A summer evening for grilling steaks and onions on the deck, with sweet potato disks (slathered in olive oil and thyme) roasting in the oven just inside.
It was a cool, clear evening, enhanced by the piercing drone of the cicadas and a minor avalanche of birdlife. All the regulars were out—the chickadees, the goldfinches, a blue jay squawking from the top of a towering spruce, a house finch dressed in a deep shade of red. Chimney swifts chattered in the clear blue sky, then a single common nighthawk appeared, cruising the skies overhead. The truest, or at any rate the most dramatic, evening guest with its emphatic shriek that evokes childhood memories and sends a comforting message: things are alright.
I’m not sure things are alright for the nighthawk, whom we see less often than we used to. They eat flying insects, so it stands to reason that the rise in pesticide use hasn’t done them much good. Then again, they often nest on gravel rooftops, which are less popular than they once were. We might reason, therefore, that the nighthawk population gained an artificial boost during the “gravel-roof” period in architectural history, and is now returning to traditional levels.
The nighthawk was chosen as “bird of the year” this year by the ABA. I’m not sure why. I learned on their website that there are nine subspecies (yikes!) which is a matter of no great concern to those of us who see them in the distance flying overhead at dusk.
Its Latin name comes from two Greek roots that in combination mean “musical chord at dusk.” Nice. I have never heard anyone use its other common names, such as bullbat, pisk, and will-o’wisp. They sound like archaic terms out of a Charles Frazier novel.
Nor have I heard the booming noise the night hawk allegedly makes with its feathers at the end of a steep dive.
The ABA website freely admits that the nighthawk, though often seen, is still poorly understood. Yes, nature is mysterious. I believe the goldfinch is also poorly understood. In particular, we don’t really understand how the goldfinch feels about looking like a porcelain bird—stunning but slightly fake. To my eye, goldfinches look more relaxed in the wintertime, when their coloration takes on a muted and more “natural” shade.