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  • Writer's pictureLogan Parker

Welcome to the Maine Nightjar Monitoring Project

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Eastern Whip-poor-will, © Logan Parker.

It's a calm, moonlit summer night in mid-June. You are standing along the edge of an old dirt road among the silhouettes of oaks and pines. All is silent save for the soft crunching of the roadway under your shoes. Off in the distance, you think you hear the faintest notes of a rhythmic song. You hold your breath and cup your hand around your ear in hope and anticipation, but all this quiet. Was it your imagination? Suddenly, an emphatic song breaks out from the trees just behind you at the road's edge - "Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!". The song is so loud and close that it buzzes in your ear until it suddenly stops. You turn your head-lamped head just in time to catch a fiery reflection in the eye of one of Maine's most secretive breeding birds - the Eastern Whip-poor-will - as it flies to its next singing post.

Common Nighthawk, © Gavin Keefe Schaefer.

Experiences like this can be had throughout the state by Maine's nightjar monitoring volunteers as they set out each year to document nocturnal birdlife. The song of the Eastern Whip-poor-will has become increasingly rare in recent decades as these mysterious birds have experienced widespread declines throughout their breeding range. Maine's second nightjar - the Common Nighthawk - has suffered similar declines. This aerial insectivore is more likely to be spotted as it pursues insects through the evening sky or heard performing its "booming" courtship display. The Maine Nightjar Monitoring Project was launched to gather information on the status and distribution of both of these nightjars.

Setting out on specialized surveys is essential to understanding the status of these birds because conventional bird monitoring projects, like the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count, take place while the birds are, respectively, silently roosting or away from Maine on their wintering grounds. This project asks volunteers to adopt and monitor routes consisting of 10 points passing through nightjar habitat. Surveys take place once at sunset and once after the moonrise on calm, clear summer nights. At each point, volunteers stop to listen for and note any nightjars and other vocalizing birds they hear. At dusk, birds like Wood Thrushes, Chimney Swifts, and Wilson's Snipe can be regularly expected. Barred Owls, American Woodcocks, Ovenbirds, and many other species can be heard as part of the nocturnal chorus on moonlit nights. The data we gather on birds other than nightjars is being shared with the Maine Bird Atlas (2018-2022).

A Maine nightjar monitor in the field.

Want to join the project and help us to gather the data we need to inform the conservation of Maine's nightjars? Visit the route map to look for an available route near you and complete the volunteer sign-up form. Need to practice your audio identification skills? There are species profiles for many of the birds you are likely to encounter during a typical field season and a quiz to test your skills once you have spent some time on each profile.

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