Working on the Night Birds
Up to this weekend, I’d never actually seen an Eastern Whip-poor-will. That’s not much of an embarrassing admission, really. They are, after all, a species famously nocturnal and cryptic and actually laying eyes on one is as much a matter of luck as it is skill. And I have heard them on multiple occasions, as many of us have. What Whips lack in impressive plumage they more than make up for in boisterousness and you could probably make a strong argument that hearing this bird is more important that seeing it anyway. You are dealing with a species that is far more famous for its voice than any other aspect of its nature, what with its most onomatopoetic of names. If you had only seen one – say, sitting on eggs on the forest floor – and had never heard that incessant song like a runaway train charging downhill, you would undoubtedly have missed out on the very essence of the bird. And there are very few birds you can say that about.
But I’m still one of those birders that likes to see things, and having Eastern Whip remain hidden means that it was relegated to my life list’s “provisional” section – Appendix A, if you will – along with a couple other nightjars and a rail or two. It’s unfair, perhaps, and I feel guilty about it, but it just doesn’t feel like a life bird unless I get a look at it, even if that look is brief and unsatisfying as it so often is with these sorts of birds. And that’s really something only other birders can truly understand.
The unholy combination of Mother’s Day weekend and a Saturday full of three-year-old birthday parties had conspired to severely limit, if not eliminate, my opportunities for birding for the weekend. All I had was the evening, and so after bath, bed and story time at Casa Drinking Bird I headed out to a spot in northern Chatham County between two arms of Jordan Lake, where a power line easement cuts a scrubby path through a patch of open pine woodlands. A place where, I’d been assured, Whips are not only common, but are known to come out on the road and sing on spring evenings.
I got there well before sunset, in time to catch the evening performances of the multitudes of Yellow-breasted Chats and Prairie Warbler that set up shop in the youngest pines coming up in the cut area. They were out in force, raging against the dying of the light in that way that Chats are uniquely capable of doing. For a bird that I often find to be skulky and difficult, it was a fine opportunity to get some photos, even if the fading day made things a little noisy (I used the photo term correctly, right? I can never tell).
I’ve found that I can attract Chats in abundance by employing a simple whistled too-too-too-too-too-too, decreasing in frequency over a couple seconds. Cross that up with a little nasally pishing and you’ve got them eating out of your hands if you’re lucky.
The Chats were nice, but not why I was there, and as the sun set I began to first hear the plaintive call of a single Whip in the distance. Followed by another, and another, and another until there had to be at least a half-dozen of the birds calling within earshot, picking up and running from where another stopped. It had been some time since I’d heard Whips calling so vociferously, and that was a call bacl to my Ozarks childhood I greatly appreciated. But I had work to do, I zeroed in on one that sounded like it was calling from next to the road and made my way towards it.
I was sure to walk on the gravel road only when the bird was calling, standing stock still while it was silent. It was getting dark now, the sky running through the color spectrum quickly and turning from deep blue into violet. I had my flashlight, but it was off, all the better to avoid detection. An Eastern Screech-Owl threatened to blow my cover, and I was unable to resist the temptation to call back to it, but it never approached and the Whip still kept its cool.
Soon I was practically on top of the bird. I was so close I could hear the little pops of inhalation between every phrase. So close that I noted the little chuckles and pwip calls between boughts of song. So close that I estimated I was within 10 to 12 feet. I switched on my flashlight, holing it against my head as I scanned the floor in the hopes that I’d see that red eyeshine. The bird stopped, I stopped. I walked in a ways to see it it would flush. Nothing. No dice.
I gave up, headed back to my car at the other end of the road. I’d gone maybe 50 meters then the bird starting singing again with great gusto. I headed back, stopped right in front of it again and flipped the lights. No shine, but a big mothy, Mourning Dove sized bird flew over the road into the woods on the other side.
The Whip started singing on the other side of the road. I guess I’d seen it, so onto the official list it goes. It was every bit as brief and unsatisfying as anyone could hope for.