This field season I am working as a nightjar field technician with the University of Guelph's Norris lab and Master's student Elora Grahame to monitor, capture, and radio-tag Common Nighthawk and Eastern Whip-poor-wills in the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve in the Muskoka Lake district.
Common nighthawk are listed in Ontario as special concern and Eastern whip-poor-wills are threatened. The barrens are important breeding grounds for both species, which are ground nesters and susceptible to human disturbance and predation.
This summer we are deploying insect traps, remote camera traps, nest searching, and mist-netting, banding and attaching transmitters to adults and chicks to collect data for Elora's project. One of her questions is to assess whether roads act as ecological traps for these species, where the feature is selected and utilized by birds as a preferred site despite the risk presented by human activity and potential predators.
Not unlike my own study system in the Alberta boreal forest, the barrens house many trails for ATV and snowmobile use as well as hiking trails, gravel, and paved roads. Large mammals use these features as travel corridors and to-date we have spotted moose, fox, and coyote tracks along these trail networks. Others in the area include Algonquin wolves, black bears and white-tailed deer (my study species).
To-date we have conducted point count surveys across most of the barrens to detect both species. Surveys are 6 minutes in length and are completed during the dusk period when activity is highest. Whip-poor-wills were present at the barrens at the beginning of May and nighthawks arrived on May 15th.
Nighthawks can sound like American woodcock due to their distinctive "pe-ent" call, however upon hearing both species calling in the barrens we've learned to distinguish between the two - hence our excitement when we finally heard our target species and saw them flying high overhead. Male nighthawks will also make a unique "boom" sound. Whip-poor-wills have an unmistakable, quick, repetitive song and we've had as many as 5 singing at once from a survey point, indicating a dense breeding population.
Update June 07 2018
Nest searching is underway! After a quick visit to Long Point Bird Observatory to practice mist-netting and transmitter harness attachment, we are nearly ready to start catching nightjars in the field. We are in the process of registering the nano tags, organizing harness kits, and programming the camera traps.
We set up a camera trap in our yard to catch the compost-destroying culprit, bets were on raccoons and black bears. This morning the results were in - a black bear has been getting in to our compost and we've got the video to prove it!
Now we're out conducting surveys and nest searching at night. We're using the eye-shine from adults to find the nest and so far it's been pretty quiet in the barrens - but it's still early days. Last night we stumbled upon a common nighthawk nest by accidentally meandering off the main trail and onto a game trail. This nest was just a foot away from the game trail which is a very questionable decision. After taking a GPS point for this nest, we spotted eye-shine further down the trail on the barrens. It was another nighthawk sitting next to the trail but this time there was no nest - strange. We suspect she may be in the process of laying her first egg.
Update June 14th 2018
Nest searching has been somewhat successful so far - we've found a total of 3 common nighthawk nests, all with two eggs and incubating. Eastern whip-poor-wills have proven to be much more difficult to find. Both species like to nest on leaf litter on the edge of the barrens however we've had no luck so far finding these ladies. We're moving on to plan B - catching the whip-poor-wills in mist nets, tagging them, and tracking them to find their nests.
We've put together some stellar decoys to help us lure our target species with the help of audio playback. Meet whip-poor-will Vincent Van Gogh-in-the-nets and Maurice the common nighthawk.
Next we will be deploying the camera traps and insect traps to find out what predators are around the barrens, and what species these aerial insectivores might be munching on. So far we've seen many signs of black bear including rubbing trees, scat, and fur, moose, deer, and coyote tracks, fox, and mysterious wolf-like fur and accompanying howling under the full moon (no joke!).
Update June 17 2018
The camera traps are out and the birds are in! We've deployed 8 cameras in the Torrance Barrens which will be rotated every 3 days or so on a grid of 40 points. We'll find out soon if we've caught any potential ground nest predators in the area. So far we've lost one CONI nest to predation (the one next to a game trail, sadly).
We've started mist-netting, banding, and tagging nightjars with 3 male Eastern Whip-poor-wills sporting new nano tags and 1 male Common Nighthawk banded to date. One of our EWPW was already banded from a previous study which was exciting. We're hoping to catch some females soon so that we may track the females to their nests to monitor success and eventually attach transmitters to the chicks.
Update June 21st 2018
It's the first day of summer and we've got some news to share. Last night our team found TWO Eastern Whip-poor-will nests with chicks! After much nest-searching in the dark without luck, we've focused on deploying transmitters on adults for the past week.
Our new strategy to find nests is to track adults to the nest from their roosting sites and it works! Last night we tracked a male EWPW to his roost site in a cluster of trees and waited for the signal to change - we followed the male about 100 meters to a new spot and began searching for nests. The male flushed while we were searching and began singing across the barrens; however, after a few more minutes of searching the chicks were found on some leaf litter underneath juniper on the edge of the barrens. Mama EWPW came just moments after we began weighing the chicks, fluttering above our heads as we moved quickly to process the chicks.
We've finally got some EWPW nests, 5 adults with transmitters and 1 adult CONI. Tonight we are going to try to catch a nesting CONI and give her a tag.
Stay tuned for more project updates and follow me on instagram @siobhandarling for more photos
About the author
I am an early career ecologist studying how species and landscapes interact in the face of climate change and human disturbance.