When Biologist Marja Bakermans mentions that she studies the whip-poor-will, she often gets the same response from long-time New England residents.
“I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I remember hearing that when I grew up, or when I went to camp in the summer, I heard 'em, and I just don’t hear them anymore,” she said.
The whip-poor-will is a small nocturnal bird that used to be heard across New England in the pre-dawn and twilight hours. Now the bird is in steep decline across the region, and researchers are trying to learn more about the bird before it’s too late.
The bird is best recognized by it’s iconic call — the persistent ‘whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.’
The whip-poor-will used to be common across the country, but it’s estimated that 70 percent of the population has declined since the 1960s. The birds’ numbers have declined around 6 percent annually in Massachusetts. It’s listed as a “species of special concern” in the state.
Bakermans and her husband — state ornithologist Andrew Vitz — are catching and tagging the birds in locations around Massachusetts to learn more about them and where they migrate.
One of their sites is Bolton Flats Wildlife Management Area in central Massachusetts, which is a perfect whip-poor-will habitat. The site is a former sand mine, shaped like a large bowl, where pine and oak forests surround scrubby and grassy fields that host swarms of flying insects that the whip-poor-wills love to eat.
An hour before the sun goes down, Vitz, along with student volunteers, sets up 12-foot nylon ‘mist nets’ around the area to catch the birds mid-flight. The nets look like large hairnets and are invisible to the birds once it gets dark.
Vitz says the biggest threat to the birds is habitat loss — development and changing landscapes have resulted in the loss of birds across the U.S. Whip-poor-wills thrive in ‘disturbed’ ecosystems — young forests that grow up after an old growth forest is destroyed, by an insect outbreak or a big storm for example.
“The natural disturbances that used to create these habitat types are largely suppressed — things like fire,” said Vitz. “Wildfires, if they do occur, are put out, with good reasons in many cases, but that’s changed our landscape.”
A devastating 2011 tornado that swept across central Massachusetts had a silver lining for the state’s whip-poor-wills, said Vitz. He said the storm destroyed older forests and created a substantial amount of young forest habitat, which is ideal for the birds.
“They’re really common in there now,” said Vitz. “Locals they say the same thing. They say, ‘Oh gosh, we hadn’t heard whip-poor-wills in decades — and now we do again.’”
Vitz and Bakermans believe if they can track the whip-poor-wills’ annual migration, conservation projects can be more targeted and effective.
“We’re trying to understand survival and habitat use along the way,” said Bakermans. “It’s really important for stop-overs so they can refuel or on the wintering grounds to ensure that they have adequate habitat there as well to survive in order to come back.”
The research project, a collaboration between Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Mass Wildlife, puts little GPS tags on the birds and collects data on where they go.
The sun went down at around 8:15, and like clock-work, the first whip-poor-will could be heard close to one of the nets.
Bakermans and Vitz placed little speakers under the nets, which played the whip-poor-will call on repeat. The call is meant to attract males who are guarding their territory or curious females hearing an unfamiliar bird.
Before long, Bolton flats became a cacophony of sound: tree frogs, spring peepers, nighthawks, green frogs — and the unmistakable call of the whip-poor-will.
Bakermans' phone started to buzz and ding with reports from volunteers that some of the nets had birds in them.
Back at the van, Vitz clutched a small bird in his hand. The whip-poor-will was brown with black and white speckles and black whiskers. Bakermans and Vitz took measurements of the bird’s weight, wingspan, age and sex. The birds are about 50 grams — the weight of 10 nickels.
Before releasing the bird, Bakermans and Vitz placed on it a GPS tracker the size of a raisin, which sat on it like a little backpack.
Bakermans will collect these trackers next year and download the data to see where the birds went. Last year, the birds went to Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, before wintering in Mexico and Central America. Bakermans says the birds seem to fly back to Massachusetts by way of the Midwest.
There’s a lot that has to go right for the birds and their GPS tags to end up back in Bakermans’ and Vitz’s nets.
“The bird has to live, return to the same place, we have to recapture it, have [the tag] still on and it works,” said Bakermans.
“Fortunately they have high site fidelity, which means they come back to the same place year after year,” added Vitz.
Massachusetts actively manages habitats around the state, by setting controlled fires and cutting trees, to preserve an ideal environment for returning whip-poor-wills — in the hopes the birds continue to be heard.