Common Nighthawk in Carden

Ron Pittaway

First published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, April 2019, No 286.


Common Nighthawk by Jean Iron


The Common Nighthawk has disappeared as a breeding bird from many areas of southern Ontario. It is listed as Threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The Carden Alvar, however, remains an ideal location to hear and see the spectacular territorial booming dives of the nighthawk.

IDENTIFICATION: The Common Nighthawk shows a conspicuous white wing patch in flight. When perched, its wingtips extending to or past the tail tip distinguish it from the Eastern Whip-poor-will, whose wings fall well short of the tail tip. The nighthawk has short hair-like rictal bristles (barely visible) on sides of the mouth, further separating it from the whip-poor-will, which has long bushy bristles.

VOICE: The flight call, heard mainly on the breeding grounds is a nasal peent given by both sexes, repeated every three seconds for long periods. Calling peaks 30-45 minutes after sunset. Caution: The ground call of the American Woodcock, a nasal brizst, is sometimes confused with the nighthawk’s call. Suspect a woodcock if you hear a nighthawk before mid-May.

HABITS: Despite its name, the nighthawk is usually not active at night. It prefers the twilight (crepuscular) being most active at dusk and dawn, and is sometimes active during the day. In August, small migrating flocks are seen in late afternoon and evening.

HABITAT: The Carden Alvar has ideal nesting habitat for nighthawks, especially the open areas with bare ground and alvar pavement.

VIEWING TIP: A warm summer evening on the Carden Alvar watching nighthawks perform their thunderous booming dives is an experience like no other. The booming is made by air rushing through the male’s primaries as it pulls out of a steep dive. Dives average one per minute. Wylie Road between the viewing blind and Sedge Wren Marsh is a reliable spot to hear and see nighthawks.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for proofing and Jean Iron for the photos.