There is something I can’t quite put my finger on. When I’m in the woods at night, no other night noise, not Coyote, not bears, nor any other critter strikes my soul like the call of a Whip-poor-will. Perhaps it is because I share a name with the bird (Will) or that I am quite poor (Poor). I don’t get whipped very much, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.
At 8:30pm last night I arrived at one of the last reliable locations for this species in Eastern New York. It was a clear, calm and cold (for Early May) night. Using my tape recorder, I played out a Whip-poor-will call. No response. I tried a second time, again no response. I played it a 3rd time no response. I turned to my wife, shrugged my shoulders and said ‘I don’t think they are here yet, but I’ll try it one more time.” As I was finishing talking, we heard the tell tale song next to us in the woods.. “WHIP-poor-WILL!, WHIP-poor-WILL!” My wife and I looked at each other and could only smile. We had a brief conversation with the Whip-poor-will each of us exchanging calls only 2 times. Then just as quick, the song stopped and it made no difference if I played the tape. We did see the bird fly briefly ahead of us in our headlights, but we had no luck actually locating the bird.
Whip-Poor-Will’s were once much more common, along with their Cousins the Common Nighthawk. Reasons for the declines are not clear, but changes in undergrowth in forest (because of uncontrolled deer populations) and forest fragmentation seem to be the most likely causes. The birds as recently as 20 years ago were common across Southern Albany and Northern Greene Counties, but have now been reduced to one spot, one location on one road. The sad part, there are plans to put a house in that very spot. Once that happens, I don’t know if they will recover. So every-time I get the chance, I go to the spot and listen for them. And when the bird leaves for his nocturnal hunt, I can’t help but wonder if this will be the last time I hear them there.
Currently New York State DEC and the New York State Ornithological Association are starting projects to study the decline of the Whip-poor-will and hopefully find some new ‘hidden’ locations. I plan on participating in that project, so that I can preserve Whip-poor-wills for future generations, with the hope they will have the same impact on people in the future as they do on me now.