Skip to content

Birdwatch

Easy Listening

But the whip-poor-will is harder to spot

By Susan Campbell

If you live adjacent to wet woods well away from the city, I am betting that you have been treated to a loud, repetitive call at dusk — probably for some weeks now. The raucous, distinct vocalizations most likely originate from a medium-sized, extremely well camouflaged bird. Not surprisingly, the endless three-syllable chants of “whip poor will” are made by the Eastern whip-poor-will. But make no mistake: This bird is as hard to find as it is easy to hear. Its mottled gray, brown and white plumage makes it virtually invisible either perched on a low branch or, as it does more often, sitting on the forest floor.

Should you scare up one of these birds or catch a glimpse at dawn or dusk, you will see that little about their plumage really stands out. Whip-poor-wills have a distinct white throat patch as well as pale coloring on the corners of the tail but otherwise are quite dull. The outer tail patches on males are white but buff-colored on the females — otherwise they are identical. One other important difference is that only the males do the calling.

In early spring, whip-poor-wills make their way north from winter locations ranging from Central America to perhaps as far north as the Gulf Coast. Their overland route, which they cover at night, brings them up through the Southeastern states quite early in the season but, by the time they arrive, larger insects have already taken flight. This is critical given the fact that they dine solely on bugs. Their huge mouths scoop up a variety of invertebrates, including moths, beetles, grasshoppers, fireflies, and even wasps and bees. They are known to feed all night long if there is a full moon. Whip-poor-wills are versatile hunters, searching for prey items in leaf litter or, at times, rotting wood.

Because they spend most of their time flying in the forest, whip-poor-wills require open terrain like the open pine woodlands of the Sandhills region. Nests are simple scrapes on the ground made by females who typically lay two marbled eggs that are amazingly camouflaged in the leaf littler. Although it is the female who incubates, the male may perform a convincing distraction display at the nest site to lure would-be predators away. It is curious to note that nesting may be delayed so that hatching coincides with the full moon when the parents can spend more of the night hunting insects for their growing family. Young whip-poor-wills will move from the nest after hatching, perhaps to avoid predation.

Unfortunately in the East, many whip-poor-will populations have been in decline due to habitat loss. Woodlands continue to be replaced by both agriculture and, even more so, housing developments. Human activity has significantly reduced potential territories here in central North Carolina. But where they hang on, their summertime chorus rings loud and clear.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.