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Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Night for Whippoorwill-ing

When my birding buddy Don & I were in the south last May, we saw no Whippoorwills, one of our target birds. So when recently I read of a Whippoorwill inexplicably setting up housekeeping in a patch of Forest north of Fair Oaks, we had to go check it out.

So late Saturday afternoon, Don drove in from the Bay Area and by dusk we were walking 400 yards up a narrow, red soiled forest path in what I think was Tahoe National Forest. The trail wasn’t too long and not at all steep, but I whined anyway, you know, to keep in practice.

pink & black ribbons marked the Whippoorwill sweet spot

Then at the summit of the gentle slope, we hit a wide spot on the narrow trail where hung some black and pink plastic ribbon marking the 'sweet spot' from which the calling Whippoorwill could be heard. There was then nothing to do but wait for the bird – that is, if the bird was feeling generous.

So, we stood quietly, feeding the mosquitoes. Watching Mars, a reddish bright spot in the sky. Soon bats with petite wingspans were darting around the trees overhead, eating - we hoped - their weight in mosquitoes. Don pointed out a little glowing green spot in the leaf litter under a tree. Honestly, I was certain it was a bit of litter. Amazingly, under a flashlight we could see it was a remarkable little glow worm, its tiny arse gleaming bright green. I've never seen such a thing before. Don said glow worm are cousin to the fireflies we saw back in Arkansas, but in the California sorts, it is the larvae that glows, not the adult insect.

This looks just like the glow worm Don found
the pair of white segments at its end glowed green

By the time a few timid stars emerged in the sky, we were tired of standing. Don dropped to the ground, stretching out on the forest litter, to wait. At last the Whippoorwill called from fairly close by. I leaned down to slap a High Five with Don. We had just enjoyed what was a lifer species for both of us. We didn’t speak, waiting to see if the bird would favor us again. Only a few minutes later we heard a crunching sound of someone else marching up the forest trail.

BLLLLAAAAATTTTTT, sounded a large fart, echoing up and down the forested hillside. Small bats fell out of the trees. I won’t embarrass the farter except to say that person’s name rhymed with “Lon”.

“What kind of a greeting is that?” approaching birder asked with a marvelous dash of sarcasm.

That was how Don and I met John Trochet, a devoted and long time birder whose name I recognized having seen it a b’jillion times in on-line birding reports. Soon the three of us were listening to the Whippoorwill calling again. Mostly short calls, and one call that sounded to me like ‘Cuckoo!’. But at least twice the bird sang its more diagnostic ‘Whip Poor Will!’ notes.

The only one who actually saw the Whippoorwill was Don, who saw the bird buzz by overhead. I would have killed to see the bird, but I am cursed by my incredibly faulty sense of direction when I hear sounds. If the sound comes from the east, I am nearly guaranteed to swing around and stare off into the west, so while Don was watching the bird shoot past, I was staring at barren pine trees. Bugger!

Following our outing, Don did a little on-line research and found a bit of news that cheered us both up a bit. The Whippoorwill species is soon bound to be split into not 2, but into 3 entirely different species. Besides the group east of the Mississippi, and the population of the Southwest, there is a third population of birds centered in Costa Rica, a mystical land I visited briefly, long ago and far away.

Whippoorwill

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