By John Turner and Patrice Domeischel
The 2023 season of the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch, run by the Four Harbors Audubon Society (4HAS) in cooperation with Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket, came to a close on Oct. 6 with 36 Common Nighthawks observed, many of which circled overhead as they actively fed on aerial insects above both ponds. We suspected the birds were feeding on a recent hatch of aquatic insects — midges, gnats, etc. — supplied by the nurturing waters of the ponds.
The Watch runs annually from 5:30 p.m. to dusk from Aug. 27 to Oct. 6, and is designed to count Common Nighthawks migrating from New England and eastern Canada during their southbound autumn migration. Many pass over Long Island on their journey to the Amazon region of South America so Long Island serves as a “migratory motel” for this species.
The seasonal total was 1,022 nighthawks, by far the lowest total 4HAS has tallied in the seven years we’ve been conducting the count. Previous totals (year — number of common nighthawks seen) were: 2017 — 2,046; 2018 — 2,018; 2019 — 2,757; 2020 — 2,245; 2021 — 1,819, 2022 — 1,625; 2023 — 1,022.
We don’t have a clear reason why the total was so much lower than in past years. The numbers were “dampened” somewhat by three days in a row of rainy weather at the Watch, the first time this has ever happened. We speculate the fires that have raged for so long in eastern Canada, where some common nighthawks breed, also played a role in either affecting reproductive success or shifting their migrational movements away from smoke and Long Island.
We thank the many dozens of people who visited the Watch this year including two individuals from California and one from New Zealand! It was fun to be able to tally nighthawks together and to marvel at their abilities in flight and their long distance migratory exploits.
It was also rewarding to answer the questions posed by inquisitive visitors to the park as they walked by on the Stone Bridge, inquiring what the crowd of birders were doing. Hundreds of individuals now know a little bit more about nighthawk ecology and migration and the challenges these birds face as they head to overwinter in the Amazon.
Visitors also learned about the current plight many migratory birds face and what they can do to help birds, such as putting decals on their windows, making their pet cat an indoor cat, drinking shade-grown coffee, and limiting the use of pesticides and other chemicals.
See you next August!
John Turner and Patrice Domeischel are members of the Four Harbors Audubon Society.