Help monitor NY’s nightjars!

By Julie Hart May 5, 2021
Eastern Whip-poor-will Antrostomus vociferus

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 experiencing steep population declines. In order to better conserve these species, we are seeking information on remaining populations. If you can devote two evenings this summer doing nighttime surveys, please consider conducting a nightjar survey.

We’ve expanded the survey this year to better capture information on Chuck-will’s-widows and Common Nighthawks in addition to Whip-poor-wills. There are two survey windows (one in May and one in June), and we ask you to survey your route twice in each window (once around sunset and again after moonrise). That’s a total of four surveys over two evenings. We also ask that you create your own route if none exist near you. You may be surprised how many birds (and other animals) vocalize at night!

Watch the training video to learn how to survey for nightjars, create new routes, and submit data and/or download the 2021 Handbook.


How to participate

Select a route

You may select an existing route or create a new route. There are only a handful of existing routes, and none are located in the central or western parts of the state, so we encourage you to create a new route near you if none already exist.

  • Established routes. The established survey route locations are available for download as a kmz file. Download and import the points to your GPS or preferred GIS application on your phone (Google Earth, Gaia, and Avenza are good options). Select a route near you. It may also help to print out a map and scout the sites in the daytime.
  • New 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. See the map below for observations of nightjars from the last 5 years during the breeding season or download the kmz file.

This Google map shows the location of established survey routes in purple. Observations of Common Nighthawks from the past 5 years are shown in orange, Eastern Whip-poor-will’s in blue, and Chuck-will’s-widows in yellow.

Review the protocol

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

Survey under good conditions

  • Conduct the survey during both of the survey windows.
    • Window 1: May 19-June 2
    • Window 2: June 17-July 1.
  • Survey your route twice on each visit:
    • Sunset for target Common Nighthawks
    • Moonrise for Eastern Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widows
  • Avoid nights with dense cloud cover. Cloudy nights will obscure the moon and quiet nightjars.
  • Do not survey during precipitation or high winds.

Record your observations 2 ways

It’s important to record your data both on the field datasheet and in eBird using the NY Breeding Bird Atlas portal. 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 the Atlas later. Because you will be recording at points, you don’t need to worry about block boundaries.

  1. Field datasheets. Scan your completed datasheets and email them to Julie Hart at nybba3@gmail.com. These data are more detailed than what you will enter in eBird and are used for modeling habitat and distribution.
  2. Atlas eBird portal. Record your observations in the Atlas eBird portal. Start a new stationary checklist at each point. Record anything else you hear, too. Wilson’s Snipe, Ovenbirds, Henslow’s Sparrows, and a suite of other birds call at night. Submit a checklist even if you don’t hear any birds; it still counts as nocturnal atlasing effort.

Safety 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. It’s unlikely, but if it does happen, having multiple people conduct the same route provides valuable information and will help us determine if birds are truly absent from a site or are on territory.

Species Profiles

Common Nighthawk

  • Map of atlas records
  • Habitat
    • Sandy soils, 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. They are associated with a range of habitats including
 sand dunes, logged forests, grasslands, and even urban areas.
  • Time of night
    • Dawn and dusk
  • Time of year
    • This species arrives in late spring (late May-early June) and leaves early in the fall (beginning mid-August).
  • Key tips, sounds, and behaviors
    • Nighthawks give a peent sound (code as S) very similar to that of an American Woodcock, different in that it’s raspier, descending at the end, and comes from the air rather than the ground. Courtship display of rapid dives creates a booming sound as air passes over wings (code as C).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. When the eggs or young are threatened, females will feign injury to draw potential predators away. Males sometimes defend the nest site with hissing and wing beating. Breeding males perform an aerial display which produces
 a non-vocal sound referred to as a “boom” as part of courtship and territory establishment. These birds can be easily identified by their white wing patches as they pursue insects on the wing, often giving a “peent”
call throughout.
  • See Photos, Hear Songs, and Learn More About Common Nighthawk

Chuck-will’s-widow

  • Map of atlas records
  • Habitat
    • Pine barrens, edges of swamps, barrier beaches. Generally more open than that used by Eastern Whip-poor-will. They are more 
tolerant of development and are associated with agricultural and even suburban areas so long as subtle roosting and nesting habitat (oak, pine, and mixed forest) is sufficient.
  • Time of night
    • Dawn and dusk and on moonlit nights
  • Time of year
    • May-July, leave in August and September
  • Key tips, sounds, and behaviors
    • Habits of this bird are similar to Eastern Whip-poor-will. Listen for “chuck-will’s-widow” song. Males sing with greatest intensity in April-May, quiet down in June, and sing more again later in July and August. On days of full or near-full moon, singing may continue all night. If it’s warmer, they sing more. Code this song as S.Chuck-will’s-widows are aggressive during the nesting phase and will pursue nest site predators or gape its large mouth while hissing.
  • See Photos, Hear Songs, and Learn More About Chuck-will’s-widow

Eastern Whip-poor-will

  • Map of atlas records
  • Habitat
    • Pine barrens, also forest openings such as fields, quarries, and power-line cuts. Foraging habitat consists of low-elevation open areas (forest openings, agricultural areas, blueberry barrens, dirt roads, etc.) on the margins of dry and open forests, particularly those in riparian areas with sandy soils. Pine-oak forest, pine barrens, pine-hemlock-hardwood forest all serve as suitable nesting and roosting habitat for this species.
  • Time of night
    • Dawn and dusk and on moonlit nights (ideally when at least half a moon is visible)
  • Time of year
    • They return to the state in late April and are locally common until they become quiet in late summer.
  • Key tips, sounds, and behaviors
    • The namesake “whip-poor-will” song is the best way to detect this species. Code their song as S or S7. 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. Adult males will employ a hovering, tail-flashing display when another male enters his territory (T) or when an intruder (A) approaches the nest site. Both males and females will perform wing-dragging distraction displays (DD) to lead off predators.
  • See Photos, Hear Songs, and Learn More About the Eastern Whip-poor-will

Learn more