Where When How — Summer 2017
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Native Flora & Fauna Antillean Nighthawks
B Naqqi Manco

The Cryptic and Mysterious Lives of Antillean Nighthawks

ON THE FIRST DAYS OF THE YEAR when you begin to hear “Man, it’s hot!” and the loud trills of the gray kingbirds ring out from dawn till dusk, and mosquitoes bloom to severe proportions on the family islands, you can expect the arrival of the summer’s first Antillean nighthawks Chordeiles gundlachii. I usually see my first for the year around the beginning of May. This year, as usual, I looked up and saw my first pair at dusk in the second week of May – floating and wheeling so high, only their unique silhouettes and their bizarre polysyllabic, nasal statement – “pidamadik” – gave them away. The call gives them their local name in the Turks & Caicos Islands, and indeed throughout most of their summer range in the Caribbean. At times, they appear in appreciable but loose flocks, weaving high down to shoulder-height and even between buildings to snap up flying insects by the thousands every night.

Buzzing close by a head isn’t unknown (lots of mosquitoes available there) but they’re far too skilled fliers to make more contact than a breath of wingbeat breeze. Over open areas, a male will circle high, then nose-dive, angling his wings to create a loud buzz during his drop, catching himself only a few feet off the ground before climbing for his next noisy plunge. For birds as impeccably camouflaged as these (only white squares on the open wings are available for a flash), aerobatics and auditory displays count.

Females enticed by the airshow can’t be bothered to make a nest, but find a bare patch of dry, rocky ground to lay a single egg (occasionally two or three) with a patina as rough and grey as the limestone substrate. During the 19-day incubation, the mother and father warm the egg at night and the mother shades it during the day, leaving only briefly to feed and drink, or when disturbed. The chick, similarly coloured, can be left for longer periods while the parents hunt for insects to feed it. Parents react to any nest visitors with dead-still concealment, but if they know they’ve been seen, an all-out pantomime will begin. Feigning a broken wing with white wing patches flashing is mixed with the threatening gape of an unexpectedly large mouth, distracting attention away from the vulnerable egg or chick.

Within three weeks, the chick fledges and the parents return to the skies, gorging on insects for their departure around October. While they are believed to migrate loosely to northern or central South America, their exact wintering grounds (and what they do there) remain a mystery. Their departure signals happy times for many people: the end of Hurricane Season, the beginning of Tourist Season, the return of cooler nights and fewer mosquitoes… but I am always happy to hear their buzzing return, and to occasionally encounter their special displays and expert camouflage.

Native Flora and Fauna Species of the TCI ~ by B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist