I can tell you what it isn’t — a jar of night cream sitting on your bathroom counter or a jar to collect lightning bugs at night. A nightjar is the name for a strange looking bird better known in our region as the Common Nighthawk.
Weirder yet, it is in the Goatsucker family along with other oddities such as Chuck-will’s widow and whip-poor-wills.
Did I say goatsucker? Yes, I did! The folklore surrounding this group of birds is quite interesting. Its cavernous mouth (more on that later) spawned tales that it suckled on goat’s milk way back in the first century A.D. How bizarre is that?
The “night” part of nightjar comes naturally since they are most active during twilight and night hours. The “jar” comes from the trilling call that European Nightjars make, which supposedly sounds a bit other worldly. As for the “hawk” in the more common nighthawk name, who knows since it is not closely related to hawks at all (another bird name mystery to add to my list).
My initial sighting of a common nighthawk occurred two years ago at Magee Marsh in Ohio. The first thing that struck me was how hard it was to see. It has phenomenal camouflage. Intricate patterns of bars, streaks and blotches in shades of buff, brown, gray and even reddish colors, make it almost impossible to see (the patterns and colors would make for some awesome wallpaper). It literally looked like it melted into the branch it was sitting on. Not only that, instead of perching vertically on the branch, it sat parallel to it, making it even more difficult to see. What a bizarre bird indeed!
Upon closer examination of it in its perch mode, it instantly reminded me of a somewhat deflated football as it sat quite still stretched out on the branch. It looked rather disinterested and sleepy with what was going on down below, that being excited people like me glimpsing one for the first time. Later I learned that its ability to remain still, along with its incredible camouflage, is another well serving defense mechanism against predators.
I was surprised to see what I considered a rather minuscule beak. Don’t be deceived by that tiny beak though because behind it is a secret weapon, a seriously big mouth. Nighthawks need big mouths because they are enormous eater of bugs. With long tails and wings, they swoop and dive straight into insects with their mouths and throats wide open. They are like the baleen whales of the sky as they plunge into the night air for their quarry. They’re not too picky either when it comes to the menu.
Grasshoppers, mosquitoes, moths and other large insects are all fair game.
Big mouths aren’t the only advantage they have. Excellent nocturnal vision also comes into play. Not surprisingly, they are closely related to owls, who to me are the ultimate hunters in the darkness. Speed is another factor, too. It takes great skill to capture insects in mid-air, but especially when you are flying 12 to 35 mph!
It won’t be long before the nighthawks return from their wintering grounds in South America. Where is the best place to catch a glimpse of these mysterious birds here at home?
Start with spots where there are lots of bright lights at night and the insects to go with them, such as parking lots. Local sightings include the Walmart in Hampstead.
Anywhere that is semi-open or open like farm land, open pine woods or suburbs will attract these acrobatic hunters, especially at dawn and dusk. Listen for their peent sounding call and look for the distinctive white bars just at the bends of their wings.
Sadly, nightjar populations are thought to be in steep decline, especially on the East coast. Pesticides may be one factor as is habitat loss and climate change.
You can help scientists find out what is happening to nightjars by participating in the Nightjar Survey Network at http://www.nightjars.org/. It is a program created by the Center for Conservation Biology to count these birds in a standard way. Volunteers drive a 9-mile route once a year, make 10 stops along the way counting all nightjars seen or heard, and report data to NSN. Make it a family outing and help preserve these aviators of the night skies.
Also, thanks to everyone who called or sent me feedback about the tufted titmice. My unscientific survey has ended with mixed results. While many people continue to see them in their backyards, a number of people also reported very few or no sightings at all. There appears to be no rhyme or reason either as to where they showed up. For those of you like myself who are missing them, let’s hope for a prosperous spring for these cheerful little birds!