That Strange Call in the Night is the Chuck-Wills-Widow

Every year starting in March, I find myself listening for the calls of the Chuck-Wills-Widow.  They seem to arrive from the tropics right about the end of March, but this year they were a little later than usual. It’s a long migration to get here from Central America, and they announce their arrival with their calls that manage to be both enthusiastic and a little plaintive.

Either way, it’s like old friends have arrived for the summer.  They nest on the ground, and last summer this one laid her eggs over near Huyler House.  Check out how camouflaged she is: looking just like a pine cone nestled in the straw.

Ready to give up?  Here she is:

If you didn’t know exactly what you were looking at, you’d mistake her for a pine cone.  The first time I saw one on the ground, there was a nest near a beach walkway, and I almost stepped on the bird before I realized what was going on.  

But it gave us a chance to check on her during our turtle team walks, and a few days later we saw these egg shells a good distance (12-20 feet) away from the bird.  I headed home to do a little research, and they were indeed the eggs of the Chuck-wills-widow!  Buff and oval with purple and gray marks, the eggs can be moved by the adults with those huge mouths, and I suspect that an adult may have moved them away from the nest area intentionally as a way to keep that site well hidden in the leaf litter.

I am a huge fan of conservation photographer Melissa Groo, who (with Kenn Kauffman) has conveniently put together this Guide to Ethical Wildlife Photography for Audubon, and I believe strongly that anyone photographing nesting birds should be a LONG way away to avoid stressing the birds.  So far away that the two times I have photographed tiny Chuck-Wills-Widow chicks, I wasn’t even aware they were there until I got home and looked at the photos on a full screen.  Adult birds stay with their youngsters to help camouflage them until their downy feathers give way to their cryptic feathers.

And here’s an amazing fact– adults can move those youngsters deeper into the forest if they feel like they’re in a risky location, so you always want to stay back and limit your observations to a really short period of time.  

For now, I am happy to leave the windows open in the spring evenings and listen to their calls echoing through the maritime forest.