The Real Fun Starts After Dark

This past spring I got a taste of nighttime birding in Arizona and was eager to go after some of our nocturnal birds back home, namely Owls and Eastern Whip-poor-wills.  Steve Gardner and I made a couple failed attempts at owling, and then the talk of nighttime birding died down.  That is, until Joel Schmidt brought it to the forefront again, telling us all that he’s always wanted to check out a road near Granite Falls for Eastern Whip-poor-wills.  His desire was amplified when there was a report this spring from this road of several Whips. Unable to go because I was on the Colorado trip, Steve and Joel went after the Whips and were wildly successful, tallying six of them!

A call was put in to Randy Frederickson to see if he wanted join Evan and me for a nighttime birding foray.  He was in.  So late in the evening on Friday, June 5th, Evan and I finished up our week of vacation Bible school and met up with Randy.  Nearly an hour later, we got down to Co. Rd. 40 just east of Granite Falls as darkness was setting in.  This beautiful road follows the Minnesota River Valley with the river down to our right and the heavily wooded ridge of the valley to our left.  With no traffic, we had the blacktop to ourselves and cruised along slowly with the windows down enjoying the cool air and the sound of birds everywhere. Even in the twilight the birds were still calling voraciously. Great Crested Flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, Northern Cardinals, a Lark Sparrow(!), and a doggone Wood Thrush could all be heard.  I’ve never seen WOTH.  I’ve heard them, and since this bird is local and can be found annually, I have abstained from counting it until I actually see it.  This would be yet another heard-only WOTH.  Another sound we heard were the buzzes of FOY Common Nighthawks overhead which is a fond sound from my childhood days in southern Minnesota.  Looking up we could see them flying overhead with their distinctive white wing bars. Despite this cacophony all around us, we weren’t hearing the Whips.

Getting frustrated with not hearing our target bird, I called Steve to get more info. I think I got a few words out before an Eastern Whip-poor-will was loudly calling out my window! And then the fun began.  We got out of the car and tried to get a visual of this bird.  I had bought a high-powered flashlight for just such a birding occasion. Randy played the tape, and sure enough, the Whip came in.  I was able to track him in the air the whole time with the beam of my light.  It was so cool to finally see this nightjar for the first time and see how similar it looked to the Common Nighthawk. A flight view was the extent of the visual experience since it landed out of sight.  This scene would play over a couple times–great flashlight beam visuals in the air, no visuals of a perched bird.  I needed a perched bird for a photo.  When I realized in Arizona that photographing birds in the dark is possible and a lot of fun, I was dying to do so again with these birds.  Try as I might, we just couldn’t make it happen.  And it wasn’t for lack of Whips.  As we walked along the road we heard Whip after Whip after Whip.  It was insane and one of the coolest birding moments I’ve experienced.  We estimated at least five in this one short stretch of road.  Even veteran birder Randy was amazed at the population density we were witnessing; he had only seen a couple before in his life.

So much for a peaceful night.  All we heard were the Whips calling their name over and over: whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-hip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-hip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will.

Now I’m no Randy Travis fan, but you gotta give props to a man who can love someone longer than the song of a Whip-poor-will.

Since there were nearly a half dozen Whips in close proximity to each other, it was hard to even pick out a single one to track down.  Eventually we got in the car and drove on, hoping to find a more cooperative Whip that we could see perched. Right near the Yellow Medicine/Renville County line, we heard a solitary Whip.  It was close to the road, but I couldn’t pick it out with my flashlight.  Randy played the tape. Almost instantly it came in and I had the beam on it.  It hovered for a second seemingly wanting to come in the vehicle where Randy was, and then…it flew away far from the road.  Doggone it.  There would be no Whip pictures tonight to show you all. I’m starting to feel Laurence Butler’s pain with photographing those equally annoying nightjars in the southwest, those Common Poorwills.

So, sorry for a photo-less post, but regardless the live experience in-person was tremendous fun. Perhaps an overnight camping trip to Upper Sioux Agency State Park is in order.  We shall take another crack at the Whip.  And hopefully, we’ll whip it good.

8 thoughts on “The Real Fun Starts After Dark

  1. Cool! That’s something I just want to hear pretty badly in my patch. (I know a relatively close place where I could drive to hear them.) What time was it?

    Nighthawks were one of my favorite birds of my childhood in Southern MN (NU). I drew them and painted them. I now own the book “Nightjars: A Guide to Nightjars and Related Nightbirds” and the companion CD. I probably like Caprimulgids more than the average birder, though I’ve only seen or heard the one species in my life.

    I might have heard my lifer Whip-poor-will one once out my window this spring, but it didn’t repeat. Not sure if it was my imagination, or a mis-hearing of something else, or a real thing.

    As it stands, Eastern Screech-Owl is the only heard-only bird on my life list. I’ve got plans to pursue them later this summer when I hear them. (Stalking GHOWs last December worked very well.)

    [BTW, you misspelled “whip” twice in your big block of text. Did you actually type it all?]

    • 9:15 was when we got started, just as darkness was setting in.

      Nighthawks are pretty sweet. When we lived in New Ulm, I woke up one morning to find one perched on our deck railing. It was in my pre-birder days, so no photo was obtained unfortunately.

      Get yourself a good flashlight for night birding–my AZ friend recommends 500 lumens minimum. Spendy but worth it. He currently has a post up on being a better owler:

      I noticed that mistake too after-the-fact. Must be the math major in us. I did exponential copying and pasting (typed one, copied, pasted, copied two, pasted, copied four, etc). Must have gotten sloppy in the copying for my final iterations.

  2. Sounds like you put in a good effort Josh! Keep on trying, you’ll get good looks the more you try. I find nightjaring to be a lot more difficult than owling. I haven’t done it much.

    Common Poorwills sit out in the middle of the road (which I have good photos of), but other than that, I find it very hard. I’ve never photographed Whip-poor-will here in Arizona and have only seen them a few times. I did have one perched in a pine in Prescott last year and binocular views were decent, but it was out of photo range. Perhaps it seems hard to me because I’ve never set out with Nightjars as my main target, but I’ve always tried if the chance presents itself.

    Nighthawks are a lot more forgiving, thankfully!

    • Tips #1 and #2, right Tommy? Maybe if you lead the way and learn how to view them well, you can do a nightjar post. Then the rest of us can learn from you!

      • Nah, Josh. I think you should become the Nightjar man! Owls have worn me out enough. I want to be lazy with one of these families. Then I can use your Nightjar guide and it’ll be easy for me!

  3. Night time birding is always so much fun. I think for photographers, it’s always frustrating to try and get photos of these birds but the experience behind these birds is always a thrill. It’s kinda like being a kid out past their bedtime. And it’s exhilarating. You’ve been traveling a lot this year!

    • Well-stated, Chris. You summed nighttime birding up perfectly in a couple sentences where it took me a long, rambling post to do the same.

      Yes, too much travel for this teacher’s salary. And I just returned from Madeline Island in your home state. Wisconsin was sooooo good to me again!

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