Musings of a roaming nature nerd

Lesser Nighthawks

Certain mammals naturally captivate our interest- Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Moose, Bison. Our admiration, curiosity, sometimes even hatred or fear of these animals is as considerable as their silhouettes. So it is with certain birds. We find charisma, beauty and intrigue in many species- Great Blue Heron, Northern Cardinal, Wood Duck, Bald Eagle. Yet our continent is alive with thousands, millions of more creatures than the ones so immediate and bright in our gaze. And occasionally the subtle and elusive lives are those which intrigue us the most.

Out here on the western edge of the Sonoran Desert the inconspicuous bird, which has captured my interest and affection is the Lesser Nighthawk. Whether watching them forage for insects over the rooftops of Yuma or enjoying their acrobatic maneuvers over the Colorado River at dawn, I can’t help but be fascinated by these little mottled brown birds, which all but disappear by sunrise.¬†They circle and trill and eventually settle down to roost in the shade of the cool sandy ground, and are typically only seen again as the sun begins to set. Unless of course one goes traipsing through their habitat as I do everyone morning during my surveys!

Startling a Nighthawk from its roost is one thing, but this is nesting season and carefully trying to navigate through their territories without spooking them from their nests is quite another. Nests are mere scraped indentations on the ground, usually at the base of shady vegetation, and typically containing two little gray speckled eggs. Chicks are born partially precocial and are able to walk and run within 2 days of hatching. They are very rarely seen due to their camoflagued coloring and their ability to sit absolutely still and look like dirt until danger passes by. A month ago I found my first nest after flushing the mother when I inadvertently walked too close. She landed nearby fluttering her wings in a half-hearted broken wing distraction attempt, while puffing her throat and calling softly. Females spend all day sitting on their eggs, without moving, so I felt guilty for disturbing her, but was thrilled at my first look at her pebble like eggs.

A well camouflaged female Lesser Nighthawk sits on her nest


Little speckled pebble-like eggs amongst the fallen arrowweed leaves


Since then I have diligently watched for chicks and found evidence of their presence in the form of recently hatched eggs. Yet only by accident did I finally get a look at them this past week. As I blazed through yet another plot covered in arrowweed and tamarisk I happened to glance down and notice two slightly discolored patches of dirt on the salty surface of the soil. With a second look at this oddity, I realized I was standing over two tiny chicks about the size of my palm. Completely still in the middle of my transect, tiny slits for eyes watching my movement, I would have stepped right over (or on!) them had I not glanced down at that moment. I snapped a few photos and watched them for another moment and then moved on. When I walked back 10 minutes later there was no sign except two little droppings left where they had sat. My gigantic shape stomping through their home had obviously startled them quite a bit!

Evidence of hatchlings!


Chicks!!! Still as can be and carefully watching my every move.


Notice that their tails haven't yet grown in. Also notice how ridiculously cute they are!


Once grown and fledged and independent (a process that only takes a few weeks) these juvenile Nighthawks will join their parents and dozens of others in aerobatic feeding, opening their wide mouths and swallowing up insects by the hundreds in the waxing and waning light of the sun. It was while watching and hearing their cousin, the Common Nighthawk diving at dusk in the Tetons years ago that first opened my eyes to a world after dark I thought had only belonged to stealthy predators such as fox and owls. At that time I also recalled Whip-poor-wills singing their fairytale like songs in still, cool New Hampshire nights. This world of low light, hidden nests, and subtly enchanting little birds is one I am delighted to have been privy to over the years and recent months. As we now head to Nevada I look forward to discovering what hidden life may emerge to capture my interest and my heart in the weeks ahead.

A photo Jason took of a male feeding on insects at daybreak over the water


5 Responses

  1. Dad

    What a great sighting! The pics are amazing, your writing richly descriptive. Keep it up!

    June 27, 2011 at 6:43 am

  2. Wonderful post and great photos! Olsen has a bird book with sounds and the Lesser Nighthawk is included. What an amazing experience to be so close. :)

    June 23, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    • annie

      Hi Lisa, How great that Olsen is already getting hooked on birds :) Thanks for checking the site. I’m having fun with it and really appreciate the comments. Hope to see you guys soon!

      July 1, 2011 at 11:12 am

  3. Boy

    Unbelievably cute! It’s neat that you were able to be stealthy enough to catch a glimpse of them like that!

    June 23, 2011 at 3:49 pm

  4. You know I LOVE the nighthawks, “peew, peew”!
    Great article and photos. Those hatchlings are something! Thanks for sharing!

    June 21, 2011 at 10:54 am