Monday, September 07, 2009

A few days ago the Weaver of Grass made reference to the migration of the swallows, and posted a delightful poem in which she echoed the questions a young swallow puts to its mother as they prepare for the young one's first migration, and the gentle encouragementin the mother's replies.

I thought about the swallows who inhabited our barn on the farm, and the cliff swallows who build their nests in the clay cliffs of the Okanagan. And my memories brought to mind the nighthawks which were so prevalent in the summers of the years we spent on the farm. All during that 35 years or so, from 1950 to the mid 1980's, after a hot day and when conditions were just right, and when the insects were close to the ground in the evening, the nighthawks would swoop and soar over the road and the farms in great flocks, rejoicing in a veritable feast. The evening shimmered with insect wings and the air whooshed with the sound of their wings.

The nighthawk is not a raptor, as one might conclude from their name, but belongs to the family Caprimulgidae, the same family as the Whip-poor-will, and the swallow. It is about the size of a dove, and their slender shape and erratic flight help identify them in flight.

The nighthawk nests on the ground, but around the 1900's they also adapted themselves to living in towns, and nesting on the flat gravel roofs of buildings.

They generally feed at dusk and during the day they camouflage themselves by stretching out on branches or in bushes. The nighthawks mouth opens far back under its ears and forms a yawning trap to engulf any insects that happen to be out meandering in the early evening.

I realized that it had been a long while since I had seen this marvelous feeding frenzy, - not since we had left the farm in the late 1980's. I knew that nighthawks were quite at home in towns, and often nested on flat rooftops where they raised two chicks each summer, so where were they now?

Off to Google, and I found that there has been a general decline in the nighthawk population all over America. The reasons are not clear, but could include habitat loss, migration hazards, crow predation, and one theory links the bird's decline to the shift from the once common pea stone gravel roofs where nighthawks laid their eggs to roofs made of rubber or polyvinyl. The old style gravel roofs provided perfect camouflage for the bird's speckled brown, grey and white colours, and some protection from marauding crows.

The apparent disappearance from the valley of any large flocks of nighthawks saddened me, but I was encouraged by tonight's pictures of a gorgeous sunset. Off to the north I spied a bird, then another and another. I tried to capture with the camera, but couldn't be sure I had, they were moving so swiftly and erratically.

When I transferred the pictures from the camera to the computer I was surprised and elated to see the silhouettes of the nighthawk scattered across the sky.

There were only a few, and you may have to click to enlarge in order to see them, but they were there, and I was so grateful for the chance to see them.

It is time for them to migrate. They won't go in great flocks, but they will take off in small bunches, stopping on their way to rest and eat, flying by day and in the evening opening their wide, wide mouths for any resident insects. They have a long migration to Argentina, and the young ones are barely two months old. A long way to go, but think of the scenery....

Google informed me that there are many people concerned about this beautiful bird, and the conditions which affect it so adversely. There are people throughout Canada and the U.S. who watch and record their migration, and most likely are as delighted as I was when their evening watch is rewarded.

p.s. The nighthawk is also known as 'nightjar' or 'goatsucker', having in early days gained an erroneous reputation amongst country folk for suckling the milk from cows and other milk giving animal with their large mouths. But we know better now.....


Barb said...

Hi Hildred, What an interesting post. I always learn something new on your blog. I,too, was exhilarated when I saw the enlarged photos of the Nighthawks flying in that gorgeous sky!

The Weaver of Grass said...

So glad you enjoyed my post on swallows Hildred. I was interested to read about the night hawk. I think there is something so thrilling about the whole migration thing.

Barb said...

Hi Hildred, I had to re-comment to you: I was reading in bed last night, Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien, a memoir about raising an orphaned barn owl. Lo and behold - she mentions Nighthawks! Barn owls are related to them. What a coincidence that I'd just read your post!