Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
"Peent! Peent!"  Here comes the common Nighthawk

Today’s blog was written by former Discovery Leader at Kettle Lakes Provincial Park and current Discovery Senior Birder and Ranger at Rondeau Provincial Park, Sarah Wiebe.

Meet the common Nighthawk.

This peculiar nightjar (medium-sized nightbird) lives in Ontario during the summer months and can be seen throughout the province, including cities and provincial parks.

They are part of a group of birds called aerial insectivores, meaning they catch their insect prey while flying.

These aerial acrobats help farmers and communities by eating pesky insects.

You may be familiar with other aerial insectivores such as swallows, flycatchers, swifts, and other whippoorwills such as the ill-willed whippoor.

Have you seen a common Nighthawk?

Unlike what their name suggests, common Nighthawks are not most active at night! They prefer to hunt when insects are most abundant.

These birds enjoy a good sunrise and sunset.

They are most active 30 minutes before and after sunset, and from an hour before to 15 minutes after sunrise.

Despite having small beaks, Nighthawks can open their mouths wide to catch their prey. The bristly lining of the mouth also helps trap insects.

canoe at sunset

You can recognize the Common Nighthawk most easily by its call and the shape of its wings. I heard a sharp sound”subtle, subtle” call.

The males make a rumbling noise with their wings as they launch themselves into the air. They can also flap their wings when predators get too close.

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Apps like Merlin Bird ID can help you learn the calls of common Nighthawks.

Common Nighthawk in dive

Did you know that common Nighthawks are excellent travelers? They spend the winter in warmer places such as Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. They return to nest in Ontario, including parks like Kettle Lakes.

Keep an eye out for its boomerang-shaped wings while visiting a park on a summer afternoon. When they fly, they look a bit like a hawk flying, but in reality, they are not hawks at all!

For those outside of natural areas, you may still see a Common Nighthawk. They like to stop in big cities like Toronto before reaching their nesting site.

Common Nighthawks Aren’t So “Common” Anymore

Unfortunately, aerial insectivores are the rapidly declining group of birds in Canada (according to the 2019 “State of Canada’s Birds” report).

The Common Nighthawk is a species of special concern in Ontario and listed as threatened in Canada.

Habitat loss, urban land use, excessive use of pesticides, and climate change are influencing the decline of these species.

Common Nighthawk nesting

Throughout its range, it is estimated that this species has declined by more than 50% in the last 40 years.

To monitor the Common Nighthawk, park staff and park visitors participate in community science projects such as the Canadian Nightjar Survey.

During the summer months, Kettle Lakes ecologists spend time listening to nighthawks in the park to learn more about how this at-risk species is faring.

Wondering how you Can you help regular Nighthawks?

This is the seventh edition of our 2023 Species at Risk series.

Read our previous edition: Dinosaurs in the Parks: Sturgeon Lake