#439 The Elusive Lesser Nighthawk

I’ve been going out to Irvine Regional Park every Thursday evening for the last month+, since it’s one of the few “reliable” places to find Lesser Nighthawks, a Southern California specialty. Of course, reliable inn this instance seems to mean somewhat more likely than having a red-necked Stint turn up on your doorstep. Two weeks ago I even found two Phainopeplas (previously #438) but still no nighthawks, even though they were reported to be breeding in this location.

Lesser nighthawk at dusk flying behind Irvine Regional Park

By last night I had gotten tired of walking up and down the dry creekbed for the two hours before nightfall, so I decided to explore some new parts of the park instead. I parked in a different location and wandered up the Harding Nature Trail. This area produced California Gnatcatchers, Oak Titmice, California Towhees, and a lone American Robin. As usual Acorn Woodpeckers were everywhere.

I came out on the far end of the park and followed the road across the creekbed. Lesser Goldfinches were common, and Wrentits were singing everywhere. I even saw a couple of these normally elusive birds. A few Mourning Doves were cooing, and one Northern Mockingbird may have been protecting a nest. An American Kestrel flew by and briefly perched on a telephone pole.

I planned to just walk back west along the creek toward the park entrance. However I got a little turned around and ended up crossing the creek and walking along the far side instead. By this point the usual hundreds of Common Ravens were flying in to roost for the night. After dusk there’s hardly a large tree without at least a few ravens in it in this park.

By this point I’d pretty much resigned myself to another nighthawk-less trip and was going to walk along the gravelly area and then cross the creek and head home. However I heard some unusual noises coming from behind the chain link fence that separates the park from the hills behind it, and decided that as long as I was there I might as well walk over and check it out. I never did find whatever small bird was making those noises (The noises stopped as soon as I headed in that direction, natch.) However, as I was nearing the fence something that wasn’t a raven flew by quickly. A nighthawk?! I got my binoculars on it and–no, it’s another kestrel.

However at this point, I noticed some birds in the far distance near the small tower on the hills behind the park. Probably more ravens, I thought. (At this time of day any high-flying bird in the park that isn’t a raven is a surprise.) Well, surprise, surprise, surprise. It was hard to make out at that distance in the dark, but whatever those two birds were, they weren’t ravens. They were pretty dark, but any distant bird would be at this time of day, and they weren’t completely jet black like a raven. They didn’t have long tails. Their flight was completely different. They glided with the wings held upward in fairly strong dihedral, maybe 30-40º. When flying, they beat their wings fairly heavily. Could I make out small white patches near the wing tips? Maybe a couple of times, but I wasn’t sure. The birds were damn far away, and it was getting dark fast. Nonetheless, that flight pattern was pretty distinctive, so I flipped open the Sibley Guide; and yep, that’s exactly how a nighthawk flies. Mission accomplished. #439.

It wasn’t the best ID, but I’ll take it. The way this usually works is that as soon as you see a bird for the first time (after months or years of stalking it unsuccessfully) you promptly see seventeen more individuals in the next two weeks without half trying. Murphy’s Law of Birding I guess.

Oh, and in case you were wondering? That little black dot in the sky in the upper left hand corner of the photo? That’s one of the nighthawks. Yes, I know the photo sucks, but for a fast flying bird half a klick away and a point-and-shoot camera, I think that’s pretty good. :-)

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