September 2012 Bird Photo of the Month

The Great Insect Hunter © J. R. Williams
Common Nighthawk

What an opportunity! JR Williams’ photograph, taken with Canon 50D, EF 100-400 mm zoom lens, has allowed us to see this Common Nighthawk close-up. Their feather coloration has evolved for camouflage.  The beautiful barred pattern below and speckled feathers above disguises them in the early evening, the time of most hunting activity, when mosquitoes and other insects are active, and when sitting on eggs laid on bare ground amongst pine needles or leaf debris, on slash-burned areas, or beaches.

Nighthawk populations have declined severely over the past 30 years, coinciding with pesticide spraying and the replacement of a favorite nesting site–flat gravel rooftops.  However, they most often nest in open burned areas, grasslands, or isolated beaches — which are also disappearing. They roost (sleep) on open ground such as airstrips or gravel roads, returning to the same spot nightly.

Most often, we notice Nighthawks, white wing bars flashing and making their distinctive peenting call, as they forage on insect swarms at dusk– about 30 minutes before sunset and ending an hour afterwards. They also hunt at dawn, about an hour before sunrise until 15 minutes afterwards—the height of insect activity. With characteristic darting, erratic flight, they swoop with wide-mouth open to scoop insects.

Their diet includes moths, flies, bugs, beetles, ants and wasps. Flying attacks on insects averaged 18 per minute.  We should dearly love these overlooked wonders as one study found in one Common Nighthawk’s stomach 2,175 flying ants and 500 mosquitoes! Architects, developers, homeowners, mosquito control, why not use flat gravel spaces on roofs to provide nesting areas for this natural mosquito controller?

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon

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