Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Dan Streiffert
One of the most easily seen bird species at Malheur Refuge each summer is also one of our oddest: the uncommonly distinctive common nighthawk.
Vaguely falcon-shaped with long, tapered wings, common nighthawks wheeling over lakes and marshes are a regular sight in summer and fall at Malheur Refuge.
These birds belong to the Caprimulgidae family, also known as nightjars or “goatsuckers”, from the long-held belief that these wide-mouthed birds fed from goat udders.
In reality, common nighthawks and other nightjars are expert insectivores, capturing and consuming flying insects on the wing. If insects are plentiful, common nighthawks may hunt at all hours of the day.
“The flight of feeding or courting nighthawks is good reason to stand in an open spot at Malheur, your binoculars to your eyes and your mouth agape in wonder, and observe these aerialists at their daily work,” wrote Harry Fuller in Edge of Awe: Experiences of the Malheur-Steens Country. “Their flight has variously been described as bouncy, buoyant, jerky, moth-like.”
Most nightjars are nocturnal or crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. During the day, nightjars often roost on tree limbs, fences, or other perches, relying on their phenomenal camouflage to avoid predation.
Common nighthawks nest on the ground, scarcely bothering to build a nest. The female typically lays just two eggs and hides them with her cryptic plumage while incubating; she will remain perfectly still with her brood to avoid detection, even as potential predators pass close by.
With the onset of fall, these acrobatic insectivores embark on a long-distance journey to wintering grounds in southern South America.