Now’s the time to be looking for migrating Common Nighthawks. The best time to see flocks is late afternoon and evening. They feed as they fly and are often seen over water. In my experience, they often turn up after a rain event.
Here are some recent sightings from Tim Dyson who lives in the Warsaw area. As of August 16, he has seen a total of 549 of these birds. Most were seen over the Indian River near/at Back Dam Park on Rock Road.
1.On the evening of August 16, I saw 41 Common Nighthawks over the Indian River just north of Warsaw. I watched for 30 minutes, just after the sun had set. They were moving along southward in groups averaging about five per group.
2. August 18th between 6:24pm and 6:27 pm, no less than 98 Common Nighthawks passed overhead where I am just n/w of Warsaw. Through a curtain of moderate rainfall, they were heading roughly s/w at average nighthawk height (100+ meters from the ground). Not really darting here and there much as is typical of them, but seemingly more intent on the direction they headed and the altitude they were keeping. Appearing as three loosely-connected bunches, it was difficult to count them at times, therefore I am glad they weren’t in whirling masses as is sometimes the case. They stretched to the eastern and western horizon, and despite my frantic searching, I could not bring the total to an even hundred birds or more. Although I have lived in a fair number of locations in the county over the past 25 years from Belmont Lake, Rice Lake, Buckhorn, and Nephton and places in between, interestingly, the Warsaw area has always yielded the highest numbers for migrating nighthawks in my experience, both now, and in the early-to-mid 1990s).
3. August 19th I got home to Warsaw just before dark in time to notice only 2 nighthawks flying past from east to west. I waited around another ten minutes or so, but saw no more.
4. On the morning of August 20th, (the date I’ve always considered to be average for observing large numbers of the species), 14 nighthawks just appeared to the north, gathered, (and very much like migrating Broad-winged Hawks will about four weeks from now), they “kettled” in a thermal and rode it straight up and out of my sight. This happened at 10:30am, it is sunny, humid, and 24 degrees outside. I find this far more bizarre than seeing more than one hundred nighthawks during an evening observation. That’s pretty normal. But a small kettle of them before noon… that’s just plain odd for me!
5. On the evening of August 20, despite hoping for a bumper crop of nighthawks to pass overhead on what is often “the peak date”, I only saw six of them from my favorite viewing spot and they were all observed at 6:45pm.
6. On August 21, I set up to watch for nighthawks just after 6:00pm, and none appeared in the sky until 6:50pm when 17 came into view just above the treetops heading roughly southward. Just as suddenly as they had appeared, I found myself staring at an empty sky once again. Yes, there were lulls in the passage of them, but before I went inside at 8:35pm. I had seen 65 for the night. Interesting this evening was the number of swallows, (however, I did not count them). Although most were quite high up,
some that were close enough to me to see well, seemed to be Bank Swallows. After a brief period of no visible nighthawks, they began to fly past again in small numbers and I found myself having to differentiate between them and the swallows as their flight style is somewhat similar, and their altitudes were variable. At about 7:25pm, one of the larger birds appeared to drop on a near 90 degree angle and slam right into one of the swallows! (Raptor experienced or not, my first thought was “That nighthawk is some kind of idiot!”) But as the two connected, there was a little puff of feathers and they never parted. “Of course! Duh!” I thought, as the Merlin that had just snatched a swallow veered to come almost directly overhead carrying it’s late-evening dinner. (see photo) As the landscape darkened by 8:30pm, two large bats began doing their rounds
over the former horse paddock, as a deer walked out for some evening grazing. He had a full crown of fuzzy antlers, and was unconcerned as he fed with his back to me only 20 meters away. A Gallium Sphinx visited some of the various flowers in the gardens around the house. I think I’ll sit out tomorrow night, too.
7. On August 22, between 7:30 and 8:30pm, Drew, my friend Angela, and I counted 33 nighthawks over Back Dam Park on Rock Road. They were flying south in groups of 2-7, with a few single birds. A few foraged as they flew, but most were making a beeline south. The wind was from the west and there had been heavy showers over much of the afternoon and into the early evening. The sky had cleared by the time we started watching for nighthawks. We also saw a Great Egret.
