This past Saturday, I joined the Chicago Ornithological Society as they came down to the Iroquois County State Wildlife Area for a bird walk. This was not your typical bird walk however, this walk was at night and in search of a special bird … the whip-poor-will.
Whip-poor-wills are a small and very well-camouflaged bird that blends in with branch knots and tree bark. This species is rarely active during the day and is most often heard but not seen at night. Why were eight people in the middle of nowhere looking for it on a Saturday night?
Whip-poor-will populations are on the decline everywhere according to researchers. The North American Breeding Bird Survey has said there might be as much as a 69 percent decline in numbers since the 1960s. The most likely reason for their decline is because their prey, flying insects, also are seeing large population declines.
Our trip leader was Edward Warden, a COS officer who also works at the Shedd Aquarium as his day job. Edward had looked at the eBird database to determine where in the state the whip-poor-will strongholds were, and lucky for us, the COS was willing to drive south a couple hours to find them.
We had no idea if we would hear that famous namesake call of the whip-poor-will at all, and at the first two places we stopped, we didn’t hear one bird. As we moved down the roadside, we finally heard our first one off in the distance.
It was a big relief to the group, as it meant we didn’t all drive out there for nothing. As we continued through the darkness, we were able to hear more and more distinct individuals calling through the woods. At night’s end, we all agreed we probably encountered 10 different whip-poor-wills, which far exceeded our expectations.
Even though many were heard, we never actually got to physically see a whip-poor-will, but our group didn’t strike out on visuals completely. I brought local birder Bronson Ratcliff with me on this journey, and he knew of a spot on our route where the chances were high of seeing a barred owl.
Our parade of cars eventually got there, and, sure enough, after hearing a few more whip-poor-wills calling, we all caught a quick glimpse above our heads as an owl flew into the tree across the road from us.
Ratcliff was the only person optimistic enough to bring his camera to a nighttime bird hike. With the power of teamwork and head lamps we were able to spot the owl in the tree and spotlight it just enough to allow Ratcliff to focus enough for the picture you see here.
It was a great way to cap off the night.