Sunday, July 6, 2008

Walk in Florida woods flushes out nightjar

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 6, 2008)

I think I saw a whippoorwill the other day.

To avoid the heat, Ralph and I took our late afternoon walk on the high paths that crisscross a densely wooded part of the property where the tree canopy keeps the air a few degrees cooler. We were strolling along through pines, oaks and wild persimmon trees when, upon our approach, a large bird swept out of an oak into the branches of another nearby tree.

"What kind of bird do you think it is?" Ralph asked.

"Maybe an owl or a hawk," I ventured.

As we stepped closer to the tree into which it flew, the bird took off again to yet another nearby oak.

"I don't think it's a hawk," I said, suddenly convinced by its size, shape and flight pattern. "And I'm not sure it's an owl either. Maybe it's a nighthawk or a whippoorwill."

We watched the bird fly two more times, each flight just a short jaunt from one tree to another. I never got close enough to see it for long, but each time it flew by, I noticed more and more details. Its thick body was brown, its head large. It seemed to have the size and shape of a whippoorwill or, perhaps, its larger cousin the chuck-will's-widow.

Often heard but seldom seen, the song of this year-round resident is a ubiquitous nighttime sound in many Florida's rural regions. The chuck-will's-widow -- Caprimulgus carolinensis -- is a member of the nightjar family of birds. Its relatives include the whippoorwill, Common Poorwill and six other nocturnal nighthawks.

Because its song is so compelling, there have been many occasions when I've been drawn outdoors to search the night sky for this insect-eating bird. No delicate trill, the nightjar's three-part-whistle begins after dark in spring and early summer. For me, the similar sounds of the whippoorwill and the chuck-will's-widow have become symbols of summer itself. They remind me that chilly nights have ended and the warm weather has arrived. They also let me know that, while daylight is gone, a world of adventure is just beginning for certain avian species, bats and other mammals large and small.

Almost always, I'm surprised by how close the birds seem to be. Is the singer on the lawn right outside my porch? It sure sounds that way. Or maybe it's in the low branches of an oak or sitting atop a fence post nearby. I look out into the dark, listen hard, straining to locate the exact place from which the sound emanates. Unsuccessful again. Maybe that's why I was so excited to think I had finally chanced upon an unexpected daylight sighting.

Ralph and I stood in the woods for several minutes, waiting to see if the bird would fly by again. It didn't.

"Makes you appreciate nature photographers, doesn't it?" my husband asked, recalling some of the many amazing movies we've watched of birds, fish and wild animals.

"Those photographers must spend hours and hours just sitting and waiting for something to happen," he said, swatting away a hovering fly.

It was at that point, I suppose, we decided to move on. Our walk led us off into a different part of the woods where no other birds were flushed out of hiding by our noisy footsteps.

Later that night, I stepped outside just after dark. Sure enough, in the distance, coming from what sounded like the exact spot where Ralph and I had seen the large-winged brown bird flutter by a few hours before, was the compelling call of what was either a chuck-will's-widow or whippoorwill. Over and over, it repeated its three-toned message as if to say, "Find me now! Find me now! Find me now!"

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