For the Birds Radio Program: Magical Time with the Nighthawks
Last week I was in the Perkins parking lot on London Road in Duluth with my good friend Chris when we noticed a couple of nighthawks flying in the night sky hawking for moths illuminated by the light shining on the big American flag. They darted about, weaving in and out of the light beam, their long, graceful wings held in a deep ‘V,’ then fluttering daintily, arcing back, and fluttering again, the white crescent moon wing markings winking at us. The birds managed to evade the waving flag even as insects they chased were swept into the rippling fabric. It was fun seeing large moths gleaming white in the light, and guessing which one a nighthawk would chase next.
Chris is a pretty new birder, with a lifelist of about a hundred, and he’d never before seen nighthawks in flight, so we decided to go back to my place to get binoculars to watch them more closely. It was a lovely night, moonlight brightening the still water of Lake Superior, tattered clouds breaking up whole constellations into a random spangling of stars. When we returned with the binoculars, the nighthawks were still there, darting and weaving through the air. Through the field glasses we could see the male’s white throat and tail markings and the more uniform pattern of the female, and could actually see them taking insects. The gibbous moon looked beautiful through binoculars, and at one point when Chris was gazing at the moon one of the nighthawks suddenly zipped in and snarfed down a moth right in his view. We were utterly captivated with their graceful aerial maneuvers.
We don’t usually associate nighthawks with water since they can’t swim and their diet is restricted to flying insects, but these birds eat moths and emergent aquatic insects, such as mayflies, dragonflies, and mosquitoes, which means that their survival depends on the quality of lakes, rivers, and streams. The parking lot was close to the lake, with bright lights to draw in enough insects to support to birds, and maybe even a family of four or five. But overall there are nowhere near as many of these emergent insects as there used to be. When I was a girl, sometimes bridges had to be closed for days when mayflies were emerging because once they’d mated and died, so many of their spent bodies collected on bridges, sometimes inches thick, that snow plows had to remove them. Now, between pesticides and draining wetlands, those days are over and the birds that depended on these huge quantities of insects during their migration and nesting periods have dwindled as well.
Now nighthawks that were once abundant in cities as well as the country, nesting both on flat-roofed buildings and on bare ground, are often hard to find. I don’t see nearly as many as I did in the 70s. The National Audubon Society has blue-listed them, meaning they put them on a list of the birds most likely to become endangered or threatened soon if something isn’t done to help them. Any time I see them I feel a special thrill, and sharing the moment with a friend made this encounter especially magic. life isn’t always joyful or even pleasant, but every now and then we’re graced with a beautiful moment that redeems a host of hard times. And almost any evening in the company of nighthawks winging through a starry sky provides a sweet memory that can stay with us forever.