Night Hawks

I stepped out of my front door last week about 6:45 pm and started scanning the dimming sky. It only  took about two minutes for me to find what I was looking for; two common nighthawks flew right over me with alternating stiff wingbeats and short glides. It was not long before another couple came over and then a threesome followed a short while later.

Late august and early September is the time to observe the common nighthawk migration just before dusk. I never bother to start looking before 6:45 pm and it usually has wrapped up by 7:20 pm or so. If you have a wide view of the sky in all directions then you can do it too. If not, take a drive to an open space and give it a try. The season has started off with some good numbers already.


Common Nighthawk
Photo by Don Faulkner


Common nighthawks are a declining species in the eastern United States. Habitat loss is the main factor I believe. Nighthawks used to nest well within the city limits of Charlotte, often using expansive vacant lots and undeveloped land right on the outskirts of uptown. As those tracts have slowly gone away, the nighthawks have followed. There may still be a pair or two around but I have not seen or heard them in a couple of years. The best opportunity to see them in our area now is during the fall migration. Decades ago, I could count on seeing flocks approaching 100 birds. Now it is usually a dozen or so at best. Some larger gatherings are still seen in the mountains. 

Common nighthawks are not hawks at all. They are a member of the goatsucker family which includes the whip-poor-will and the Chuck-will’s-widow, two other locally declining species. All have tiny bills but huge gaping mouths to enable them to catch large flying insects, especially large moths. Common nighthawks often are high in the sky when hunting, using their long narrow wings to acrobatically chase down their flying prey. While the other two species give rhythmic, repetitious, yet pleasing songs at night; the common nighthawk gives a harsh, raspy beerz when foraging aloft, often during the day.

So give it a try. I’m successful about half the evenings I give a look to the sky. With a good view eventually you will see some through mid-September.