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GENERATIONS: Milk snakes, fairy diddles and goatsuckers

What do milk snakes, goatsuckers, and fairy diddles have in common? All are vertebrates (reptiles, birds, and mammals, respectively), and all occur in Minnesota. Milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) inhabit only Minnesota's southern counties, mostly in the St. Croix, Mississippi and Minnesota river valley woodlands. They are harmless constrictors, happy to eat the mice around houses and barns.

“Fairy diddle” is a southern Appalachian nickname for both the American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans). One online author claims to have no idea what the name means, but I think he's prudish. It refers to the widespread notion that these smaller squirrels castrate their larger cousins, eastern gray squirrels.   

Blane Klemek wrote about goatsuckers in the Pioneer in June 2013. Two species of the worldwide family Caprimulgidae occur in Minnesota, the Whip-poor-will and the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Whip-poor-wills (Caprimulgus vociferous) occur mostly in woodlands in eastern Minnesota; nighthawks occur throughout the state and north to treeline in Canada. Both  winter in Latin America. Though other species of Caprimulgus occur worldwide, nighthawks are strictly New World.

What milk snakes, goatsuckers, and fairy diddles share is their common names' erroneous implications. The smaller squirrels do not castrate grays, and milk snakes and goatsuckers do not suck milk from cows or goats, even though the Latin name Caprimulgus literally means “milker of goats.”

What got me thinking about all this was nighthawks in particular. They nest on flat, pebble-covered roofs at BSU and elsewhere. Decades ago, as I walked at dusk from my office on campus to our home on upper Calihan, nighthawks would “boom” me, beeping and diving from on high, and then swerving off just overhead, with a subsonic “woosh.”

After we moved to The Meadows in '05, that no longer happened, but I remember that Elaine and I noticed nighthawks overhead in late summer, leaving the North Country for warmer climes.

Most often, it was from the patio, after supper, in late August.

As mentioned here often, I'm a casual birder only, though I see something worth noting now and again, like the nesting crows in this column last July. This past summer has also been a good one for patio meals, often two a day. The brown thrashers I wrote about in June '16 may be the same pair that nested somewhere on the berm last summer, and it seems cedar waxwings also nested there this summer. But, two or three years ago, it occurred to me that I'd not noticed any late summer migrating nighthawks for ages.

Other birds have appeared as expected: Canada geese, chipping sparrows, ring-billed gulls, blue jays, mourning doves, cowbirds, bald eagles, killdeers, robins, whatever. Have seen neither ospreys nor harriers this year.  Would like to have a harrier nest out on “Salisbury Plain” again.  Our invasive West Coast house finches were rare this summer, which was fine with me.

But what could have happened to the nighthawks? Their preferred gravel-roofed nest sites are still common, small flying insects are widely available to feed on, and the weather is no colder than it used to be. Though their name implies that they feed at night, they feed mostly at dusk but also in the daytime. The only other birds that “hawk” for flying insects in mid-air are swallows and swifts, which are smaller than nighthawks, and ring-billed gulls, which are much larger.  Nighthawks are easily distinguished from all other northern Minnesota birds.

Like many migrants, nighthawks generally flock in large numbers mostly during migration. For instance, I saw a small flock of subadult white-throated sparrows on the lawn in early September. They were probably south of Little Falls the next week.  Flickers were also showing up in typically large numbers on their journey south.

So, what was wrong with the nighthawks? Why hadn't I seen any southbound migrants for  years? To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Evan, was not in the nighthawks, but in yourself.” I'd forgotten something.

During the last week of August, I'd finished supper on the patio, and it was almost sunset. I usually have Elaine's 7x35 binocs with me. (My 10x50s died in 2012 or so; cement holding the internal prisms in place apparently had deteriorated.) No birds of note on the lawn or berm, but noticed some swallows up high, so focused on them. They were higher than I thought, and lots bigger. They were, in fact, nighthawks. No danger of confusing nighthawks with swallows: the wings are different, nighthawks having a conspicuous white wing bar.

I had a mental image of nighthawks, but had forgotten that large image was the birds as seen through 10x50 binocs a decade ago. Good job I noticed them in late August; I've seen none since.