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About the Cover: January/February 2013 Birding

13-1-03-01 [Andrew Guttenberg]Andrew Guttenberg, a junior at Montana State University, created the official artwork for the 2013 ABA Bird of the Year, which graces the cover of the January/February 2013 issue of Birding magazine. Here Guttenberg tells us about some experiences that have inspired his nighthawk art.

About the Cover: January/February 2013 Birding

by Andrew Guttenberg 

I remember well my early days as a birder. As a middle school student in small-town northeastern Montana, I cheered the arrival of spring after every brutal winter. Migration brought with it eastern wanderers, and I struck out into my local patch every morning in hopes of turning up a Blackburnian Warbler or a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Those fresh, dewy excursions are some of my fondest memories.

Unfortunately, as I saw it, spring also brought summer. I immediately associate two things with summer in the northern plains: drought and insects. Around June, my expeditions through the puddles and glistening grass turned swiftly to early-morning escapes from the wind and dust,  wading through knee-high alfalfa, full of hissing grasshoppers and whining mosquitos. There were mostly mosquitos.

Millions of mosquitos. Clouds of mosquitos. Sheets of them covered any vulnerable piece of bare skin. I learned the fine balance of enduring the itching long enough to hold my binoculars on a sparrow, then immediately return to defense mode and wipe my skin free of my eager little    “friends.” Summers were indeed a battle. I so desperately wanted to find every bird I could, but there were only birds where there was water. And where there was water, there would always be a hungry swarm of Culicidae waiting for me.

With only my bike for transportation, and everything settled in for the summer, I quickly exhausted the feathered diversity in my neighborhood. I knew where every Yellow Warbler nest was. I knew the apple tree would be full of Cedar Waxwings in the early morning. I knew which bushes would have Brown Thrashers if I was patient. I did find wonder and entertainment in those days, as I gained intimate familiarity with the birds and their home.

ImgresThere were special nights, though, when something amazing happened, that without fail found me slack-jawed and silent, gazing at the sky as if I had never seen such a happening before. The day had passed, the lazy summer sun was hidden behind the endless prairie horizon, and a salmon-yellow glow covered the cottonwoods. Everything was hushed when suddenly from above came a familiar sound.


Nighthawk 2The peent! call of a nighthawk is difficult to describe. It is nasally and gravelly at the same time. It is drawn out and  descending while also sharp and direct. It is impossible to put into words.

Regardless of my literary inadequacy, the effect was the same. My eyes would bolt up to see a sky full of bounding, diving birds that seemed too large to be so buoyant. Like a giant glowing snow globe with no adherence to gravity, the sky fluttered with
the wings of the nighthawks.

In that moment, the mosquitos didn’t matter anymore. The  innumerable insects of the dry prairie summer had brought with them a spectacle of birds that could not survive any other time of

The nighthawk always held mystery for me. I never saw one perched in my  neighborhood. They flew in from the fields and fencerows and stayed far above, so I knew little of their actual appearance. They were wing-patched silhouettes, sleek masters of the air, and they lived in a world all their own, in plain sight but unapproachable. Maybe this is all I was supposed to know of
them. The nighthawks probably weren’t actually eating my mosquitoes, but they certainly gave me reason to bear them.

13-1-04-01 [Andrew Guttenberg and Jeff Gordon]S
tay tuned for additional
Guttenberg–Chordeiles content. Early next week, we will post to The ABA Blog Jeff Gordon’s interview with Andrew Guttenberg. You won’t want to miss that one!

In the meantime, scoot on over to the ABA’s 2013 Bird of the Year website, and learn more—lots more—about the strangely familiar yet unfamiliar Common Nighthawk.






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  • James Swanson

    I returned my hometown in Eastern Montana this August for a visit and was greeted the first evening while I removed my suitcases from the car by a huge flock of migrating Nighthawks. I dropped my bags, picked up my binoculars and wandered two blocks to a nearby park. I was getting high counts of 15 to 18 in front of my mother’s house, but in the park I was getting counts of around 50 before the birds had moved so much that I couldn’t keep track. Finally, I just sat down on a park bench and watched the spectacle of huge numbers of nighthawks feeding in the gathering dusk. I was there for more than half an hour before the numbers of birds started to drop, but I persevered for another 15 minutes until there were only a few birds in view at any moment before walking back to the house and bringing my bags into the house. Andrew’s painting catches the essence of that magical Montana evening. Thank you!

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