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By Jim Wright
Special To The Record
They are the phantoms of the twilight, slender athletic birds the size of bluejays.
With white chevrons on their long pointed wings, they almost resemble miniature airplanes – until they flap erratically in search of airborne insects. Then they resemble giant bats.
They are common nighthawks, and they could be coming to a patch of sky near you any evening now. They are typically seen in North Jersey during migration – in mid-May and from mid-August to September.
Some of these birds have already passed through on their way from South America to breeding grounds to the north, including an early bird that was spotted over the Celery Farm in Allendale last week. A year ago, a flock of 75 was seen above Lake Henry in Mahwah, and smaller flocks were reported in Clifton and Wyckoff in late summer 2008.
Sightings of roosting nighthawks in North Jersey are far more rare. There aren’t that many of these birds passing through to begin with, and their gray, brown and black feathers allow them to blend in with tree branches and gravel – one of their favorite perching and nesting locations.
For instance, a nighthawk was reported roosting for several days on a sycamore branch over the Ramapo River by Halifax Road in Mahwah last May, but I never found it. They’re like owls in that way -- even if you know where to look, you may not see them.
The world of ornithology is notorious for naming birds ineptly, but whoever came up with the name for the common nighthawk just make take the cake.
The common nighthawk mostly flies at sun-up and sundown, not at night. And it isn’t a hawk. It’s a goatsucker -- which is a misnomer as well. But life’s too short to go into that.
Alas, the common nighthawk is also not as common as it used to be. “Breeding Bird Survey numbers suggest that populations have declined significantly since the mid-Sixties throughout Canada and the United States, including the Garden State,” says Kristin Mylecraine of the New Jersey Audubon Society.
According to Mylecraine, a research project coordinator for Audubon who has supervised citizen-science studies on nighthawks for the past two years, the likely causes for the decline include the usual suspects, pesticides and habitat loss. But, she says, there’s a surprising twist as well.
“In New Jersey, breeding nighthawks are uncommon, nesting mostly in open pine woods and on flat, gravel rooftops in cities and towns,” she says. “But some researchers believe that the trend away from old-fashioned gravel roofs to smooth rubberized roofs has likely made matters worse.”
Why should readers care that nigh hawk numbers are declining? [Kristin, can you answer this here?]
If you see a common nighthawk, or want more information about the citizen-scientist nighthawk survey (which also includes whip-poor-wills and chuck-will’s widows), please e-mail Mylecraine at kristin.mylecraine (at) njaudubon.org.
For more on the national study on nighthawks and their allies, go to www.ccb-wm.org/nightjars.htm.