Standing in the back yard in the late afternoon on Labor Day, I looked up and chanced to catch sight of a nighthawk darting about against the backdrop of blue sky. Each pointed angled wing displayed a white bar, the sine qua non that clinched the identification.
Here in New England the numbers of nighthawks have diminished precipitously over the past several decades. Some observers have attributed the drop in their numbers to the relative paucity of nesting sites: grey and white crushed stone flat roofs have been replaced with uniform black tar, erasing the element of camouflage necessary for the bird’s survival. Others have suggested that an increased use of insecticides to curb mosquitos might have adversely impacted this bird population.
Excited by my find, I dashed off an e-mail to a seasoned fellow birder, someone I had met while out birding one clear blue morning this past May.
I had ventured forth early that day, following the trail that runs along the river to the park. I had sighted any number of spring warblers and had just focused my binoculars on a Baltimore oriole, when an older gentleman appeared, binoculars up, stalking a blue-grey gnatcatcher in the same tree. We hit it off immediately, comparing notes on the black-throated blue warbler that we had each heard and seen shortly before meeting up.
After a delightful conversation we ambled back along the road to where the man had parked his car. I pointed out some bird activity in a nearby bush. We both raised our binoculars and studied the small specimen: a flycatcher, most assuredly an Empidonax. Consulting the field markings in his Sibley guide, we agreed that it was a least flycatcher, Empidonax minimus.
Roger (for that was his name) invited me to participate in the spring birding census, noting that there were several species of special concern in Connecticut, among them the nighthawk. He sent me the form, which I completed and returned to him at the close of the census. Although I recorded over 60 species, I didn’t see a single nighthawk that month.
Understandably, I was anxious to share the news that I had sighted a nighthawk at last.
Later that day I received a reply from Roger’s wife, thanking me for my note:
Roger would have been very happy that you wrote about identifying the nighthawk. He was, as you know, an avid birder who took so much enjoyment in pursuing his hobby. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer in May and died on August 7th. He fought bravely as he endured three sessions of chemotherapy. I shall miss him forever — he was an exceptional husband in every way.
An exceptional husband, an avid birder, one of a rare species: I shall miss him too.