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The aerial acrobatics of these birds were an impressive sight at Camas National Wildlife refuge, and here’s why

Living the Wild Life

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Photos: Bill Schiess |

The aerial assault was all over the big pond at Camas National Wildlife Refuge as flying insects were being gobbled up. About 40 common nighthawks, aka “Boom Bats,” resembled fighter planes over Germany and France during World War II as all flying insects had no defense for the agile birds. The “booming” is not caused by explosions, but by the air rushing through the bird’s wings as they dive near the water for food.

The large flock of nighthawks have invaded Camas NWR due to the warm weather warming the ponds, which has created a perfect place for flying insects, including mosquitoes, to hatch. These clouds of flying insects are a great school for the young birds of the year to learn their techniques for capturing their food.

They have a tiny beak that opens into a very large mouth lined with bristles that helps the bird funnel the near-missed insects into their mouth. Being a medium-sized bird, it takes hundreds of insects for a single feeding as they hunt during the early morning and late evening. They love cloudy mornings that increase the insect hatching and delays the heat of the day.

They are well equipped for capturing insects. Besides their large mouth, they have long narrow wings and a broad tail for aerial acrobatics through the air. Their speed and quick turns make them difficult to capture in flight.

“They are really hard for me to get a picture of,” said a photographer at Camas on Wednesday morning. “Just when you think you have them in focus, they change directions or almost stop in midair.”

After getting enough to eat, they seem to totally disappear until evening feeding time. During the day, they can be found sleeping on dead branches in the willows and large cottonwoods where they appear to be a bump on the branch. Their coloring blends in perfectly with the branches, and they often pick a branch that is in the shade of another branch.

In southern Idaho, they like to nest on the high desert ridges where there are plenty of flying insects to eat. They are fierce defenders of the two eggs they lay in a depression on the rocky ground. While hunting rocks in the early summer, I have been startled by a nighthawk faking an injury as it flopped and rolled down a hill. After watching the bird doing its best injury-acting, DO NOT walk back toward its nest without checking behind you. I and several other rock hounds have had their hats knocked off by angry birds.

Known by many names over hundreds of years, most are wrong, including “nighthawk.” They are not a hawk and they do not hunt at night. They are an “aerial insectivore.” They belong to the nightjar or the Caprimulgidae family. But their most famous name is “Goatsucker.”

About 300 BC, Aristotle wrote about them. Because of their feeding habits and the daily disappearing act, they were blamed for several things. Aristotle wrote that the nighthawks sucked the milk out of the goats at night, which caused the goats to go blind. This belief lasted until the Nineteenth Century. They are still classified as “goatsuckers” in many of the bird guide books.

Their numbers are declining due to the use of pesticides and loss of habitat, but they are always a welcome sight in my neighborhood, usually in early August. They can have all the mosquitoes and other pesky insects that they can find.