British Columbia

Nighthawks disappear from Okanagan Falls Provincial Park

Trying to catch nighthawks isn't the easiest job, but three researchers from Saskatchewan working in B.C.'s Okanagan are having a harder time than usual.

'This year they're just behaving very, very strangely,' says nighthawk migration researcher Mark Brigham

Nighthawks are listed as a threatened species in Canada. They weigh about 70 grams, or the equivalent of a handful of loonies. (Brian Garrett/Flickr)

Trying to catch nighthawks isn't the easiest job, but three researchers from Saskatchewan are in B.C.'s Okanagan trying to do just that.

What's making their job even more challenging, however, is the birds they're used to seeing gather in large droves at Okanagan Falls Provincial Park seemed to have disappeared.

"This is now my 30th year at Okanagan Falls Provincial Park," said Mark Brigham, a biology professor from the University of Regina who is studying the birds' migration patterns. 

"I had never seen any decline in their numbers at all. This year they're just behaving very, very strangely."

'They disappeared totally'

Nighthawks are listed as a threatened species in Canada. They weigh about 70 grams, or the equivalent of a handful of loonies, and are most active at dawn and dusk when they hunt insects from the air.

A nesting nighthawk spotted in Squamish, B.C. (Gavin Schaefer/CBC)

"Last Friday, there were well over 100 birds foraging at the park. Normally I'd expect between 200 and 400," said Brigham.

"On the weekend they disappeared totally. Since then, there's been a couple of dozen. The numbers are way down from what we are used to."

According to Brigham, all birds that eat insects in the air are having trouble — from swifts and swallows to nighthawks.

The reasons are unclear, he says, but there is speculation within the scientific community these birds are facing trouble on their wintering rounds.

Brigham says knowing more about the migration of these birds might provide some useful clues.

"We think nighthawks fly to South America, but we're not sure where or what route they take."

Calling all birdspotters

He's hoping to catch birds they've already tagged in previous years with light sensors that could provide information on where they've been, based on recordings of the time of day the sun sets and rises.

A nighthawk flies over Kendall Indian Hammocks Park, Miami. (Brandon Trentler/Flickr)

With only a few days left in B.C., Brigham's asking for help from locals.

"If anyone is around Okanagan Falls at sunset, until when it gets too dark to stand on the river bank and read a book, just let me know if the birds return in numbers after this weekend. That would be informative for giving us a strategy for next year."

He says normally from around June until the middle of August nighthawks gather every night and put on a fabulous display of feeding low over the river.

If anyone's lucky enough to see this, he says, that information would be very useful to his research team. Brigham and his team can be contacted at Mark.Brigham@uregina.ca.

To hear the full interview with Mark Brigham, listen to the audio labelled Nighthawks

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