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Hunting the Buff-collared Nightjar

Updated on August 20, 2014

And Other Adventures

Buff-collared Nightjars are really birds of Sonora, so they are rare in Arizona. That makes them all the more sought-after by serious birders. And you probably won't find him in daylight, and if you find him at night, you probably won't see him. If you are lucky, you will hear him.

The best time to hear the Nightjar is early summer, as it turns out. In fact, I head for the hills (mountains, actually) for summer birding, because it's too hot for me in the valley, and for the birds, too.

I got my first listen last year (2013), when I went to Proctor Road which is right outside Madera Canyon. Madera Canyon is located in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. So on this first occasion, I went down in the late afternoon and birded elsewhere for awhile, and then when it was getting on toward evening, I drove down to the place where he had been heard. At first, I was the only one there, but before the evening wore out, I was joined by 11 other intrepid people. The Nightjar didn't sound off until about 8:30 if I recall correctly, but when he did, he called repeatedly. At the time, I was sure I heard TWO of them, and I said so, but everyone scoffed at me. A few days later, someone reported on the bird email list that there were two in that area. There were really a couple of places where you could hear him/them. One was at or near Campground 8, and the other was near the cattle guard at the beginning of the road.

This year, I happened to discover that Cornell keeps lists of the top birders in each county in the United States. The first 100 are listed. I found the page for my county, and was very surprised to discover that I was listed in the 50th spot. So I decided to treat that as a challenge because it would tend to keep me from spending LOTS of money on gas, because I would be birding closer to home. As of this writing, and this bird, I am in 39th place, but I may not go much higher, and will probably drop some, because I need to stay home for awhile and play Ketchup (sorry!) Anyway, I deliberately decided to go seek this bird again precisely to boost my rating on the list.

For more information about this fascinating bird, please visit:

Rattles, Claps, & Burp-clicks

The first recording you will hear is the sound we hear when we locate this bird. It calls only once in the recording, but we hear it multiple times. The last time we heard it, it called frequently for about 5 or 6 minutes.

The picture was taken by Laurens Halsey and is used under the Fair Use Doctrine. To see the full bird in setting, visit his original image:

Buff-collared Nightjar - Antrostomus ridgwayi

I am not likely to get a photo of this species anytime soon, so that will have to do.

All other photos by me.

The Beak

Notice how tiny the beak is. This characteristic is common among birds that live mainly off bugs. Hummingbirds are an exception. They do eat insects, and catch them in mid-air (if you see a hummingbird darting around, that's what he's doing).

I have a theory about why the beaks are so tiny. I think that a larger beak would cause too much commotion in the air, and this would move the bug out of the way so the bird wouldn't be able to catch it. But think of how precise their hunting must be to catch a tiny bug with such a tiny beak!

A Little Bit of Background

Nightjars are small birds that hunt at night, like owls, and are not active or readily visible during the day. We have quite a few Lesser NIghthawks (which are closely classified with them) in our area, and if I go out in the evening, I often see them flying around. At night when I come home, one may be sitting in the middle of the road. They look just like triangular rocks when they're sitting on the ground. I hope someday I'll be able to catch one in my headlights and get a picture, but it will be sheer luck if I do. They do look fairly similar to the Buff-collared Nightjar.

When they are flying, they don't look so little. How they manage to fold those long wings into their tiny bodies is a mystery to me, but they do it somehow. This photo is one I got of a Lesser Nighthawk just recently, in flight.

Chordeiles acutipennis

Common NIghthawks are not so common, but I have observed them a couple of times. They make a "peent" noise when they are flying and catching insects. I have heard this twice. The Lessers are silent.

Going to Madera Canyon

I had several reasons for going to Madera Canyon on this particular day. I have been reading about birds that are being found there currently, and many of them were birds I wanted to see. For example, I had read that recently someone found a Rufous-capped Warbler in Madera Canyon. The only other sightings I am aware of are in Florida Canyon and Hunter Canyon. Florida Canyon is a bit of a challenge because most of the time, the Warblers are hanging out above the dam. Getting above the dam is a bit more challenging for a person with some minor health problems, and over 2/3 of a century in age. I've been up there three times, and although I heard them at least once, I have yet to see one. I was certainly looking for a better place to find one. So the report said that there was one seen near the Madera Picnic Area. I was in such a rush to get out of the house, that I forgot to check the report, and thought he said Whitehouse Parking Lot. So that's where I went. And obviously, I didn't see the Warbler. Darn! However, I got a good consolation prize. You can see him in the photo above.

That is a Brown-crested Flycatcher - Myriarchus tyrannulus

Now I had seen that bird for the very first time just a few days before, and got a pretty decent picture of him, but this picture is somewhat better, and I am very happy with it. This bird sat quietly long enough for me to get four good pictures, and then flew off.

