If anyone has had the chance to see one of the three North American ptarmigan (Lagopus sp.) species in the wild, you know what I’m talking about when I say these are birds so cryptically feathered as to make them virtually invisible in their environment. Unfortunately there are none to be found here as two of them are strictly Canadian and the other is confined to the high elevations of the Rocky Mountains.
In a quirk of fate, however, we still have the opportunity to regularly see a bird so camouflaged, so embedded into its background, so lost to the casual observer, as to disappear at times. It’s the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor).
It’s not the only one in its family — Caprimulgidae, or nightjars — displaying secretive plumage. They all do.
Its most familiar cousin, perhaps, is the eastern whippoorwill, a bird known to balladeers and poets for its whistled night song. The only other nightjar found in North Dakota is the common poorwill, but one must be quite west to hear or see it as it prefers a much drier habitat.
Like many birds, the common nighthawk seems misnamed. It’s not a hawk at all and it really doesn’t fly at night, being quite active during the dusk and dawn periods.
Its summer range is the largest of all the nightjars—covering virtually all of the lower 48 states and most of Canada south of the Arctic. Nearly everyone who has looked up during the dimmer hours of the day has seen this species. It flits and flops—bat-like—on long angled wings that show conspicuous “lightning” slashes underneath. While feeding exclusively on flying insects, the common nighthawk’s wheeling flight is dizzying, reminiscent of a nervous moth or a darting red admiral butterfly. It’s also while flying that we get to hear its hoarse “BEE’rrt” call.
There’s another noise this bird makes but it isn’t vocal. Decades ago I was in the Badlands doing some solo camping when a short, low-pitched, roar kept repeating itself just after sunset. Only after anxiously reassuring myself the noise wasn’t a bear or other immediate threat did I find the true source. While sharply pulling up from a steep dive, the bird’s primary feathers vibrate rather loudly and sharply. Only males perform this as a territorial display.
It’s while perched, though, that we get to observe this quite strange creature. Unlike most birds, common nighthawks orient themselves along tree branches or fence rails instead of across them, attempting, I suppose, to more readily blend into their surroundings. Colored like a granite countertop, it can spend the entire day like this. Most times its huge eyes (think night vision) are closed or squinted and it appears to be sleeping. Perched thusly, the bird is quite easily approached.
Not unlike the familiar killdeer, common nighthawks make no nest, preferring to lay their eggs on bare ground using beaches, open woods, rocky outcrops, or even gravel rooftops. But as gravel rooftops have disappeared over the years, the population of nighthawks appears to be dropping too. Plus there is evidence to suggest crows have caught on to the rooftop thing and will readily prey upon the eggs and hatchlings.
I’ve never found a common nighthawk nest but I know someone who has. My friend Rick Bohn, of Streeter, encounters them in the prairies of Kidder County and takes pictures. The photos depict startling examples of nature’s ability to adapt and evolve. It is exceedingly difficult to see the young birds in his shots of them sitting on pasture rocks, truly and utterly amazing.
Experts tell us we still don’t know much about this species. Its migration is poorly understood, but we know it’s long, well into South America. Makes sense; an insectivorous critter needs to eat so it goes to where it’s summer during our winters.
We will witness it again this fall. There will be a day here and there, likely September, when you will be able to look up and see common nighthawks flying south together. They won’t be tightly knotted like shorebirds or lined up like geese. They will be spread out, each with its own ample space. Look for perhaps 50 or 100 birds flitting, darting and soaring on pointed wings, each with a white lightning slash.
In the meantime, keep your ears perked during the dim hours this summer. You just might be lucky enough to hear one calling from high in the air.