Readers’ wildlife photographs

July 21, 2014 • 3:21 am

Reader Stephen Barnard  from Idaho sent three photos of the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). As he pointed out to me, they’re closely related to the nightjar (they are both in the family Caprimulgidae), but they are much easier to spot. See?


Where are its feet? As Wikipedia notes:

Nighthawks have small feet, of little use for walking, and long pointed wings. Their soft plumage is cryptically coloured to resemble bark or leaves. Some species perch facing along a branch, rather than across it as birds usually do. This helps to conceal them during the day. The female lays two patterned eggs directly onto bare ground.

They are mostly active in the late evening and early morning or at night and feed on moths and other large flying insects. The bill opens very wide and has a slightly hooked upper tip.

Nighthawks are similar in most respects to the nightjars, but have shorter bills and plumage that is less soft. Nighthawks are less strictly nocturnal than many nightjars and may be seen hunting when there is still light in the sky.



A further note on its flight:

The flight of the Common Nighthawk is erratic and jerky, as it attempts to prey on various flying insects. Its call is a short, harsh, buzzy sound. The white bands on its underwings are easily seen as it flies in the evening, at an altitude that is often well above the treetops. Also of note is nighthawks’ mating ritual. Males will gain considerable altitude, then perform a power dive; as they pull up from the dive, the wings make a sudden, low sound that is called “booming”.

To see this flight, as well as to appreciate how hard it must have been to take these photos, here’s a video of its hunting:

And to hear its calls, go here. That site doesn’t have the “booming” call, but you can hear that here.


32 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photographs

  1. I had never seen a common nighthawk until my one and only visit to Washington DC. At night around the capitol building lit up by floodlights, there were literally hundreds of nighthawks swirling about in the air, I presume catching the insects attracted to the huge white building gleaming in the darkness. This would have been in the month of May – I don’t know if this is a regularly observed phenomenon there.

  2. The Bird Note link mentioned the nighthawk has a body about the size of a robin, but much larger wings. That reminded me of the Fighter Mafia movement inside the USAF in the 60’s and 70’s that wanted a plane with low wing loading, a plane with a low weight and large wing area. Lower wing loading is one of the things that can help a plane be more agile. Seems nighthawks and F-16’s have something in common.

    We have Bird Note on the radio around here. I love listening to it.

  3. I used to hear night hawks around my place but I don’t think they are around here anymore. I have noticed bats at night being quite acrobatic in their hunt of bugs.

      1. Nighthawks are common here. There may be scores over the creek, morning and evening. I think habitat loss is the culprit. Swallows and swifts can subsist on small insects. Nighthawks cannot.

        1. I think there is more to it than habitat loss. They were an urban and suburban bird in many areas, nesting on flat commercial rooftops. I think the general decline in insects is the cause, due to pesticide use and other as-yet-unknown factors.

  4. I have seen the male booming display. The staff at a local nature preserve offer various public hikes with a guide, and I had attended an evening hike with the expressed purpose of seeing this display, and to look for frogs. The booming display was pretty spectacular.

    1. I’ve had the booming display enacted right over my head – when you approach a nest too closely on foot, the parents divebomb you and pull out just before they’d crash into you. Needless to say, you don’t see it coming, and at close range it’s pretty loud.

      1. I’ve never observed the booming display and I don’t know where they nest. Can’t spot them.

        1. I wasn’t approaching nests deliberately – I was hunting for horned lizards in badland-type habitat, where nighthawks like to nest. When I inadvertently came too near a nest (and I hardly ever actually saw the nest, or what was in it) I would get dive-bombed. Sometimes I think I got it from sheer bad-assery as well.
          I’d hear and see them doing these displays at dusk when I was camping in these places as well.

            1. No, didn’t take it that way, no need to apologize. I perhaps could have put it better – when I was wandering around badland terrain looking for lizards, I’d frequently come close to nests without meaning to, because, as you point out, they’re impossible to see from any distance. Then the parents would strafe me. But this was a fairly infrequent occurrence in hundreds of hours’ worth of lizard-hunting. I have a photo of chicks on the nest, which is apparently a difficult thing to obtain.

