A gentle breeze brings a draft of cool night air into the house as the sun settles below the western hills.
Crickets begin their nightly chorus as fireflies flit along the creek bottoms.
It’s a summer evening on the farm and dusk settles on the valley. Just as darkness falls, the maestro of the night orchestra warms up.
Nothing says summer nights more to me than the call of the whippoorwill, which instantly takes me back to my childhood and listening to the bird as I drifted off to sleep. It was the whippoorwill that greeted Sherry and I back home a few days after we moved to the farm in 2006.
We were sitting on the porch at dusk listening to the gobbles of turkeys settling in for the night and singing frogs from the creek. An owl hooted. In the distance, we heard the voice of the whippoorwill.
“Welcome home, welcome home,” the bird sang.
Sadly, the whippoorwill population has been on a constant decline, along with the nighthawk. Both are members of the nightjar family. The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative and other wildlife partners have coordinated an annual survey to collect data and better understand the secretive bird.
The 2019 survey is underway but is close to wrapping up. For information about signing up, you can visit http://wiatri.net/projects/birdroutes/nightjars.htm. But the 2018 results show there is no halt or reversal in the decline of the population.
The survey says the population is stronger in sand country and may not be declining as much in the Driftless Region. My Jackson County farm is located just west of Central Sand Plains and is part of the Driftless Region, so the habitat is apparently favored by the birds.
The population decline is attributed to less open forest favored by the birds. Invasive species such as honeysuckle and buckthorn are spreading in our woods. The other factor is an apparent decline in the moth population, a favored food of the birds.
Whippoorwills -- which are about 10 inches long with gray and brown colors that camouflage it well during the day when it roosts on tree limbs -- has a gaping mouth fringed with bristles. It flies with its mouth open, vacuuming insects whole.
The mysterious birds are also part of ancient lore. Whippoorwills are sometimes called goatsuckers, a myth that the birds followed pasture animals and with their large mouths sucked milked from goat udders.
The birds don’t nest; they lay two eggs on the ground and synchronize their hatch with moon phases. The eggs hatch 10 days before a full moon, when the whippoorwills are most active to hunt for insects. Being ground nesters makes them more vulnerable to predators.
While they are seldom seen, the bird makes its presence known by its repetitive nightly chant -- which is either loved or hated. The Audubon Society said one patient observer once counted 1,088 whip-poor-wills given rapidly without a break.
Patient indeed. It’s unknown if the observer was heavily medicated at the time or if the bird was hanging around an auctioneer.
Our rooftop seems to be a popular spot for the last calling activity of the early morning, which occurs just before sunrise. I’m getting up and the whippoorwill is getting ready for bed.
In a few months as late summer turns to fall the birds will leave, wintering in the Gulf Coast, Mexico or Central America. It’s always a sad time for me, as I wonder when I’ve heard the last chant of the season. I hope they are around for future generations.
I’ll be waiting in the spring to respond.