Birds “Common” in Name but Not in Nature Make an Appearance

In decades of birding, the best viewing two naturalists have ever seen of a very rare bird

Photos by Carl Safina, text by John Turner

Common Nighthawk in flight. Credit: Carl Safina

Tipped off by a phone message from Carl Safina who was watching Common Nighthawks foraging over the Seatuket Mill Pond on Long Island, I headed down around 5:00 o’clock in the evening to see for myself. For the next 1 1/2 hours I watched anywhere from four to thirteen nighthawks feeding over the two ponds, with most concentrating over the Mill Pond. There was a huge hatch of small aerial insects and the nighthawks were feeding incessantly, along with tree swallow flocks of various sizes, ranging from groups of several swallows to a hundred or more.

What was nice about the event was that the birds were routinely skimming low over the water and since I was positioned on the stone bridge was able to look down on them and see their full coloration much better than the typical view of a nighthawk — a dark silhouette against the sky. One time a nighthawk came so close to the water surface it forced a gadwall to dive under the water.

Common Nighthawk in flight 2. Credit: Carl Safina

A little later one of the nighthawks flew toward me and proceeded to land on the bridge landing and resting on a stone top of a bridge abutment about 20 feet away. It stayed there for a minute before being frightened off by a couple walking over the bridge.

Common Nighthawk in flight 3. Credit: Carl Safina

As dusk descended the nighthawks left except for one that stayed with it. As I walked to the car a Great Horned Owl called several times from the wooded portion of the Frank Melville Preserve, a nice way to cap off a most enjoyable experience.


What’s so unusual about this sighting is that, while called “common” in their name, Common Nighthawk populations are in serious decline. Experts believe this is mostly due to a loss of habitat from land development and a loss of insect prey due to pesticide use. What’s more, these birds are elusive. So, it was a rare pleasure, to get such a great glimpse of these incredible birds, an experience we were extremely fortunate to have had.

Two female mallards, a cormorant and a turtle share a place to rest on the pond. Credit: Carl Safina