clip shows the initial display and then ends when she feels she has successfully deterred us from the nest site.

Nighthawks don't actually build nests. They simply lay their eggs on bare ground or gravel rooftops. Consequently, we walked carefully with our eyes to the ground to avoid stepping onto eggs or chicks that might have been blending in with the ground below us. We actually discovered two eggs and then allowed mom to lure us away with her short flights and distraction displays. She was a good mama bird.

Common Nighthawk Eggs in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk Eggs in Utah County, UT

I am fascinated by the cycle of life so I returned to the nest site a week or so later and concealed my presence with a portable blind. I had hopes of watching the new generation of nighthawks develop from one stage to the next by making periodic visits.  Mama nighthawk was still incubating eggs and did not flush since I remained in my blind.

Female Common Nighthawk Incubating Eggs in Utah County, UT USA

I let another week pass and returned to the site again in the blind. I noticed empty egg shells where mom had been incubating them during my previous visit.

It didn't take more than a few minutes to realize that mom and two chicks were just a few feet away from where the chicks had hatched. Mom moved toward the chicks as I started to back away from the site within my blind.

Female Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk Chicks in Utah County, UT USA

Female Common Nighthawk and Two Chicks in Utah County, UT USA

One chick moved under mom's chest while the other remained visible in the image below.

Female Common Nighthawk With One Chick Beneath and One Chick at Chest in Utah County, UT USA

I couldn't help but wonder how these birds raise their young on bare ground. They blend in rather effectively with their surroundings and mom is adept at distracting possible threats from the young ones, but they are still extremely vulnerable to the coyotes, badgers, rattlesnakes, and other predators that roam the desert floors. I hope these two young chicks progress to the point of making their first round trip flights to South America and back so they can continue the cycle of life by creating their next generation. I wonder if they'll return to the same desert for their own breeding seasons.

My most recent trip to the same general habitat resulted in a close encounter with what appears to be a male with all those bright white throat feathers. The female nighthawk did not show nearly as many white throat feathers.

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA


  1. Replies
    1. Indeed, Kenny. I'm glad you appreciate these kinds of experiences. Thanks for leaving a nice comment.

  2. Great Video and photos! I like it!

    1. I'm glad you liked it, Dickson. I'm enjoying your posts and images to the UBIRD listserv.

  3. Fantastic photos of an amazing event!

    1. Thank you, Milt. It was amazing. Nature is amazing.

  4. Amazing pictures with amazing follow-up. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for sharing the great photos and narration. One of my favorites.