“The nighthawk has no claim as a singer, but nevertheless its notes are of great interest and attract fully as much attention as the voices of our more gifted songsters.”
So wrote Alfred Otto Gross regarding the sounds of the Common Nighthawk that he wrote for Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds in 1940. I couldn’t agree more. From the more familiar (yet no less interesting) “peent” calls and “wing booms,” to its froglike croaks and groans, to “rattles,” and more, the sounds of the Common Nighthawk have my attention for certain.
The Common Nighthawk is an insectivore that catches insects on the wing. It’s nasal “peent” calls and “wing booms” — all part of a courtship display — are also made on the wing and feature aerial acrobatics at twilight and dawn. The booms are made by the male’s wings as he pushes air through the primary feathers while diving! Many a summer camper at Schoodic Woods Campground have been treated to the sights and sounds of the Common Nighthawk’s spectacular shows.
The short clip below is from a recording captured atop a granite ledge on Schoodic Head at 4am, June 12, 2017. Be sure to listen for the “wing boom” at the end of the clip!
The bald rock outcrop I recorded from that morning was about 400+ feet above sea level on Schoodic Head — a nice little seaside mountain on Schoodic Peninsula. I had gone to the site with the intent of recording the dawn chorus but most species were too far for a good recording. To my delight, however, the bald granite spot where I chose to sit placed me eye-to-eye a couple times with a Common Nighthawk engaged in peenting, diving and booming.
Several days later, on June 15, 2017, I returned to the site, again a little before 4am. Within seconds of my arrival, I recorded three Common Nighthawks flying in a very fast and tight flight formation, one after the other, while peenting and more importantly “rattling” as they flew over and past me (at one point as close as 10 ft above me). I wondered if the high speed chase had to do with my presence, or if I was irrelevant, but the sounds were incredible! As I watched them diving downward over the granite ledge I also realized that it could simply have been the perfect place to swiftly drop down 50 feet while twisting & turning in chase. Here is a short clip of the sound.
As it turns out the recording of the “rattling” sounds is rare, at best. In fact, as of 2017 when I last listened to all the Common Nighthawks recordings in the Macaulay Library, there were no other recordings like it. The only description of such a sound that I could find in literature was by Alfred Otto Gross who transliterates a sound he often heard while males were engaged in territorial chases. He wrote, “Dick-a-dick-a-dick-dick-dick-dick-dick,” and noted that the the female will sometimes participate in the territorial chase as well. Seems a promising match to my recording.
On the third occasion of recording Common Nighthawks at this location in June 2017, I set up my microphone on a tripod to stand unattended. My intent was to keep back from where I had encountered the nighthawks in the past. I tucked myself in close to the base of a tree, as I did not want to be visible to the birds if/when they flew near the mountain’s bald ledge. Apparently, I was so well hidden (perhaps aided by the unintended camouflage provided by my mosquito netting), that 10 minutes into recording a few series of peents and wing booms, a pair of Common Nighthawks landed on the bare granite rock 15-20 feet away from me, made frog-like guttural calls, and copulated before my eyes! A short clip follows.
My interest in the sounds of the Common Nighthawk has only grown since June 2017. The rattle call in particular is an area of ongoing research for me — in literature and in the field. In late Spring this year, we will be using autonomous recording units in hopes of collecting additional “rattle” calls — without a human presence. This is obviously good for the birds, but also for me. Otherwise I leave my cabin at 3am to drive, and then rock scramble up and over a little coastal mountain in the dark to hit the record button at 3:45am.).
Unfortunately, Common Nighthawks, and other birds in the nightjar family, like Whip-poor-wills, are in decline. We are lucky to still be able to see and hear nighthawks on the Schoodic Peninsula, but with world wide bird declines, as well as a decline in insect populations, plus Climate Change, that may not always be the case. You may enjoy learning more about nighthawks in this recent blog post “Booming Bullbats: afield with the Common Nighthawk” by Logan Parker. Better yet, consider volunteering to do a survey route for the Maine Nightjar Monitoring Project. I did last summer, even with a full plate from our own project, because it’s THAT important to know more about Maine’s nightjars.
The full recordings for the clips featured above can be found by following the links below to the Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We upload and share all our recordings there.