Wednesday, May 07, 2014

In Search of Chuck (will's-widow)

Nightjars are an odd family of birds that include the Common Nighthawk, Chuck-will's-widow and Eastern Whip-poor-will. They are characterized by short legs, long, falcon-like wings and very short bills. Primarily nocturnal, they are heard more often then seen as their cryptic plumage makes them difficult to notice roosting during the day. According to author Diana Wells the term nightjar refers to "their 'jarring' nocturnal cries." I'm not sure I'd ever call their evening serenades "jarring", but it is certainly a unique vocalization. Of these three, only the Common Nighthawk is seen regularly around Brooklyn and the rest of NYC during migration. The other two are very rare, although they've had some success nesting on Staten Island. This past week's northbound push of migrants included a few rare reports of one of these two scarce goatsuckers - the Chuck-will's-widow. From what I've read in various sources, not a lot is known about this bird because they are so difficult to observe, which makes finding one even more exciting.

On Sunday, May 4th, Peter Dorosh was leading a Brooklyn Bird Club trip in Green-Wood Cemetery. At around 11:30am they spotted an odd bird perched on a low granite wall that surrounds a family plot. Clearly smooth, gray stone is not the idea camouflage for this bird, so a couple of dozen birders had the opportunity of a lifetime to briefly study and photograph it. That is, until it was spotted by one of the resident Red-tailed Hawks and chased off, deeper into the cemetery.

There are very few records of this bird in Brooklyn. The first one I was aware of occurred on May 6th, 1995. My friend Doug, who was 9 years old at the time, was birding in Prospect Park with his father. He wandered into the woods adjacent to the Maryland Monument where he found the bird roosting. The only older record that I was able to find was also in Prospect Park. According to Bull's Birds of New York State, Joe Moraio of the Brooklyn Bird Club observed one on April 2, 1961.

In the past, when I needed one for my year list, I'd go with my birding pals to Staten Island in the middle of the night, park the car along a deserted stretch of Arthur Kill Road next to a lumber yard and listen for a distant, rolling (and endless) "chuck-will's-widow, chuck-will's-widow, chuck-will's-widow" within the conifers of Clay Pits Pond Park. We would hear them, but of course, never see them.


A few years ago, on April 30th, 2011, however, we got lucky. Myself, a few birding friends and a group of other birders had converged near the top of Lookout Hill in Prospect Park. As we approached the stairway that descends to the Maryland Monument, a large nightjar flew passed, chased by another bird, then disappeared within the wooded hillside. There must of been 15 pairs of eyes searching for that bird, but we never managed to locate it. Everyone agreed that it was a nightjar, either whip-poor-will or Chuck-will's-widow, but it took a little debating to decide on chuck, based mostly on its huge size (compared to whip-poor-will it is a bit more than double the weight, with a 7" longer wingspan). My friend Heydi and I thought it might be a good idea to go back at dusk and play a recorded song to see if the bird responded. Well, it responded better than expected and flew off the hillside directly towards Heydi's head. The bird was definitely a Chuck-will's-widow.

Wanting to get a visual on this past weekend's cemetery bird, Heydi and I met at Green-Wood on Sunday afternoon. I knew we had probably a one in a million chance to find it, but if I didn't try there would be no chance. We didn't find it. I went back briefly on Monday to try again, but still no luck.

On Monday, birders in Central Park discovered their own Chuck-will's-widow, which was seen by many folks throughout the day and in several locations. Either there was more than one present, or the unluckiest nightjar in New York State decided to take a rest in the most crowded urban park in the state, only to get chased from one roost to another.

My friend Sean realized that with these two reports of chucks that it was likely one might be in Prospect Park. He began emailing a couple of us in the afternoon about going into the park just before dusk to try and find one. Unfortunately, I was tied up and couldn't meet them. He joined up with Doug and Heydi and the three of them scoured the Lullwater and Lookout Hill. As they were walking off the hill near the Maryland Monument, they heard a singing Chuck-will's-widow across the Terrace Bridge near Breeze Hill. This is a large bird that has a very loud song that carries. Doug heard a second one farther off. It didn't take them long to find one bird perched in a tree close to the footpath singing his heart out. While Sean held a flashlight on the bird, Doug managed to take a couple of good photos. Here is one:



As they were leaving the park I got a call from Sean. I think his exact words were, "You need to go into the park before dawn." Then he explained what they had found. I texted him a little while later and said I couldn't wait and was hopping on my bike and heading into the park. It was a couple of minutes before ten o'clock when I got off my bike and stood in the darkness at the head of Breeze Hill's Lullwater path. Other than the usual distant background noise of cars, planes and people playing music, it was quiet. I took out my iPhone, launched BirdTunes and called up the Chuck-will's-widow songs. About 5 seconds into the playback, a startlingly loud round of "chuck-will's-widow, chuck-will's-widow, chuck-will's-widow" came right back at me from a seemingly low perch. As I walked down the dark sidewalk a raccoon skulked by in front of me. I decided it was too dark to find the songster and instead went back to the roadway to listen and tweet out the news. Keir called almost immediately for directions. He could hear the bird singing so clearly over the phone that he asked if I was playing the recording. Here's a short video from that night:



While it was a great experience standing in the dark listening to Sir Charles serenade a probably non-existent paramour, I hope to someday be lucky enough to stumble on one of these unusual birds roosting during the day.

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