An evening in Ocala National Forest: Common Nighthawk flight display

Anna FasoliBehavior, Birding, Field Work1 Comment

Yesterday, as part of my work with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, I spent part of the day mapping territories of Florida Scrub-Jays in Ocala National Forest. I spent a few hours out in the morning, but high humidity and baking sun had the jays quiet by 11:00 or so. There is no standing water in the scrub, so jays have to rely mostly on the abundance of dew that covers the vegetation briefly in the morning.  Even after heavy rains, it is hard to find puddled water.  While many other bird species and mammals do leave scrub patches during the day, some jays may spend their entire lives in just one patch or a few adjacent patches (Florida Scrub-Jays are a year-round non-migratory resident and have a very small range in Florida. They are listed as threatened in the state…for full of threatened and endangered Florida species see http://myfwc.com/media/1515251/threatened_endangered_species.pdf).  So, I made plans to return to the scrub in the evening. As is typical this time of year in central Florida, thunderstorms were brewing and threatening to ruin the evening, but there was a small window of opportunity to get back out. Many birds, including jays, seem to become very active right before a front moves in, so I had no problem finding the jays that were an enigma that morning.

Typical scrub "patch" in Ocala National Forest (this patch has an abundance of small pines, so people are allowed to come cut them down for Christmas trees)

Typical scrub “patch” in Ocala National Forest (this patch has an abundance of small pines, so people are allowed to come cut them down for Christmas trees. Both the jays and I would appreciate it if you harvested a Christmas tree from here!)

This Eastern Screech-Owl has taken up residence in a snag on the edge of a stand. This snag also housed a nesting family of Southeastern American Kestrels, and Northern Flickers this season

This Eastern Screech-Owl has taken up residence in a snag on the edge of the stand. This snag also housed a nesting family of Southeastern American Kestrels, and Northern Flickers this season. As you can see, he doesn’t really give a darn about jays or nighthawks…

While I was wrapping up, I could see the forecasted thunderstorm approaching on the horizon, but I couldn’t help but notice the calls of a displaying male Common Nighthawk. I followed the calls and found a male frantically displaying right on the edge of the tree line. I’ve seen this many times before in the scrub, mostly in mid-morning, but this individual was excessively displaying. And as the thunder grew louder and the storm approached closer, his number of display dives even increased. I’m sure he could sense the impending doom of the storm and was trying to get in as much displaying as possible before the storm ruined the rest of his evening.

Here is a video compilation of a few of the clips. It is hard to capture such a mesmerizing display.

Sometimes he is only a small dot on the screen, but it enables you to see the height of his display and dives. You can hear the male calling, and you can also hear the hum of his wings in the dive, which only happens after he circles high into the sky. This sound can be heard from a surprising distance. Common Nighthawk displays always remind me of an airshow. They also remind me of some of my best birding moments, as Common Nighthawks are actually quite common, and watching their displays is a typical way to spend an evening in their range.

Meanwhile, it was getting dark, and before I knew it, my photos and videos were decreasing in quality as the dark clouds advanced. I soon realized that I was standing on top of my jeep in nearly complete darkness, basically in the middle of nowhere! I packed up just before the rain hit, and headed home in a complete downpour by way of questionable forest roads. At least I was dry, though, which is more than I could say for Mr. Nighthawk, who was now probably very grumpily roosting in the scrub after his nightly round of display flights were cut short.

A front approaching in the evening in Ocala National Forest

A front approaching in the evening in Ocala National Forest

052914 Ocala National Forest14

A good time to leave, or at least stay a few more minutes to snap photos…