A bird you might miss in the Barrington area unless you know something of its habits and movements is the common nighthawk (Chordeilus minor). Late August and early September is the perfect time frame to become acquainted with this species which, contrary to its name, is not a hawk nor active only at night. Years ago, when our daughter was running in cross country meets on late afternoons in the last weeks of summer, I was as excited by the nighthawks passing overhead as the runners on the race course. On the first of September this year, a friend who lives in Evanston reported seeing hundreds of the birds from his deck.
Nighthawks have begun their southward migration, and what a migration it is, both in distance and in character. If you look skyward these days, especially in the late afternoon from just about anywhere, you are apt to see dozens of nighthawks streaming overhead as they head ultimately to South America. Their silhouette might strike you as that of a falcon, with sleek, angled, pointed wings. While they often migrate in large groups, there is no real formation but rather a diffuse, erratic feel to the movement as individual birds seem almost to float at times, deviating from a direct flight pattern to chase airborne insects. If the birds are low enough, you will see the conspicuous white band across the underside of the wings.
Though elegant and sleek in flight, the common nighthawk presents an altogether different appearance on terra firma. It is a member of the nightjar family that includes whip-poor-wills, Chuck-wills-widows, and other species that are characterized by large heads and eyes, gaping mouths, bristles around the beak, and intensely cryptic coloration that makes them almost impossible to spot on a tree branch or the ground. All the species in this genus rest in a near horizontal position; they do not perch upright like most birds.
Nighthawks have been present all summer, not only in the Barrington area but throughout the United States and into much of Canada. Wholly insectivorous, they are active mostly at dusk and dawn when they hawk insects above town and country. One of my most favorite sounds of summer is the emphatic, nasal peeeent! of nighthawks as sunset nears and they leave their daytime roosts or incubation duties for their aerial insect hunt.
But as I think back on this summer, I do not recall hearing or seeing nighthawks on warm evenings as in years past. The first I spotted was a migrant above Baker’s Lake Savanna on the first bird walk of the season August 28th. Since then, I’ve thrilled at the spectacle of nighthawks in migration coursing across the sky above Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve.
The nesting habits of the common nighthawk are as unusual as its un-birdlike posture. It does not make a nest but rather deposits its two eggs on the ground, on bare soil, gravel, sand, or rock. Its wide range of preferred habitats includes forests, savanna, beach, cities (mostly on gravel rooftops), grasslands. It is often attracted to forests that recently burned.
If you have not yet seen a common nighthawk, either this breeding season or ever, now is the time to look for it. Especially as afternoons wane, scan the skies for the buoyant flight of nighthawks on their annual migration from the northern hemisphere all the way to South America where they will spend our winter months before reversing their long flight next spring.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
Do you have any questions for Wendy about birds you’ve spotted in the Barrington area? If so, Just ask Wendy via the comments box below.
And if you’d like to meet Wendy in person, she leads a series of Barrington area bird hikes in the spring and the fall Cosponsored by Audubon Chicago Region and Citizens for Conservation. Walks are free and open to the public though spaces are limited and RSVPs are required. Good walking shoes are strongly recommended for these walks and don’t forget your binoculars!
Here is the schedule of upcoming walks….
- September 14, 7:30 a.m.
Galloping Hill (park at Penny Road Pond parking lot in Barrington Hills)
- September 21, 7:30 a.m.
Beverly Lake (parking lot on north side of Higgins Rd/Rt. 72 west of Sutton Rd)
- September 28, 8:00 a.m.
Flint Creek Savanna (park at CFC headquarters at 459 W. Hwy 22)
- October 5, 8:00 a.m.
Beese Park (meet at Beese Park, east end of Cornell Ave.)
Check back for possibility of more walks to be scheduled in October &/or November
Please RSVP to: Daniel Jacobson (312) 453-0230, Extension 2002 or firstname.lastname@example.org and let them how best to contact you should that be necessary. Before you head out, check the Citizens for Conservation website for last minute changes or cancellations.