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Outdoor Radio: The Distinct Song Of The Threatened Whip-Poor-Will

The whip-poor-will is a threatened species in Vermont, due in part to the decline of habitat that best suits these nocturnal birds.

Biologists Kent McFarland and Sara Zahendra head out to West Haven, Vermont at dusk to brave a cloud of mosquitoes in search of the song of the threatened whip-poor-will.

"We’re in the middle of nowhere and light is falling,” says McFarland. “It’s going to be dark pretty soon, there’s quite a few mosquitoes around my head. Where exactly are we?”

“We are in my favorite place in Vermont and we are about to listen for my favorite Vermont bird, and you know what that is? The whip-poor-will,” answers Zahendra.

They are on the edge of the Helen W. Buckner Preserve in West Haven.

“This bird whip-poor-will loves edges,” says McFarland. “It likes the edge of the forest, fields, so that’s where we are, there’s a big field out in front of us ... and hopefully, in 15 minutes or so when we get out in that field, we’re going to hear whip-poor-wills singing.”

They grab their gear and go get set up in the field. They meet up with Sarah Carline, another biologist from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who has been roaming the state of Vermont and listening for whip-poor-wills with Zahendra for the past couple of months.

“We’re going to talk to her a little bit about what we’re doing out here, why we’re looking for the whip-poor-will and what these surveys entail,” says Zahendra.

“The two of you, for the last two seasons now, have been coming out almost every night in late May into June … surveying whip-poor-wills all over the state because its threatened in the state, it’s actually listed as a threatened species,” says McFarland. He asks what they are trying to do with their surveys.

Credit Kent McFarland
Sarah Carline and Sarah Zahendra have been surveying the threatened whip-poor-will in Vermont for two years, counting the birds in comparison to historical data.

“We’re trying to get a count on how many whip-poor-wills there are, as compared to historical data,” says Carline.

“And we came over here because you guys say this is the hot spot in Vermont. I guess there’s more whip-poor-wills here than anywhere?” asks McFarland.

“It certainly seems like it,” says Zahendra. “Sarah and I spent all whip season last year in the West Haven and Fair Haven area.”

McFarland asks, “We’re standing here waiting to hear this bird because we can’t really see it, right?”

“It’s camouflaged. It’s camouflaged really well,” says Zahendra. “So there are two things that make these surveys really difficult. The first is they’re nocturnal. So this bird, during the day, is extremely well camouflaged, and it will roost in low branches, kind of hunker down on these branches and it looks like another branch.”

Carline says that the whip-poor-will is about the size of a robin.  “What it will do is once the moon is out, it will catch moths from a perch,” she adds.

Zahendra says that although they might not see a whip-poor-will that night, there is a chance to see them throughout the season. “If we’re driving down a dirt road in whip-poor-will habitat and you see two red, shining eyes by the side of the road, it’s possible that that’s a whip-poor-will because whips have eye shine …” says Zahendra. “Like a lot of nocturnal mammals, but unlike most other birds, these whip-poor-wills have a structure in their eyes that allows them to capture more light because they’re nocturnal.”

"Like a lot of nocturnal mammals, but unlike most other birds, these whip-poor-wills have a structure in their eyes that allows them to capture more light because they'e nocturnal." - Sara Zahendra, biologist

“So if we’re not going to see this thing, what we’re doing is we’re just waiting to hear it,” adds McFarland. “And we’ll recognize it right away because it’s going to make a crazy noise.”

Zahendra agrees. “You can’t miss it. If you hear a whip-poor-will you know you’ve heard a whip-poor-will,” says Zahendra. They hear one calling. “We’ve found him hear last year and sure enough, he’s calling from the same spot this year,” she says.

They note that whip habitat is difficult to find these days, which is contributing to their decline.

“They don’t call if it’s raining, or if it’s too cloudy or if it’s too windy,” says Zahendra. “They are also really linked to the phases of the moon. So, during the waxing moon, the full moon and the waning moon is when they call the most. So they’ll reliably call at dawn and dusk … on a full moon, they’ll call all night, but during the other phases of the moon it’s just after the moon is up and creating enough light for them to come out and feed.”

"They are also really linked to the phases of the moon. So, during the waxing moon, the full moon and the waning moon is when they call the most." - Sara Zahendra

The three biologists come so close to the whip-poor-will, they can hear him clucking.

“You can only hear it if you’re really close to him … [there are] three whip-poor-wills that we can hear right now. There are two that are right in front of us and then one really far away on the hillside,” says Zahendra.

“It would be great if they could use their big mouths and come out here and take some of these mosquitoes away,” adds McFarland.

Zahendra notes that they don’t call when they are flying. “So when they stop singing and they start up again, often times it’s because they’ve moved … I think we’ve got four whips actually … this has definitely earned its name as a whip-poor-will hot spot of Vermont.”

McFarland notes that to keep the pristine nature of the whip-poor-will habit they are in, someone would have to mow. Zahendra agrees.

“He is really close,” says McFarland.

“He is right on top of us, I almost think if we walked back in there we could find him,” adds Zahendra.

The biologists head back to the truck to let the whip-poor-wills sing in peace, and Carline and Zahendra head out to do another survey at a different location.


Outdoor Radio is produced in collaboration with the Vermont Center For Ecostudies with support from the Jack and Dorothy Burne Foundation.

This episode was previously broadcast in July, 2015.

Chris was Vermont Public Radio Audio Engineer for more than 20 years. In addition to his work for VPR, he has supervised the sound for television documentaries for the Discovery Channel, Turner Broadcast, and the Arts and Entertainment Network. Chris retired in December, 2020.
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