Nighthawks: An Identification Trick

Those of us in the east and midwest really have only one Chordeiles to worry about most of the time, the Common Nighthawk. In the deserts of the southwest, however, a second species, the Lesser Nighthawk, flies into the identification ointment.

Everybody knows the subtle plumage distinctions (though beware Henry’s Nighthawk!) and the differences in wing shape and vocalizations — but this time of year there’s another trick.

Common Nighthawks molt their flight feathers on the wintering grounds, far south of the US. Adult Lessers, in contrast, are shedding primaries this month, resulting in strange (but symmetrical) gaps and patches in the outer wing, as shown by the blurry bird in the photo. Neat, huh?

The 2013 ABA Bird of the Year
The 2013 ABA Bird of the Year