Friday, December 4, 2009

A New Record

A new Kentucky birding record has been set at the landfill! Records are kept for migrating birds concerning the earliest date they are seen in spring and the latest they are seen in the fall. Most birds fly north or south during a short period of time, usually in April and May in spring and September and October in the fall. However, sometimes there are stragglers, birds that hatched late, or newly recovered injured birds that take a little longer to leave for their wintering grounds. It was one of these late birds that was observed December 1st at the landfill, a Common Nighthawk. Most nighthawks migrate south between August and October, sometimes together in flocks. It is impossible to say why this bird was around so late, but whatever its reason for staying, it better fly south fast to avoid this cold winter blast.

The most distinguishing characteristic of Common Nighthawks are the broad white bands across the wings. They have a very bat-like flight that makes them stand out from other birds. They belong to the group of birds known as "goatsuckers", named for the old myth that they suckled milk from goats. Goatsuckers are also known as nightjars and are in the family Caprimulgidae along with other birds such as the Whip-or-will, Chuck-will's-widow, and the Oilbird of South America. Most of these birds are ground nesting birds and are extremely well camofluged with cryptic coloration, making them difficult to see to predators.

Nighthawks are most often seen at dusk as they forage for areal insects. If you hear a nasally "peent" noise coming from above on a summer evening, look up and you will likely see a nighthawk. The males also have a peculiar display where they dive at high speed toward the ground and when they are a few feet of the ground they quickly pull up, their wings emitting a loud booming sound. They will perform this feat to impress females but also to ward off intruders including people. They have adapted to nesting on the roofs of big box stores and I have personally seen them many times foraging for insects above the parking lot of Wal-Mart and other stores. They certainly are interesting birds made even more so by this late visit to the landfill in KY.


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