The ground on which I am standing is part of a massive Jack Pine barren near Whitefish Point, Michigan. It stretches for miles in all directions. It appears at first glance to be devoid of life, but looks can be deceiving. I know that Jack Pine barrens to the south (where Kirtland’s Warblers nest) are excellent habitat for Common Nighthawk, so my friend Drew and I decide to revisit the barrens after dark to try to find some of these nocturnal birds.
It is ten at night when we return, and the first fifteen minutes yield neither sight nor sound of a nighthawk. I’m surprised: I thought for sure there would be nighthawks out here. Despite the lack of nighthawks, there are other birds around. Drew and I identify the “tewtewtew” call of a Greater Yellowlegs coming from Andrus Lake. We are both rather bemused at a shorebird calling this late at night. An American Robin calls up ahead. So far we have heard a shorebird and a thrush, but no nighthawks!
Ten minutes later, Drew and I hear what we are listening for: the distant “peent” of a Common Nighthawk. A few seconds later it calls again, this time much closer than before. Each time, the calls get louder and louder, until the bird is right above us. Now the sound is painfully loud. I raise my hands to cover my ears when suddenly, the loudest peent yet is accompanied by a deep, rumbling WHOOM—the very ground seems to vibrate with the intensity of it. The bird flies away, the calls getting softer and softer, sparing our eardrums.
Immediately, several more nighthawks start calling all around us. None of them, for now, is as close as the first, but I suspect that is because these birds are patrolling the edges of their territories, warning off potential intruders (In fact Sarah, another friend, observes the birds flying in irregular circles the next night, tracing what must be the boundaries of their territories). We walk about a hundred paces, then hear a nighthawk start displaying closeby. We search the sky, by now illuminated only by the pale light of a gibbous moon, for any trace of the bird. We meet with no luck until the sound has reached a painful volume. The instant an enormous WHOOM sounds, the North Star is blacked out for a fraction of a second. It must be a coincidence, I think to myself.
This nighthawk does not stop calling as the others have. I listen as the calls get quieter and farther away, then closer and louder, until once again they have reached that nearly unbearable pitch. Then, WHOOM! Once again, the instant I feel the vibrations, Polaris is blocked out. I exhale in amazement, and Drew says he saw it too. Still the bird calls, and this time we’re watching Polaris closely, seeing if it will be blocked out once more. We anticipate the moment of the next boom, and to our surprise, the North Star disappears for the third time!
I find it amazing that birds can migrate to and from their breeding and wintering grounds successfully, so I am stunned that a Common Nighthawk could navigate with such precision to “WHOOM” within the same tiny area, three times in a row! Did it use the stars to work its magic, or did it use landmarks, or a mental map of its territory? We don’t know for sure, and we decide to content ourselves with being there to see it.