Buff-collared Nightjars are large tropical members of the Goatsucker or Caprimulgidae family that regularly cross into the U.S along the Arizona- Mexico border. In a couple of isolated, rocky, desert canyons their loud “Co-Coo-Coo JEA” can sometimes be heard just before and after dusk. With a U.S. population that can be counted on one hand, by any measure they are one of the rarest birds in the United States and are sought after by birders building a big “life list”. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a hard-core lister or because I consider the border to be an artificial boundary where natural history is concerned, but I’ve never taken the time to make the pilgrimage to the remote canyon where the birds have been heard the last few summers to join the throngs of the hopeful. They haven’t been recorded in Cochise County, the Connecticut-sized county where we live, in several years.
So it came as quite a surprise when, as we conducted an early morning bird survey on mining company property near our home in Bisbee, we heard four different Northern Mockingbirds giving the Buff-collared Nightjar call as part of their morning repertoire. Although it can be confused with a Cassin’s Kingbird dawn call or Vermilion Flycatcher, this was clearly a Buff-collared Nightjar call. Where did they hear a nightjar? Three of the mockingbirds could have learned it from the fourth but someone somewhere had to learn it from the original artist. Did our mockingbirds take a trip to Mexico or did a Buff-collard Nightjar visit the area and serenade the locals? Mockingbirds are amazing mimics, I’ve heard them do car alarms and imitate talking budgies but they lack the creative originality to coincidentally make up a new nightjar call. We’ll probably never solve this mystery, but it does raise some intriguing questions and we’ve spent a couple of evenings listening for a tropical visitor in our neighborhood.