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home : columns : columns May 29, 2016

7/23/2013 12:11:00 PM
The no-so-common nighthawk
Nighthawk in flight. photo by Jim Anderson
+ click to enlarge
Nighthawk in flight. photo by Jim Anderson

Those two little “chips of wood” are really baby nighthawks. photo by Jim Anderson
+ click to enlarge
Those two little “chips of wood” are really baby nighthawks. photo by Jim Anderson

By Jim Anderson

On warm summer evenings, common nighthawks can be seen - and heard - zooming through the skies over Sisters Country. In the dim half-light before sunset, these sickle-winged birds fly in a graceful zig-zag pattern, flashing white patches out past the bend of each wing as they pursue insects.

Nighthawks got off on the wrong foot with people when they were first named, and it hasn't got any better. First, it was the guys who named the bird: "nighthawk." Big no, no. Back in the early part of the 19th century - when Alexander Wilson was naming America's birds, "hawks" of any kind were shot on sight. The nighthawk - although it preys on nothing but insects - resembles a falcon in flight, so it was shot for the "hawk" it isn't.

Before Wilson hung the scientific name (Chordeiles minor) on our nighthawks (there are two of them, the common and the lesser), some misinformed farmer thought it was a bat - because it flies like a bat - and makes a loud, buzzing sound with its tail feathers, so it was named, "bull bat."

And before that, someone else called it a "goatsucker," because it has a very large mouth which gave someone the impression it flies into barns at night and sucked the goats dry. In reality, the bird's big mouth is used to scoop insects out of the night-time sky.

When I first rolled into Bend on my trusty old 1946 Harley in September of '52, I moved in with Dean and Lily Hollinshead on their Timberlane ranch on Jones Road - which is now a Bend park with a community garden. Common nighthawks were zooming all around the ranch from late May to August, and nested on the flat gravel near the barn and outbuildings where Dean parked his farm equipment and old wagons.

When Sue and I came back from Arizona in the early '80s to live in the old hired-hand's house at Timberlane to care for Dean as he was preparing to go out among the stars, there was not one nighthawk to be seen all summer. More on that in a minute.

Because of its short, weak legs, the common nighthawk does not travel well on the ground, and cannot perch crossways on a tree limb or rail fence, instead it perches lengthwise, parallel to branches, or on the ground.

And a word about a nighthawk nest and young. First off there is no "nest," just a flat spot with a little gravel is all the female needs. When the soon-to-be momma nighthawk comes to rest on the surface and folds her wings, she is almost invisible. The coloring on her feathers matches the gravel almost perfectly.

When I was the naturalist at Sunriver, part of my job was to instruct the construction workers about saving as much of the native plants and animals as possible. One day, I just happened to see a nighthawk zoom down into an area that was to become a parking lot. It took me almost 20 minutes to locate the bird, and another 10 minutes to slowly approach where she was squatting, motionless. When I was within her comfort zone, she flew off.

"Ah, ha," says I. "She has a nest." It took me another 10 minutes to finally spot her two camouflaged, pebble-like eggs. Then I went in search of the construction boss. "Len," I said, "You won't like this, but you'll have to delay building the parking lot near where the gasoline station's going to be; there's a nighthawk on a nest there."

That went over like a lead balloon. It took me almost an hour to get him to see mom sitting on her eggs, but when they hatched, Len was like a new parent, after he found the two, tiny fuzz balls. Even then, we couldn't see them until they opened those huge, black eyes.

The common nighthawk winters in southern South America, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.

Unfortunately, the days and nights we could watch and hear nighthawks buzzing around sucking goats dry are all but gone. It isn't until mid-June that few stragglers begin passing through, heading for their ancestral feeding and nesting grounds around Sisters - and further north - but even then, they are few and far between compared to the "Good Old Days."

Lack of nesting habitat, pesticides in the environment, increased predation and loss of habitat are noted factors of their decline. Further potential causes of mortality include climate change, disease, road kills, and wind farms.

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