Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gazing in wonder at nighthawks!

John Schoenherr's drawing of nighthawks
from the book Rascal

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
Over our lifetimes, a few moments of a few days stand out with such amazing clarity that we can look back, decades later, with vivid memories. I had a lot of these moments when I was a new birder, but even now, 36 years after I started, I have an occasional experience with birds so splendid that it sears itself into my very soul. And last night I had one of those exceptional, glorious, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

I went up to Hawk Ridge at 6 pm sharp for orientation with Julie O’Connor and a group of new volunteers. As I got there, Karl Bardon, the raptor counter, was just packing up for the day. He told me he’d been seeing 3–4,000 nighthawks wandering back and forth along the shore. Orientation was already starting, so I headed over to join the others. And when we started scanning the skies, voila! A huge but loose collection of nighthawks numbering at least 500 and maybe closer to a thousand was straight out from us, wending its way up rather than down the shore. Julie was getting everyone used to Hawk Ridge’s style of showing people how to use binoculars and how to locate birds in the sky, and these nighthawks made the lesson fun.

Juvenile Common Nighthawk

Then we went up to the counter’s elevated perch. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings sat in one of the bare trees just a few feet away—one was so intent on snapping up a small moth that it flew right above the head of one of the volunteers.

Cedar Waxwing

And a hummingbird flew right up to a volunteer’s waistline to examine the muted red stripes on his belt. These fun experiences with some of Hawk Ridge’s characteristic August avifauna were already making the evening memorable.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

But then, those nighthawks that had been down by the shore started working their way up the hill. And suddenly we were surrounded! There were nighthawks everywhere—darting this way and that all around us, some coming just inches from our faces as they bounced about the skies in a pre-migration pig out. Their graceful wings sliced through the air at such close range that the white crescents near the tips glowed in the early evening sun. At such close range the white throats on the adult males stood out like beacons. I stood there transfixed, drinking in details like the capacious mouth when a bird took aim and flew straight into a flying insect.
The birds didn’t seem to be going anywhere—I could keep a single one in my field of view as it circled and veered and rose and fell in the sky for 30 seconds or more, until my attention veered to another at half the distance. A few had very short tails. These were juveniles who maybe had a late start but were holding their own with the grownups. Even when there were at least a hundred within a 10-yard radius around us, each one flying its own erratic path, there wasn’t a single collision.

Juvenile Common Nighthawk

Twenty-one years ago, on August 26, 1990, Mike Hendrickson counted 43,690 nighthawks in 2 ½ hours up the shore from Duluth. I’ve had nights counting nighthawks by the tens of thousands through my neighborhood. Now their biggest flights are more likely to number in the dozens or hundreds as their troubling decline has been steady and significant. This flight was an order of magnitude less than the biggest flights of the past. But not one of the evenings when I was counting thousands decades ago holds a candle to my being right in the midst of so many birds. This was an experience I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.