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Looking at a Nighthawk

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I'm running again, have been since late June, doinky arthritic toe and all. It's fine. It hurts sometimes when there's a big weather front coming in. I'm careful not to stand on tippytoes, wear flip flops, roll it under or push off on it too hard. You do what you must. I'm almost pathetically grateful to be able to run at all, and never a morning comes that I fail to count my blessings.

Some blessings are a little odd. This one made me very sad. It's the height of common nighthawk migration (early September) in southeast Ohio. And I was so, so sad to find one car-hit, head bowed, in the gravel of my beloved road as I chugged along. This is the position it was in when I found it. Almost didn't see it, but there was a bird where there had been no bird before. 

Still of the nighthawk
Merciless chunk of metal
Bird angel struck down

Come, look at this miracle with me. The most interesting roadkill yet on my running route. After two years, the count is three American toads, a black rat snake (get your tissues out for the post about that one); an immature American robin, a female box turtle (waaay too sad to blog about), and a big male opossum (also too sad). 

 I see right away that it's an immature bird, because it's got reddish flammulation running all through its facial plumage. And the throat patch, which would be bright white on an adult male, is buffy, too. Probably a young female born this year on a city rooftop somewhere.

Nighthawks lay two white eggs on gravel or sand, and most now nest on flat gravel rooftops--they're relatively free of predators but for the occasional rat, I'd expect. 

I'm fascinated by its enormous gape. The better for snagging dragonflies, moths and June bugs.

The last thing a giant silkmoth sees.

She's got no rictal bristles to speak of, which is an interesting factoid about nighthawks. The closely related whip-poor-wills and chuck-will's-widows (all caprimulgids like the nighthawk) have giant rictal bristles coming out like whiskers. Go figure. Still thinking about that discrepancy.

Such gorgeous liquid eyes. When I found her they were perfect and rigor mortis had yet to set in. I think she'd been killed within a couple hours of my finding her, probably in the pre-dawn "rush hour" on my country road.

I hadn't noticed these cool white headlights on the leading edge of the wing, but I mean to look for them on the next migrating flock that floats over.
How about that herringbone underwing covert action?

Ahh. The pectinate (comblike) middle toenail. Used in preening. And you can see a filoplume hanging off it. So poignant, to think of her running through her feathers with her toes perhaps just before she fluttered into a truck grille. Well, as you can see, her tiny hooked bill isn't much good for preening. So she has a comb on her toe. I would so love to see how a nighthawk uses its pectinate nail.

I have often thought it would be handy to have a built-in hairbrush somewhere on a digit.

The right wing. Those white slashes are diagnostic for common nighthawk.

Were this an adult male, it would have white slashes in the tail, too. 

Beautiful underwing. In flight, common nighthawks look like drunken terns, zigging and zagging side to side up and down in pursuit of erratic insect prey. Or just because flying a straight line bores them.

I know the feeling.

So into the freezer with a date and place label she'll go, and thence to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, whose Zickefoose specimen collection is well over 100. I'd much rather be looking up at her than down. But she will not go to waste.


Thanks to this post, she has certainly not gone to waste. That pectinate nail is amazing!

I shouldn't have said the white wing slashes are diagnostic for common nighthawk, because lesser nighthawks have them too. I meant that they're useful to tell it from any other largeish pointed-winged bird flying overhead.

That's the height of Science Chimpitude -- to feel bereft at finding a dead critter, then embrace a chance to examine it, and marvel at its beauty and functionality.

That reminds me; I really need to get those window strikes out of the freezer.

I am sad about the nighthawk, but I learned so much about this fascinating bird. Thank you.

So sad, I usually take photos of dead birds that I find too-- Wow! on the pectinate nail! I never knew.....

*these captcha codes are killing my aging eyes on the comments id

I almost didn't read this post because I didn't want to be sad, but I'm glad that I did because I, too, learned a lot. And to know that it isn't going to waste helps - a lot.

Well, our nighthawks still breed on the ground in the desert sand (AZ). Thanks for posting the pectinate toe, I had read about it, but never seen it.

Since childhood this bird has wowed me. Glad to finely know why. Not a straight line in the flock.

Cool! am so used to seeing Nighthawks high up, never thought about them as likely roadkill.
And didn't about that middle toe appendage either; there must be some teenage girls that would drool over that accessory!

My morning run count of the deceased was one male western box turtle and one diamond backed water snake. Painful to count the daily carnage.

Hi Julie:

I didn't know about the pectinate claw in nighthawks, have seen it in egrets. Any other bird have this? I saw a pair of nighthawks flying in a kettle of other birds one bright morning, like giant swallows against the glare of the sky.

Thanks for sharing!


WOW--a eulogy and an avian lecture all in one. Thanks--for caring, for being knowledgeable, for conveying that knowledge to all of us who faithfully read you.
I am mourning all cruelty to animals that we human inflict--intentionally or not--having read a sad sad story on today's NY Time about elephant slaughter. It's hard to bounce back from such a dreadful story.

Oh, Science Chimp. It is so sad to see these kills (I've seen a Yellow-shafted Flicker and a Great Horned Owl), but thanks for giving us the chance to study the bird up close. So beautiful.

Wonderful and informative post. I love all the details you show us on this poor bird. I often try to learn as much as I can from birds too unlucky from traffic before burying them, but if there is a way to donate them to local museums, that would be even more useful. I will look into that. thanks again for the great post.

This is oddly one of the best blog posts I've ever read. The lovely nighthawk did certainly not go to waste. I need a toe that has a buil in comb. Thanks for this post.

Oh and forgive me because this seems like completely the wrong post to be asking this....

But did I see a certain black and white Chet Baker posted at dog-shame? Outed for licking the table cloth? Too funny.

wow! wow! wow! Awesome post!!! I think you need to come teach my classes...and I'm making them read your post tomorrow!!!

Joni James from Bearing Witness--
Thanks for sharing and giving us an up close view. Amazingly beautiful bird! I was in awe of the pectinate toe on this species. Have seen them on other birds but not one that "notched"!

Sad but informative.

What a terrific piece, a classic Julie! I've only seen one nighthawk, and I recognized it from its odd profile. The only thing I knew about them was they appeared to have their heads screwed on funny. They remind me of halibuts. In all likelihood they don't remind anyone else of halibuts.

I'm a new commenter, but have been reading your blog for years. Nighthawks are my favorite bird. When they fly close to lights, their white wing patches really reflect the light, they look like they're glowing! Thanks for the informative post and close up look at these wonderful birds.

Nighthawks have long been one of my favorite birds and having moved away from Ohio more than a dozen years ago I truly miss their plaintive peent peent echoing out of the darkness.
So sorry for our buddy struck grateful he/she was honored in the way that you can do...the comb/pectinate is just one more example of how nature knows what she's up to...
Thanks for all you bring.

Wow, this is so amazing! I've never seen a nighthawk not in flight and this is such a fabulous look at it. I had no idea they had a little toe comb! Such beautiful coloration and an eye like polished onyx. I'm glad you shared this little girl with us so we could participate in ohhing and awing at her.

never heard of a pectinate before let alone seen one. facinating. thank you for your detailed account.

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