Young Naturalists For Nightjars
By Sean Higgins
Nightjars, including whip-poor-wills, chuck-will’s widows and common nighthawks, are some of our most bizarre and mysterious birds. Their nocturnal habits, long migrations and cryptic colors make it difficult for biologists to fully understand their habitats and populations. Ten young naturalists helped by joining a nationwide citizen science survey through the Center for Conservation Biology. This required a nature convoy by moonlight on one very hot summer night.
June 28th, 2012. 8:30 pm – 11:30 pm.
We rendezvoused at Pelican’s SnoBalls in Apex for a briefing on the scientific protocol while enjoying ice cream and dill pickle-flavored snow cones. From there we drove along the east side of Jordan Lake in Chatham County.
We stopped every mile to get out and listen for the cooing calls of nightjars. A chorus of katydids, green frogs and eastern spadefoot toads filled the humid air – but no nightjars. At times, we wondered if we heard whip-poor-wills deep in the distance – but then dismissed it as our ears playing tricks. At one stop we thought we spooked a gaggle of geese, only to discover young adults enjoying a nighttime swim.
For our final survey stop, we pulled onto a gravel drive between two straw fields flanked by forest. We listened intently in all directions for a full six minutes as the protocol required. Alas, we’d been shut out. As we gathered together for one final debrief, I tried to minimize the group’s disappointment.
“Our result of no birds is just as important to the conservation study as if we’d heard a dozen”, I said reassuringly. “Remember that it’s the combined data in all 48 states over several decades that allows scientists to…”
CHUCK WILL’S WIDOW….CHUCK WILL’s WIDOW… CHUCK WILL’s WIDOW…
“Did you hear that?”, a young naturalist shouted. “There’s a second one over there”, shouted another. “Can we count them in the study?”
I explained that we could NOT count these late comers in our official results, but we could make a side note of their late appearance. It was a fitting end to an unusual evening – perhaps a commentary on the shadowy nature of nightjars!
Wake Audubon’s Young Naturalist Club is a group of 12-18 year olds, their families and volunteers who join together for monthly wildlife excursions and service projects across the state. Learn more at www.wakeaudubon.org.