Lesser Nighthawks: EVERGLADES

Several Lesser Nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis) were observed from November 19 through November 22, 2012, foraging over C-111 Canal and the agricultural area outside of Everglades National Park, at the intersection with 9336, Ingraham Highway. The sketch above was done from those observations during that period.

I counted 20 Lesser Nighthawks on November 19, immediately after sundown, between 5:40 and 5:55 pm at the above location. On November 21, I counted 12 birds from 5:45 to 6:10 pm. On November 22, I only observed 2 nighthawks in the vicinity. I’ve also visited other locations recently, where Lesser Nighthawks have been observed during this time of the year, including the Hole-in-the-Donut sector west of  the Research Center (ENP) and Dump Marsh, but observed none.

Lesser Nighthawks - November 19, 2012 Field Sketch

Lesser Nighthawks wintering in Florida have been reported since the 1970s, but are rarely documented. Reports typically include few individuals, most of them in and around the vicinity of Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Cutler along Biscayne Bay. In the Everglades, the species was first found at Eco Pond on December 28, 1980 by Paul Sykes and Sonny Bass, and has been observed from Snake Bight to Cape Sable at sunrise or sunset in recent years. This area, as part of the Coot Bay Christmas Bird Count usually furnishes the highest number of Lesser Nighthawks for the U.S. during winter. The all-time highest count for the species during a CBC in the U.S. was 10 (Coot Bay, 11oth CBC). However, “15 to 20″ were reported on December 10, 2000 from Flamingo.

Thumnail sketches of Lesser Nighthawks

However, as Dick Cunningham once wrote, “It is suspected that several dozen Lesser Nighthawks may winter in the pinelands area south of the [Everglades National] park headquarters and can be seen at twilight in the adjacent farmlands to the east.” The species is often seen during the Long Pine Key Christmas Bird Count in Everglades National Park, which covers the area from Royal Palm west through the pinelands. Maybe this December of 2012, several Lesser Nighthawks will be observed during the Long Pine Key CBC.

Identification

The Common (C. minor) and Lesser Nighthawks are very similar, and best differentiated by voice where their ranges overlap. However, the Lesser is typically silent during winter. Individual Common Nighthawks have been documented during winter in South Florida, so one must be cautious in identifying a Chordeiles nightjar during this season in the region.

With careful observation and experience, details in the plumage and structure of the Lesser can be differentiated from Common Nighthawk on birds in flight. The wings of Lesser Nighthawks appear more rounded, due to the outermost primary feather being noticeably shorter than the second. In the case of Common Nighthawks, the outermost primary is perceived as longer or equal to the second, giving the bird a more pointed-wing appearance. Additionally, the Lesser may appear overall darker than the Common in flight; this is primarily because females of the species do not have contrasting white markings on their wings, as in Common. The paler “bar” on the wings of the female Lesser is buff, and blends with the overall brown coloration of the bird, giving the impression of an all-dark nighthawk in low light.  On the male Lesser Nighthawks, the more-visible white wing markings are closer to the wing tip and smaller in size compared to Common Nighthawks.

Lesser Nighthawks during winter in our area seem to be active almost entirely during sundown. The short period of time during which they are visible may present the greatest challenge in identifying and documenting them. I’ve had the fortune of finding roosting birds on the ground during late afternoon at Hole-in-the-Donut, but have had a hard time replicating the experience.

The recent C-111 nighthawks exhibited several of the behavioral traits associated with the Lesser, including more erratic flight at low altitudes, and individuals foraging in groups. During winter, the species is typically associated with water, and in my experience having seen the  species from Cutler to Cape Sable, the birds often fly low over canals, bays, lakes and marshes. From Nov 19 – 21, the birds were observed flying low over C-111 Canal moving S to N in small associated groups, at times circling very close to me and low over the Ingraham Highway overpass. Several of the individuals in the feeding group were clearly females, exhibiting no white wing markings.

Sketches

I was able to do several sketches of these nighthawks, keying-in on their wing shapes, the placement and color of the wing markings, and the overall form of the birds. Above, is a compilation of thumbnail sketches (averaging 3cm) done in the field with graphite on off-white 20 lb paper.

The watercolor above was done from the hood of my Jeep, parked next to C-111 using Yarka St. Petersburg Watercolor 24 set pans on 140 lb, cold-pressed Arches paper (25 cm width). All field observations were done through my trusty Leica Ultravid 8×32 HD binoculars.

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