Ode to a Nightjar

Close your eyes and imagine the soundscape of a warm New England evening in late May or early June. What do you hear? Is the raucous chirping of spring peepers and wood frogs emanating from a vernal pool? Maybe there’s an Eastern Screech Owl whinnying from a nearby nest cavity or the whistling wings of an American Woodcock’s flight display.

But how many of us remember the buzzy calls of Common Nighthawks swirling acrobatically through the twilit sky, or the onomatopoetic voices of the Eastern Whip-poor-will or Chuck-will’s-widow ringing through a forest clearing?

Eastern Whip-poor-will resting on a Cape Cod driveway (photo by Mark Faherty)

The sonorous melodies of our eastern migratory nightjars have inspired poetry, music, and folklore, but these mysterious birds have declined precipitously across their range over the past several decades. At present, ornithologists aren’t exactly sure why, though there are probably multiple factors at play, and human influence is likely a major culprit.

Both nighthawks and whip-poor-wills require early successional habitat like meadows and open woodlands, which have decreased dramatically due to urban development and the suppression of forest fires. With human encroachment comes an increase in predators such as domestic cats, which are devastating for ground nesting bird species. Additionally, nightjars need a healthy supply of large moths and other nocturnal insects, which may not be as readily available due to pesticide use and deforestation. For lovers of nocturnal avian species such as myself, the decline of eastern nightjars presents an obligation to study these fascinating creatures before they are pushed beyond the brink of recovery.

Common Nighthawk standing tall (photo by Brian Garret)

What isn’t to love about a nightjar? Such adorably bizarre creatures! The unmistakable three-part songs of Chuck-will’s-widows and Eastern Whip-poor-wills echo musically through wooded clearings, and nighthawks advertise themselves with aerial “peent” calls and phenomenal booming swoops. Their large black eyes allow them to see clearly in low light, but should you stumble across a roosting bird in the daytime, it will squint at you against the sun.

Whip-poor-will by daylight with squinting eyes (photo courtesy of Mike Trahan).

Long whiskers enable a nightjar to feel insects that fly within close range of its seemingly tiny bill, which opens wide to reveal a gaping maw perfect for swallowing their prey whole—which, for Chuck-will’s-widows, sometimes includes small songbirds!  Their coloration is a dappled patchwork of rufous, grey, black, and white splotches, providing seamless camouflage against rocky outcroppings and grasslands. They are perfectly adapted for their specialist lifestyles as crepuscular and nocturnal avian insectivores.

In Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the Islands are one of the last major strongholds for the Eastern Whip-poor-will, and even so, the species has lost nearly half of its numbers between the publication of the state’s first and second Breeding Bird Atlases (compiled from 1974-1979 and 2007-2011, respectively). By comparison, Common Nighthawks have declined by 70% between atlases and no longer seem to be breeding in the state’s remaining natural habitat, instead taking to gravel rooftops in cities where their reproductive success is not well understood. While the breeding range of the Chuck-will’s-widow seems to be expanding northward over time, they have yet to be confirmed as nesting in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, birders on the Cape and other coastal areas report Chucks on a more-or-less annual basis, especially within the past decade.

While the plight of these species calls for further study, research efforts rely heavily on support from local communities and input from citizen scientists, including observations reported in large-scale data projects such as eBird.

The distinctive Common Nighthawk aloft (photo by Brandon Trentler)

Spreading awareness of nightjars may be one of the best tools to fight for their conservation.This spring and summer, should you hear a buzzy “peent” call from above, look up for the characteristic white patches on the long slender wings of a nighthawk, and point it out to a friend! Visit an open wooded area and share the evening chorus of whip-poor-wills with anyone who is a stranger to their enigmatic song. Inspiring others to care about these cryptic birds will undoubtedly strengthen efforts for their protection, ensuring that they will continue to breed in Massachusetts for generations to come.

Elora Grahame started her bird banding career in 2012 with Northern Saw-whet Owls, then songbirds in 2013, and has worked as an assistant bander with master bander, James Junda, at Wellfleet Bay since Spring of 2016. As you may have noticed, she loves nightjars.

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