by Tim Truscott
I don’t consider myself to be a “birder”, as I lack the knowledge to be one. However, over 50 years ago my Second Grade teacher, Mrs. Mary Lawler, instilled in me an appreciation for birds by means of her frequent lessons on birds, using prints of the famous and fantastically-colored Audubon bird illustrations.
One bird that has caught my interest in recent years has been the Nighhawk. Like many things in life, I didn’t fully appreciate them until they weren’t around anymore. During the summer months, I would often sit on my stoop in the evening in downtown Albany and hear (as well as see) the Nighthawks flying at an altitude somewhat above the streetlights, grabbing insects out of the air for their evening meal. The shrill sound of the Nighthawks was distinctive and provided a counterpoint to the crickets as a reminder that nature is still active after dark.
Nighthawks are not really hawks (not raptors, anyway) and are only the approximate size of a Robin (six inches long or perhaps a little more). They have long, pointed wings and a forked tail. Their feathers are fairly non-distinctive in coloration (which helps them blend into the appearance of tree bark), though they have some white stripes on their wings and tail. They are most active in their insect-catching activity at dusk and at dawn.
One thing about Nighthawks that I have found to be fascinating is their migratory activity: They’re migratory, all right… All the way to South America each winter. Now that’s quite a hike!
As I said, I didn’t fully appreciate them. However, a year or two ago I realized that the Nighhawks were no longer around downtown Albany (I also noticed that we had a lot more mosquitoes in the neighborhood than we had ten or 20 years ago). This was very disturbing to me. It was also very perplexing. So I went on-line to learn more about Nighthawks and to see if I could figure out why they were no longer residing in Albany.
In New Hampshire, the Audubon Society has undertaken a statewide research initiative aimed at conserving and bringing back the Nighthawk, a threatened bird species in that state (http://www.newhampshireaudubon.org/detail.php?entry_id=36).
Until the 20th Century, Nighthawks nested on the ground, naturally nesting in open areas such as gravel beaches, burned-over areas, and cultivated fields. As building construction technology advanced to the point where many commercial and industrial buildings were built with bituminous asphalt roofs covered with peastone, nighthawks began nesting on the peastone, safe from ground predators and in locations where there were plenty of insects (everything from mosquitoes to large moths) attracted by streetlights. The nighthawks thrived in this environment for decades, naturally helping to control the insect populations of our urban areas. At the same time, the birds’ natural ground nesting habitat time habitat was lost to development and forest regeneration. So rooftops became their primary nesting habitat.
Building construction technology has once again advanced, this time replacing the peastone-covered asphalt roofs with neoprene rubber and PVC materials, i.e. no peastone employed. The result is that there is no natural rooftop nesting place for nighthawks.
In 2007, New Hampshire Audubon initiated Project Nighthawk to look at the potential for restoring nesting nighthawks. Nighthawks could still be found in a few towns, including Keene and Concord, but their numbers had diminished. The organization placed simple gravel “nest patches” on flat rooftops in these two towns. Researchers thought that, if the absence of nesting sites is a factor in Nighthawk decline, perhaps the artificial gravel nesting sites would encourage the birds to return. If there were other factors, such as pesticides, new predation or migration hazards, the rooftop experimental gravel nesting patches would not help the birds’ return.
It may be several years before we know the answer.
Meanwhile, I was quite excited on the evening of the Fourth of July when I saw what I am fairly certain was a Nighthawk in the vicinity of the Empire State Plaza, zipping around the sky as Nighthawks do. I hope they weren’t scared away from downtown Albany by the fireworks, which began a few minutes after I saw the bird.
Published in July/August Newsletter 2010