Eastern Whip-poor will Surveys

Eastern Whip-poor-will. Photo by Christian Artuso.

This year, for the first time, Manitoba IBA is monitoring a very interesting, incredibly elusive bird, the Eastern Whip-poor-will. It is one of two species of special focus this summer, along with the Red-headed Woodpecker. The Eastern Whip-poor-will is part of the nightjar family, a group of nocturnal insectivore birds. Coming from the same group is the Common Nighthawk, another bird found in Manitoba. After a week or two spent coming up with a proper protocol for surveying these birds, Amanda, Vicky and I conducted our first survey. More on that below, but first, we need to get to know the Whip-poor-will a little better.

The Whip-poor will is a medium sized, top heavy bird who calls out their own name. You may hear them calling their distinct whip-poor-will for hours on end. The Whip-poor-will is a ground nester, often choosing a spot next to a shelter from the warm sun. The prefer forests with open understory. They are incredibly hard to spot during the day due to their colouring and nocturnal nature. 

Whip-poor-will numbers are in decline. The Whip-poor-will is a threatened species in Manitoba and Canada and is on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List, which reports on birds that are most at risk of extinction without the intervention of conservation efforts. The main concern for Whip-poor-wills is the loss of open understory forests, which can come from conversion to pasture, crops or urbanization. The birds are also at risk for collision with cars due to their inclination to sit on or fly over roadways.   

Because this year was our first for monitoring these birds, we had to come up with the proper protocol. Working from the Canadian Nightjar survey (Birds Canada), we put together a survey protocol specific to Nightjars in Manitoba. Our first survey took place at the Delta Marsh IBA. Our version of the Nightjar survey this year is exploratory, meaning there are no set routes, and you simply drive around and find suitable habitat. We chose this option as there were very few records of Whip-poor-wills in Manitoba IBAs to base a route around. Typical suitable habitat included forests that are not overly dense and sections of forest or treed pasture with open sections of meadow. They key time to see (hear) Whip-poor-wills is the two week period around the full moon – for the breeding season this means the full moon in June. Once we find a good spot, we stop and listen for 6 minutes. It is important to remain very quiet and to not play any call backs. This usually involves turning the car off and sticking our heads almost out the window. Whip-poor-wills have very distinct calls, but sometimes they are far from the road, and their calls have been loud and very faint. We found when multiple birds would call at the same time, it was tough to figure out how many there were due to varying distance and the layering of the sounds.  

We have been fortunate to identify a handful of the birds on each survey we have conducted so far, meaning that we now know there are individuals located in the IBAs – a big step up from where we were when starting the surveys. This includes two surveys in the Shoal Lakes IBA and two in the Delta Marsh IBA. Because they are nocturnal, it is always by their calls. One observation we made was that we were only identifying the birds after it had become dark (rather than the 30 minutes before sunset start of the survey). That doesn’t mean they aren’t out earlier; we have just only heard them once other birds grow silent.  

The exploratory nature of the survey means leaving main roads and traveling mile roads within the IBA. Often it is a large area that we are covering and can be visited more than once. Sometimes we travel all the way down a road to find that we are simply moving closer to a do not trespass sign, forcing us to turn around and try another road. Vicky and I were very surprised when we drove up to someone’s driveway near West Shoal Lake and were greeted by two farms dogs and a donkey running to the car to say hello! If they were there to seem threatening, it only surprised and delighted us.

Overall, the surveys have been a success and I hope we will be able to monitor more before the summer is up. It is very exciting to know that this threatened bird is so close to home.  

If you are interested in learning more about whip poor wills or conducting your own survey, we would love to hear from you. We are also looking for any reports that you might have of Whip-poor-wills during the breeding period around any of our IBAs. Simply email Amanda at iba@naturemanitoba.ca for more information!