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A Spine-Tingling Night

Since as long as I've been a birder, I've longed to hear the call of whip-poor-wills. They're nocturnal birds, the most well-known of the nightjar family (also colorfully called the goatsuckers.) By day, they sleep on the ground or horizontally perched on tree limbs, and their dead-leaf camouflage make them almost impossible to spot. As dusk sets in, they awake and sing their names over and over.

I grew up with the sound of whip-poor-wills emanating from the woods behind our house, joining the summer chorus of crickets and tree frogs. So naturally Virginia was the first place I though to look for them. But I had no luck. I went deep into those woods (so deep that I probably ended up in Pocahontas State Park!), explored everywhere else I could think of from sunset to dusk, and never heard a one. Whip-poor-wills are on the decline everywhere. In many places they've disappeared, and unfortunately one of those places is my parents' neighborhood.

So I finally decided to put a serious effort into finding them in Ottawa instead, even though our population of whip-poor-wills is tiny and extremely localized. The plus is, here we have a vibrant birder community that can tell me exactly where to find them! So with the guidance of NeilyWorld, I drove to where Huntmar Drive crosses the train tracks, found a place to park, took a flashlight and went exploring.

It was in the woods where it finally happened. I'd been listening for some time to the evensong of veeries and wood thrushes when a distant whip-poor-will joined in. I actually didn't register it at first, and by the time I had it stopped. But ten minutes later another one started up, this one startlingly loud and close!

I spent the next hour or so, to dusk and beyond, trying to actually see one so I could lifelist it, but with no luck. My eager approaches seemed to scare them away, or at least scare them silent. But really, just hearing them is what I was hoping for! And I now understand what Peterson's meant by "tiresomely repeated." It's like they don't even stop to breathe. Although there are the occasional lulls. One long lull was finally punctuated by the spine-tingling sound of a pair of coyotes howling to each other--and then a whip-poor-will immediately started up again, as if he considered that his cue!

I'm happy with Ottawa. It may not have wolves. It may not have lynxes. But so long as it still has coyotes and whip-poor-wills, Ottawa is wild enough to make me happy.

Literally A Puddle DuckTwo Ottawa firsts, one welcome, one not


Mustang Sallie
June 9th, 2013 at 9:26 pm
I am so glad that your persistance finally paid off. Yes indeed, that was a GOOD day! Maybe someday you will catch a glimpse before they are gone for good.

June 9th, 2013 at 10:10 pm
Happily, significant chunks of land around here are protected, so there's at least reasonable hope that the wildlife will stay.