On warm summer days growing up in the Northeast, the start of evening was announced each night by the nasal “buzz” call of the common nighthawk. It felt as if the birds were letting the sun know it was now time to set and were also warning children they’d soon be called indoors.
There are no nighthawks in the part of California I’ve lived in for 20 years, so when I heard them again in Colorado last week, the sound evoked the visceral sense of youthful summertime, of a day of play ending and moonlight and stars beginning. I looked for the nighthawks in the sky, as I would as a child, flying with their crescent-shaped white-striped wings. Their day of activity had just begun.
During the two nights we camped at Joyful Journey Hot Springs near Crestone, the nighthawks would start to call about 5:30 or 6:00pm. I tried to photograph them in flight hunting insects, but they were too fast, too high, too acrobatic to capture. In all these years, I had never seen a nighthawk at rest. I knew that they roost during the day like owls, either on the ground or in trees. It seems their patterned plumage which imitates gravel, leaf litter and bark, camouflages them too effectively to see.
As we prepared to leave the hot springs, I happened to glance up into a small bare dead tree. I was amazed to see a nighthawk hugging a branch lengthwise, quite still and absorbed in something like sleep. After looking farther, I found four more in the row of several bare trees. Nighthawks are generally solitary, but will form “loose colonies.” One bird per tree seemed to qualify as some kind of association, but definitely a loose one, where they allowed each other a lot of space to rest peacefully.
By the way, nighthawks are not hawks and not even closely related, as you can probably tell by their appearance. They are part of the nightjar family, a unique group of birds. You’ll notice that they have a tiny beak (with whiskers) but in actuality they have a huge mouth to catch their prey in flight.
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