Sunday, April 21, 2013

I sing and prey while you are sleeping: Chuck-will's-widow

When a birder, Nathan Farnau, posted on GABO-L that he spotted a Chuck-will's-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis) in Centennial Olympic Park few days ago, I was wondering if I would be lucky enough to photograph this bird. The largest nightjar in North America, Chuck-will's-widows get their name from their repetitious call notes (click link to hear their songs) often heard at night. Few years ago when I was doing a night count with Sheila Willis at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, I was amazed to count 5 or 6 Screech Owls in a 4 miles loop, Sheila told me "Linda, pay attention if we are lucky, we might see a Chuck-will's-widow sitting in the middle of the road!" "Why do they sit in the middle of the road?" I asked. Sheila laughed and replied "that's where they like to roost".

Pouring Friday made my hope of snapping this bird drained to the bottom of the ocean. Everyone loves spring rain, but not in the case of photographers.  While places are filled with heavy yellow pollen especially in the southeast, rain is welcome everywhere. It washes away pollen from streets small or big, it cleans our cars, our back deck and it nurtures flowers and crops. I love rain too, don't get me wrong. But between rain drops and a nightjar, I choose the latter . "Hope this bird will stay not just migrate through my state", I prayed.

Chuck-will's-widow, female (as shown in this photo) has brown, rufous outer tail feathers,
Male's outer tail feathers are white.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker drumming on my roof gutter the next morning woke me up from my sweet dreams. I really preferred to snuggle with my teddy bear inside my warm blanket and I just realized what a beautiful, "sunny" Saturday morning! Did I say "sunny"? I could not believe what I saw from my bedroom windows and quickly checked my "Daily Briefing" app from my smartphone. "OMG, 40 degree Fahrenheit!", I screamed.  It was a very cold morning but birds love cooler temperature, so do I!  The good news is it'll be a sunny weekend with no rain whatsoever. I grabbed a bagel, jumped into my car and headed to the park.

Trying to relocate this bird roosting on a Chinese Elm where Nathan mentioned in his post was very unlikely. But I tried to be positive and optimistic and honestly, I had no clue what a Chinese Elm looked like. I stayed around near Baker Street and Olympic Park Drive for about 30 minutes and carefully inspected every tree with dense leaves. Not much luck. As time went by, more tourists flooded into the park, I did not like that because nightjars are skittish and they don't like human's disturbance. After 90 minutes of searching, I then told myself, "birding is a hit or a miss. Maybe today is just not my lucky day. But again, I might not have much luck on other things. But I normally have a very good luck on things with wings!" ..Hmmm "Should I stay or should I go?" I asked myself hesitantly. Oh, well, I never let anything bother me, especially birds show or don't show with a reason. "Maybe this bird is out somewhere preying...but I really want to photograph it....", debating in my mind and walking towards my car, again, I was thinking that instead of crossing the park under this hot sun, I'd go along edges of the park so I might get some shade or even pick up few migrating warblers. "What a great plan!", I thought.  As I strolling near the northwest corner of the park, two Rock Pigeons flew over my head and abruptly, I noticed another bird fly really low on ground, a pigeon sized bird, but definitely it was not a pigeon! I thought it might be my target bird, but until I confirmed with my binoculars I shouldn't want to be too jumpy.  "Yup! It's my bird, the Chuck-will's-widow!" Overjoyed! I did not move for the next few minutes and just wanted to enjoy this treasure-finding moment. She landed on a tree about 8 feet from ground and sat there for a good ten minutes and I snapped and snapped! Now she is forever mine :)

I believe this Chuck-will's-widow is a female from looking at her tail feather pattern. Male has white outer tail feathers, female has brown or rufous. And I also believe she might have a nest inside a holly bush as she actively preyed and flew in and out of one holly tree. CWW don't build a nest, they lay eggs on ground. They are nocturnal and prey insects at night, sometimes hunt small birds or lizards. They can be found in few southeast states during summer and they winter in south Florida and central America. CWW is so camouflaged, unless you have a keen eye their cryptic coloration protects them from major predators. They are in the family of Carpimulgidae, meaning goatsucker. In the old time, people believe these birds fed by goat's milk at night. But the truth might be that they are attracted to goats because insects around the animals. I read somewhere that CWW could call constantly over 1,000 times at night, birders' delight indeed, but a camper's nightmare! -- Happy Birding! -- Linda


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  1. That is an interesting bird.Is the male called a Chuck-will's-widower?

  2. I never thought of that, Mimi! What a great suggestion!


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