Species Spotlight: Common Nighthawk

Get to know some of the species at risk in the Lac Deschênes IBA with the “Species Spotlight”, aka “Sp-Spot”. Today meet the: Common Nighthawk

The master of camouflage at work
Photo by nickdryz

Scientific Name: Chordeiles minor
SARA Status: Threatened; Ontario: Threatened; Quebec: Likely to be designated
Taxonomic Group: Birds
Size: Medium-sized bird, 21-25cm long

The Common Nighthawk is a master of camouflage. Its dark brown and speckled plumage makes it almost invisible when perched on the ground. The chicks are also incredibly well camouflaged on the bare ground, which is lucky because the Common Nighthawk lays its eggs right on the ground without building a nest.

Common Nighthawks nests in rocky openings in forests, exposed mineral soils and gravel ridges.  The exposed granites along the Eardley escarpment of Gatineau Park provides excellent habitat for this species.  Nighthawks used to be a common in many Canadian cities as they ‘adapted’ to urban environments by nesting on the tops of factories and other buildings.  In recent years the sharp decline of this species is most notable in cities where it is rarely observed.   From mid-May to early June, the best time to see a Common Nighthawk is around dusk or dawn when they are flying in loops, hunting insects, their only source of food.  They spend the day roosting.  A Common Nighthawk is distinguished by its long, narrow, pointed wings with a distinctive white stripe near the tip and a slightly notched tail.
In the spring, perhaps the best way to recognize the species is to listen for its call. Nighthawks make sharp “peents” in flight sometimes followed by a strange booming sound that is part of their courtship ritual.

Photo by Celeste Ramsay

Another time to observe nighthawks is from mid-August to early September, when individuals or groups of dozens can be seen sometime an hour or two before sunset migrating along the Ottawa River, or the edge of Gatineau park, for example.

Where else can you see this species?
Common Nighthawks are widespread throughout Canada in the summer but travel all the way to South America to spend the winter.

Did You Know?
• Nighthawks are part of a group of birds called ‘aerial insectivores’ which includes swifts, swallows, nightjars (including Whippoorwill), and flycatchers.  This group of species, which has the shared behavior of capturing food in flight, was flagged in the recent State of Canada’s Birds Report 2012 as a significant conservation concern as the overall population decline for the group over the past 40 years is greater than 60%. Common Nighthawk populations have declined by about 50% in the past 10 years alone.
• The booming sound made by Common Nighthawks is made by wind rushing through their feathers as they dive.
• The males and females look almost exactly the same, except the males have a white throat and the females a buff coloured throat.
• Since Common Nighthawks eat insects, factors that impact insect populations and timing of hatches including pesticides and global warming are considered major threats to this species and others that share the same habit of feeding exclusively on flying insects.

Check back every week to read about a different species at risk that can be found in Lac Deschênes.

You can report sightings of this and other rare species on the MNR Natural Heritage Information Centre website. A photo and a location are very helpful!

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