Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Whip-poor-will’s Magic Song

The repeating call of the Whip-poor-will throughout the night is a joy and disturbance. More than one friend has told me they could not sleep when camping because the bird was incessant and loud. One said it stood on his tent. Many people look forward to hearing it but it is an uncommon treat for most.

One flushed from under a shrub at Ody Brook where I only got a glimpse. A couple days later, it flushed from the same area and landed facing the tree trunk on an oak branch. They sit lengthwise on branches unlike most birds that stand crosswise on branches. I called a friend that wanted to see one and he arrived later in the afternoon. We flushed it again and it flew to a white pine where it landed on the branch facing the trunk.

We were pleased with good views. They usually sleep on the ground under shrubs during the day. I have encountered them on tree branches in daylight but perhaps they had been disturbed from sleeping abodes.

Weather was great for migration the night I last saw the one at Ody Brook. It probably departed for better breeding grounds because it has not been seen or heard since. I seldom find the mysterious treasure or hear its hidden magic song emanating from the mature forest. During migration, they are usually silent in feeding and stopover sites. Hearing their call is a good indication they have reached a suitable nesting area.

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) and in the surrounding Rogue River State Game Area, there is better opportunity for hearing them. The preferred habitat nature niche is a large forest tract with scattered openings and sparse forest understory. Heavy shrub vegetation on the forest floor seems to be a deterrent. They feed on large insects that are possibly most abundant below the forest canopy or in forest ecotone edges.

They have a short beak but a mouth when opened is as wide as the head and used to scoop flying insects from the air. Insect abundance has declined for many reasons and so have Eastern Whip-poor-wills. Their population might be increasing in some areas due to reforestation and associated insect abundance. Forests along Lake Michigan have recorded higher occurrence and that might be a result of large forest tracts with scattered open areas. The dune country often has an open understory with scattered clearings throughout the forest.

Increasing use of insecticides and herbicides to meet the needs of our growing human population is considered a hazard that eliminates essential food needed for bird and wildlife survival. Reforestation and habitat management for hunting on public lands has been helpful for the whip-poor-wills. Their population might be increasing in some areas and declining in others.

Consider an after-dusk drive to the Rogue River State Game Area and stop at one of the North Country Trail parking areas along Red Pine Drive between 18 and 20-Mile Roads, near the Rogue River, or HCNC. Extensive deciduous oak forest or mixed hardwood/pine forest are places to hear their call. Seeing them is not likely.

A few years ago, I heard a stuttering individual in a mesic forest near a marsh where it repeatedly called whip-whip-whip-poor-will. I returned in succeeding years but have not heard that particular bird.

Some year I might flush a parent from its two-egg nest. That will require time afield during late May to mid-June. The nests are reported to be on the ground under low shrub branches but are not next to the trunk. Unlike most birds, they do not use material to construct a nest. Eggs are laid on existing dead leaves with no bowl or cavity shaping. After about three weeks of incubation, young hatch and are fed by parents for three weeks until fledging.

A well camouflaged adult will sit tight on the nest as I walk past unless I come too close. Perhaps I have passed within feet while the secretive bird watches me obliviously wandering though the forest. Maybe my grandchild will discover a bird on the nest and alert me. Spend time with kids discovering.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.