Monday, August 4, 2008

A Sky Full of Nighthawks

(Nighthawk photo by Gus 8-4-08; 70-300mm lens)
click on any photo to enlarge for a beter view

Click on the highlighted link to read the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Birdscope article about the decline of Common Nighthawks titled, Common Nighthawks Not so Common Anymore.

I’ve had enough of staying inside and avoiding the heat. I need to get out of the house. I need to go birding! But where can we go that is close by and cooler than the 100 plus temperatures we have been experiencing the pas t few days? A consultation with my Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona book yields a couple of possibilities. We decide to drive to Scotia and Sunnyside Canyons down Rt. 83, the Sonoita Highway to Parker Canyon Lake. The elevation is higher there, and I hope for cooler temperatures and a new adventure. As Gus makes sandwiches and we fill the coolers with lots of things to drink, I fill my head with visions of Buff-breasted flycatchers, Greater peewees, Sulfur-bellied flycatchers and Elegant Trogons. It is close to 11 by the time we get on the road.

(Rosemont Valley photo by 8-3-08; 18-70mm lens)

A puffy cloud sky hangs over us as we head south on the Sonoita highway. We leave the Sonoran desert behind us as we drive up over the pass near Rosemont junction, the location of the proposed mine. Once on the other side of the pass the land opens to a savannah-like grassland and I can’t stop exclaiming to Gus how green everything looks. All the trees are thick with new growth. Huge flower spikes rise from agaves. Wildflowers bloom along the edges of the road.

(Sonoita Inn photo by Kathie 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 18-70mm lens)

The road winds up and down and curves around before leveling off as we roll into Sonoita. We stop at the convenience store to use the restroom and buy a couple of snacks. Gas here in Sonoita is always close to $.50 a gallon more than in Tucson, which is 30 mile away. We are glad we filled up the gas tank yesterday. The Sonoita Inn sits at the east edge of the parking lot, a watcher of this crossroads. I get back in the car and we continue south on Rt. 83. From here on out its all new territory for both of us.

(Elgin vineyards photo by kathie 8-3-08, Nikon D80, 18-70mm lens)

We drive through more waving grasses lush from the Monsoon rain. Horses and cattle graze in fenced pastures along both sides of the road. Soon the land starts to buckle into rolling hills. Houses nestle into the hillsides as we gain elevation with each dip and hill. We cross the first of many washes, all with at least a damp skim of water still lying across the road. Soon I spot a vineyard on a particularly high plain and Gus pulls over for me to take some pictures. All around me the blue sky is popping with billowy clouds.

(danaus gilippus photo by Kathie 8-3-08 Nikon D80, 18-70mm lens)

The green grass and red earth provide an interesting contrast. I step out of the car to find a monarch butterfly warming itself on the ground near a puddle. Its orange wings and black body is dotted with white spots. In the vineyard I hear all kinds of birds squawking and chattering and twittering away, but they are hidden in the grapevines and I can’t find a one to identify through my binoculars.

( Rt. 83 in Elgin photo by Kathie 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 18-70 mm lens)

The road takes a 90 degree turn just a mile or less up ahead. It is the first of many 90 degree turns on this road.I get back in the car and we travel on.

(Horses photo by kathie 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 18-70mm lens)

Soon green rolling hills give way to oak and juniper hills. Deep ravines now drop off on either side of us. We pass a sign informing us that we have entered the Coronado National Forest. I see a herd of horses grazing along a dirt road that juts off to the right. Gus pulls in and crosses the cattle guard so I can take a picture. The horses continue to graze with foals at their side, unconcerned by our presence. Once Gus turns the car around I hand the camera to him and he is the photographer for the rest of this trip.

(Sky full of Nighthawks photo by Gus 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 70-300mm lens)

We take yet another dog-leg turn and pass the road that goes to the east gate of Fort Huachuca, a military base in Sierra Vista and the location of yet another birding hotspot on my list of places to visit. Garden Canyon can only be accessed from the Fort. According to Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona you have to provide identification and get a pass to bird at this location. But we continue south and as we come up over a rise I see some kind of birds diving and swirling in a large gathering over this plateau. While we have been seeing birds all along the edges of the road as we’ve traveled, the road has been too narrow and winding with no shoulders for us to pull off and observe what we are seeing. Here the road is relatively straight for ¼ mile or so and the pavement is bordered by grassy shoulders and gravel patches. Gus pulls over on the northbound side and we exit the vehicle. My mouth drops open for I cannot believe what I am seeing.

l. Lesser Nighthawk

2. Lesser highthawk

3. Lesser Nighthawk?

(All Nighthawk photos taken by Gus with the 70-300mm lens set in sports mode.)

