Monday, May 20, 2013

Return of the Night Rider: The Search for Common Poorwills

Birding is thought to be an odd hobby by some. I have a hunch that this post may solidify my place as an odd birder. I can be an unorthodox birder at times. I think much of it stems from my childhood. I'm not referring to the psychological impact of my crazy childhood. I'm talking about how exploring nature played a big part in my childhood. When my friends were watching cartoons on Saturday mornings I chose to discover something new through an outdoor adventure instead.

I often have to repeat myself when I tell people I'm a birder. "A what?", they ask. When I use the words "bird watcher" they understand what I'm saying. "Bird watching" for me, however, conjures up images of someone just sitting around and waiting for birds to appear. That's way too passive for me. I prefer a more active approach--I go looking for the birds in varied habitats and I use creative means at times to explore those habitats. Saturday morning, for example, I drove my truck around the Provo Airport Dike with a friend. We found two rare birds for Utah County, a male Summer Tanager and a Northern Waterthrush. After the drive around the dike I drove into the nearby mountains and hiked ravines and ridges to the point of a near heart attack searching for mountain birds. A Cooper's Hawk was a nice find. However, this post isn't about those birds or those means for getting around. This post is about using a mountain bike and a headlamp to find a relatively unknown crepuscular/nocturnal bird that comes to breed in Utah during the summer months.

About three years ago I purchased a headlamp because I wanted to be able to ride my mountain bike for exercise before the sun was up. The headlamp was intended for safety, but it soon revealed an interesting benefit to biking in the foothills in the dark. I realized that the light reflected from the eyes of deer, raccoons, rabbits, assorted cats, and more. The first morning I tried the headlamp I noticed a small dark object on the trail ahead of me. A small reflection was coming from the thicker side of the object. As I got closer the dark object took flight. I wondered if I had just seen my first Common Poorwill. It landed about 15 feet down the trail so I approached it slowly and got close enough to see that it was indeed a Poorwill. That gave birth to a spring/summer evening tradition--night riding for Poorwills. What a thrill to be riding along in the dark and see the familiar glow coming from the trail ahead or a nearby hillside!

This past Saturday I set out for my first night ride of the season. I strapped on the headlamp, put a spotlight in the child seat into which I usually put my grandson, and put on a backpack containing my camera gear. I rode a 2 1/2 mile stretch without seeing more than a rabbit and a few people walking dogs. I turned around realizing that I would be seeing the area from a different angle, which had proven productive in the past, so I had not given up hope. About half way back to my home I saw the object of my search. Small eyes reflected my light from the top of a rock on the hillside about 30 yards from me. I put down the bike, grabbed the spotlight and camera, and walked slowly toward the bird. The bird posed calmly as I captured a few images from the front, side, and rear--all the while holding the spotlight between my knees so I could use my hands for the camera. Can you picture a young-at-heart 50-year-old grandpa doing such a thing at 10:30 at night while the rest of the community below was heading off to bed?

This first image isn't as clear as the others that follow, but it shows the dark throat of the Poorwill. There is a white band on the front of the neck, but it doesn't show when these birds are at rest. These birds have rather weak feet with very long center toes. You can see those center toes in the image below.

Common Poorwill Along Murdock Canal Trail in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
I noticed that its left eye seemed to have a glossy film over its surface. I don't believe it was the nictitating membrane (third eyelid) because it remained in place without blinking. You can see the glossy look in the images below. You can also see the bristles on both sides of the bill. These are believed to be helpful when foraging for insects in the dark.

Common Poorwill Along Murdock Canal Trail in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
The relatively small bill gives no indication of the large size of the poorwill's mouth. The gape, which extends as far back as the eyes, is hidden by feathers until the mouth is opened. Having a large mouth, nearly as wide as its head, is beneficial when snatching flying insects from the air.

Common Poorwill Along Murdock Canal Trail in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
The white corners seen on the tail feathers below indicates that this bird is a male. Females show a buff/tan color on the corners of the tail.

Common Poorwill Along Murdock Canal Trail in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
This last image provides a profile to show the bulkiness of a Poorwill's head. You can see that it is rather long for such a diminutive bird.

Common Poorwill Along Murdock Canal Trail in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Common Poorwills are the smallest of the nightjar family of birds and is found in the arid west from deserts and sagebrush into canyons and foothills during the spring and summer months. They winter in places like Mexico and the very southwest edge of the US. I've heard Poorwills singing at very high altitudes in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. They are about 8 inches long with a wingspan of about 16 1/2 inches. They are crepuscular (most active just after sunset and before sunrise) insectivores. They time their breeding with a full moon so they can hunt through the night to feed their young. They perch on the ground and rock outcroppings to hunt for moths and other insects that pass their way. They will often jump up from the ground to catch flying insects. Their wing structure allows them to fly in relative silence. Some individuals are known to go torpid during cold snaps and even essentially hibernate rather than migrate southward for the winter months. They hide in rocky crevices, reduce their body temperature, slow their breathing, and essentially shut down their digestive system during such times. This makes them unique among American birds.


  1. Hey! Nice detective work and super shots!

    It's so rare, and so nice, to get awesome visuals on this bird. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Laurence! I love exploring and the foothills near my home provide so many opportunities to explore. I learn something every time I go out so I hope to get some better images on the next outing with a few new techniques. I hope to get down your way in the next couple of months. I'll keep you posted.