Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Whip-poor-will is a bird more often heard than seen. An insect eater active at night, it can drive you crazy with constant and rapid repeat of its mating song – whip-poor-will whip-poor-will, on and on. They are found throughout Minnesota except in the southwest and far western edge. They favor woodlands. River bottoms and wooded valleys are a favorite location. We recently heard and saw them in Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, moving between an oak woodland and prairie marked with scrubby oak bushes. You occasionally can see or flush one from the tree branches on which these birds sleep during the day, stretched out parallel to the branch, well camouflaged. At night they sometimes can be seen on rural roads, identified by the orange glow of their eyes as vehicle headlights hit them. That is how we found and ran over ours. It was an accident. The bird was looking the wrong way, its eyes not visible. We saw it just before it fluttered off the pavement and into the bottom of our van. We stopped to examine it. This is a bird rarely seen in hand. Whip-poor-wills are members of the nightjar family, all with long wings and tails and cryptic coloration. Nightjar, by the way, doesn’t mean what it meant when my grandmother used the word. It actually comes from Europe where a similar bird makes a “jarring” noise, or so I read in “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest Choate. OK, now we have the remains of this bird in front of us. Closed, its bill looks smaller than expected, petite, almost hard to see when the bird is at rest. Opened, however, and it gapes from ear to ear, a huge basket into which the bird sweeps the flying insects it eats. Also cool are the bristles, the stiff feather whiskers on either side of its mouth, helpful in insect capture. This bird was one of three we saw, all roadies. We heard one but short burst of song. I’ve heard them sing all night long, however, not necessarily music even to the ears of a birder. The arrow in the first shot points at the hinge of the mouth.
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