Nightjars Are Everywhere, But Just Try Finding One

Catching a glimpse of these night-loving birds, which include the whip-poor-will, challenges even the most avid bird-watcher

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When writer/photographer William Burt set out to photograph a group of birds known as nightjars, he figured it wouldn't be too difficult. After all, he'd successfully photographed two of North America's most elusive bird groups, rails and bitterns, for this magazine. After five years of chasing nightjars, however, Burt was forced to admit that photographing them was much harder than he had ever imagined.

Nightjars, named for their "night-jarring" calls, include the whip-poor-will, the common nighthawk, the pauraque of southern Texas, the Southeastern chuck-will's-widow and the common poorwill, found in the deserts and canyons of the West. Active largely at dusk and dawn, nightjars are as swift and silent on the wing as owls, yet more like bats in the way they vacuum up their prey in flight. By day they roost hidden in the shade of woods either on some scraggly branch or on the ground in a welter of dead leaves, so melded with their surroundings that they become nearly impossible to discern.

Burt spent many nights in the woods of North Carolina, braving mosquitoes, twisted ankles, and snakes in an attempt to catch the glow of a whip-poor-will's or chuck-will's-widow's eyes in his flashlight beam. Later, he tried locating their nest sites during the day. All his efforts failed. Finally, he enlisted the aid of nightjar expert Calvin Cink, a biology professor at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. By methodically sweeping a Kansas ridgetop using a special rope system, they found a chuck-will's-widow's nest. Although Burt stood only four feet from the nest, he still needed Cink to point it out. He eagerly photographed a pair of chuck hatchlings.

Several years later, Burt finished photographing all of the major North American nightjar species. "What a trial these birds had put me through!" Burt comments.

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