Help Monitor Nightjars!

By Julie Hart June 5, 2020
Common Nighthawk Chordeiles minor

Help Monitor NY’s Nightjars!

NY is home to three species of nightjars–the Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Chuck-will’s-widow–and all of them are in decline. The NYS DEC conducts routes every year to track their populations, but pandemic-related restrictions mean that many routes won’t get covered this year. If you are comfortable being out after dark and it’s safe to do so, consider doing a nightjar survey.


Here’s How to Participate

1. Select a Route

  • Existing Nightjar Survey Route and Stop Locations in NY. If there is no route near you but you think you have good habitat for nightjars, please create a new route.

    The official survey route locations are available as a kmz file. Download and import the points to your GPS or preferred GIS application on your phone (Google Earth is a good option: Android or iOS instructions). Select a route near you. It may also help to print out a map or scout the sites in the daytime.

  • There are only 18 routes. If there is no route near you, but you think you have good nightjar habitat nearby, we encourage you to create a route. You will need to plot out 10 points spaced 1 mile apart. Make sure you can pull off the road safely (avoid major highways). Be sure to record coordinates for each point location on the datasheet in the space provided (you can get the point location from your eBird checklist). Target areas with forests next to open fields, gravel pits, pine barrens, and other areas with sandy soils.

2. Review the Protocol

It’s easy to do one of these sruveys, but they follow a standardized method that is used across the entire country, so you do have to prepare a bit in advance.

  • Print out the Field Instructions and Datasheet.
  • Read the instructions on how to record observations on the datasheet.
  • Learn the songs and calls of the three target species (see Species Profiles below).

3. Survey Under Good Conditions

  • Conduct the survey by or on June 13th.
  • Survey only at night (at least 30 min after sunset) and when the moon is above the horizon. Check your local moonrise forecast
  • Avoid nights with dense cloud cover. Cloudy nights will obscure the moon and quiet nightjars.
  • Do not survey during precipitation or high winds.

4. Record Your Observations in Two Ways

It’s important to record your data both on the field datasheet and in eBird. If it’s too much for you to do both at the same time (it helps to have a partner!), fill out the datasheet in the field and then enter it in eBird later. Because you will be recording at points, you don’t need to worry about block boundaries.

  1. Scan your completed datasheets and email them to Julie Hart at nybba3@gmail.com
  2. Record your observations in the Atlas eBird portal. Start a new stationary checklist at each point. Even if you don’t detect anything, still submit your checklist. Record anything else you hear, too. Black ducks, snipe, Ovenbirds, and other birds occasionally call at night.

5. Important Considerations

  • Your safety comes above all else. If you are not comfortable doing this type of survey or if there are local restrictions in place, do not conduct the survey. We are doing this to try to avoid losing a year of data, but it should not come before personal safety.
  • It’s possible you might run into someone else doing the same survey route. With the short notice and limited time before June 13, we are not asking people to sign up for specific routes. If multiple people conduct the same route, that is valuable information and will help us determine if birds are truly absent from a site or are on territory.

Species Profiles

Eastern Whip-poor-will

Eastern Whip-poor-wills have sharply declined in some areas, but their well-known song is still heard in areas with dry soils, usually represented by pines or oaks. They return to the state in late April and are locally common until they become quiet in late summer. Watch the roads while driving because their eyeshine is obvious and gravel or sand roads can be a favorite singing location. Occasionally a pair will sit on the road together, warranting a “P” code. One visit with singing warrants an S code. Return a week or more later to bump it up to an S7 code.

See Photos, Hear Songs, and Learn More About the Eastern Whip-poor-will

Distribution of Eastern Whip-poor-will in the Second Atlas (2000-2005).

Common Nighthawk

Nighthawks are most easily found during twilight or any time with a visible moon. They favor sandy soils statewide, especially barrens habitats. They can nest in cities on flat-topped gravel roofs, though no urban nest sites were found in the second atlas. Small numbers also breed in large grasslands or other open areas with rock outcrops or other exposed ground for nesting. There are several relatively easy ways to get this species to probable, including “M”, “S7” and “C”. Their courtship display is easy to hear and identify on breeding territories, see the “booming” recording below. Beware that this species is a late spring (late May even into early June) and early fall (beginning mid-August) migrant so seeing them hunting in the daylight hours during these times does not mean they are on territory. 

See Photos, Hear Songs, and Learn More About Common Nighthawk

Distribution of Common Nighthawk in the Second Atlas (2000-2005).

Chuck-will’s-widow

The habits of this bird are very similar to whip-poor-will. This is a rare species in New York restricted to Long Island, particularly in pine and oak barrens and on barrier beaches.

See Photos, Hear Songs, and Learn More About Chuck-will’s-widow

Distribution of Chuck-will’s-widow in the Second Atlas (2000-2005).


Here’s one last bit of encouragement. If you made it this far, you deserve a cute baby photo!

Baby Whip-poor-will’s are all mouth and fluff! Photo by Michael Akresh/Macaulay Library