Monday, July 31, 2017

Common Nighthawk at Lava Beds National Monument

A little over 140 years ago, a bitter war was fought between the U.S. military and a small band of Modoc warriors over their desire to return to their ancestral homeland on the shores of Tule Lake in northeastern California. The Modoc people, around 50 warriors and another 100 elders, women, and children, faced off for six months against at least 600 heavily armed troops. They lost in the end, and much of their culture was lost in the ensuing forced migration to Oklahoma. It was a sad affair, and not nearly as well-known as it should be (I've written about the wars here and here).
The Modoc people spent months resisting the troops in a corner of what is now Lava Beds National Monument. The site is called Captain Jack's Stronghold, and it is a haunted place. We were there last June, looking at how geology influenced the nature of the battles that took place here. A fire burned through a couple of years ago, leaving behind only a few junipers in a copse at the trailhead parking area. I had a feeling there might be a few interesting birds hiding among the branches, and a bit of looking proved me right. There were at least two Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) roosting in the trees.
One can tell from their appearance that they are not actually hawks. They have neither the talons or the beak of a raptor. I've seen a fair number of nighthawks over the years, but usually in flight at dusk or dawn when they are hard to photograph. They are real acrobats in the air, swooping and soaring after insects. They are graceful in the air, and relatively clumsy on the ground. When they are not flying, they hide out in heavy foliage where they blend in (and they were indeed hard to pick out among the shadows in the junipers. The nighthawks are summer visitors to North America. They winter all the way down in South America during the winter, which means they have one of the longest migrations of any American bird.

If you live in North America, you've probably seen the Common Nighthawk. They can fly in an erratic manner much like bats, but they are larger, and have prominent white bars on their wings.

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