Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Return of the Nightjars

I have always been fascinated with birding at night, particularly here in southeast Arizona.  The density and diversity of night birds (owls & goatsuckers) is incredible in the canyons and mountain forest of the Sky Islands.  Buff-collared Nightjars are of particular interest owing to their scarcity and the remoteness of their haunts. 
Very early Saturday (5/25/2013) morning Justin Hopkins reported hearing a Buff-collared Nightjar singing at 3am near the primitive campsites along Proctor Road just outside of Madera Canyon.  This report came in Saturday evening and was nearly immediately followed by a report from Henry Detwiler. Henry must have been in the area, saw the initial report and was able to hear the nightjar calling at 9PM.  I saw Henry’s report as I was settling down with my wife to watch a movie.  I almost took off but reconsidered being that my wife & I had just come in from a night hike in Madera Canyon.  I figured I would watch the movie and try for the nightjar very early (predawn) Sunday morning. 
A few minutes into the movie (which I was really not watching) Andrew Core sends a text message stating that he was coming down for the nightjar.  Within an hour Andrew picks me up and at 10 minutes before midnight we are on Proctor Road. Seconds after getting out of Andrew’s vehicle, we hear the nightjar singing.  We follow the sounds and are rewarded with a distant non-obscured view of the bird sitting near the top of a mesquite for a minute or two. Most of the view was eye shine and bit of the birds shape.  We both make recordings of the bird with our iPhones (internal mic) and I snap a picture as the bird took off.  Andrew’s recording was good enough to document this wonderful rarity.  The image I obtained shows a rounded winged, longish tailed, brownish blob in flight, if you use your imagination.  The bird ceased calling and we made our way up Madera Canyon to listen for other night birds.  Andrew & I must have just missed Jeremy Medina who reported the nightjar singing non-stop between 11:15 & 11:40 pm.

Up canyon, Andrew & I heard Elf Owl, Whiskered Screech-Owl, Flammulated Owl, Common Poorwill, and Mexican Whip-poor-will (photographed).  We returned to the Proctor Road dispersed campground at 2AM and hear Western Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Elf Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, and Common Poorwill.  No Buff-collared Nightjar at this hour.
Less than seventeen hours later (Sunday 5/26 19:00) Louise and I are taking another night hike in Madera Canyon, this evening we take the Carrie Nation Trail up to the second stream crossing.  We have a wonderful time with the dusk chorus.  We hear a male Elegant Trogon calling just above the bench.   As it gets dark we hear Whiskered Screech- & Elf Owls and see one or two Mexican Whip-poor-wills. 
Rather than heading straight home, Louise had agreed to stop by the nightjar spot.  Louise had accompanied me on many unsuccessful nightjar searches in the area.  Once, several years ago, we found a birding tour guide leader blasting a tape but no real nightjars.  We arrived at the spot at 20:30 and immediately heard the nightjar singing to the southwest.  Much of the birding crowd had left or was leaving, Louise and I ventured into the brush to see if we can find this bird. We hooked up with another group of birders with the same ambitions.  We all make our way through the brush towards the singing nightjar.  Within a few minutes one of the other birders finds eye shine and shows the bird to most of us.  We repeat this a few times until all present have had satisfactory views of this bird.  I was even able to obtain some poor images of the nightjar suitable for documentation.  As the others returned to their vehicles, Louise understood my intentions and agreed to press further into the darkness.  The terrain worsened, rocky & sloped, and the vegetation got thicker and pricklier.  We followed the singing bird, both the sounds and eye shine.  Eventually we arrive where we have a relatively clear view.  I was able to take several images with Louise holding the flashlight, my “light in the darkness”.  Being satisfied that I had some decent shots of the Buff-collared Nightjar and knowing that I was pressing Louise’s patience we retreat leaving the nightjar to the darkness of the night.  The best of the images from the evening were submitted to AZFO and with a voice recording had made earlier in the evening.  This is fantastic; we have a reliable Buff-collared Nightjars outside of Madera Canyon.
Jumping ahead a few days.  On Friday 5/31/2013 a friend sent e-mail asking if there could be other Buff-collared Nightjars in the area, like in Chino or Montosa Canyons.  I replied by adding Florida & McCleary Washes and Faber Canyon.  Chino Canyon & McCleary Wash have hosted nightjars in the past.  I have heard one along Florida Wash near the research station and speculated about their presence in Faber & Montosa Canyon.  That evening Louise and I drive up the road leading to Faber Canyon for about a mile.  After parking we walk perhaps another half mile.  We first heard the Buff-collared Nightjar calling at 19:55, it may have been calling earlier.  The terrain in this area could easily have blocked the call.  We last heard the bird at 20:27, which was the last time we listened for it on the drive out.  I attempted to record this bird’s voice several times, I have one recording with several songs barely above the noise floor. This bird seemed to be singing less frequently than the Proctor bird earlier this week; three song sequences within 20-30 seconds then several minutes of no (or not heard) singing.  So are at least two nightjars in the area!
The next night Saturday 6/1/2013 I had agreed to help my buddy Joe Hammond find the nightjar for his friend John Watts visiting from Columbus.  The nightjar began calling at 19:43 to the delight of about forty birders not so spread out along the Proctor Road.  The nightjar may have been calling earlier but multiple Northern Mockingbirds were also talking and one was learning the nightjar song.  The nightjar sang nearly continuously through 20:05.  Much of the crowd was still present and appeared to be ready to follow me into the bush.  I commented to Joe that we can’t get closer to the bird with all these people; someone could get hurt and no one is likely to see the bird.  Somehow we were able to separate ourselves from the group and get into the bush to see the nightjar. The views were good and the bird was undisturbed. 
Joe & John headed up canyon to search for other night birds and I headed towards home.  I made a stop at McCleary Wash to determine if there was a nightjar present here.  To my astonishment, I heard a nightjar sing twice from across the wash.  That puts the local count of Buff-collared Nightjars at three.
Jan N. from San Diego asked that I show her the Buff-collared Nightjar.  On Sunday 6/2/2013 the bird began singing at 19:40 about 200 yards south of site 8.  He sang continuously until 20:16 and generally moved southeast up a small wash.  We did not get close enough to disturb or flush the bird.  The manner in which the bird was singing and moving indicated that he was marking territory and/or foraging. By now, Jan & I were joined by John M. from Phoenix.  After a long ten minutes of silence, the bird gave a short series of songs at 20:26.  More silence followed by a blast of songs close to our location. After another minute or so silence we heard wing clapping (wish I had my recorder on).  And another couple of minutes of silence followed by another close burst of songs and we were able to detect eye shine. Jan & John were able to see plumage features (buffy collar) through vegetation while I held the light.  We shifted our position a few to get a less obscured view while the nightjar continued singing and sallying for bugs, the appearing to be disturbed.

