Whippoorwills and Words: A Magical Evening

View from Ferry Bluff State Natural Area at dusk.

The view from the overlook at Ferry Bluff State Natural Area in Sauk County Wisconsin is beautiful at any time of year, but it is especially beautiful on a summer evening when the whippoorwills start to sing. Then, things get magical.

On a mostly clear night on July 8, I was with a small group of people for my Whippoorwills and Words event. We got up to the bluff top about 8 p.m. and then read from the August Derleth Reader (edited by Jim Stephens) while waiting for the singing to start. We read a selection from “Return to Walden West” and several of his poems. In between selections, we saw a bald eagle pass through and a flock of pelicans crossing the sky. We started to read a short story called “The Night Road,” but the whippoorwills started singing and so we sat and listened to them, mesmerized, for the next 30 minutes. Derleth is an appropriate author to read at Ferry Bluff because of his love of Sauk City and the surrounding countryside. He wrote frequently about whippoorwills and even noted in his journal that he listened to one whippoorwill outside his home in Sauk City call 1,209 consecutive times! Is that even possible? James Roberts, one of the participants, counted a mere 95 consecutive calls from one bird.

I have been listening to the Eastern Whippoorwill (Antrostomus vociferus) at Ferry Bluff for several years and they never fail to disappoint. Sunset was at 8:38 p.m. on July 8 and the first whippoorwills started to sing at 9:02 pm. Like clockwork, they start singing about 15 to 30 minutes after sunset. They are like the woodcock in that they need the light to be just so before they start to sing.

Whippoorwills are nocturnal birds, feeding and mating at night. They sing to attract a mate and to defend their territory. They lay their eggs on the forest floor and don’t even bother to build a nest, leaving them open to predation. In Wisconsin, they are a species of concern, meaning that while not endangered or threatened, their populations have declined over the years. A loss of flying insects, their main food source, is the most common reason given for their decline in numbers.

Eastern Whippoorwill

At this section of the Wisconsin River, however, there is no shortage of birds. On this night, I counted at least six separate whippoorwills. They started singing across the river in the Mazomanie bottomlands. We heard at least three singing there. Then, we heard them to our right in the bottomlands below the bluff and then quite by surprise, we heard two right behind us on the bluff top. I felt as though these birds were just a few yards away. Had there been more light, we could have perhaps spotted them. They felt that close.

At 9:30 p.m., we decided to call an end to the night and carefully hiked back down the bluff. The trail has eroded significantly over the years and some of the steps on the trail drop down close to two feet. Plus tree roots are exposed on the trail making the trip down a bit precarious. With the aid of our flashlights, fortunately, we made it down safely.

The whippoorwills will continue to sing through mid-July, so be sure to listen for them if you can. If you don’t want to hike all the way to the top of the bluff, you could just sit at the water’s edge beneath the bluff. There may be more bugs there, but you would still hear a good show.

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