Common Nighthawks at Malheur

After spending an hour or so trying to capture shots of Black Terns in flight I took up a similar challenge as I drove along the creek running through Malhuer. I noticed a long-winged bird repeatedly diving in front of me into the creek bed. I had no idea what it was, motivation enough to spend an hour trying to capture shots of it. At that point I would have sworn I had never seen this bird before (and I had never seen it in flight), but I found out later I had taken pictures of the bird resting a few years ago.

I thought it been difficult to get shots of the Black Terns; I was soon to find out how much harder it was to get shots of this bird. First, the bird seemed to be the fastest bird I’ve ever tried to take pictures of on the move (I still haven’t been able to find any information on exactly how fast it does fly.) The speed of the bird and the lack of contrast with the background made in nearly impossible to focus on the bird in time to get a shot.

Usually the best chance for a shot is as the bird comes toward you, but these birds were obviously built for aerodynamics and the wings and torso were both quite thin, making it nearly impossible to focus on it, and not the background.

Common Nighthawk Common Nighthawk

It wasn’t until the birds changed their flight pattern, though, that I was able to get a good enough shot to identify it. Instead of just flying back and forth up and down the creek, the bird suddenly started flying right past me, circling. At the time, I was pretty sure they just wanted to tantalize or make fun of me, but I suspect that is sheer human ego projecting its self-importance. The change in pattern did give me a better chance of getting a good shot.

First, the bird contrasted enough with the sky that my camera actually had a chance to separate it from the background. More importantly, the bird slowed down as it made its turn to fly back. That turning point was the best chance of getting a decent shot, and I got two, this one

Common Nighthawk

and this one.

Common Nighthawk

Either of them would have allowed me to make a positive identification, but the second shot gives a better indication of just how long and narrow those wings are.

Later in the campground, a young birder was able to tell me what it was from my description of the bird, particularly the distinctive white wing bars. And once I got a chance to look a these shots I could confirm that it was, indeed, a Common Nighthawk, though there’s nothing particularly common about them.

I had gotten pictures of them a year earlier at the Narrows Campground, but it is still hard for me to figure out how this bird can fold its long wings into such a compact profile while on the ground.

Common Nighthawk

The time spent trying to capture a shot of this bird and identifying it would have made my week-long trip worthwhile if nothing else had occurred. I’m constantly amazed by the birds I see while birding, particularly in places away from home.

One thought on “Common Nighthawks at Malheur

  1. Google says: The birds have been observed to converge on artificial light sources in an effort to forage for insects enticed by the light. The average flight speed of Common Nighthawks is 23.4 kilometers per hour.

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