Friday, June 6, 2008

Whip-poor-will's Song Tugs At A Memory

Nostalgia sweeps over me when I hear the call of the whip-poor-will as he passes through the Central Savannah River Area in spring migration.

This wisp-of-the-night is a summer resident of the North Georgia mountains where I lived as a child. Consequently, his continuous calls were one of the first "bird voices" I could recognize. These denizens of the night came into the edge of our yard as the sun splotched glades of the surrounding woodlands were overtaken by the spooky twilight of dusk.

Although many people have heard the songs of this ghost of the night, few people have ever seen the author. These birds sleep all day on dead leaves and other debris on the forest floor, their mottled coloration protecting them from enemies.

I used to sit with my dad on the steps of a stone wall in the deepening dusk to listen to the whip's calling as he did almost every night throughout the summer. Suddenly, there the bird was on an almost bare oak branch where he began his incessant "whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will". Then he dropped to a sandy spot in the road where he continued his calling for a hundred times or more. Reluctantly, I had to go to bed most nights with the whip still calling.

This spectral bird belongs to the Goatsuck family. Believing these birds sucked milk from goats during the night, centuries ago Europeans gave them the ill-named moniker of goatsucker. These birds did and do fly around goats and cattle at twilight, but it is to catch insects bothering the animals rather than the whip's love of milk.

This fellow has an enormous mouth, bordered above by long, stiff bristles which act as a net in catching insects, their only diet.

Measuring around ten inches from his short, dark bill to the short, rounded tail, the whip's overall plumage mimics the color of dead leaves of the forest floor. He wears a narrow white necklace around his throat. In flight, white tail feathers flash out. The female appears all brown. The large, black pair of button eyes, typical of nocturnal birds and mammals, is the easiest field mark to attract attention.

No attempt at nest building is made. The two eggs, buff colored with gray or light lavender splotches, are laid on a litter of dead leaves where the flickering light of the woodland tends to give them protection. The incubation period is around twenty days. During incubation, the female sits with her eyes closed, the better to avoid detection.

The nestlings match the dead leaves on which they are hatched. Their down is soft and silky, shading in color from cinnamon on the back to pinkish cinnamon on the crown and abdomen.

The whip is a common summer resident of both north Georgia and the upstate of South Carolina. It is now thought to breed along the Edisto River in Aiken County and in the Lake Thurmond area. It has been heard calling in midsummer, a good indication that it is expanding its breeding range southward. It winters along the Gulf and Florida coasts. Some of the more daring will go on to the Islands for their winter respite.

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