Category Archives: Nightjars

Red-necked Nightjar: ANDALUCÍA

When I visited Andalucía during the spring of 2002, the Red-necked Nightjar (Chotacabras Pardo o Cuellirojo – Caprimulgus ruficollis) had for long been a fascination of mine.  It was a bird I had not yet experienced in the Western Palearctic, and my love of Caprimulgiformes had me searching for the species with increased enthusiasm.

A watercolor study of a Red-necked Nightjar wing, done soon after the bird was found, killed by the roadside.
A watercolor study of a Red-necked Nightjar’s wing, done soon after a bird was found, killed by the roadside.

Red-necked Nightjar searchesDuring the last two weeks of May, I crisscrossed the Costa del Sol several times from Ronda through Málaga, spending some time along the Río Guadalhorce, stopping at Macharaviaya (ancestral home from my father’s side), and eventually passing Almería to the east.

By the time I reached Cabo de Gata – the region’s largest coastal protected natural park – I had seen several excellent species including hundreds of Greater Flamingos, ducks and shorebirds in the salinas (salt flats) of the region, but no Red-necked Nightjars.

A pair of quick sketches on the gessoed rough side of a masonite board. These are relatively underdeveloped, so I hesitated in including them here, but they tell part of the story. Left is Macharaviaya - a whitewashed town near Málaga. Right is a view of the Mediterranean from the coastal cliffs of Cabo de Gata.
A pair of quick sketches on the gessoed rough side of a masonite board. These are relatively underdeveloped, so I hesitated in including them here, but they tell part of the story. Left is Macharaviaya – a whitewashed town near Málaga. Right is a view of the Mediterranean from the coastal cliffs of Cabo de Gata.

During my first night at Cabo de Gata, I camped out near coastal crags that dropped steeply into the Mediterranean, taking drives and hikes up the arid roads and rocky cliffs north of the cape. I had heard an Eagle Owl from this location, so was intent in pushing my investigation well into the night. However, it was when I unexpectedly flushed nightjars from a sandy path that I was truly captivated.

I stopped the car at the sight of a Red-necked Nightjar on the ground, perfectly lit by my headlights, and managed to step out with my watercolor and paper to sketch the bird under the harsh artificial lights.

Red-necked Nightjar in headlamps GALVEZ

Unfortunately, several minutes into my sketch a police vehicle drove up and the bird flew off. I was immediately put under scrutiny and suspicion. The two officers were pleasant gentlemen not much older than me, and were very curious as to what I was doing. I showed them my sketches and they listened to my description of the nocturnal bird with interest. After an awkward moment of silence during which I continued painting under my headlamp, the officers simply excused themselves and drove away.

About a week later, while coiling down mountainous highways from Grazalema towards Málaga late at night,  I saw a vehicle in front of me hit a nightjar. I pulled over to inspect the victim, and found a perfectly intact and fresh C. ruficollis specimen. Arriving at Tarifa – the southernmost coast of southern Spain – I spent it sleepless, doing the sketches included in this post.

The Process

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1. I typically start most field sketches with a pencil drawing. If the shapes, posture and placement of body parts are not generally accurate in the pencil gesture, then the painting runs the risk of turning out awkward. If the bird flies before I can start applying watercolor, then I’m left with a sketch I can use for future field paintings or as reference for a longer study.

2. In this case, I had the time to put down a substantial amount of watercolor before the bird was flushed. Unfortunately, the nightjar was left half-painted, and I was without a life reference to confidently finish the rendering.

3. However, when I found a dead Red-necked Nightjar days after, and created detailed studies of its plumage, I was able to use my specimen renderings to bring the field sketch to a more complete place.

4. Over the years, I often wondered if I could add just a few strokes to further develop this sketch without ruining it. I kept the hope of returning to Andalucía during spring, and re-encountering a Red-necked Nightjar under similar circumstances, but this has not happened yet. As time went by, the more I looked at the watercolor studies of the deceased bird, the more I felt I should add dabs of color to the field sketch, to give it the desired density. One summer night, as I drove through the Everglades and came upon a Chuck-will’s Widow with my lights, I immediately thought of the nightjar. Both the Red-necked Nightjar and the “Chuck” were until recently classified in the same genus – Caprimulgus (the latter has been recently changed to Antrostomus). Both species are roughly the same size, and both tend to exhibit overall rustier plumages than their congeners. As I carefully observed the Chuck-will’s-widow through my binoculars, it occurred to me that I was gaining useful information to help me develop the field sketch from Andalucía – not in the detail of the plumage or in the shape of the bird, but in the way a nightjar appears under the contrasting lights of car, and how this affects its volume and color.

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.


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.


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.