This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are very excited to welcome guest blogger and good friend Liz Purves, an MSc student at Queen’s University, to tell us about her field work with Whip-poor-wills. Check it out below!
Despite their unmistakable and relentless song, Whip-poor-wills, in my opinion, are one of the hardest woodland birds to find. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was fortunate enough to assist Philina English (PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University) during her pilot field season investigating Whip-poor-will habitat use, reproductive biology, and feeding ecology at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). This research was exciting because it was some of the first to investigate the basic biology of this poorly understood but fascinating species at risk – and it was happening right in QUBS’ backyard.
Whip-poor-wills are superbly adapted to being difficult to find, which sort of explains why we know so little about them. For one thing, these birds are the definition of cryptic; camouflaged and motionless, Whip-poor-wills spend the day unnoticed by most as they sit on the leaf litter or a low lying branch in open woodlands. During this field season, I imagined Whip-poor-wills as elusive, feathery jewels of the forest. Needless to say, it was nearly impossible for us to find Whip-poor-wills in the daytime without radio telemetry or blind luck – and by blind luck, I mean almost stepping on one and having a heart attack as it flushes out from below you in a whirl of brown and grey.
Consequently, finding Whip-poor-wills required some unorthodox work hours. These birds come to life at dusk, dawn, and on moonlit nights because they rely on low light conditions to catch flying insects and carry out other activities after the sun goes down. So, it was during these odd hours that we heard males singing their hearts out around their breeding territories and saw individuals funnelling flying insects into their cavernous mouths alongside gravel roads. It was also during these dark hours when we would go looking for the notorious “whip-poor-will nests”.
We spent a lot of time searching for Whip-poor-will nests. Normally, nest searching can be a very difficult task, but Whip-poor-will nest searching may be on a whole different level. First of all, these birds lead a simple life and nest directly on the leaf litter; you will never be led to a nesting site by a Whip-poor-will carrying nesting material because no nest is built. Second of all, as previously mentioned, Whip-poor-wills are basically ninja masters of disguise during the daytime. So, the most practical way to find a Whip-poor-will nest is to stumble around in the woods at night and shine your headlamp in every direction, hoping to catch a glimpse of a nesting Whip-poor-will’s eye shine – the orangey-red pupil glow that results from having a tapetum lucidum for improved night vision – and not some other beast of the night. This method proved fairly effective; however, despite countless hours of walking through the forest at night, my personal nest finding score was still pitifully low (sorry, Philina!).
Not surprisingly, this field season was the most challenging, but worthwhile field experience I’ve had. Not only was most of the work conducted at dusk, dawn, and during the hours in between on moonlit nights, but it involved setting up mist nets in the dark, fairly difficult hiking over beautiful rock barren landscapes, and regularly deliberating between eating lunch and sleeping through it. And I’ll admit it, scrambling up craggy, poison ivy-covered slopes, the mysterious lip swelling from an unknown insect sting, and getting hopelessly disoriented in the dark were less than ideal. But despite these challenges, this field season had some serious perks, like getting to know Whip-poor-wills up close and personal (they are surprisingly soft and gentle), experiencing the entirely different “night world” at QUBS (sleeping Blue jays look hilarious), and being able to sleep in almost every day, which is unheard of during typical bird research. But, in the end, the thing that made all the struggles worth it was the feeling of triumph after spotting the warm orange glow of Whip-poor-will eye shine reflected in the light of your headlamp.
Liz Purves is an MSc student in Dr. Paul Martin’s lab at Queen’s University. Inspired by her field experience studying Whip-poor-wills, she decided to investigate the role of breeding habitat loss in Whip-poor-will declines in Canada for her current MSc project. In the future, Liz would like to continue contributing to projects related to species at risk research and conservation.