Lesser and Common Nighthawks – wing shape and pattern

Words and Images by Tom Johnson

Nightjars can pose significant identification challenges to us, especially when we see them in the daytime and they aren’t vocalizing. These marvelous aerial insectivores have incredibly complex patterns that form a camouflage that protects them on day roosts and nests, and the complicated variation in these cryptic patterns can be bewildering in the field. However, armed with even just a few solid field characters that hold up regardless of sex or age, we can usually separate two of the nightjars encountered most frequently in North America north of Mexico: Lesser and Common Nighthawk. This illustrated primer will give you some tips to sort out the field marks of the nighthawks in your life.

The overall golden tones, warm-toned spotting on the inner primaries, and position of the white primary bar (close to the wingtips) all help to identify this as a Lesser Nighthawk. Pinal County, Arizona, USA. April 2014.

The overall golden tones, warm-toned spotting on the inner primaries, and position of the pale primary bar (close to the wingtips) all help to identify this as a Lesser Nighthawk. Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, Arizona, USA. April 2014.

The pale (white here) bars across the primaries of Lesser Nighthawks are closer to the wingtip than on Common Nighthawks. On Lesser Nighthawks, the bar isolates a dark wingtip that approximates an equilateral triangle (three even-length sides) - the pale bar on a Common Nighthawk isolates a decidedly longer isosceles triangle of dark at the wingtip.

The pale bars across the primaries of Lesser Nighthawks are closer to the wingtip than on Common Nighthawks. On a Lesser Nighthawk, the bar isolates a dark wingtip that approximates an equilateral triangle (three even-length sides) – the pale bar on a Common Nighthawk isolates a decidedly longer isosceles triangle of dark at the wingtip. Pinal County, Arizona, USA. April 2014.

The extensive pale golden spotting on the inner primaries is diagnostic for Lesser Nighthawk. The position of the white bar on the primaries and the rounded shape of the wingtip are also helpful. Tucson, Arizona, USA. April 2014.

The extensive pale golden spotting on the inner primaries is diagnostic for Lesser Nighthawk. The position of the white bar on the primaries and the rounded shape of the wingtip are also helpful. Tucson, Arizona, USA. April 2014.

Resting nighthawks can be challenging to identify; fortunately, this one gives us two major clues to its identity: both the buffy spotting on the primaries and the short outermost primary (seen here easiy at the tip of the bird's folded right wing) nail this as a Lesser Nighthawk. High Island, Texas, USA. April 2013.

Resting nighthawks can be challenging to identify; fortunately, this one gives us two major clues to its identity. Both the buffy spotting on the primaries and the short outermost primary (seen here easily at the tip of the bird’s folded right wing) nail this as a Lesser Nighthawk. High Island, Texas, USA. April 2013.

The tertials of roosting Common Nighthawks often completely hide the white bar across the primaries. We can see that the outermost primary of this Common Nighthawk's left wing is longer than the next one in (on Lesser Nighthawk, the outermost primary is shorter).

The tertials of roosting Common Nighthawks often completely hide the white bar across the primaries. We can see that the outermost primary of this Common Nighthawk’s left wing is longer than the next one in (on Lesser Nighthawk, the outermost primary is shorter). High Island, Texas, USA. April 2014.

The white bars across the primaries of this Common Nighthawk are set back from the slim, sharply pointed wingtips. Also, note a lack of buffy spotting inside the white wingbars (compare to Lesser).

The white bars across the primaries of this Common Nighthawk are set back from the slim, sharply pointed wingtips. Also, the pale spotting inside the white wingbars is much less extensive than on a Lesser Nighthawk. Fort Hood, Texas, USA. May 2013.

This nighthawk seems to have a short outermost primary on its right wing. However, a closer look reveals that this is the result of a broken feather tip. An examination of the position of the white primary bar and a lack of buffy spotting on the inner primaries demonstrates that this is indeed a Common Nighthawk. Cape May, New Jersey, USA. August 2011.

This nighthawk seems to have a short outermost primary on its right wing. However, a closer look reveals that this is the result of a broken feather tip. An examination of the position of the white primary bar and a lack of buffy spotting on the inner primaries demonstrates that this is indeed a Common Nighthawk. Cape May, New Jersey, USA. August 2011.

In addition to learning field marks to help separate Lesser and Common Nighthawks, make sure you’re familiar with the ranges and seasonal distribution of these species. Check out the dynamic range maps on eBird to learn about nighthawk distribution in your neck of the woods.

Lesser Nighthawk – eBird map

Common Nighthawk – eBird map