A common nighthawk rests on a tree branch at Camas National Wildlife Refuge.
Half a dozen birds swooped across the sky on long pointed wings at Camas National Wildlife Refuge several weeks ago. They were moving so fast in an erratic bounding flight that it was hard to track them with binoculars, but when we could “lock on”, a white wing patch was easy to see about two thirds the way toward the tip.
It was almost noon and it was a bit surprising to see so many common nighthawks foraging at mid-day. As the sun goes down, most birds, owls being the notable exception, are headed for a safe place to roost for the night. This isn’t the case for the common nighthawk though. While the “night” in nighthawk is a little extreme, they seem to prefer the times just before dark and before sunrise when their primary prey, insects, are active. As we noted though, they can be active anytime in a 24-hour period and are often found foraging all night long on moonlit nights and around lighted areas that attract insects.
Other than the prominent wing patch that can sometimes be visible at rest and a white Vee under the chin, also visible during flight, the common nighthawk is well camouflaged in a mottled pattern of gray, brown, white and black. Since these birds nest on the ground, their coloration helps them to hide in plain sight.
Common nighthawks are members of the nightjar family of birds which includes nightjars, nighthawks, poorwills and whip-poor-wills. Despite their name, they have little ancestral connection to true hawks. All have large eyes, flat short bills and short necks, giving them a chunky big-headed appearance.
There are a lot of ground-nesting birds and common nighthawks are not unusual in that respect. What makes them different from most is that the female makes no attempt to form a nest of any kind. She just plops out two eggs right on the ground. In fact, in many cities, common nighthawks chose flat rooftops when suitable ground nesting isn’t possible.
The normal call of the common nighthawk is a sharp high-pitched “peent” sound. If you don’t like fingernails scratching a chalkboard, you won’t like this sound either. More interesting though, is the sound the male makes when courting and driving off intruders. He flies straight at the ground, pulling up just a few feet short. The air across hisses across his tail feathers creating a loud noise called a boom.
The only part of the common nighthawk’s name that is absolutely correct is the first name. They are indeed common breeding birds throughout north America almost to the Arctic Circle (they don’t quite get to Alaska).
The future may be changing for the common nighthawk though. Over a 50 year period (1966-2014), nighthawk populations have dropped by 61 percent in the United States, earning the bird the title of, “a common species in steep decline,” in the 2014 State of the Birds report. Like most other species in decline, habitat loss tops the list.
With nighthawks however, there is another factor thought to be seriously affecting populations—mosquito control. Mosquitoes are a mainstay of common nighthawk diets and it doesn’t require a degree in ecology to recognize that less food means less nighthawks. When nighthawk and other mosquito predators decline, humans will be forced to take on more mosquito control each year.
The next time you are out in the evening, watch for fast flying acrobatic birds. Chances are good you will spot the telltale white patch under the wing and know you are watching a common nighthawk capturing its dinner on the fly.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho