Sunday, June 7, 2009

Whippoorwill reprise

Mea culpa. A few other birders were culpa, as well: it seems that the Whippoorwill I thought I'd seen last week was really a Common Nighthawk.

Both species are very cryptically colored nightjars, which when perched essentially look like lumps on branches. There are some subtleties you can use to distinguish them in this situation, but I don't know them off the top of my head. When birder friends told me that there was a Whippoorwill along the Pines trail, I believed them. And when I got there, it certainly looked like one to me, and I had no reason to doubt them. And I completely understand their error, because this Whippoorwill wannabe was right where you'd expect a whip to be, and right where they were known to be hanging out this season.

But in the end, a Nighthawk is a Nighthawk, and there's a lesson in this for young birders everywhere. Fortunately, I'm not a young birder, so I can skip it and repeat this kind of mistake over and over again.

And I still got my Whippoorwill fix for the season. Nancy, who is not a birder, nevertheless appreciates a good show, and she'd been much impressed when we'd gone to see Whippoorwills the year before. So she was happy to come with me again to look for them last night. We were rewarded when over the course of the evening we heard not one but four Whippoorwills calling - no chance of mistaking that - and got to see one on the road.

At least I think we saw one, because we'd just heard a couple of them calling, and it was in just the right place for one to be, and...and...and as I said, I'm not a young birder, so a Whippoorwill it was.


  1. okay, so every once in a while you're allowed to make a mistake. just checked my field guide and i can see that was an easy mistake to make! i'd be happy to see either bird, myself ... and since i'm a "young birder (well, not exactly young in the sense of age, but you know what I mean), i have taken mental notes so i can learn from this lesson!!! : )

  2. You'll discover the frustrations of checking the field guide for a bird right in front of you, and seeing that it looks like none of the likeliest candidates, either because of the way it's holding its feathers, the angle, the light, molting, or just individual variation. But this wasn't one of those cases -- I simply didn't bother to check...