Above us the sky is whirling with nighthawks. Though it is close to 2 pm. I count at least 35 to 40 birds whirling and diving in the sky. I train my binoculars on them while Gus gets out the camera and starts to shoot. I wonder if I am seeing lesser nighthawks-more common here in AZ, or Common nighthawks, less common but still present here in the southeast corner of the state. The Common Nighthawk is larger with a more pronounced bend to its wing. White bars cross the wing closer to the bend on the Common and closer to the tip on the Lesser. The Common is supposed to have a more forked tail while the Lesser has a white tail band in the males. Both species are more active at night or dawn and dusk, but both can be seen during the day. The Lesser is supposed to be solitary, the Common can form loose flocks when foraging or migrating (Sibley).

4. Lesser or common?

(5. Lesser Nighthawk)

(6.Common Nighthawk?)

Well, these birds are flying in the middle of the afternoon is a large, loose flock foraging low over brushland. Some have pointed wings, some have straighter wings. Some have a white band on the tips of their tails, others do not. Some birds call out with a buzzy “pzeent” (Kaufman) or “BEEEzrh” (Sibley) while other birds are silent. I never hear anything like the “rapid, tremulous trill” described in National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America or other bird guides which is how the voice of the Lesser Nighthawk is described. Perhaps I am seeing both.

7. Lesser nighthawk

At the moment I am mesmerized by this whirling flock. Birds dart from all direction. They fly low ever our heads, so close we can hear their wind in their wings. It’s hard to choose a bird to focus on since the flight is so rapid and erratic and their flight paths keep crossing one another. With my mouth open as I stand gaping at the sky I must look like I am trying to catch insects along with the birds. I soon feel the dryness of leaving it open for so long and shut my mouth using only my eyes to look and wonder. Soon the flock moves loosely northward and Gus puts down the camera while I put down my bins.

8. Lesser Nighthawk

“You want a sandwich,” Gus asks? We decide to eat right there on the side of the road. Before we leave the birds make one last foray overhead before disappearing for good. As we continue southward towards our destination we are watching dark clouds gather beyond the mountain ridge. We cross several more washes before reaching a series of switchbacks that lead us up towards Parker Canyon Lake and Forest Rd. 48 which will take us to Sunnyside and Scotia canyons. As we are ascending this final bit of pavement a long stream of cars and campers is heading north down the hill. Just as we reach the top the lightning flashes over head and we hear the roll of thunder in its wake. It’s time to give it up and head back out of the mountains before we are trapped by flooding washes and have to spend the night in our vehicle in the Huachuca mountains.

(Parker Canyon Lake photo by Gus 8-3-08; Nikon D80, 70-300mm lens)

Gus turns around at the Lake View parking lot of Parker Canyon Lake and jumps out to snap a few hasty photos. I spot a Cassin’s kingbird in a tree down slope from where we are parked. Turkey vultures tilt overhead as we jump back in the car. The temperature gauge that is built into our vehicle’s electronics reads 72 degrees. It falls to 70 at one point as we race down the mountainside. We splash through the low flowing water of washes, grateful that is has not risen yet. With the temperature so cool, we have the windows open as well as the sky roof above us. Fresh air pours in and the wind whips our hair every which way. I can see the dark cloud in the rear side mirror. Sometimes I see a lightning strike. I feel as if I am in a dream, or as if I am simultaneously watching a movie and participating in it. Gray light changes to sunlight as we outrun the storm. The temperature rises rapidly once we have passed Sonoita. About 15 miles from home we roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning once again, but as we drive up the road to Sycamore Canyon a dark cloud looms behind Mt. Fagan. It will be night before the rains reach us, but they do, and when I let the dog out during the night the steamy smell of damp desert is carried in on a breath of air.

Credits: Many thanks to the Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America for information used in this blog post.

So, what's your guess about the nighthawks? I'd appreciate opinions and info in trying to decide just what I was seeing today. The birds with the straighter wings and white tail bands are field marks of lesser nighthawks. The bent wings, more strongly barred breasts, and group foraging suggest the Common nighthawk, along with the vocalizations I heard. I've numbered the photos to make commenting easier. I think the top photo may be a Common Nighthawk. Please add your comments below.


John Theberge said...

Fantastic shots of the hawks. The camera I use is the Canon 40D and I do use a macro lens, it's the Sigma 180mm macro. I've been doing macro photography for years and it's definitaly my favorite type of photography.

kjpweb said...

Pretty cool - never saw one! According to my Fieldguide they are all Lesser Nighthawks (white patch near the wingtips).
Seems like a very nice area!
Cheers, Klaus

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

KAthy I love nighthawks and have never been able to catch a photo of one. Yours are wonderful.

Amy said...

Wow! I've never seen a nighthawk, so those photos are really neat. They look like they're very good at aerial acrobatics. Wonderful!

