For the Birds: National Night Out Bird—Common Nighthawk

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Nighthawks are easy to identify by the bright white broad bar across each pointed wing
Stock photo

By Christine Southwick

August 2nd is National Night Out — a time when many neighborhoods in Shoreline and Lake Forest Park are having street-block get-togethers. This is a perfect time to observe evening birds that you might not take the time to notice otherwise.

American Robins sing the most loudly at dawn and dusk and are easy to spot. They are actually pretty birds.

Barred Owls (found in every local neighborhood) will often start calling in early evening, and continue through until about 5:00am.

But the really fun bird to find would be the Common Nighthawk!

Nighthawk at rest
Stock photo
Never heard of them? Their name is really a misnomer. They don’t hunt at night — they hunt at dusk and dawn (called crepuscular – meaning active during twilight) while flying with their wide mouths open to catch as many flying insects as possible.

They are not a hawk — they belong to the Nighthawk, Nightjar family. And here in Western Washington, they are no longer common.

They used to be found in the general Seattle area on the many flat, graveled rooftops. Now that most flat roofs have been rubberized, there are very few in our urban areas. Some believe that gulls and crows, having learned that nighthawk nests yield delectable morsels, are a contributing factor in their local decline.

During our long summer evenings, nighthawks can be seen flying over treetops, and especially around street lights where the high concentration of bugs makes their open-gape bug-catching the most effective.

They are easy to identify by the bright white broad bar across each pointed wing. Their call, an electric “peent” is also a diagnostic signal to look for these birds.

I have only seen Common Nighthawks east of the mountains, but reports of sightings in this area occur during their long migration every year. These cryptically-colored, black, gray, and white birds often roost on the ground, especially gravel and large horizontal branches.

During the day they choose not to move and are as easy to overlook as owls. Their short necks and large eyes give them a profile not usually associated with birds, adding to their disguise.

So while you are talking and eating outside with your neighbors, look and listen for local birds.  If you see a fast flying bird with a bright flash of white on pointed wings, and hear a “peent”, you may have seen a Common Nighthawk, and I would like to hear from you.


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