Bird of the moment: Nighthawk

Nighthawk atop the chicken coop.

You’ve probably seen this unassuming bird with a quirky way of sitting

Nighthawks are everywhere in the high desert right now. They are a curious little bird in that they are more akin to a robin in size than a hawk. However, if you see them in action, you’ll see where the name comes from.

Li’l E and I were out in the garden. We looked up and there were 20 or 30 swooping and diving in the sky above us. Their tell-tale white stripes stood out from below with their wings making a wicked arc against the bright blue sky.

If you glance at the trees you’ll miss the them, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see them sitting quietly parallel to the tree branch. There coloring blends in with the wood. I’ve counted as many as five in one tree. They look like they’re sleeping but they are ever alert, and if you step too near, they’ll fly.

Habitat: They are found all over North America in open country such as forest clearings, prairies and farmland. They can also be found in cities and suburbs.

Feeding: They eat flying insects including beetles, moths and grasshoppers, which they catch in mid-flight.

Young: Both parents care for the young, which can fly around 21 days old.

Nesting: Apparently the male courtship is something to see. According to the Audubon Society, “his wingbeats become even more stiff and choppy as he circles and hovers high in the air, calling repeatedly; then he goes into a steep dive, with a rushing or ‘booming’ sound made by air passing through wing feathers at bottom of dive. Landing near female, he spreads his tail, rocks back and forth, and calls.” I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed that, but with the sheer number of them here, it’s only a matter of time and my attention span.

Conservation status: Also according to the Audubon Society, nighthawk numbers are seriously declining in many places because of changes in land use and overuse of pesticides. This is disheartening. Nighthawks are amazing to watch whether they are swooping through the sky or quietly sitting on a tree branch. I find them fascinating and a true symbol of summer out here in the high desert.

A nighthawk sits on a tree branch high up in the air with the brilliant blue sky as a backdrop.


This one looks like it’s half asleep, but it’s getting ready to fly away momentarily.


I had a heck of a time capturing them in flight. They move quickly, but I had a couple of frames turn out.


One in flight and one not.


They camouflage with the trees very well.


This is where I usually notice them: on old fence posts.

Bird of the moment: Yellow-headed blackbird

Our patch of desert paradise is a super highway for migratory birds. You can pretty much tell the season from the kind of birds you see. Snow geese pass through by the thousands in the spring. Red-wing black birds and tanagers brighten up the landscape as well. Night hawks are abundant in the summer as well as great blue herons and snowy white egrets. Our year-round residents include ducks, coots, grebes and owls.

Each spring, our town celebrates with the annual migratory bird festival, which boasts tours, an art show and dinner with keynote speaker. Birders come from all over to see the great variety of water fowl that we have a front row seat to each spring.

So I thought I’d highlight some of our winged visitors with “bird of the moment” posts.

First up:

Yellow-headed blackbird
The yellow-headed blackbirds have arrived.

Name: Yellow-headed blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

Notable physical features: Bright yellow head (obviously)

Call: According to the Audubon Field Guide “it may have the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping.” I wouldn’t go that far, but its call isn’t exactly melodic.

Behavior: These birds are aggressive. They might be the bullies of the bird world, ganging up to overwhelm bird feeders and scaring off other birds with flapping and squawking. To put a more positive spin on it, when they want something, they go after it.

Habitat: They seem to like the tules and cattails in our creek, and I often seem them perched in the tules, their yellow heads standing out in the brown landscape.

Nesting and young: They nest in marshes in colonies, with males staking out territory and defending it. A male can have as many as 5 mates. The nest is built by the female, who lays 3 to 5 eggs. Both parents feed the nestlings, and the young leave the nest in 9 to 12 days.

The yellow-headed blackbird is definitely a harbinger of spring around here, and I always look forward to the arrival of these pushy, striking birds full of personality.

What birds herald the onset of spring in your area? Let me know in the comments.

A yellow-headed blackbird cuts a striking figure among the tules.