Pappy said...

They are fun to watch. Thanks for taking us along. Pappy

DeniseinVA said...

I am only just learning about the birding world, thanks to blogs like yours. These photos of your road trip are wonderful and I now know what a nighthawk looks like. Thanks so much.

Doug Taron said...

Beautiful photo of the monarch. Except-- it's not a monarch. It's a close relative called the queen (Danaus gilippus). I was right in that area on Sunday. I'm back in Chicago now.

Kathie Brown said...

John, Macro is definately Gus' forte. He needs a macro lens. Thanks for the info.

klaus, I have seen both kinds and we have the Lessers here in Sycamore Canyon. The flight of both birds is different. Our Lesser's have a more erratic, moth-like flight. Supposedly Common's have "a bounding flight". I am still thinking this could have been a mixed flock, but I am not sure yet. Thanks for the input though.

Lynne, Common nighthwaks used to be common in the north and northeast but habitat loss, pesticde spraying and the switch from gravel roofs on buildings to rubberized roofs are theorized to have caused a great delcine in their numbers. I am going to add a link to an excellent article about this subject if you are interested.

Amy, it's sad that you have not seen one. They should be common in your area. (see comment to Lynne above.)

Denise, well, I am glad you have an interest. There' a birding blog from Enland called The Fenlandwalker. Roy's link is in my sidebar if you are interested. Thank you for visiting my blog.

Ah, Doug! I knew you'd come to my rescue! You can see I am trying! Thanks for straightening this out for me! I've already corrected it. I did go to Bug Guide and this was the best I could do. What's the difference? I did notice they both have spotted bodies and similar wing patterns and colors.

bobbie said...

The nighthawk pictures are really spectacular. I've never seen this bird. Gorgeous!

Kathie Brown said...

Well bobbie, after all the fits we had with capturing a photo earlier this year, we've now had a couple of excellent opportunities! I love them. They are so interesting and different.

Deborah Godin said...

I love the sound of a nighthawk. They are one of my favorite things to recall from childhood summer nights, along with crickets and fireflies. Thanks for such wonderful detailed shots!

Anonymous said...

Not that long ago, we had Common Nighthawks here and I used to watch them almost every day. They slept or stayed in the spouting of the large barn which is next door. Over the years the barn had been used to store and sell fertilizer and so much fertilizer has pellets in it as a kind of filler. Some of that along with the actual fertilizer would fall onto the tin roof and roll into the spouting or gutters. (Large gutters). Any fertilizer among the pellets would dissolve and wash away leaving only round, smooth, pellets. The Night Hawks loved it.

They would take off in the mornings and evenings and fly up and down. I always said they flew for the love of flying.

These were the Common Nighthawks. I think somewhat larger. And they flew up like going up a hill and when they reached the height they wanted, they would turn and dive and down they came, straight as a stick, and then they would somehow allow their wings or feathers on their wings to flutter and a loud noise that made.

And almost instantly they would turn and fly back up. I assume they were catching insects either going up or coming down. You could also hear them talking to each other while this was going on.

I remember working outside on some shrubs and just listening to them go through this routine. At the time I thought the world was in good shape.

But now, I can't remember the last time I saw or heard a nighthawk. I never used to see crows or hear them but I hear them now and some have landed and ate in my backyard. It is almost like my world has been turned upside down.

Doug Taron said...

There are two easy differences between them. On the hindwings, monarchs only have white spots within the marginal (edge) black band. Queens also have white spots in the interior of the hindwings. The ground (background) color of monarchs is much more orange than queens, which are more of a mahogany color.

Kathie Brown said...

Deborah, you can thank Gus for the shots and I thank you for sharing your memories with us!

Abe, that's quite a memory that you have. Did you read the article I linked to at the top? It expalins why you may not be seeing nighthwaks anymore, which is a shame. I have come to love them. I would see Commons in Utah while I see more Lessers here but I am starting to be able to distinguish the 2. I did send an email off to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. One of their experts there took a look at my photos and said he believes they are Common Nighthawks. The area I was in has an overlap of their territories. Plus, last night when I saw the Lessers flying around overhead I realized just how different their flight was. I think this was a large flock of migrating Common Nighthawks. Apparently they have already started to migrate according to the lab. I would love to hear that sound you describe. You have such a wonderful recollection of it!

Doug, once again I thank you for the info. You are always such a gracious help to me.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I'm in the wrong part of the world to be able to help with id, but they're beautiful birds, the white in the wings is so striking and it must have been amazing to see so many of them...

Larry said...

I'm not giving opinions but I love the nighthawk photos.-Last year was my first look at one during daylight.-before that i've only seen them at night time and thought they were bats at first.