Stalking the Mysterious Whip-poor-wills
On a recent spring night, I was hustled through security at the gate of Camp Edwards, where I soon found myself embedded with an elite tactical squad. Armed with specialized gear and satellite-based technology unavailable just a few years ago, the team and I stalked through the moonlit woodlands. Our targets didn’t stand a chance. Yes, those Whip-poor-wills never saw us coming.
You see, these were ornithologists studying the state Endangered Eastern Whip-poor-will, a bird gone from much of its former range, but still common in the burned-over pine barrens of Camp Edwards. “Whips”, as we birders like to call them, are declining at 6% per year in Massachusetts. These still mysterious nocturnal birds face an arm’s-length list of existential threats. The types of open, occasionally burned forests these birds like have declined due to development and fire suppression, an increase of ground predators like foxes and outdoor cats threatens their nests, and the flying insects they eat have apparently declined, things like beetles and big moths.
But the relatively remote Camp Edwards, where a combination of military activity and intentional prescribed burns maintains the barrens habitat, has become a refuge not just for Whip-poor-wills, but for a slew of rare grassland and shrubland birds, plants, and mammals. New England Cottontails, our rarest and only native rabbit, and a species almost no one has actually seen, thrive here, as do Grasshopper Sparrows, American Kestrels, and Upland Sandpipers, all rare and declining birds statewide. Even a rare southern cousin of the Whip-poor-will, the Chuck-will’s-widow, has chosen the base as it’s only significant nesting site in Massachusetts in recent years. Listen for this increasing species wherever you hear Whips.
On this night, Marja Bakermans of Worcester Polytech, her husband and state ornithologist Drew Vitz, and base biologist Jake McCumber are leading an effort to recapture Whip-poor-wills they have tagged previously with geolocators.
These data loggers record and store approximate global positions throughout the year, but need to be recovered to download the data and reveal the birds migration routes and wintering areas. Mist nets baited with big speakers blasting the bird’s eponymous calls do the trick. Both recaptured and newly captured birds then get updated fashion accessories in the form of tiny GPS backpacks, technology not available for birds this small just a few years ago. Between these two technologies, the researchers have learned that Massachusetts birds tend to winter in Mexico and Guatemala. Understanding where they winter gives a more complete picture of the threats they face and what we can do to help them. And as I held one of these soft, shockingly light birds for the first time and stared into its big dark eye, I wanted to help them.
Many remember Whip-poor-wills being more common years ago, associating their incessant call with summer nights passed. They are still common in parts of the Cape Cod National Seashore in Wellfleet and Truro. I know from personal experience that they sometimes sit on the deck of a house and belt out their three-note symphony all night long. If you had a friend who screamed his own name over and over again all night long, you would stop hanging out with him, but somehow it works for Whip-poor-wills. The future is uncertain for these charming birds, and I expect their decline will continue, but thanks to folks like these researchers and land managers, they still have a home on Camp Edwards.