Nighthawks, revisited

 A Shadowy Flight


In rain 074 (2)Central Texas is known for its huge bat flights, but at Ft. Sam Houston, those wings in the summer darkness aren’t just bats, they’re  nighthawks — bobbing erratically against a backdrop of marble and moonlight.

Nighthawks, like whip-poor-wills, are members of that most cryptic family of birds, the goatsuckers. Unlike chupacabras of course (!) nighthawks don’t actually suck milk from goats at night. But it gives a nice measure of the effect night wings can have on the human imagination — tales of the crypt, indeed.

“Cryptic,” applied to birds, refers not to cemeteries but to camouflage: feathers patterned in grey and brown make it easier to disappear against a backdrop of dirt, brush or asphalt. It’s a useful design for species that nest on the ground and have to spend the day sitting in plain sight. Nothing to see here.

A nighthawk, however, takes the word cryptic a step further, emerging with the last wink of sunlight and (in my neighborhood) in a cemetery, no less. Hard to ever get a good look, and even if you do, it’s puzzling: big wings, big eye, tiny face.

This lack of facial contour conceals a big clue to understanding the nighthawk lifestyle: its enormous gaping mouth. A nighthawk vacuums up insect food by flying straight into it at speed, its prey meeting death not by chewing or tearing but by drowning in intestinal juices.

I’ve been trying for years to photograph one with its mouth gaping open. But except for the fluttering white wing bars, it can be difficult to pick out a nighthawk even when it flies up in the dark and drops to the ground right in front of you.

Its behavior is anything but cryptic. In fact it seeks out light; it’s not too shy to approach within arm’s length of a lit car or a glowing cellphone in its swooping pursuit of insects. At Ft. Sam National Cemetery each summer, when conditions are right, flocks of nighthawks can be found swirling at dusk.

The second video gives an idea of the sheer numbers of nighthawks and their insect prey at this location. Both common and lesser nighthawks are present in varying numbers.

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