Have you ever been out at night driving along a country road and been startled by red ember eyes darting across the hood of the car, and then to have it happen every few hundred meters or so? If you are driving anywhere on roads, especially dirt roads, from South Texas on down to Argentina you are bound to see the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis).
Here on the Osa Peninsula on the road to the Osa Biodiversity Center it is a common sight to see the nocturnal nightjar hunting along these roads or other open areas at dusk, dawn or during the night. As twilight approaches, Pauraques will position themselves on the ground which is a good spot from which to see insects backlit against the night sky, or on a favorite perch sallying around in search of the nights meal.
They have very small beaks yet large gaping mouths with which to scoop up large insects such as beetles, moths and fireflies. The bristles around the face resembling whiskers are modified feathers which are highly tactile and controlled by muscles and are used to help hunt insects at night. They are likely there to also keep out-of-control insect legs and wings out of the bird’s eyes! This 11” (28cm) bird also has low wing loading which means their body is proportionally small to their large wings which makes them powerful flyers through wooded areas especially at night.
The genus Nyctidromus gives the Common Pauraque its first name “night runner” describing its nighttime ground foraging behavior and the species name albicollis is in reference to its white throat patch. In various parts of Central America it is commonly refered to as “Don Pucuyo” or “Caballero de la noche” for its association with love. Some parts of Costa Rica call this species “Tapacaminos comun” meaning common road coverer. Here on the Osa Peninusla it is known as Cuyeo. There is lots of legend surrounding this and other nighthawk (goatsucker) species related to both love and darkness.
Its cryptic browns, tans and buff coloration make this bird hard to see unless you are about to step on it. It will flatten itself close to the ground when danger approaches and then will flush at the last moment. It will then keep its eyes slightly open as you can see from the photograph to keep an eye on the possible ensuing predator. It places its nest of two eggs right on the ground with no pomp or circumstance usually in shady wooded areas.
So why hunt from a country road exactly? Studies have shown that Pauraques will actually sit along the side facing the road and are more likely to be found there during a full moon which reflects light on the dirt surface making it easier to find and catch insects.
You can find this and other photographs from Alan Dahl at Focused on Nature. The light morph bird was taken by me along the trail up on our Arbolito property just last week early August. This bird flushed from my feet and was very cooperative with her photo shoot allowing me to get quite close so I could bring you her image today.