Species at risk: researching eastern whip-poor-wills in Algonquin Provincial Park

Have you ever heard the call of a whip-poor-will? Unlike many other birds, its call is very distinctive. The eastern whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) is a “name-sayer” and certainly a vociferous one, with records of calls repeated over 1000 times!

 An elusive species

Although easy to identify by ear, they are very difficult to find by eye. Besides being mainly active at dusk and dawn, their gray and brown colours enable them to blend seamlessly into the forest. Their nocturnal activities combined with their excellent camouflage means some parts of this bird’s life cycle are a mystery, especially in Algonquin Provincial Park. Scientists know they are migratory birds, arriving in the central Ontario region in mid-May, departing again in September. Soon after arriving, the female lays two eggs directly on the forest floor. This usually occurs towards the end of May, with a possible second pair of eggs laid in another month. The young hatch out of the eggs in about three weeks; typically around a full moon. This timing is likely no accident: it is believed that the parents use the additional light to forage to feed their hungry young!

 

Declining numbers
This seems to be an effective strategy, as estimated nestling survival is high. However, whip-poor-will numbers are declining. For instance, in the 1960s it used to be common to hear whip-poor-wills along the Highway 60 Corridor in Algonquin. Presently, reports are from the east side of Algonquin only. The declining trend is Ontario-wide, leading the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO) in 2006 to classify the whip-poor-will as a Threatened Species.

 Threatened: Lives in the wild in Ontario, is not endangered, but is likely to become endangered if steps are not taken to address factors threatening it (COSSARO).

 Two main causes of this decline are suspected: a decline in food sources, and a loss of habitat. Whip-poor-wills are aerial foraging insectivores, a grouping of birds that includes Chimney Swifts and Tree Swallows and that is generally in decline. Habitat is also an important consideration, as relatively little is known about whip-poor-will habitat preferences.

 Why?

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that whip-poor-wills need a variety of habitat types; open areas for feeding and more closed areas for nesting. Open areas are naturally created by disturbances such as fire and wind throw, but it seems mature forests are too thick for the whip-poor-will’s liking. Some research seems to indicate that artificially created openings, such as those made by forestry can be suitable. But just how open and closed can these respective areas be, and of what size, proximity and species compositions? Some factors seem common among studies done in the past, but there is a need for better quantification, especially in specific regions.

 Algonquin research project

An example of a survey with edge space (hydro line), open spaces and more closed areas.

And here is where the research comes in! A project supported by The Friends of Algonquin Park, Bird Studies Canada, Ontario Parks, and the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund, a project is underway in Algonquin to examine if whip-poor-wills disproportionately use one type of forestry prescription over another. Forestry management differs based on the forest type and the management area.

Using the knowledge that whip-poor-wills call frequently in times of the full moon, teams head out every moon-lit evening to survey different forest types. The goal is to note presence or absence of birds and begin to fill the knowledge gap about whip-poor-will habitat preference. Areas surveyed vary in the type of forest management applied and time since last harvest, with a variety of patch sizes and shapes included.

By focusing on a sensitive bird such as the eastern whip-poor-will, the Friends of Algonquin Park and Bird Studies Canada are aiming to improve its ecological integrity in Algonquin Park, helping to protect and assist this unique and important bird species..  Informed planning for forest management can be applied both within Algonquin and other crown land areas over space and time.

 

Get involved

Learn more and report your own whip-poor-will observations!