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Flying Bullbats

Sep 02, 2019

Watch for these aerial acrobats around dawn and dusk in Missouri's September skies.

Common Nighthawks are commonly called "bullbats" for their wily flight and booming dives. Their name is a misnomer as they are not hawks, and fly during daylight hours. Nighthawks belong to a group of birds called nightjars, because their loud calls jar the night. This group also includes the familiar whip-poor-will.

Like whip-poor-wills, nighthawks are brown. At close range, you'll see a white mark on the underside of each wing when the bird flies. They're about the size of a blue jays, but the nighthawk's long, pointed wings make them appear larger. Nighthawks have an erratic flight like a bat. They alternate quick flaps with glides and darting movements. During summer, nighthawks often fly around lights in pursuit of night flying inscts. Their large, gaping mouths help them capture prey in mid-air, while long whiskers around their mouths help them locate insects.

You may hear the sound of air passing over their wings as they dive at females or intruders. The diving sound is like a truck passing close by at high speed for a fraction of a second. The jarring sound is gone as fast as you hear it. Common Nighthawks are easier seen in flight but you may also notice them well blended as they perch parallel on branches.

Here in the midwest, nighthawks are especially visible during Septemeber when they pass through in waves during their fall migration to South America. They have one of the longer migration routes for birds of this continent. Keep an eye toward the evening sky this month and you may see the "bullbats" passing by.

The Flight of the Nighthawks

  • Common nighthawks arrive in Missouri in late April and breed here. In September, they migrate back to South America. One of the signs of autumn in Missouri is the southward migration of common nighthawks
  • Nighthawks are easy to identify from their call and from their darting, swooping flight. Their overall flight habit and the broad white patch on their wings distinguishes night-hawks from similarly sized birds.
  • Look for them around streetlights, and also above native prairies and Ozark glades. They perch parallel with medium-sized branches, making them appear to be part of the branch.
  • Nighthawks are not closely related to hawks and falcons, although they somewhat resemble the latter.

For more on the nighthawk, visit MDC’s Field Guide.

Watch for these aerial acrobats around dawn and dusk in Missouri's September skies.

Common Nighthawks are commonly called "bullbats" for their wily flight and booming dives. Their name is a misnomer as they are not hawks, and fly during daylight hours. Nighthawks belong to a group of birds called nightjars, because their loud calls jar the night. This group also includes the familiar whip-poor-will.

Like whip-poor-wills, nighthawks are brown. At close range, you'll see a white mark on the underside of each wing when the bird flies. They're about the size of a blue jays, but the nighthawk's long, pointed wings make them appear larger. Nighthawks have an erratic flight like a bat. They alternate quick flaps with glides and darting movements. During summer, nighthawks often fly around lights in pursuit of night flying inscts. Their large, gaping mouths help them capture prey in mid-air, while long whiskers around their mouths help them locate insects.

You may hear the sound of air passing over their wings as they dive at females or intruders. The diving sound is like a truck passing close by at high speed for a fraction of a second. The jarring sound is gone as fast as you hear it. Common Nighthawks are easier seen in flight but you may also notice them well blended as they perch parallel on branches.

Here in the midwest, nighthawks are especially visible during Septemeber when they pass through in waves during their fall migration to South America. They have one of the longer migration routes for birds of this continent. Keep an eye toward the evening sky this month and you may see the "bullbats" passing by.

The Flight of the Nighthawks

  • Common nighthawks arrive in Missouri in late April and breed here. In September, they migrate back to South America. One of the signs of autumn in Missouri is the southward migration of common nighthawks
  • Nighthawks are easy to identify from their call and from their darting, swooping flight. Their overall flight habit and the broad white patch on their wings distinguishes night-hawks from similarly sized birds.
  • Look for them around streetlights, and also above native prairies and Ozark glades. They perch parallel with medium-sized branches, making them appear to be part of the branch.
  • Nighthawks are not closely related to hawks and falcons, although they somewhat resemble the latter.

For more on the nighthawk, visit MDC’s Field Guide.

Voices: Common Nighthawk

Go afield and hear about the Common Nighthawk in this Cornell Lab of Ornithology video
Go afield and hear about the Common Nighthawk in this Cornell Lab of Ornithology video

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