Getting Buzzed by Common Nighthawks

Common Nighthawks are all over the place here at Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, and I see them just about every day while I’m out peeping RCW cavities. They’re neat birds to see, and they have a fairly distinct, simple call:

Contrary to their name, Common Nighthawks are not hawks, but instead are in the same family as Whip-poor-wills (another really neat bird). These birds are generally most active at dusk and dawn, flying around snapping up insects while on the wing. I find that quite impressive, as my hand-mouth coordination isn’t always very good. Sometimes I have problems getting food to my mouth while seated at a table, and my stir-fry isn’t trying to fly away from me. I think I would starve if my broccoli and quinoa made me chase them down every day for dinner.

However, the males make another, much more unusual sound (as males are wont to do). It’s part of a display they perform during the breeding season, which is going on right now. Instead of having fancy plumes like a peacock or doing a special little moonwalk dance like red-capped manakins, Common Nighthawk males impress the ladies with aerial exploits, or by diving. Starting from what Cornell’s All About Birds refers to as “a moderate height,” the males dive straight for the ground, pulling up when they are about 2 meters, or 6-ish feet, off the ground. That’s pretty close to the ground, if you think about it. I’m 5’9″, which would put that just above my head. If one was diving at me, I would definitely cover my head and duck.

Not content with just an impressive dive, the males also have to make a weird noise, described as a buzzing or booming sound. This noise comes at the bottom of the dive, and is actually made by the air rushing through the male’s wingtips. Male nighthawks dive to impress the ladies and youngsters and to be macho and threatening to intruders, be they avian or human.

Most of the time the nighthawks are diving far enough away from me that I don’t mind or notice, but I’ll admit the other day one did make me jump. It was fairly close, though I couldn’t see exactly where because of the pines all around. Being startled while holding a very expensive piece of field equipment is never a good idea, especially when that field equipment is extended up 20+ feet in the air as you are pulling the camera out of a woodpecker cavity… However, this story ends well and nothing bad happened, except I decided to write a blog post about it. Which I tend to think is good instead of bad, though you are entitled to your own opinion.

Here are some cool videos I found on YouTube, after much time spent in diligent research. There are actually more nighthawk videos than I thought there would be, and of all those videos I chose two that I thought were quite good.

This video doesn’t show the Common Nighthawks in diving action, but it does have excellent pictures and recordings of their calls. (The video is from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so what do you expect?)
And here’s another video that someone took of a Common Nighthawk buzzing by.
It got pretty close!
Aren’t birds awesome?

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