Although their numbers are reported to be decreasing, especially in urban areas, Common Nighthawks (CONI) can be found in breeding season throughout much of the U.S. Among all states, CO comes in 6th, with 4.3% of the breeding population. Both words of their common name—and both syllables of the 2nd word of their name—are misnomers. They are far less common than they once were. They forage primarily at dusk and dawn (not at night) and they are in no way related to hawks (except that they are both birds). CONIs are the last breeding species to arrive in our area in the summer—usually after Memorial Day. Once we begin to hear those twilight and pre-dawn “peents” and strange “booms” (caused by the wind rushing through their tail feathers at the bottom of a mating display dive), the beginning of the end of summer is upon us. No more new breeders will be arriving.
We had a funny introduction to CONIs when we first bought the Coaldale property in 1994. We camped on the property a number of times that summer. The very first time, we were a bit nervous about it all, not being very seasoned campers of any sort. But Zell built a lovely twilight campfire and we all gathered around it, experiencing the fall of night. Suddenly, we heard a bizarre explosive noise from a ways away. We froze. What was that? A bear? A mountain lion? Sasquatch? The Loch Ness monster? We tried to logically consider all of the options, but we were too new to CO and to this specific area to be able to figure it out. We heard that sound for what seemed like forever that evening; sleep came slowly that night. And dang—that roar was back in the morning. But we were all unharmed in the morning and the dogs hadn’t seemed too disturbed. So we just let it roll around in our brains.
I had been listening to an audiotape of night sounds in my car, just to learn more about the various aspects of CO. (I had already pretty much memorized my “Birding by Ear—Western edition” tapes by then.) I was able to identify some of the sounds we had been hearing—pine sawyers chomping on wood, raccoons making various sounds, Great Horned Owl nestlings screeching for food. And suddenly, that unmistakable roar was issuing forth from my radio—our “monsters” had been CONIs in their mating display. Man, did we have a lot to learn about our new area!
The summer we were atlasing for the Breeding Bird Atlas, I had an interesting daylight encounter with a CONI. I was checking boxes on our nest box trail. At the top of one of our ridges, I stopped at a bench to give Pax (the dog) some water. Suddenly, swooping up over the ridge came a CONI—coming straight at us. Pax dove under a bush (courage is not his strong suit) and I just watched with my mouth agape. This bird circled my head—probably only about 6 feet above me—3 times and then zoomed off to the west. As I tried to figure out what this was all about, it zoomed in again from the west, circled my head a couple more times and zoomed off to the east this time. Whatever was going on, I decided the bird was not happy about our being there. So I whistled Pax in from the safety of the bush and we dropped down off the ridge. Checking with our ornithologist friend, he confirmed what I had been thinking—that “attack” was a distraction display by the CONI to lead us away from a nest that was probably somewhere on that ridge. The following week, I searched high and low but never found any eggs. (They apparently look amazingly like the rocks of the local area and are laid on bare ground near the trunk of a tree.) And I never encountered that bird again. A vicious hail storm had come up during the week; I wondered if perhaps the hail had destroyed the eggs.
Last year, when I was walking the dogs on one particular trail in the early evenings, I noticed that we often flushed a CONI. Hoping for another nest, I searched and searched. Again, I never found one. But Zell was able to snatch a couple of photos of that bird where it was probably roosting routinely. The camouflage of these birds is something to behold. Could it possibly look more like the ground? Hard to imagine.
© 2009 Tina Mitchell