Species Dossier: Common Nighthawk

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier features a bird which in DuPage County is a migrant rather than a breeder. That is unfortunate, because the spectacle of a hunting nighthawk in summer was a special delight in my younger days.

Nighthawk, Common

Generally these are seen in the air. They also roost (nest?) on buildings, large horizontal tree branches near woods edges, temporarily on deserted streets in early morning, and on rocks in the prairie. They were summer residents in Culver and Lafayette, Indiana, there were a few in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but they are essentially absent as breeders in DuPage County although they are abundant migrants there, with rivers of them passing over in spring and fall. They feed on aerial insects, sometimes chasing them spectacularly high above the ground. They show some evidence of territoriality when breeding, with aerobatic chases, steep dives with sudden upward turns and twists. Many were brought to the wildlife hospital at Willowbrook in the early 1980’s, wings broken by wires. Adults almost always died; they had to be force-fed and didn’t take the stress well. Some young birds would beg, however, and a few made it. In the clinic they showed an impressive threat display, opening the enormous pink-lined mouth and hissing.

14AU86. First fall migrants in DuPage County, IL.

15MY87. First of year (several) passing over Geneva.

16MY87. One resting on fence rail in front of house at Summerlakes subdivision, Warrenville. I approached within 7 feet and took several photos before it suddenly popped into flight.

Nighthawk roosting on decorative fence rail in a Warrenville subdivision.

10SE87. Bulk of fall migration over. An occasional individual in the evening, yet. 3 seen on 16SE the last noted for 1987.

10SE88. Still a few migrants.

27MY99. Nighthawks migrating over Willowbrook, evening.

JE99. Horsethief Trail, central Kansas. Nighthawk flying and calling at 1pm.

18AU99. First migrating nighthawks, DuPage County.

27AU00. Nighthawks have been common, passing through Warrenville the past week. Today at Illinois Beach State Park in the Natural Area I photographed one sleeping on a horizontal branch of an Austrian pine.

Autumn migrant roosting on a tree branch, Illinois Beach State Park.

23MY02. The first evening I’ve noticed many passing over. At Elsen’s Hill, some were flying low over the river to feed.

25MY02. At Meacham Grove after 10a.m., one flying over marsh area.

29SE11. Mayslake. An unusual group of 5 nighthawks passing over the preserve at mid-day, late for them.

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