Nighthawks, paintings touch writer

John Pepin

“It seems to be a reverie, you’re here with me…whenever you’re on my mind, I leave the world behind.” — Marshall Crenshaw

With the day beginning to fade, they started — one after another — tumbling and hooking, carving slices out of the gray, clouded sky with the pointed ends of their wings. Their mouths hung open, as they scooped in insects floating on the warm evening breeze.

These were common nighthawks, already on their long journey south to Argentina for the winter. Such beautiful birds, in a subtle way, their bodies are mottled with buffy shades of white, gray, brown and black — save for a striking white chin stripe and two prominent white patches on the underside of the wing.

Having the opportunity to witness a portion of their tremendous long-distance flight was stirring. At once I was conflicted with feelings of excitement and sadness and simultaneous thoughts of “take me with you” and “please don’t leave so soon.”

Like chimney swifts and purple martins, common nighthawks are among my favorite fliers. Any time I see them is a profound blessing.

This is the second late summer in a row I have been able to see nighthawks in migration. I hope the trend will continue.

I find it heartening that birds and animals, while merely going about their usual activities, can interrupt us from our busy, break-neck, high-tech lives, even if for only a few seconds, to look, wonder and admire.

This occasion was no different.

I had just stepped out of the garage, having gone out there just to have a look around. The first passing nighthawk’s distinctive peent sound met my ears, turning my head immediately upward, my eyes scouring the skies.

This reminded me of a night more than a decade ago when an outdoor evening basketball game was interrupted by a large group of nighthawks — easily 100 or more — that wheeled through the sky — circling as they moved overhead.

The game stopped cold for about 20 minutes, while I found myself explaining how cool this was to several young folks and at least one adult.

On this latest occasion, I was hoping this would be another big “kettle” of birds boiling over the rooftops. Not tonight. Instead, it was several magical moments spent watching birds pass by above one-by-one.

Beyond the first bird I heard, all but one of them was silent.

If I hadn’t been looking up, I never would have seen them. They would have silently floated over and away. I always feel so fortunate to witness these things when I do.

In a brief reverie, I wondered whether the first nighthawk I heard had called when it had seen me, perhaps knowing of my longstanding love for them.

Maybe they “wanted” me to see them, so they could bid me well too?

Such are the things my hopes and dreams are stitched from.

In addition to nighthawks of the avian kind, I am also quite fond of the Edward Hopper oil painting of the same name from 1942. This very famous American artwork shows a late-night scene in a corner diner called “Phillies.”

A waiter dressed in white — like a soda jerk — is looking toward a man seated on the other side of the counter. This guy looks like Jimmy Cagney, from one of his gangster movies. He’s got a cigarette pinched between his fingers.

There’s a redhead, with bright red lipstick and a red dress, seated next to him.

To their right, at the triangular counter, is a stockier man, dressed sharply, with his back to the window. The street is desolate, there are coffee cups on the counter next to the trio of restaurant patrons. The light in this establishment is yellow and warm.

This is one of those paintings I could look at for a long time, again and again. It’s simple and complex all at the same time.

Whether it’s nature, fine art, food or a million other things, I think it’s quite interesting how they can all be enjoyed immensely alone or with someone else.

Some of these things can even be enhanced when enjoyed with tens, hundreds or thousands of people at the same time — like a concert or a baseball game or a play.

Then there are the things we watch alone or with loved ones, while at the same time collectively as a state, a country or a world — like kids in Thailand trapped in a cave, a solar eclipse or Bugs Bunny.

However, each of these scenarios presents a different dynamic, which tends to suit our various whims or moods.

There are many times when I love to witness a nighthawk flight, a meteor shower, a night on the lake or the river, a thunderstorm or the kaleidoscope of colors in the autumn leaves with others.

On other days, the rhythm seems off if there is someone else along for a ride in the car, a walk in the woods or a hike up the hill. Those solitary moments — without the distraction, obligation and politeness of conversation — are precious, restorative and often hard to find.

I sometimes like to sit in a silent room trying to do absolutely nothing but sit and relax.

It can be a very difficult thing to do.

It seems like there is always somewhere else I am supposed to be, something I else I should be doing or getting done, running out of time, daylight, money, milk or ketchup — “So you don’t forget, order by midnight tonight!”

Life is full of these pressures, and finding solace, seems to be more and more important as the world gets rougher, faster and crazier.

If I don’t get the time to at least take a walk out to the backyard on a regular basis, tiny things start to bother me. Bigger things seem much bigger than they should, and the world seems less and less like something I care to contend with.

I find it amazing how even just one minute or less outside can immediately change my perspective and disposition — “Look, there’s a nighthawk!”

This mysterious magic is somehow created through the senses — the sounds of water, the texture of tree bark, the sight of the aurora borealis, all the shades of blue in the water and the sky, the taste of wild blackberries and the smell of the air in the fall.

The sensations of heat and cold and a slowing of time passing, intuition, memory and mind, heart and hope, body and spirit also play a part.

But like most magic, I don’t want to know how it’s created, just that it exists.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.