The Singing Widow: Meet Maine's "Third" Nightjar
J.J. Audubon, 1827.
If you have read any of the previous articles on this site, the title of this latest piece of writing might leave you scratching your head. Even if you have not frequented this site before, you (as someone interested in nature and knowledgeable about birds) may be thinking that there are only two species of nightjar in Maine: the Eastern Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferous) and the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). If you were to state this thought, you would be almost entirely correct. Every field guide containing range maps will validate one's belief in there being only two nightjars to seek in our state. There are, indeed, just two species of nightjars known to breed in Maine. There is, however, a third species of nightjar that has turned up in our woodlands in recent years that is immensely interesting and worthy of our attention.
It is mid-June in 2018. I'm walking a dirt road leading into the woods as the sun dips below the horizon leaving vestiges of its power to linger and color the evening sky. Tonight I am walking with purpose and spurred by the information that an unusual visitor has come to haunt a particular patch of forest well within this area of conservation land in Orland, ME. Although I drove here alone, I'm soon in company with others who have been drawn by the same enticement. We station ourselves along the ever-darkening roadside. We chat in quiet and hopeful anticipation, while off in the distance, the rush of water coursing beneath a bridge can be heard. Veery sing slurring, descending songs while high in the sky the calls and "booms" of displaying Common Nighthawks can be heard. A silhouette breaks from the trees behind us and silently settles into a stand of mixed-deciduous growth before us. Was that our quarry? Much to our collective delight, the mysterious bird begins to sing - "Chuck-will's-WID-ow. Chuck-will's-WID-ow. Chuck-will's-WID-ow.".
Among the group, I'm one of the only individuals to have heard this bird before. This twilight songster was a Chuck-will's-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis), a nightjar of the southeastern United States only rarely heard within the confines of our own northeastern state. In May of 2017, I had taken a spontaneous trip to upstate New York in pursuit of a stray Chuck-will's-widow heard singing at the base of ski-lodge in the town of Warren. The song is so distinct that there is no ambiguity among the group over what bird species was responsible. As is often the case with nightjars, the Chuck-will's-widow is so named due to its "song" which to many sounds like a phrase composed of the words "chuck", "will's", and "widow". While we stood and revelled in this cheery nocturne, the distant songs of Eastern Whip-poor-wills started up from the woods beyond the stream, quiet at first and becoming more clear as the bird moved closer to our station. The nighthawks continued to call and boom overhead. We stood and enjoyed this "nightjar trifecta" for several minutes before walking back to our cars under the complete cover of night and watching for luna moths drifting past through the beams of our flashlights. We departed company cheerfully and drove to our respective homes with an appreciation for the fact that this was an event we might never experience within our state again.
Unusual birds turn up well outside of their breeding ranges more often than people realize. Weather events such as storms or turbulent winds can push birds off course and cause them to seek refuge in unfamiliar regions. Inexperienced migratory birds can overshoot their breeding or wintering ranges and settle for a time in areas far from their usual haunts. These birds that are far removed from their traditional ranges are referred to as "vagrants". They often attract much attention from local birders who seek the rare opportunity to add an unusual species to their life lists of observed birds. Most often these are one-off events and vagrant birds seldom return once they depart. The Chuck-will's-widow of Orland, ME seemingly became an exception to this phenomenon, however, when just one year later, presumably the same bird returned to very same stretch of forest. In the midst of a very busy field season, I blocked out some time for a quick visit when the weather looked too foreboding for alpine work or a full night of nocturnal surveying.
Again, I traveled alone to the site at twilight. This visit, however, I found the parking area empty and never encountered a soul along the trail. It was late June of 2019 and a thunderstorm brewed above nearby highlands. Although the sky overhead was clear and the warmest hue of orange, bales of thick, black clouds piled high above and threatened to tumble down over the forest with all their fury. I jogged along the dusky road, but was exhausted quickly by the immense humidity. Fog hung heavy on the trail and I could see the vapor of my own ascending breath in the light of my headlamp. Mosquitos fell in upon me while fireflies flickered like green-yellow sparks along the trailside. I passed through a large break in the forest and heard the familiar calls of nighthawks to the west and whip-poor-wills calling from the east. I prepared to reenter the shadowed woodland at the far end of the clearing (where I had seen and heard the bird the prior year), but was halted on the path by the nightsong of a Chuck-will's-widow within the forest directly ahead. For two years in a row, I was able to hear the songs of three simultaneously vocalizing nightjars. This was rare treat and an interesting development. I stayed for the better part of an hour and listened intently trying to discern whether or not a second bird was present (as had been rumored online). I heard neither a second male singing nor any interactions between this bird and a possible mate. Instead, I listened to this individual male patrolling his established territory and singing from several perches along the territory's boundaries. I made a hasty retreat towards the car while thunder rolled and winds began to whip up, making it back just as the night sky began to spit rain.
