The Common Nighthawk

By Dave Hanks

First of all, this bird is not a hawk. It is a member of the Nightjar Family which includes the Whip-poor-will, Poorwill, Chuck-will’a-widow, and Pauraque. It is also called a “Bull Bat” or a “Mosquito Hawk”. It is a moderate sized bird with a large head, large eyes, and a tiny bill surrounded at the base with tiny sensitive feathers. Those feathers aid in prey location. Their combination of brown, gray, and black make a superb camouflage. They also have a small white patch on their throat and a white patch at the end of each wing.

They become active at dusk and dawn and sleep during the day – lying lengthwise on a branch. Their camouflage makes them extremely hard to spot because they blend in so perfectly with the wood. When in flight, they remind me of a fighter plane zipping through the air - the white wing patches resembling air force insignias. As one of the most graceful birds in flight, they can make sudden course adjustments, zig-zaging after flying insects which are taken in through the large gape of their jaws.

Trees interspersed with open areas or forest edges are preferred habitat. Gravel patches are also necessary for this ground nesting species. Courtship involves the male climbing high in the sky, then plunging earthward in a steep dive. This ends with a booming sound, as air rushes through his wing-tips when he pulls out of his dive. After an 18 to 20 day incubation, both parents then feed the chicks regurgitated insects.

This is a species that frequents Idaho in spring and summer – and then makes a long distance migration to South America. You might see them on an evening darting about in the sky, making their squeaky (“speek-speek”) social talk to others of their species. Whenever we are at the Hayspur camp site in Picabo, Idaho we experience them as it seems to be a preferred spot.

(At rest on a limb)