I had been chasing this Flycatcher for a couple of weeks. I was being assisted by Vanetta, who had one in her yard quite a few times, and by Tad, who also had him. I got my first look and photos at Vanetta's place. I haven't been birding with her for very long, just a few weeks, and I don't remember exactly how I bumped into her. She has been birding for something like 35 years, so she knows a lot. I hope to spend more time with her. Two pairs of eyes work better than one.

So after I sat and watched for awhile at Whitehouse parking lot, and saw little other than this bird, and a few Mexican Jays, and a couple of other birds, I headed for Madera Kubo. That is a location that is always good for interesting species...

Madera Kubo

To reach Madera Kubo, you have to park in the Amphitheater parking lot (or someplace further away). There is no parking for people who are not overnight guests. The walk from Amphitheater is about a tenth of a mile, but the hill is fairly steep, and at that altitude (about double what I'm used to at home), I get a bit winded. But I always get there. I think I may have talked in the past about some of the critters I have seen there, including the black bear, that I first noticed when he was only six feet away from me. But on this occasion, there were fewer bird species, and the pictures I got, by and large, are nothing to write home about. I'll show you one in a minute.

The most interesting critter I got this time was the Rock Squirrel. Otospermophilus variegatus

Although the set-up there prevents the squirrels from getting most of the seeds, the ones that fall on the ground are another matter, and the squirrel is always stealing whatever it can, so the birds don't get them. There may even be more than one squirrel. They make a nuisance of themselves, but I don't care, because I think they are pretty. This squirrel let me take quite a few pictures, and I ended up getting tired first. That often happens, too.

Black-headed Grosbeak

This is the best bird picture I got at that location. These birds are common there, but I always take pictures of them anyway.

Pheucticus melanocephalus

They also had two species of hummingbirds: the Broad-billed Hummingbird, and the Black-chinned Hummingbird. The Broad-billed is a gorgeous bird with bright iridescent green coloring and an area of blue at the throat. The beak is red. The Black-chinned has a black head that turns iridescent purple in the sun. Across the street, I got a single picture (not a very good one) of a female Magnificent Hummingbird. I originally said it was a Rufous, but my claim was challenged, and I changed it. I'm used to being challenged. Sometimes I can prove my case, and sometimes not.

While I was there, a birding couple came along, but they were more interested in the birds across the street, and some of them were being quite talkative. After awhile, I joined them. They pointed out that one of the birds we heard was the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. I never did see him, but I did hear him. It was only my second time for that bird. The first time was four years ago. They said the Flycatcher sounds like a squeeze toy (and I agree) and I said, "My husband thinks they all sound like squeeze toys!"

Another bird that kept singing and singing was the Plumbeous Vireo. I had first seen that one in Madera Canyon a couple of years ago, but it was good to be able to try for a picture again. To my chagrin, I could only shoot him against the sky, so my picture isn't beautiful. So I won't share any of my other photos from that location here.

I also saw a male Western Tanager. They're a gorgeous bird with a yellow body and a red head. He was up in the canopy of the tree the whole time, so again, my picture wasn't worth diddly-squat. But I was hoping to see one this year. Now I just have to hope I see one in a better location where I can get a better picture.

I stayed there for about an hour, and then went back to the Whitehouse parking lot, where I watched for a bit longer, and then I left for Proctor Road.

Proctor Road

Most of Madera Canyon is in Santa Cruz County, so anything I saw there wouldn't help my ranking in the Pima County birder's list. However Proctor Road is in Pima County, so I decided I should spend some time there during daylight to see what else I could see.

It was pretty quiet at first, as I parked my car in the thick bosque along the stream, and sat, but after awhile, things started to pick up. I first heard the Phainopepla. These birds have a very soft call much of the time, which I readily recognize, and it is always a delight to hear. Eventually, I was able to see both a male and a female. Both of them will call. I also saw a hawk way up there, and got some mediocre pictures, and concluded it was probably a Red-tailed Hawk. They are very common. I was hoping for something more rare, but such is life. And then I saw the male Hooded Oriole. That is one spectacular bird as far as I am concerned. You can see him above. I also saw a female Summer Tanager. The males are bright red, so too bad I didn't get her mate!

Below, I show you the female Phanopepla I saw.

You may have seen a male at some point. They look like a jet black Cardinal, but with a different beak.

Learn more about the niche the Phainopeplas occupy in the desert ecology:

Desert Mistletoe in the Garden.

Looking for the Nightjar

Well, I figured that although from recent reports I would be more likely to hear the NIghtjar where I was, I also figured that people would assemble at Campground 8, and I'd do better if someone else were also looking with me, so I headed there, and drove back and forth a couple of times just to see if I could find anybody, and not succeeding, I then went back to Campground 8, and just as I parked my car, someone else drove up. It was two guys in a rented car with a Florida License plate. I think one was from Oklahoma and I don't remember where the other one was from. They were looking for the Nightjar for the first time. And as we were talking and it was starting to get dark, Miriam showed up. I've seen her a few times in the field, and she's very helpful. So we were hanging around talking, and they were talking so softly that I couldn't hear them unless I was right next to them. Since I find it difficult to stand in one spot for any length of time (walking is fine), I have a Walkstool I use, and I kept having to move it whenever they'd walk someplace else.

