September is a time of changes. The weather transitions from the hot days of summer to the cool nights of autumn. Students are beginning a new school year. I’ll be returning for another season as the counter at the Ashland Hawk Watch in Delaware. Millions of birds are beginning thousand-mile journeys.
One of my favorite birds to watch this time of year is the common nighthawk. Nighthawks are not actually hawks but are rather in the nightjar family with species such as the eastern whippoorwill. On a recent sunny evening I was walking in Montoursville and spotted a nighthawk in the sky. I watched it for a few minutes as it circled around catching insects. I took time to enjoy the moment because I know how uncommon it is to see one so close and in good light. They are most commonly seen at dusk. I even had time to walk to my house and get my camera. The nighthawk continued to fly around for another 10 minutes, allowing me to get photos and see the detail of the feathers. It continued on to the west and I lost sight of it.
The most distinctive thing about a nighthawk is their shape and flight style. The wings are skinny, long, and angular. Nighthawks have a 24-inch wingspan, making them a few inches smaller than a pigeon. When gliding the body droops below the wings. Nighthawks fly in a very erratic manner as they catch insects with their giant mouths. The bill is so small that it is hardly noticeable. Nighthawks are brown with white bars on the wings and under the chin. Males also have a white stripe across the tail. Common nighthawks nest throughout North America then migrate to southern South America. The peak of fall nighthawk migration in our area is late-august and early-September.
September is the peak month for migrating warblers. More than thirty species of warblers can be seen in Pennsylvania during migration. These colorful songbirds don’t usually visit bird feeders since their main diet is insects. Instead look for warblers and other songbirds in trees in the morning. Most songbirds migrate at night so they use the morning as a time to feed after a long flight.
September is a great time for hawk watching as well. Broad-winged hawk migration peaks in mid-September. This species migrates in large groups and thousands can sometimes be seen in a single day. Pennsylvania has many hawk watches that do a daily count from September to November. Two of the most famous are Hawk Mountain Sanctuary near Kempton and Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch near Carlisle.
Bird populations are at their highest this time of year since the breeding season has just ended. You don’t need to travel to some distant country to see something amazing in nature. You only need to go outside with a pair of binoculars and a little curiosity.
David Brown is a member of the Lycoming County Audubon Society.
Gary Metzger is an enthusiastic bird watcher and vice president of the Lycoming Audubon Society.