What makes this Orland vagrant Chuck so interesting is, in part, where it turned up - some 300 miles northeast of the northern limits of this nightjar's breeding range. Chuck-will's-widows are generally regarded as nightjars of the southeastern United States. They can be reliably found from Virginia south to Florida and west to central Texas. In the late 20th-century, however, these birds have expanded their summer range northward along the Atlantic coast north to Long Island, New York. According to the Maine Bird Records Committee, the first record of a Chuck-will's-widow in the state was on Mount Desert Island in 1974. Since that time, records of these birds are sparse and often decades apart. Looking at eBird, one will note that there have been several records of Chuck-will's-widow along the New England coasts in recent decades. Just this year, on the afternoon of May 23th, 2019, a deceased Chuck-will's-widow was found on a driveway in Milford, Nova Scotia. Later that very same night, a living Chuck-will's-widow was heard, observed, and photographed by birders more than 40 miles away in the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. These are among the easternmost records of this bird, though that record belongs to a battered and dying individual that was discovered at the Ferryland Lighthouse south of St. John, Newfoundland in October of 1988. What is also notable about Orland's chuck among these other records is that this individual bird seems to have returned for two successive years and attempted to breed beyond well beyond its known range. This was not a simply a wind-blown migrant. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon was also observed in Warren, New York - seemingly the same vagrant chuck I had pursued and found there in 2017 returned to patrol a breeding territory again in 2018.
Among nightjars, the Chuck-will's-widow is a particularly interesting species. In many ways, their life histories are highly similar to Eastern Whip-poor-will. Both birds belong to the genus Antrostomus, a grouping of New World nightjars established in the early 1800's by famed French naturalist and nephew to Napoleon, Charles Bonaparte. Like the whip-poor-will, this bird nests and roosts on the ground among leaf litter. By night, they sally forth from stumps, tree limbs, and the ground to capture flying insects such as moths, beetles, and flying ants. Also like the whip-poor-will, the Chuck-will's-widow sings at dusk, dawn, and on moonlit nights. Unlike whip-poor-wills, however, this bird is associated with more open habitats (like pasturelands and agricultural areas) and is somewhat more tolerant of suburban development so long as sufficient nesting/roosting habitat (open canopy forest) is maintained. Antrostomus roughly translates to "cavern mouth", a name particularly fitting for the Chuck-will's-widow as the bird is equipped with an impressively large mouth. Their mouths are so large, in fact, that these birds are capable of swallowing bats and small songbirds whole, something they are thought to due to supplement their diet during migration. While undergoing molt and unable to fly well, chucks will pursue insects and even frogs on foot. Their plumage is a cryptic pattern made up of gray, buff, and warm browns with black spotting. Male chucks sport a white collar and white tips along the edges of their long, rounded tails. Their very large heads house a set of large eyes which are well-provisioned with rod cells for excellent night vision. Their small bills are flanked on either side by sets of whisker-like rictal bristles to aid in the capture of prey. Chuck-will's-widows will defend their nest sites vigorously through a variety of behaviors including distraction displays (feigning injury), vocalizations (hisses and growls), and flying at potential nest predators. Nestlings and young chucks will try to intimidate would-be predators with hisses and threatening posturing. This knowledge of this fascinating species is just the tip of the iceberg of what there is to learn about the Chuck-will's-widow. Like many nightjars, they have been chronically understudied and there is much about their biology we have yet to discover.
As is the case with many nightjars around the world, Chuck-will's-widow numbers are declining. The factors driving these declines are elusive, but habitat destruction, declining insect populations, and pesticide contamination have all been suggested as potential culprits. While these birds have expanded their ranges into new areas of suitable habitat, Chuck-will's-widow populations are continuing to fall, so much so that in 2018 the IUCN Red List identified these birds as "Near Threatened". As migratory species, the integrity of both there breeding and wintering (in Central America) ranges is integral to sustaining their survival. As of yet, there is no evidence to suggest that Chuck-will's-widow are breeding in Maine. Under current climate change projections, much of this birds existing range will remain stable and, like that of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, may expand further northward into New England. Whether Maine will one day host breeding Chuck-will's-widows remains to be seen. All the same, we at the Maine Nightjar Monitoring Project strongly encourage our project volunteers to become familiar with the songs of this mysterious bird. Visit our site's species profile you would like to learn more about the Chuck-will's-widow and listen to audio samples of their songs. The project is still seeking volunteers to adopt and monitor routes and help us document the status and distribution of nightjars throughout the state. Who knows? You might just hear the song of this unusual and elusive bird while conducting your surveys.