Thursday, May 17, 2012

Goatsucker Grand Slam

Out in the rural area where I live, not far from a state game management area and lots of farm fields (abandoned and in use), we are so very lucky to have whip-poor-wills and, even luckier to have a chuck-will's-widow!

I first heard whip-poor-wills about 20 years ago down in the NJ Pine Barrens while leading a canoe trip down the Batsto or Mullica River (we did both...I just don't recall which one we were on this particular time).  We were camping (along with about 100 Boy Scouts) and the whip-poor-wills decided to call...all...night...long.  The novelty didn't last as long.

About five years ago a friend and I went out on a whip-poor-will survey in the Adirondacks north of Lake George - we didn't hear a one, although we got to explore some back roads where we heard pine sawyers (insects) "sawing" away VERY loudly in the woods.

Fast forward to life here in Michigan.  Because I live in a rural area, with plenty of farm land and shrubby areas, whip-poor-wills should be plentiful.  I was out walking the dog down toward the state land early last week when we heard our first w-p-w of the season calling.  Hooray!  Fortunately my house is far enough away that I can't hear them (all...night...long).

For seasoned birders, however, the w-p-w isn't as big a deal as the chuck-will's-widow.  Another member of the goatsucker or nightjar family, it is a lot less common, being historically a bird of the south.  In the 1970s and '80s it suddenly expanded its range northward into MI, WI, the Northeast and parts of southern Canada (Ontario).  It first appeared in MI in 1963 over in Kalamazoo County (west of where I live) and wasn't seen (or heard) again until 1972.  It's easy to see why local birders get worked up about it.

Last year the local birders were all excited about the presence of a c-w-w in my area, but the night some birders and I went out to listen for it, it was either absent or keeping its gaping mouth shut.  This year it has returned though, and Monday night the dog and I sallied forth (we drove over after our evening stroll) to see if we could hear it.

I wasn't convinced I would be able to distinguish one poor-will from another vocally, but my colleague from work gave me a good tip:  the "chuck" part of its call is very quiet and it's possible I might not hear it, but the "will's-widow" will be very loud.  I parked the car, let the dog out, and listened.  All I could hear was tree frogs, and they were bellowing forth with determination.  I was sure the trip would be in vain, when suddenly, from behind us, there it was:  "will's-widow!"  I turned eastward and cupped my hands behind my ears, greatly improving my auditory capabilities.  Lo!  and behold!  I could suddenly hear the quiet "chuck" before each loud "will's-widow!" - a new bird to add to my life list.

Last night it was after 9 PM before I got around to walking the dog.  We headed down the road, the evening rush hour traffic having finally (mostly) passed.  At half a mile we turned back for home, and as we reached the open fields, something flew by.  This was new!  The flight pattern was very much like that of a bat - zipping and darting about as if in pursuit of insects.  The wings were ridiculously long and narrow for the size body it was carrying - about the size of a robin.  Its flight was silent.  It skimmed up the trunks of trees and darted from the branches back out over the fields.  It cruised up the road, over our heads, and again back over the fields.  At one point I thought I saw a white patch on the wing about where the wrist would be.  Could this be a whip-poor-will in flight?  HM...I just didn't know.

I called my birdy co-worker, but his phone was off (as it should be after 9 PM), so I was left without an answer until this afternoon, when I decided to take a moment to look up the flight of the whip-poor-will on-line, and just when I thought this must be it, I discovered a THIRD member of the nightjar family:  the common nighthawk!  These birds are readily identified by the white patch on the wings - a dead give-away.  They also have ridiculously long and narrow wings (which give them such agile flight).  Another life bird for me!  I owe someone an ice cream (maybe the dog, although they were probably life birds for him, too).  The common nighthawk is, as its name suggests, a common bird across much of the US and Canada and is noted for its courtship display, which is rather reminiscent of that of the woodcock. pays to break up one's routine.  If Toby and I had gone for our walk at the "regular" time, I never would've seen this bird.  Nor would I have gotten a Goatsucker Grand Slam all within a single week's time!

Life is good.


  1. This post makes me homesick for my Michigan rural childhood, when Whip-poor-wills called all summer nights, and my Ann Arbor student days, when Nighthawks soared over city buildings each evening. Haven't heard a one since I moved to NY in 1970. As for Chuck, that would be a new one for me, too. Congratulations on your birding bonanza.

  2. So nice to hear that goatsuckers are doing well in Michigan. Here in Ontario, whip-poor-will populations are in decline and I haven't heard or seen a nighthawk since 2007. Please send some over Lake Huron to us!