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The invisible bird in plain sight – Common Nighthawk

When I bird, I nearly always am by myself. Birding is my zen time, my time to forget about all the worries of the day. It’s my time to get away from cell phones, other electronics, and yeah…I admit it…people. The last two weeks notwithstanding (I’ve done a LOT of birding during that time), normally I don’t get out all that often, and its a way for me to decompress and have some time alone. My behavior when birding also is most conducive to birding alone. For example, when I saw a very large group of Black Terns dipping and diving over Grass Lake the other night, I did what I OFTEN do…I stayed an entire hour with them. Part of it is the photography side of my hobby. Patience is the greatest attribute you can have in bird photography, and shooting a bird that flies in an erratic pattern certainly taxes that patience. But rather than trying for a few minutes, getting frustrated, and leaving…I kept at it, watching their patterns as they’d circle around for another pass along the shoreline, noting that the strong wind often put them in a near hover mode, and eventually getting quite a few nice photos.

However, I do realize there are advantages to birding in a group that I generally miss out on. This weekend the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) held their spring meeting in Brandon. On Saturday I ran into SDOU birders twice at Perry Nature Area near Sioux Falls, and joined them for a couple of hours that afternoon. Given the incredible warbler migration on Saturday, I knew I wanted to try Newton Hills State Park Sunday morning, and after birding for an hour or so, I ran into another SDOU group of birders. As I got out and greeting them, a young, very enthusiastic (and very good!) birder in the group (Peter) immediately pointed upward to the branch of a nearby tree…Common Nighthawk! Just sitting there on a horizontal branch, apparently not giving a damn about all the birders just 10 yards away.

There’s no way in hell I would have seen that bird if I’d have been birding alone. Even the group of SDOU birders said they were moving around that spot for quite some time before someone noticed it.

I greatly enjoyed the weekend, both my time birding alone, and my time with the SDOU crowd. The tradeoffs between both styles of birding…when birding alone, I ran into more Black-billed Cuckoos than I ever had in one spot, and was able to spend quite a bit of time with them and get some good photos. I didn’t get any really good photos while birding with the crowd, but I definitely saw more birds! When you have 6-8 pairs of binoculars trained on different spots, it DEFINITELY is helpful during spring migration, when little warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other birds are often flitting about in the treetops.

Over the years, my birding style has definitely changed. I’ve been birding for 20 years now, and I’d say that for the first 15 years, I was laser-focused on the photography side of things. It seems nuts for me to say this now, but…I didn’t even OWN a pair of binoculars until 5 years ago!! All those little warblers flitting about in the tree tops? They didn’t interest me, as I knew there was no way in hell I’d ever get a photo of them! But I’ve evolved from a photographer who birds, into a birder who also takes photographs. Over the last few years, some of my favorite birding memories don’t involve the camera, but times where I’ve just sat in one spot and watched some rare or interesting bird, often for an hour or more.

My very unusual (for me!) time spent actually (GASP!) birding with other people this weekend was nice…perhaps it’s just another step as I transition from a “photography first” to “birding first” mentality.

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor
Common Nighthawk from May 19th, 2019 at Newton Hills State Park. A gray, gloomy, cold morning. A grayish mottled bird sitting completely still on a grayish mottled branch…a camouflaged bird, sitting in plain sight!

Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

Nemesis conquered – Common Nighthawk

Friday I took the day off and went to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.  Again.  Funny how this is working out…work gets more and more depressing as budget news gets worse and worse (for any project that DARES have the word “climate” involved in any way…kiss of death in this environment). As and work gets more and more depressing, I find myself taking more and more days off and going out to try to forget.  At this pace, I’ll soon just skip pretending and just retire.  Sure, I’m not nearly old enough to retire yet, and can’t afford it, but isn’t my sanity more important than being able to afford things like food, shelter, health care, etc.?

My purpose on the Grasslands was two-fold Friday” 1) continue trying to satisfy the rockhounding bug that’s infected my very soul in recent weeks, and 2) try like heck to get a photo of all the Common Nighthawks we’ve seen while exploring the area.  Common Nighthawks aren’t exactly a rare sight (hence the word “common” in their name?).  I see them all the time in the summer months. Heck, I see them while sitting on my back deck!  No, seeing them isn’t the problem.  PHOTOGRAPHING them is the problem. Around here in eastern South Dakota, you never see them roosting out in the open.  When you see them, they’re in flight.  Have you tried taking a photo of a Common Nighthawk in flight?  They are very “bat-like” in the air, dipping and darting in very unpredictable, chaotic flights.  I’ve tried…and failed…many times to get a photo of them in flight, including those that sometimes grace the air around my house.

In the Grasslands, you certainly see them in flight as well, but what I was really hoping for was to catch one on the ground, or on a daytime roost on a fence post (a kind of photo you often see of them).  Given how many we’ve seen out there, and given there’s ONLY a bunch of open space for them to perch, I thought my odds might be better!  My first chance would have been perfect, and would have been the only shots of Common Nighthawks I would ever need. I was walking far from the car, headed back, when I (literally) stumbled across a lone Nighthawk, sitting on the ground 10 feet in front of me.  It looked up and casually took off, circling me and scolding me.  There on the ground…it had uncovered two tiny, ping-pong ball-sized fluffballs…two cute little babies, right in front of me!

Perfect opportunity…so where are the photos?  Well, the REASON I was headed back to the car is because of a poor weather forecast. “Sunny with occasional clouds”, the meteorologists said.  That forecast was hard to reconcile with the rain pouring down upon me as I raced back to the car.  My main thought at the time…keep the camera gear dry!! There was no way I was going to try to get any photo in that rain, and I also hated leaving those two little fluffballs exposed to the elements. I moved on as quickly as I can, turned around after a bit, and saw the parent had returned.  All was not lost on the Nighthawk front, however!  Later that day, I did indeed come across a Common Nighthawk using one of the fence poles as a daytime roost.  NEMESIS conquered!!  For finally getting a photo of a “common” bird, it felt awfully good!

Common Nighthawk - Chordeiles minor

Nemesis conquered! A lone Common Nighthawk, sleeping atop a fence pole on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in South Dakota.

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