THURSTON'S BIRDS

Nighthawks and Swifts

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There are two species of migratory, insect-eating birds that I look up to, mainly because they are only seen when flying in the sky above me. The legs and feet of both species are weak and used primarily for clinging to rest or nest sites. Most bird watchers have never seen these species on the ground.

The Common Nighthawk is the larger of the two, and as its name implies, it is active at night and superficially resembles a small hawk. Common Nighthawks are often seen out hunting in the evening twilight. They are gray with some brown tones, with a lighter belly, but their most distinctive markers are their long pointed wings with very noticeable white patches. They migrate to our area from Central and South America, arriving in late June.

They fly and glide with a distinctive flight pattern, seeking insects, their only food. You might see and hear them in any open area or woodlands. I’ve seen them regularly flying over Black Lake, for instance. As they fly, they issue a distinctive vocalization that is sometimes written as “awk!” I recommend listening to the sounds found on the Merlin app and online at allaboutbirds.org. Once you see and hear this bird, its distinctive flight and call will stick in your memory.

The male Common Nighthawk has an interesting territorial and courtship display. He will fly up, then dive toward the ground at high speed. At the last second, he turns away, and the wind rushing through his wings causes a distinctive booming sound.

Nighthawks nest individually, laying one to three eggs on bare ground or sometimes on raised locations, including flat gravel rooftops.

Nighthawks are members of a bird family with an eccentric name – Goatsuckers and Nightjars. These are birds that have small bills with very large mouths and are often seen flying in over fields. It’s a wild stretch to imagine that they might suckle from goats; they are far more likely to be interested in the insects stirred up by field animals. The Nightjar name is said to come from their jarring vocalizations.

Swifts

Swifts are aerial insect feeders and species are found around the world. The one seen regularly in our area is the Vaux’s Swift. Its body is small, about the size of a swallow, and its wings are long. It is grayish with buffy breast and belly and seems to have no tail. Some people say it looks like a flying cigar.

Swifts are sometimes seen in the company of swallows. You can tell the two apart by the swifts’ distinctive flight pattern. They flap their wings “swiftly” and change direction often. If you watch the small loose flocks of feeding swallows, you likely will soon notice that some of them are “different.” Those are likely swifts and if you see one, you’ll see several as they like to hang out together.  

Vaux’s Swifts are closely related to the Chimney Swift of Eastern North America and share nesting habits. The word chimney gives you the clue. These birds are colonial nesters, which means a whole flock will create a nesting colony. A flock occupies a single cavity, a large hollow tree or a chimney. They build small nests inside the cavity, sticking the nest material to the vertical surface with saliva. I know of one chimney nest location in Pierce County and there must be others in our area.

After hunting all day, the flock returns to the nesting site in the evening. Typically, it will circle the nest site for several minutes and then suddenly all will drop into the chimney. Migratory flocks behave similarly and years ago, there was a chimney in Olympia’s South Capitol neighborhood that hosted a migratory flock of several hundred swifts. It was quite a sight, seeing that flock spiraling into the chimney in the late evening.

George Walter is environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.

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  • FirstOtter

    I used to see swifts often, flying over Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, but they've been missing for many years. I suspect it's loss of habitat and nesting areas. The nighthawks, though, are still here, I enjoy watching their courtship. As you say, they fly high. The male (I assume) will flutter his wings two or three times, then dive and at the low point of his dive you'll hear the "vooom!" When I attended Evergreen, there was a nesting nighthawk on the flat roofed section of the main building. Plate glass windows overlooked the graveled roof. I saw a female nighthawk on her nest. A crow paced up and down the ledge, he KNEW she was somewhere there and wanted her eggs- but she held very still and he never did see her. I banged on the window to chase him off.

    Friday, July 29 Report this

  • Annierae

    Fascinating birds. On our first dusky sighting of nighthawks at Black Lake, we thought we were seeing giant bats. They move similarly, which is quite a feat given their larger mass.

    Saturday, July 30 Report this