Fourth of July Boomers

July 4, 2021 – It seems only fitting that I should celebrate Independence Day by taking off into the wild country, and hearing some reverberating booms.

My plan for the day was to drive through High Island to Bolivar Peninsula hoping to avoid the holiday beach crowds, but the access roads were packed and then the rain started, so I headed back the way I’d come. I squeezed out from under the thunderheads just before Hwy 87 turns north, and decided on a whim to go see what Oilfield Road had to offer. This is a rough gravel road (“road” might be an exaggeration) full of ruts and puddles, running east-west between High Island and the beach. I could hear the surf and see the tops of work trucks beyond the marsh grass. In my low car, it was best to park and walk in.

Oilfield Road, High Island TX, Google Maps screenshot
Sleepy Common Nighthawk, dozing in the hot afternoon
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window, and a second time to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here.)

I had backed into a pull-out to investigate some egrets, when a “BSO” (Bird Shaped Object) caught my eye. A frost-killed lily pad caught on an old limb? Nope, this drowsy bird is a Common Nighthawk, one of the three members of the Nightjar family found in Texas. The Nightjar family is not related to hawks in spite of their tiny hooked bill. Check out the unique rectangular eyes on this guy! He sat unruffled (a nicely descriptive English word from the world of birds) as I slowly eased closer.

Common Nighthawk makes his escape from the pesky human
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

He was completely still… until he wasn’t! My visit had set a Willet screeching and egrets honking; the Nighthawk took off in a wide circle around me repeating his characteristic high-pitched call.

Adult male Common Nighthawk screeching and flashing his gape
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Wikipedia says that the male bird has a white bar along the underside of his tail, so this is a male. With his mouth opened for yelling, you can see that his tiny “bill” is only a small portion of the edge of his mouth. His gape is wide, very wide, to catch bugs on the wing as he swoops through the air. (Ahha, “gape” is another English bird-word!)

Common Nighthawk circling and booming
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

He flew in a tighter circle around me, now clearly targeting me and my intrusive long lens. And then he boomed! Nighthawks speed through the air and then, with a twist of wingtips, create a loud Whooom! sound, to startle intruders. He also does this as part of a breeding display, but I’m sure that, in this case, he was objecting to my presence on his turf. You can hear Nighthawk calls and booming at the “listen” link (the little speaker symbol) on the All About Birds website. And Wikipedia says only the males boom, so that is consistent with my observation of the tail marking.

Sequence of 7 shots showing nearly inverted flight of Common Nighthawk
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2500, all shots
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

He looped and flipped repeatedly; I caught this almost-inversion as he flew towards me. Notice how his head stays nearly level, while his wings flip more than a full half-circle. Now, I cannot swear that this particular flight pattern is what creates the booming sound; it all happened so fast that this could have just been an additional “predator avoidance” behavior. He charged me three times, booming each time, and coming within eight or ten feet of my head… so I’m not complaining about the lack of focus. I got back in the car and drove on.

Common Nighthawk snoozing on gravel road
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Further down the pot-holed track, another Nighthawk sat in the middle of the road. This bird has brown specks on his white cravat, while the first bird’s neck was pure white. This bird also appears to not show the trademark white wing stripe visible on his wing (it is just barely peeking out beneath his upper wing feathers).

Common Nighthawk resting on power line
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Perhaps this is an immature adult, and his sharply marked wing feathers are not yet at full length. I haven’t found any definitive description or photo of immature vs mature adults, so I’m just guessing. He flew up off the road, then looped around and settled on this telephone wire. His posture, sitting on the ground, or on a horizontal branch or wire is characteristic; the nighthawk has very short legs, not suited to striding or standing erect.

I grew up out in the country in central Colorado, and the dawn and dusk sounds of the Nighthawks were a common occurrence. So, on this outing it was wonderful to see my old friends, and to hear their unique booming sounds, a taste of home and family. Happy Independence Day!

10 thoughts on “Fourth of July Boomers”

  1. The nightjars (much better name than the mythical goatsuckers) are incredibly cool birds. Don’t usually see them that active during the daylight hours which makes these shots incredibly interesting. Always like to hear their “peents” high above me while on nightly runs. Well done Sam, a nice addition to your portfolio.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I was also intrigued by the fact that they were out in the daytime. Then again, we all know you’ve got to work double shifts to feed hungry teenagers! Thanks for stopping by, Brian!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh boy, what a treat to be focused on by a nighthawk! (Even tho it sounds like this one was trying to get rid of you.) I can’t help but wonder whether there may have been a youngster very, very close but his parent adequately distracted you from noticing! Exciting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t take it personally 🙂 It was, indeed, exciting. I looked for a nest (well, they don’t make nests – but a ground-sitting bird shepherding an egg), but of course, it would have been so well camouflaged I would never have found it! Thanks for reading!


  3. Thanks for the sharing the Common Nighthawk fun facts. Initially I thought I saw a Nightjar as the eyes is exact Nightjar’s eyes. I learnt something new today after reading your writeup. Love the way to you combine all the 7 shots together as 1 photo. That’s stunning.

    Liked by 2 people

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