Nocturnal Music: Nature’s Gift

By Ruth E. Walker

Photo by John Cassady

Just after nightfall, relaxing before the dancing flames of our campfire, we were interrupted by a noisy neighbour. You know the type, the I-don’t-care-if-you-love-peaceful-nights- I’m-gonna-be-as-loud-as-I-wanna-be kind of neighbour.

But this was not an ordinary noisy neighbour. This was the thrilling and remarkable call of an Eastern Whip-poor-will.

Now, I can distinguish the morning trill of a robin and the squawkery of a blue jay, but I’m no birder. However, one does not need a birder designation to identify this nocturnal resident of Haliburton – there’s no mistaking that “whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will” song.

Whip-poor-wills are a threatened species, which made our night time music show bittersweet. Bitter because whole populations have disappeared in Ontario. Sweet because if I heard that song, then it’s not too late for Haliburton County.

Eastern Whip-poor-wills are fussy about their homestead: no dense forests but no wide open spaces either. Laying eggs directly in leaf litter, they prefer rocky outcroppings or forests that are in early transition, often after a forest fire or other disturbances such as intensive logging or wind damage. They are hard to spot because a) they are dressed in soft tones of browns, grey and white with lighter shades on belly, wingtips and tail feathers , and b) because they are most active at night, helping to control the insect population that is their food source.

Given the number of mosquitoes, moths and fireflies we saw that night, I’d say their food source is fairly good. But it is possible that suburban behaviours, like trimmed and pest-free lawns, are not helping this fragile population. Being “Wild about Nature” is not a bad thing in Haliburton County.

You just need to hear the song once to know this is a species we should nurture. I’d sure like my grandchildren to share that amazing call with their grandkids. You should too.

Ruth E. Walker is an award-winning Ontario writer and has a cabin tucked between the Burnt and Drag Rivers in Haliburton. She is an active member of the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust.

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