Northland Nature: Nighthawks migrate in late August
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we get into late August, the changes of the season speed up somewhat. As we approach 14 hours of daylight, down from the 15 at the month’s beginning, we note a later sunrise, earlier sunset. Mornings are cool with dew and fog quite common. (I find this is an excellent time to observe the abundance of spider webs in the region.) But days can still be warm. Plenty of late summer is happening.
In addition to spiders at this time, we also see myriad grasshoppers and their larger cousins, the locusts. Predatory dragonflies — small meadowhawks and large darners, along with thin damselflies — are active now. This is also the time of late summer when we see the roadside trio of sunflowers, goldenrods and asters. Chokecherries and blackberries are ripe and among a few shrubs and small trees, we may see some leaf color already appearing. And it is a time of migration for monarch butterflies and several kinds of birds.
We tend to think of autumn migration as being confined to September and October. But among many birds, it began before this and is happening now. Tree swallows and shorebirds (sandpipers, etc.) seem to set the pace with movements towards the south already in July.
Among the swallows, it began as family units lined up in staging areas like trees, but also utility wires, until they get restless and move on. Shorebirds gather at edges of lakes to feed as they begin to go.
During August, this trend continues as the warblers — resident families that mix with others — pass through our woods and yards forming groups called warbler waves. These waves can get rather large and with several species, they head to the south. In true warbler styles, they are quick and without spring plumage or songs, may be hard to recognize.
Raptor flight over Hawk Ridge is also happening during the latter days of August. Beginning rather slowly, without the big numbers as seen in September, the hawks fly over. Sharp-shinned hawks are early ones, but they may be joined by turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, ospreys and maybe eagles. Not the same as some flocks of raptors, but flocking migrants can also be seen now with the nighthawks.
Though going by the suffix of “hawk,” these insect-eating birds are not hawks. Without either talons or hooked beaks, they use wide mouths to catch insects in mid-air flights. Instead of being raptors, nighthawks belong to a group known as nightjars — cousins of the well-known whip-poor-wills, more common south of here.
The birds are about 10 inches long, mostly gray-brown with thin white bands below, white under the beak and white on the tail. But as they pass over, it is the white bars toward the tips of the pointed wings that helps in recognizing them. Sometimes, even during migration, they give a nasal “peent” call.
Nighthawks breed throughout our region and are usually alone during this time. They do not really build a nest — instead placing their eggs right on the ground, rocks or tops of buildings. Young grow up quickly and soon take wing to join adults in feeding. And during migration, they can form flocks that may number in the hundreds. Feeding like other insect-catching birds, they go through dives and turns while maneuvering for meals.
August migrants are usually seen in late afternoon and evening in feeding flocks. Such active flocks are worth us stopping and watching. These flights do not last long and by September, most are farther south. Late August is the best time to see this aerial display.