In the dying dusky hours of the day I often sit by the edge of the lake to witness the ebony hours of darkness seep in. I'm not alone, for the diving, darting daredevils who master the night skies are with me.
It is the nocturnal nighthawks who keep me company as they sweep through the air in pursuit of moths and mosquitoes, bugs and beetles. Equipped with wide cavernous mouths and small bills, these birds make a nasal buzzing sound as they feed. Nighthawks are members of the goatsucker family of birds. The name goatsucker originates from an Old Country superstition. Herders of goats often saw the birds flitting about at night and thought the birds must be sucking the blood of their livestock. What these avian acrobats were really doing was feeding on insects.
Some references categorize the nighthawk in the nightjar family. This second unusual name refers to European birds known as nightjars, a group that utters vocalizations that "jar" the silence of night.
The name nighthawk is also misleading since the bird is not a hawk. Perhaps its speed and somewhat hawk-like appearance gave rise to the name. Or maybe it's because it's an impressive bird of prey on insects or even because it is distantly related to the owl, a true bird of prey.
Personally, my favorite common name for the nighthawk is will-o'-the-wisp. This bird is also called the booming nighthawk, burnt-land bird, mosquito hawk, moth hunter, pisk, bull-bat and pork-and-beans. Some of the nicknames are logical but I cannot imagine how the latter three names came into being.
There are 67 members in this unique group found throughout the world. Six species inhabit North America: common nighthawk, lesser nighthawk, pauraque, poor-will, whip-poor-will and chuck-will's-widow.
The nighthawk and its relative, the whip-poor-will, are summer residents throughout Minnesota. While similar in color, size and nocturnal habits to the whip-poor-will, there are a few notable differences. Nighthawks have long pointed wings, slightly forked tails and conspicuous white throats and wing patches, which can be seen on their undersides late into the twilight.
During courtship the male nighthawk makes spectacular dives, often from a height of several hundred feet. As it plummets toward earth the partly folded wings make a distinct humming sound.
Nesting is simple. The female lays two eggs in what seems to be the strangest places. Without spending a moment's time gathering traditional nesting materials, she essentially hunkers down and deposits her eggs on dry stream beds and rocky slopes. In populated areas she will settle for a flat rooftop or nest on the ground in vineyards, agricultural fields or gardens. Occasionally she may deposit her eggs on top of a stump or fence rail. Nighthawks especially favor laying their eggs in areas devastated by forest fires, thereby giving credence to the common name of "burnt-land bird."
The eggs are long, symmetrically oval and perfectly camouflaged with irregular splotches of brown and purple that blend in with the colors of the rocks among which they lie. The female's mottled buff-and-brown coloration allows her to fit into these surroundings as well.
Nighthawk hatchlings are dependent on the female until the fledgling stage, when they begin to forage for themselves. Until that time the mother gathers copious amounts of insects, returns to the nestlings, outstretches her wings and then pumps insects into the throats of the little ones. Even at an early age the young birds have strong, contracting muscles that enable them to swallow hard-shelled bugs and large moths without chewing. Males feed incubating females and help nourish the offspring.
When not flying the bird perches lengthwise on tree limbs and sometimes diagonally on overhead electrical lines. Last year for the first time I spotted three nighthawks perched, and incredibly camouflaged, on the branches of several old deciduous trees. On a recent trip out West I also saw one sitting on a wooden fence rail.
While the summer finds the nighthawk as far north as Canada and southern Alaska, when the autumnal leaves dot the landscape it becomes a "snowbird". Winters are spent primarily in Central America, Ecuador and Columbia, where the supply of insects is plentiful.
But for now, in the dwindling daylight of summer evenings, watch for the white-patch wings in the sky, which signal that the nighthawk is faithfully attending to its night patrol duties of sweeping the air of moths and mosquitoes.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.