  5. I came across an injured and/or sick one on the ground in a parking lot once; what a beautiful bird! Their long wings, tapering to a razor point, do remind one of an ultra-streamlined little jet fighter. They frequent any open areas with streetlights here in central Illinois, and their call (which I describe as, “Peeeeent!”) and the “Whiz” created when they pull out of their dives is, to me, one of the “iconic” sounds of summer here along with Whippoorwills and Katydids.

      1. Yes, they do that – have seen it myself. It’s your signal to stop and scan the ground around your feet in microscopic detail; of, better yet, to reverse your course and try to place each foot where you placed it before as you back away.

  6. There are prolific hatches of mayflies and midges in the creek on my ranch. Most of them are quite small (baetis, tricos, and pale morning duns) and three species of swallows (tree, cliff, and violet green) prey on them. The nighthawks, which are like much larger versions of swallows, don’t show up in large numbers until the larger callibaetis mayfly starts emerging, and I’m always happy to see them because the dry fly fishing gets good.

      1. I’ve been retired for quite a while from a career in computer science. I don’t actually live in the Sawtooths (I used to, in Stanley, and still have a cabin there.) Now I live about 90 miles to the south near Picabo. This is an interesting area — high desert, well watered by springs, with abundant wildlife. My ranch of 285 acres is slightly profitable, but the real attractions are the fishing, the wildlife, the duck hunting (if you’re into that) and the views. My place has a Nature Conservancy easement that retricts development, as do most of my neighbors’ properties.

    1. I bet the bats have a field day at dusk, too. If you really want to drive yourself crazy, try the other type of BIF photography: Bats In Flight!

      Still, if you can photograph a nighthawk in flight, you can probably pull off a bat, especially with your gear….


      1. I would assume only really powerful flashes can solve this problem. I remember some bats-in-flight shots (from National Geo, I think) and I remember them all as flash photos.

        When the bats fly here (MN)and out west (WA) above our yards, it’s definitely too dark to catch them in flight using available light. They are also very small.

        I have noticed a serious diminution in the numbers of bats, both in MN and WA. Have other noticed this in the US? Ben, you must have a lot of bats in AZ. I think it must be that white nose syndrome.

        1. You wouldn’t necessarily need powerful flash — especially if you can get the flash close to wherever the bats are (presumably, a prime spot on the waterfront). And there’re more variations on the off-camera portable flash setup than you can possibly imagine. Plus, if the bats are out just after sunset but before it gets dark, then the 5DIII might actually have enough ISO range to pull it off without flash.

          I’ve seen bats in the neighborhood, but never all that many. When I finally get the back garden going, bat-friendliness is going to be a prime priority — even including a bat house.


          1. Thanks as always for the wonderful photos. Like many have already posted, a very wonderful, striking, and adept hunter the nighthawk is. I’ve never had the opportunity to photograph any, but I’d like to try!

            As for bats, we live in the boonies in western WA and this year in particular it seems there is a decline in their population. We’ve had a few enter the house…boy that’s fun! We have a log home and one bat decided to crawl between the logs high up and “lived” there for a couple days. Would come out at night and dart around…on the 3rd night, I finally got it to vacate (much to my wife’s relief). No harm done. I did take some hand held photos w/o a flash…none of them any good.

          2. Ben,

            Place your bat house carefully. Both for the bats and yourself. Bats produce copious droppings when roosting.

            I was planning to put a bat house in the gable of our house; but colleagues’ experiences with bat doo on the house caused the wife to veto that proposal. (And unfortunately, there’s no other good location on our MN place. The WA place is very bat-friendly with a big, old barn with a tight roof and many openings in the walla. They love that barn.)

  7. “…to appreciate how hard it must have been to take these photos…”

    Talk about an understatement…:D Nice job, Stephen! Interesting observations about the correlations with certain insect emergences as well.

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