Monday, August 02, 2010

The bird that started it all

I have often been asked (by birders) "What bird was your spark bird?" or (by family and friends) "How did you ever get started watching birds?" I probably answered with "I don't know for sure, maybe the Ruby-throated Hummingbird" or "Watching a hummingbird". I was fascinated by many birds when I was young, so I never really put much thought into the one bird that started the ball rolling.

But as I look back, I remember one bird that I could not ID for anything. I was only 11 years old at the time and wasn't what one would call a "birder". I did not own a field guide, but I often would look at my dad's old Golden Guide to Birds. It only contained the most common or most likely to be seen birds, plus some of the pages were missing. The bird that I was seeing was not in it. I remember asking my dad and grandfather what the bird was with the response "I don't know". Back then, there was no Google, I didn't have the internet. I searched and searched to no avail. I then started on a mission to find out what bird it was that I was seeing.

I remember seeing many of them flying over the fields around my house in the evenings. I thought to myself that they must be some kind of seabird. Given their shape and flight style, I thought maybe a gull or a tern at the time. I started to look at more bird books and my grandmother bought me a membership into the Cincinnati Nature Center. Before I knew it, I had become a birdwatcher. Oh yeah, that bird?

Common Nighthawk / Bob Hines, USFWS

That's right, the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). I don't remember how or when exactly I came to the conclusion as to what those odd, crepuscular birds were that I was seeing. I only remember there were many of them and that they were quick fliers.

Common Nighthawk / Dave Herr, USFS

Today, I don't see nearly as many as I did when I was younger. I remember watching them for long periods of time as they migrated south around the end of August. They seemed as if they would never stop coming, a constant stream of birds.

I also later participated in a project designed to learn more about the Common Nighthawk's migration called Project Nighthawk (from 1999-2005). This also heightened my interest in the Common Nighthawk. Participation in this project put me outside for the last two hours of daylight of every day from mid-August till I stopped seeing nighthawks. As it is almost that time again, I still look forward every year to seeing the large, migrating flocks of Common Nighthawks on their southward journey!

Common Nighthawk chicks / Patrice Lynch, USFS

P.S. - (I have never seen CONI chicks before, by the way)


  1. this got me thinking about the bird that started me on my bird quest.

    the belted kingfisher. I think it was their gigantic heads that sparked my fancy.

  2. very nice post - my spark bird was the pileated, and spark the sibley field guide

  3. Interesting post Donald. Your Common Nighthawk looks remarkably similar to our Nightjars, also crepuscular, now sadly uncommon. I paid a visit to some local woodlands one evening recently to try and see one but only heard their churring call.

  4. That's so interesting, I had the same difficulty identifying it. Most people knew what the colorful or musical birds were but no one I knew could tell me or even seemed to notice. I also had people say it was a bat. Now of course I know

  5. A very nice looking bird. I can't remember the first bird, but the first ID guide I brought was to ID a small bird that turned out to be a Spotted Pardalote.

  6. I asked my self that same question after reading this thought provoking post. And, I would have to say, the same, Common Nighthawk. They used to buzz around the street lamps in front of our house when I was a kid. I was fascinated and would lie on my back on the lawn and listen and watch for hours. Thanks for taking me back there!

  7. Intriguing and thought provoking post.

  8. Great blog! Just blog hopping. Have a great weekend. :)

  9. American Bittern for me, the first bird I was able to ID using my first Peterson's Field Guide (an edition from the 1940s!).

    Those CONI chicks are just about the cutest thing ever!