News & Events

A Nighthawk Adventure

by Dyanna Smith
It’s 6:15 on Friday evening and I am on my way out the door at McLane Center. Tonight I have finally carved out the time to venture up to the top of the parking garage in Concord and look for migrating nighthawks.
Walking towards my car I enter a small swarm of flying insects. I speed up and jump in the car, quickly closing the door so I don’t bring them all with me. I look at the tiny, winged ant on my shirt. I hate ants. Oh—wait! It dawns on me that these are what the nighthawks eat, and I start to get really excited. For my first nighthawk migration watch, my timing might be perfect.

Zeke Cornell (front) leading the watch for migrating Common Nighthawks on the roof of the Capital Commons parking garage. Visitors welcome: 5:30-7:30pm through approximately September 1. The biggest night so far – 1,681 on 8/24/18. Photo by Rebecca Suomala.

As I head down Clinton Street towards the center of town, I’m thinking about my day and am generally distracted. I wonder if there really are obvious flights of Common Nighthawks, since this is a sight I have never witnessed.  I absent-mindedly lean my head over to look out the car window into the sky. BAM! Nighthawks are everywhere—right on top of me. Buzzing overhead low and spread out like old bomber aircraft; they happen fast. I can see the sharp shape of their wings and the white spots underneath as they zigzag slightly along their path, I assume, darting after flying ants. By the time I think to pull over, they are gone. I quickly text Becky Suomala who is already at the lookout: INCOMING.  She tells me later, she knew exactly what I meant.
I get back in the car and finish the drive to the parking garage lookout. A few people are there with spotting scopes and cameras. “You picked a good night to come, Dyanna,” Becky says from behind her scope, not even looking up. “I counted 70 in that last group,” she says to Zeke Cornell, who is leading the count. Zeke makes a new note in his book and announces, “That makes a total of 700 so far tonight.” He knows my question, “that’s already a big count.”
I settle in to get my bearings. Ants are scattered around on cars and clothing. Everyone is looking through a lens pointed in a different direction. “You have to have your head on a swivel for this,” Zeke tells me, “they are coming from all directions.”
It’s suddenly quiet, and we are all scanning the horizons, waiting. I keep seeing dark wisps of what looks like smoke moving over the river and beyond, floating northward in waves. Maybe it’s my binoculars. They are pretty dirty. But I keep seeing this strange smoke pattern form in vertical bands and then break up only to reform again, all while moving north. I wonder if it could be flocks of birds, but the scale seems wrong. I ask about it. The consensus: smoke.
Common Nighthawk and prey. Photo by David Lipsy, Eagle Eye Photography.

Zeke spots a group of nighthawks coming down from the north side of town. He tells me they see the most when winds come from the southwest, which seems counterintuitive. We watch them get closer. Zeke narrates their approach, “They are coming right to us! Get ready.” This all happens faster than you think. They move from specks I can’t find in my binoculars to directly overhead in no time. I try to take photos but it’s not working, so I surrender to the moment, lean back, and just watch them pass through like a rush. And then they’re gone.
That is the best look of the night. During the next break, when we are scanning in all directions, others start to see the smoky bands forming along the river and ridge to the east. What is that? After everyone’s attention falls on figuring this mystery out someone says, “Those are clouds of insects – it must be the ants!” Now it makes more sense. Funnels of what must be millions of flying ants are moving northward in swarms that look like smoky waves. Becky tries to take photos, then video. It’s too far away to capture and document. The second spectacle of the night.
All tallied, the count for Friday, August 24, 2018: 1,681 Common Nighthawks. And I lost count of how many times I said uncontrollably and gleefully, “This is so awesome!”
Zeke will be up on the top level of the Capital Commons parking garage (Storrs St., Concord) every evening from 5:30-7:30pm until Labor Day weekend counting nighthawks. Everyone is welcome to participate.

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