Are we seeing a return of the nighthawks?

Nighthawks often perform quite a show in the summer, dive bombing to show off their flight skills to their mates. (Courtesy photo)

Nighthawks often perform quite a show in the summer, dive bombing to show off their flight skills to their mates. (Courtesy photo)

By BRIAN ALLEN
Guest Columnist

Thanks to Ella Bierd for reminding me to get this article out! Just the other day I had a text from Linda Scribner that she was seeing the most nighthawks she had seen in years.

The nighthawks were silently gliding south over the Manistee National Forest near Skocelas Road on their way south to South America. Nighthawks are not really hawks. They do not have sharp flesh-tearing beaks or razor-sharp talons. They are relatives of Whip-poor-wills, and feed on the wing catching moths and large insects during the evenings and nights of the summer.

You may have been fortunate to have seen and/or heard nighthawks when they were common in the past even in city centers. As recently as 10 years ago they nested on rooftops in downtown Manistee and their falcon-like profiles could be seen winging over the Vogue Theatre or along the then new Riverwalk, underlit by the glow of the city lights. A few years ago several were seen in June near Dontz Road and US-31, hunting the grasslands meadows north of the casino. They apparently disappeared with only one seen this year after the meadows were converted to corn fields.

Nighthawks have recently been spotted in the Manistee area. (Courtesy photo)

Nighthawks have recently been spotted in the Manistee area. (Courtesy photo)

I have heard of a few other reports recently like Linda’s of larger numbers in migration and one spectacular count up in the U.P. near Menominee of hundreds and possibly even a thousand seen in the last week of August.

It seems that nighthawks must be doing well in the Upper Penninsula or in Canada but why the decline here and in southern Michigan?

When I was in high school nighthawks were one of the birds that really got me interested in bird watching. In college at Michigan State, they were one of the easiest to see unique birds that I could count on to show people that would get their interest. They would do quite a show in the summer, dive bombing to show off their flight skills to their mates. This year there were no reports from the Michigan State campus or in my hometown of Ionia.

What is the cause of the disappearance of the birds in Michigan? One clue is mentioned above with the change in the fields from a grassland (lots of different plants, moths and insects) to corn (very little variety of moths or insects). Additionally many fields now are radically different than they were just a few decades ago.

One of the culprits is Spotted Knapweed and another is Autumn Olive. These invasive alien plants have spread across the state and have taken the place of native plants. The nighthawks have adapted over thousands of years to feed on the moths in all their varieties that hatch from the caterpillars from native plants.

Alien plants do not provide food for all of these important insects that feed nighthawks (and also swallows and swifts) and ornithologists that study birds are finding that this is causing a steep decline in many birds species. Another change implicated in causing fewer flying nighttime insects is the spread of bright mercury, sodium-vapor and LED lighting over the landscape. These lights pull in moths and keep them from feeding, eventually killing them.

Linda’s sighting and the other sightings this fall give hope that nighthawks will continue to survive in the wilds of the north where there are still meadows and marshes filled with native plants and no city lights to disturb their prey.

Hopefully we will continue to be able to see them high overhead on warm days in late May as they return from the tropics and call out to one another on their way north as they have for thousands of years.

Brian Allen has been watching birds and doing bird research for over 40 years. Readers can contact him at manisteebirder@gmail.com for more information or to send questions that could be answered in a column.

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