Every spring, birders gather around old fields and meadows to listen to the pzeent! of the American Woodcock. This display marks the beginning of spring--the ground has thawed and birds are ready to breed. Some nature groups even lead walks specifically for listening to the spring display of the woodcock. However, many of this birders do not give notice that there is a bird that goes "pzeent" in the fall, long after the springtime woodcocks have become silent. These are the calls of the goatsuckers. The nighthawks.
While nighthawks are not actually hawks (and no, they don't actually suck milk from goats as myths have portrayed), they do resemble buoyant falcons--bouncing through the humid air on pointed wings. Flocks gather over buggy fields as soon as the goldenrod begins to bloom in August, catching insects on the wing.
Just the other day I saw my first flock of fall. One short of a dozen, the group had convened over a nearby field, soaring and diving to catch the bounty of midges high above the ground. Competing with swallows and darners, the nighthawks spent almost twenty minutes feasting before moving down the ridge.
Nighthawks, some of the most impressive aerialists of the bird world, often go unnoticed as they zip over meadows, parking lots, and almost anywhere with insects that lies along their southbound route. Unnoticed, yes. But woodcocks would be too if we made no effort to search. While woodcocks are harbingers of spring for some, nighthawks fill this role for me in the fall. The warm, muggy nights are coming to an end, soon to be replaced with more pleasant days filled with sun and cool breezes. Plus, I find watching swooping and diving acrobats to be far more exciting than listening into the darkness for a call from a sneaky sandpiper sitting still in some soggy sedges.
I'm not saying that those goofy, disproportionate timberdoodles aren't fun... just don't forget to take a moment to listen to what else goes "pzeent" in the night.