I’m the lead editor for the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ newsletter OFO News. Our June issue was just published. When one of the articles we’d had lined up fell through a week before the deadline, I put this piece together to take its place. I did the drawing above as accompaniment.
I’m borrowing that article to post here because we’re still without internet at home, despite my jubilant announcement of earlier. The technician was out this morning to assess the materials needed to obtain a signal, and will return next Tuesday to actually do the installation. Next Tuesday is the 21st. We moved on the 1st; that’s three weeks of internet-less-ness. I’m pretty sure that’s the longest I’ve been without internet at home since it was “invented” back in the ’90s. I’m definitely feeling it…
Despite having spent the first 20 years of my life growing up in rural Ontario, it has only been this summer that I finally heard a Whip-poor-will in this province. Historically, they were once found throughout southern Ontario, but I am too young to have known those times. My first experience with this unique and secretive species was while working as a field ornithologist in Ohio one summer. Our surveys took us into regenerating clearcuts in the wee hours of the morning, and, in several plots, as we walked in from where we parked the vehicles we would be accompanied by the emphatic, persistent, lilting calls, echoing from the forest’s edge. For me, the song of the Whip-poor-will remains a sound I firmly associate with the Appalachian foothills.
These days, here in Ontario, they are primarily a bird of “cottage country”. More often heard than seen, their distinctive voices are wedded to the image of quiet mist rising off the water’s surface in the pre-dawn light. Their population strongholds are in the patchy landscape that defines the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the Frontenac Arch, and the Bruce Peninsula. It is in these areas that the rock barrens, alvars, regenerating forests and treed savannahs are most abundant. South of the Shield appropriate habitat is sparse. If you want to find the species west of Toronto now, your best bets are to visit the patchwork of forest tracts surrounding Long Point, Rondeau, or Pinery Provincial Parks.
Their decline has been swift and dramatic. In the 20 years between the publication of the first Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario and the second, the probability of observation for Whip-poor-wills has declined by a statistically significant, incredible 51%. From a total of 884 squares in the 1980s (24% of all squares with data), the species was detected in just 559 squares in the second (only 11% of squares with data).
Although anecdotal observations on the decline of the Whip-poor-will in Ontario are abundant among older birders and naturalists, the hard data to support these reports have been sparse. Because of the species’ crepuscular habits, they aren’t regularly picked up on the standard monitoring programs such as the Breeding Bird Survey. Neither are the regularly detected at migration monitoring stations such as Long Point Bird Observatory’s long-running program. The first report providing firm numbers illustrating their decline came with the publication of the second edition of the Atlas in 2008.
In April of this year, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated the Whip-poor-will with the status Threatened throughout its range in Canada, and recommended that the species be considered for official SARA (Species At Risk Act) listing. Their assessment was partially based on the new data provided by the Atlas and other similar surveys.
It isn’t clear what has caused the staggering decline in numbers, although clearly habitat loss has played a large factor. This has been squeezing the population from both directions. In the south, increased agricultural use and urbanization of the landscape have eaten away at the natural habitat the Whip-poor-will requires. In the north, marginal farmland has been allowed to lapse and regenerate, and the open habitat the birds use for foraging has gradually been filling in.
Another factor may be declines in insect populations. Very little work has been done to track insect abundance, but anecdotal evidence(such as the slimy splats on car windshields) suggests that bugs may not be as numerous as they once were even a few decades ago. This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that some of the greatest declines in bird numbers are observed among the aerial insectivores, those that feed on the wing, including the swallows and goatsuckers. The reason for declines in insects are likewise unknown, but may be the result of habitat loss combined with increased use of pesticides.
In the United States, monitoring efforts to track populations of Whip-poor-will are being undertaken in a number of regions. One of the largest is the Northeast Nightjar Survey, originally initiated by New Hampshire Audubon in 2003 as the Whip-poor-will Project. A working group that included the US Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, non-governmental conservation organizations and academic institutions, was formed in 2005 and began completing surveys outside of New Hampshire as well. Its scope has continued to expand and the project now has routes from Maine to Maryland, and as far west as Wisconsin, monitoring all three nightjar species commonly found in this region.
In 2007, the Northeast Nightjar Survey partnered with Bird Studies Canada’s NatureCounts website to host and manage data, and provide an online interface for participants to submit observations. Formal surveys are not yet in place for Canadians wishing to participate. Currently, the only Whip-poor-will monitoring effort taking place in Canada is being run by Frontenac Bird Studies, a new initiative of the Migration Research Foundation intended to survey and monitor the breeding birds of the Frontenac Arch. This will be the first year of operations for their Project Whip-poor-will.
The pictures painted by these surveys aren’t likely to be very rosy, but they will help in determining the source of the problem, and devising solutions. Developing a better understanding of Whip-poor-wills, their distribution, habitat requirements, and local ecology is vital to the creation of successful long-term conservation initiatives directed toward protecting the species and reversing these declining population trends.