Monday 6/3/2013 afternoon I was asked by a couple from Tucson to help them find the nightjar.  We first heard singing at 19:42 about 200 yards south of site 8, continuous singing for less than ten minutes.  There was silence for several minutes followed by one series of songs about 100-150 yards south of site 8 near the “guzzler”.  Others reported to have observed the bird flying to the northwest roughly down a small drainage and heard it sing.  After a long period without any audible vocalizations we began to hear sporadic singing around 21:10 and some chuck calls and a growling call.  The calls were attributed to the nightjar since they associated with it time-wise and emanated from the same area as the distinctive song. I tried but was not able to record the calls.  At about 21:50 the nightjar began singing infrequently apparently foraging since it was moving around a fair bit.  We were able to see eye shine and plumage around 22:00 for a few minutes and at 22:12 I was able to find the bird perched silently on the same branch it perched on the previous night.  We left the bird after ten minutes and shortly thereafter it began singing and moving around (apparently foraging).  It was still calling at 23:06 when we got into our vehicles at site 7.
On Tuesday 6/4/2013 I tried to hear the nightjar in McCleary Wash again, I hoped to get a recording.  I did find several very cooperative Common Poorwills but did not hear the nightjar.
The Proctor Road nightjar was being reported nightly and on Friday 6/7/2013 an observer speculated at two birds present.  There had been previous speculation of multiple birds. This was based on hearing songs at different volume levels from the same direction; this multiple bird speculation was discounted.  The speculation on Friday was based on hearing singing birds at different locations about a half-mile apart.  On Saturday 6/8/2013 night I found one bird southwest of the “guzzler” and a second bird later at the cattle guard on Proctor Road near the dry stream crossing.  Other observers this night reported hearing both birds singing at the same time form different directions. Now there are two male Buff-collared Nightjars along Proctor Road.
On Tuesday 6/11/2013 Louise and I went back up to Faber Canyon.  I hoped to get a better voice recording of the singing nightjar.  Rather than driving the rough road up Faber Canyon we walked.  At 19:55 a female Buff-collared Nightjar flew past us at about thirty feet.  There was adequate light to see that the tips of the outer retrices were pale but not white.  At 20:32 we heard the male singing at least three times in the distance from our position, not too far from where we saw the female.  I wonder if males that are paired call less than unpaired males.
On Friday 6/14/2013 while updating the bulletin board at the Proctor Road parking area, Louise and I heard one nightjar singing from across Madera Creek due south of our position.  On the 16th, after another evening hike we hear two nightjars singing at the same time from campsite #3 along Proctor Road.  The songs of the two individuals were overlapped in time.  On the 18th I took Mary, Chris, and Nina (all from Green Valley) up to Proctor Road to listen for the nightjar.  As if on cue one begins singing at 19:47 south of the “guzzler”.
I have been writing this blog entry since the 27th of May and it is about time I post. I am hopeful this story is not over and that there will be more to come!