Ancient Ironwoods still bear the scars from the time when wood was cut to make charcoal for limestone kilns that have long since disappeared. Even dead Ironwoods seem to last for ever. We use one grotesquely crippled one for orientation and call him Hieronimus after the Dutch painter of medieval horror visions.
Strange big-headed birds sleep motionless during the heat of the day in those strangely shaped trees. They melt into the shape of a branch with bark-colored feathers and by sitting along its direction rather than crosswise. Only when the dogs are running right underneath its hide-out, a bird flies up. Soundlessly like an owl, but gliding like a big slow swallow, zigzagging close to the ground and never in a straight, predictable line the Night Hawk swoops away.
White markings close to the tip of the long pointed wings flash identify him as a Lesser rather than a Common Night Hawk. The bird lands on another low strung branch nearby and becomes invisible again. To photograph, I have to follow, but more often then not I loose the bird, until a dog accidentally flushes it again or maybe another one.
In the last hours before sunset the birds change from shapeless lumps into elegant long-winged, aerial acrobats with the shape of a small falcon but a much slower wing beat..
|Night Hawk headed southeast in the evening light. In the back Wasson's Peak, Tucson Mts.|
There they feed on dancing swarms of gnats and mosquitoes but also catch large moths. Their short, enormously wide beaks are surrounded by bristles that allow them to scoop up prey while erratically swooping close to the ground and over the water.
|Can you find all 7 Night Hawks?|
|Lesser Night Hawks over Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, in May 2014, Photo by Chris Rohrer|
During the monsoon months the night hawks will stay closer to our house, feasting on swarms of termites and ants that, during their nuptial flights, rise from the desert sand like smoke. On those evenings we will also hear the strange goat like sound produced by air rushing through the tail feathers of the night hawks during the aerial dives that are part of their mating display. This sound together with their low to the ground flight gave their European relatives the reputation to swoop down on goats to steel milk - hence the German name 'Ziegen Melker"