By: Tom McDonald of Smiling Dog Landscapes
Nightjars are nocturnal, insect eating birds that are so well camouflaged they are all but invisible unless they move. Many of you will be familiar with a Nightjar called the Whip-or-will whose cry is like it name. Let me introduce you to its Arizona cousin, the Chordeiles acutipennis, aka the lesser Nighthawk. Not a hawk at all, the Nighthawk is active only from dusk to dawn, gliding just above the desert scrub silently hunting moths and other flying insects. You may know them as goat suckers from the myth that these birds would suckle on a goat at night causing the goat to go dry and sometimes blind.
My first introduction to this graceful bird was a few years ago as I was ending a day of hiking just at dusk on the ridge above the Hieroglyphic trailhead. A pair of nighthawks seemed to be dancing a slow waltz as they soundlessly weaved to and fro just a few feet above the treetops in the valley below. As they grew closer, I became aware of a trilling call, reminiscent of the sound of the Jetsons flying car….very space age sounding. It was that call that enabled me to pin down the identity of this particular bird from other night hunting birds found in our area.
The lesser nighthawk is generally greyish brown mottled with black. Its long wings are black and show a light bar in flight. The beak is very small yet their mouth is quite large, so much so that the young, when startled, will open their mouths wide in a threat display making them appear larger than they actually are. The female makes no nest but lays her eggs directly on the ground and will roll them into the shade if the sun gets too hot.
Their antics are fun to watch, but because of its nocturnal habits, you may have difficulty spotting a nightjar, so here’s a tip. I have seen as many as eight nightjars flying corkscrew patterns around Gold Canyon’s only street light at the intersection of Kings Ranch Road and Baseline, feeding on the insects drawn to the light. So next time you are driving or walking at dusk in that area be sure to look up and listen for the sound of the Jetsons flitting by!