I heard my first whippoorwill in the woods behind my grandfather’s chicken farm in Mattituck at 3 years of age. Once you’ve heard this magical, three-syllable, eerie chant coming out of the dark of a warm summer evening you’re hard-pressed to forget it.
The whippoorwill is one of seven members of the goatsucker family, Caprimulgiformes (goat-sucking forms), in the United States. Up until the latter part of the 1900s, we only had two species in New York State, the nighthawk and whippoorwill. Nighthawks are the least nocturnal of the group and can be seen migrating south over the East End in late August in the afternoon, while whippoorwills were common breeders here up until the 1990s. Now as with many other Long Island ground-nesting species, they have become absent from many areas and are only sporadic in others.
No one knows just why the whippoorwill, celebrated in many a popular tune, has so thinned in numbers. Some blame it on development or the growing popularity of residential nightlights, perhaps, even, the years of spraying woods for gypsy moths in the 1950s, 1960s, and later. Last year at about this time, when the evenings were a little warmer and fireflies began to spark, I did a drive-and-stop census of whippoorwills in eastern Southampton Town and East Hampton Town west of Amagansett. In four hours of stop-and-listen counting, I didn’t come up with a single one, whereas in the 1970s and 1980s I heard dozens while making the same rounds.
On Sunday night I covered 69 miles of choice whippoorwill habitat in Noyac, Bridgehampton, Water Mill, Tuckahoe, North Sea, Hampton Bays, Flanders, Quogue, and Westhampton. I was out from 8 p.m. until 11:40. I made 40 stop and listens and heard not a single whippoorwill. On the same night Vicki Bustamante, her son Chris and his girlfriend, Jennifer, covered Montauk all the way to Napeague and came up empty-handed or, should I say, empty-eared. Vicki has ears as acute as an owl’s; if a whippoorwill called, even under its breath, she would have heard it.
It was disappointing, to say the least. I resolved to check for them on the following night, and so I found myself driving 54 miles making 31 stops, beginning at around 8 p.m. at the west overlook at Hither Hills and ending up on the Barcelona golf course east of Sag Harbor at 11:15. While Sunday night was breezy, Monday night was exceedingly still, to the degree that a fog had developed in the southern quarter of East Hampton.
I heard my first whippoorwill song in five or six years at that first stop. At my next stop, the end of Napeague Harbor Road, where the Walking Dunes are situated, I heard another whippoorwill. I was beginning to think I was in whippoorwill heaven. I made a fourth stop near the Long Island Rail Road tracks on Napeague Harbor Road. I heard a goatsucker singing all right, but it wasn’t a whippoorwill, it was a Chuck-will’s-widow, another Caprimulgid with an onomatopoetic name that precisely matches its song. Chuck-will’s-widow is a southern member of the family that began breeding on Long Island and points north in the 1960s. Four stops, two whippoorwills and one Chuck-will’s-widow, I thought that my hypothesis that these crepuscular and nocturnal birds had all but disappeared would prove to be ill conceived.
On to Napeague Meadow, Cranberry Hole, Lazy Point, and Shore Roads in north-central Napeague. Bingo! At stop number six at the junction of Lazy Point Road and Crassen Boulevard, there were not one but two whippoorwills calling back and fourth from the south and the north. I had only made six stops and had already heard five goatsuckers.
But that was that for a long while. The next 16 stops in Amagansett, Springs, and Northwest were met with silence, although there were some deer and a raccoon to keep my interest up. Stop number 23 on Swamp Road a bit west of Northwest Landing Road in Northwest landed one more whippoorwill call and that was that.
If I count the two whippoorwills calling last Thursday evening reported by Bob Caspar who lives at the end of Northwest Landing, it makes seven in five days. There are still Wainscott, Sag Harbor, and North Haven yet to go; maybe I’ll reach 10, but nothing like the old days.
There were a lot of residential nightlights, a lot of motor vehicle whines, and a lot of new construction in progress on both nights. It’s too early to say for sure, but it may just be that whippoorwills are on their way out on eastern Long Island. After all, we had ruffed grouse well into the 20th century, and long before then, a lot of heath hens, and not a few Labrador ducks. By the same token, wild geese and wild turkeys are not so wild any longer here on Long Island and deer and raccoons are almost as common as summer people.