While we waited for the calling bird, I was able to get a few pictures of the scenery, mostly the sunset. This photo is looking toward Baboquivari Peak. This is said to be the home of I'itoi, or Elder Brother, of Tohono O'odham oral tradition. I would guess that I'itoi is actually Jesus, and that the stories about him that have been handed down are simply what they remember about him from long ago. But the tales they tell certainly remind me of Jesus. Anyway, after that, I got a sunset picture of Elephant Head, which I will show you next.

Baboquivari Peak is located in the Quinlan Mountains, where Kitt Peak, a famous astronomy site, is also located, but not on Baboquivari. You can see Baboquivari Peak when you drive up the road, just to the south. Elephant Head is right by the Santa Rita Mountains.

Sunset

Looking toward Elephant Head, the peak on the right...

It Gets Dark

So we all hung around waiting...

Two of us went off and walked down the road a ways and came back. The other two (including me), stayed in one place and listened.

And listened,

And listened.

Nothing.

We did talk to a couple of people who had camped overnight, and said that they had heard the Nightjar an hour earlier, and they'd heard it all night the night before. They had been camping further down the road. I didn't feel like driving up where they were particularly.

At one point, the other people were all standing together, and I set my Walkstool down next to them, and knocked it over before I was able to sit down. It was practically dark, and I was standing on some loose sand on a slope. So I picked it up, and set it down again, and stepped on one of the feet, and knocked it over again. As I stooped over to pick it up the second time, I lost my balance and fell flat on my face! Oh, the hazards of night birding! LOL. But the sand was soft and I wasn't hurt, so I picked myself up, set the stool a third time, and this time I was successful in sitting down.

You have to expect little incidents like that if you go out into the wilderness. I do. And of course if you are alone and get hurt, that can be a problem. I try to be cautious, but you're not sitting in your armchair, so there is a little risk.

We listened for a long time, and eventually, we decided it was time to call it quits. It was getting close to 9:30. So we all took off, and Miriam stopped close to the cattle guard. The two out-of-staters had gone on back. But I decided to stop with her, and she said that she was going to try one last time, so I decided to do the same. So we stood around and talked, and she explained where I could hear various species of owls. And we weren't talking all that softly.

Suddenly, at 9:36 (she says 9:35, but I think she didn't mention the time for a minute) we heard him! And he called quite distinctly for 5 or 6 minutes, and then fell silent. We both felt really sorry that the two men had left, because we had both heard the Nightjar before, and they missed him! Fooey!

So I said I needed to get back, and left, and she stayed another 5 minutes to see if he would call again, but he didn't, so she left, too.

So That's How the Day Turned Out

Not a bad day. I got two of the three species I really wanted, and a bonus.

And naturally, I will try again.

It gets into the blood. And you find that you're birding just when you drive down the street. There's a hawk sitting on top of the electric pole. Gotta stop and take a look and see what kind.

I need a bumper sticker that says, "I brake for birds."

:)

Do you watch birds?

If you do, feel free to tell me about a special bird.

Do you watch birds?

Second Visit

Yesterday (May 29), I decided to visit Florida Canyon to see if I could find any good birds there. The day was relatively cool, so it seemed like a reasonable destination, but apparently all the other birders, and the birds, decided it was too hot, because I saw only a handful of birds, and NO birders at all! I don't think anybody else came all day. But I figured that after I left there, I would go back to Proctor Road to see if I could hear any other night birds. I was hoping to hear a Mexican Whip-poor-will. They go "Whip-poor-WEE!" And I thought MAYBE I'd hear a screech owl. I wasn't too concerned about hearing the Nightjar again, because I heard it recently, but figured it would be nice if I did hear it.

So I headed in that direction.

As I was getting really close to the turnoff, lo! and behold! There were THREE Greater Roadrunners in the middle of the road. It looked like maybe they were sharing lunch. I would have stopped to take pictures, but there was a car not far behind me, and I figured he'd pass me and scare them off anyway. Hopefully, he didn't tell Wile-E-Coyote where they were. I sure didn't. After the car passed, I doubled back, and was able to see the individual birds, but I didn't get any pictures. Just so you know who we're talking about, I am putting a photo of a Roadrunner (not found yesterday) below.

Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner

Now I've used this image before, and I figured he was probably tired of running left, so I let him run right this time. ;)

Anyway, after I got onto Proctor Road and found my favorite parking spot, and settled down, I found it was just as dead there as it had been in Florida Canyon. I didn't get a single picture of a bird. But pretty soon, some folks with binoculars started wandering past, and so I figured they're birders, and asked one of them if they were looking for the Nightjar, and they said they were, so I drove on down to the cattle guard where I had heard him before, and parked there, and we all stood around (or in my case sat) and waited, and pretty soon, a cyclist came up to us. He got off his bike and racked it on the frame in the bed of his pickup, and then asked what we were doing. We told him, so he decided to stick around for a half hour to see if he could hear the Nightjar, too. He said he was wondering what the party was all about. After awhile, I told him, "I'll bet this is the quietest party you have ever been to!" He agreed. And I also said, "Better be careful; birding is contagious!"

(When birders are out looking, they're usually pretty quiet, but when they're listening for a bird, they get downright deadly silent! They won't even talk loud enough so that you can hear unless you're within 2 feet of the speaker.)

In about 20 minutes, we heard the Nightjar again! This time he called for at least 15 minutes, and he got real close at times. Some of the birders were listening elsewhere, and I heard the bird in three different locations, so it is possible there were up to three of them. It was still just a little bit light, so I thought maybe I could get a picture, if I could focus, but he never came out where I could actually see him. The fellow with the bike decided then to drive on back, and I did, too, because I wanted to get something to eat. I never did hear any other night birds.

As we drove out, we passed the birders who were walking back to their cars, because the Nightjar had stopped calling.

Got to Green Valley, and went to my favorite restaurant, Agaves (a very good place to eat with wonderful food), and discovered that only the bar was open. So I went in, and sat, and ordered my food, and it was good as always, but there were five people who were having a raucous conversation on the other end of the bar. I didn't say anything; I just gritted my teeth between bites. When I was finished, I asked the server if she had to put up with this every night, and she said, "No." And I said, "That's good!" I guess they were making up for the quiet birders!

Even though I didn't find anything new, did I have fun? Sure! And I got my exercise.

Best Bird

Birders will often tell you what the best bird was, that they saw that day. It is the most unusual bird, or has some other outstanding characteristic.

Sometimes when I don't find anything unusual, I'll tell my husband the best bird was... and I name something other than a bird. That's the way it was this time. I couldn't get any decent pictures of any birds. The best one only had half the bird (the other half was hidden behind the stalk he was sitting on).

So my best bird for the day might have been the Wood Nymph (Cercyonis sp.) I saw, shown above, or the Coral Bean (Erythrina flabelliformis) shown below. Coral Beans are poisonous, by the way. I have only seen them in two places in the wild, this being one of them.

The plant on the right is a Prickly Pear, the most common cactus in the world. This is Opuntia engelmannii. The fruit is used to make cactus jelly and the young pads are used to make nopalitos (both are good, but I prefer the fruit juiced straight off the cactus, and I like the nopalitos better.)

Here is a sort-of recipe for nopalitos. Harvest the young pads while they still have the rudimentary leaves, before they have thorns. Rub them in the sand to get rid of thorns and glochids. Cut off the edge that goes around it. Julienne them into strips about a half inch on a side, the length of the pad. Boil them in water with a little salt in it for ten minutes. Drain. Repeat twice. Mix with your favorite meat chili or other favorite Mexican ingredient. I like mine in beef chili, or I eat them plain. You can actually buy them in jars here, and I do that to have a supply when they are out of season.

Another candidate is this unidentified grasshopper.

When you are sitting and waiting for a bird to show up, always look for other interesting things. When you're walking a trail looking for birds, it pays to dawdle, or to sit quietly so the birds will start to come out of hiding.

These are other things I found that day.

Very Little Information

Guide to Night Sounds, A: The Nighttime Sounds of 60 Mammals, Birds, Amphibians, and Insects (The Lang Elliott Audio Library)

This book is available on Amazon. It is the only one that seems to talk about night birds and the sounds of night animals that I could find.

I found one reasonable one, but I can't guarantee it will have THIS species. I will also look for others. Of course, you can always go to the old stand-bys for birders to look at pictures, and Cornell University's ornithology department also has recordings available, and they can be obtained as an app for some cell phones. These can be useful in the field, but a person should not mis-use them, such as playing them to attract birds during the nesting season..

I usually recommend Sibley's, but recently, he came out with a second edition, and the color rendition on the photos is LOUSY, not to mention that the print is really too small. So I won't recommend that. If you want to get one, look for the first edition, which may become scarce as people discover the second edition is junk (until they re-print it and correct the faults, that is). So I will leave it un-recommended this time.

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    • tazzytamar profile image

      Anna 3 years ago from chichester

      This is such a lovely lens and the photos you used are spectacular :) I really learned a lot here so thanks!

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 3 years ago

      Chirp, chirp, chirp. Tweet.

      Or, in other words, wonderful article. Congratulations.