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Living Sanibel: Common nighthawk

By Staff | May 27, 2015

Known for its incessant frog-like call while flying high above the canopy at dusk, the common nighthawk is a more common summer visitor than it is during the cooler and far less insect-rich months of the year. When the light is still sufficiently bright to watch this bird, it can be readily identified by the two distinctive white markings on the underside of both wings.

The nighthawk, just like the chuck-will’s-widow and the whip-poor-will, is almost exclusively an insect eater. Its mouth opens extraordinarily wide during feeding, and its aerial acrobatics are designed to glean insects continually from the air. It dines on beetles, flies, moths, dragonflies, and a host of other airborne bugs.

Another fascinating behavior of this insectivore occurs during late May and early June over the islands when the male begins its courtship behavior. It flies several hundred yards into the air, then commences a steep dive. Just six or seven feet from the ground the bird pulls out of the dive and as he flexes his wings downward, the air rushing through his wingtips makes a deep whirring noise, similar to the sound of a large rubber band being plucked. These dives are directed primarily at the female, but the male nighthawk has also been known to direct his dive at young nighthawks, intruders, and even people.

The common nighthawk is experiencing a decline in population throughout parts of its range, while adapting to outside lighting and using flat, gravel-topped roofs in other parts. It is not a threatened or endangered species, however, and the IUCN, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has it as a species of least concern. It is a solitary nester and generally monogamous.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.