8. On August 23, Angela and I put the kayaks in at Back Dam Park at about 7:20pm. Paddled north almost to the power line, and turned around at 7:50pm and headed back. Five minutes later, the first nighthawk of the evening flew along the western
shore of the river and was actively feeding. About ten minutes later, there was the first good pulse totaling seven birds. Over the next twenty minutes others in small groups and singles appeared from the north and north-east. After a short lull, three more came along to wrap up the night’s total at 22 birds. Other things of interest were three River Otters (very curious, coming back out of vegetation to squeak and squeal at us), and a lovely waxing crescent moon.
9. Despite sitting out at home for nearly two hours on the 26th of August, no more than 9 nighthawks were seen – three as singles and three groups of two each.
On the evening of the 24th I was visiting someone at PRHC, and despite spending twenty minutes outside the hospital and another twenty minute
drive back to Warsaw during the magic hour, not a single nighthawk was seen.
The 25th, however, was a little better. Putting in the kayaks at the Back Dam near Warsaw with friends Angela and Lori, we began a northward paddle up the Indian River at about 6:30pm. Looking behind for some reason, I spotted the first group of nighthawks at 6:55pm. There were initially four that caught my eye, and then over the next seven or eight minutes, a total of 55 of them passed overhead.
Strange thing, was that they were all heading north!
Also interesting, was that they were very high as they came into view, and were gliding on set wings that rarely flapped. They were making a gradual decent.
I have seen this behavior in migrating raptors (Broad-winged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Turkey Vultures) that often travel in groupings. In the case of the raptors, it is often a large low pressure area that they have come upon, and almost always, rain ensues shortly afterwards. The hours prior were usually filled with sunny skies and rising warm air, but when they come to that change in the sky with rain to follow, they will often stream for several minutes as they descend to either hunt, sleep, and/or wait out the weather.
I am wondering if these nighthawks had already put some good miles behind them this evening and were just descending into a traditionally good feeding area, or just to feed at all. The weather did not (and was not forecast to) change for the night, but perhaps they only needed to feed for a while. Direction of flight while descending out of a migration stint doesn’t seem to matter to the hawks and vultures coming down to avoid poor weather, so should it matter to hungry nighthawks? I would guess it does not.
Nighthawks returned to view coming in lower from the east and continuing westward out of sight. Groups numbering 9, 7, 4, and 18. As we headed back around the last bend, we could see another 12 actively hunting quite low over the little dam and playground area where we were parked. They hunted there for nearly fifteen minutes before they all gradually
seemed to head out higher and over the trees towards the south west. Once I had the boats loaded, I turned to take a last evening look at the water, and one more nighthawk appeared, (as it seemed to nearly hit me in the face
as it whipped in fast and low!) So, that would make 106 for the night. I’m no longer too disappointed having not seen any the night before.
10. On August 27, traveling from home (3kms north and west of Warsaw) for an evening paddle on the Indian River, Angela and I counted 22 nighthawks from the moving vehicle as they zipped their way southward at 6:35pm. Paddling up the river from the Back Dam on Rock Road we saw nighthawks in waves streaming from north to south and of course there were the usual lulls. After one hour, our total for the night had risen to 54 nighthawks, when at 7:35 the sky to the north was suddenly full of them!! Our total rapidly grew to 96 nighthawks as 42 more made up the count for this bunch. Before the evening count was over when we returned to our launch place at 8:25pm, we had seen 147 nighthawks for this 27th of August 2017.
That brings my season total (since August 16th) to 549.
Common Nighthawk – Wikimedia
Nighhawks over Buckhorn Lake – Aug. 15, 2016 – David Beaucage Johnson
Nighthawk on left, and Merlin carrying swallow on right – Warsaw – Aug. 21, 2017 – Tim Dyson