For the Birds Radio Program: Nighthawk monitoring

Original Air Date: Aug. 18, 1999 (estimated date)

This year nighthawk migration will be monitored from coast to coast.

Audio missing


(Year and month are pretty certain)

Every August, nighthawks wend their way toward Brazil and other points way south. We might go weeks or months without seeing one, and suddenly one afternoon they’re everywhere, darting and through the sky above backyards and soccer fields, their slender, pointed wings fluttering and forming a deep ‘V’ as they glide, the white crescent moon near each wingtip accentuating these delicate limbs. I’ve cared for many nighthawks over the years when I was rehabilitating wild birds, and seen first hand how delicate their 2 3/4-ounce bodies are. It never ceases to amaze me that such fragile birds can migrate such enormous distances twice a year.

Many birders believe that nighthawks are declining in most areas of the country, but there is little hard data to support them. The Breeding Bird Survey, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doesn’t show much change at all, but that survey focuses on songbirds, counting early in the morning when nighthawks aren’t particularly conspicuous.

A bunch of birders who subscribe to the National Bird Chat on the internet were all decrying the decline of nighthawks and wondering why no one has ever monitored their migration numbers. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a baseline from when we all perceived them being more plentiful, but you have to start somewhere. So several of us decided to just dive in and start counting nighthawks for the two hours before sunset the last two weeks of August. I’m counting from the Lakewood Pumping Station, up the shore a ways from Duluth, just past Lakewood Road on Highway 61. There’s a good view from there—we can see both the shoreline and a long ways inland, and this has been a traditional spot for counting birds for many years. The first day it was raining, and I figured it wouldn’t be too smart to sit up on the wall with lightning even if nighthawks were flying, which they weren’t. The second day was beautiful. Hundreds of swallows winged past—no matter what direction I scanned, there were always at least dozens in view. I heard a baby raccoon a few times and finally figured out that it was under a grate right behind me, but it stayed out of sight. A couple of kingbirds, a flicker, and a lot of Cedar Waxwings flew by. But nighthawks weren’t among them. As far as my actual reason for being there was concerned, it was a bust.

That’s okay. Nighthawks will migrate when they’re good and ready, and for once someone will be there to monitor it. It will be many years before we get enough information to detect trends in nighthawk populations with this data, and none of us are getting any money for doing it. But I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend a summer’s evening than watching swallows winging by on a summer’s breeze as the sun sinks lower and lower in the trees. The sunset made me think of Scarlett O’Hara standing out with her father at day’s end, and reminded me that there will be plenty of other chances to observe the nighthawk migration this year. After all, tomorrow is another day.