Whip-poor-will Research and Monitoring

Whip-Poor-Will Wildlife Project

The evening call of the Eastern Whip-poor-will was once a familiar sound over most of New Hampshire and the Northeast. Since the 1960s and 1970s however, populations of this enigmatic bird have been declining across the eastern United States. NH Audubon started its current involvement with Whip-poor-wills in 2003, when it coordinated roadside surveys in the Piscataquog River Watershed in southern NH. Over the next few years, these surveys expanded across NH, elsewhere in New England, and elsewhere in the Northeast. The larger project, now in partnership with efforts in the Midwest and Southeast, is attempting to collect data on population trends across most of the species’ range. Hopefully these data will provide a more detailed picture of how rapidly whip-poor-wills are declining, where significant populations still exist, and even how habitat may be changing in these areas.

Habitat may be a key to the decline of the whip-poor-will. This is a species of the edge, needing both forested areas for nesting and open areas for foraging. As a result it typically reaches its highest densities in partially agricultural landscapes, along utility rights-of-way, and in forests subject to frequent disturbance (e.g., fire in pine barrens). Many of these habitats have declined in the Northeast through a combination of development and forest maturation, resulting in fewer prime spots for whip-poor-wills. If loss of these habitats is detrimental to Whip-poor-wills, will their creation be beneficial? Answering this question could shed valuable light on the factors limiting populations in the Northeast.

To that end, NH Audubon initiated a whip-poor-will habitat study at two high density sites in NH: the Mast Yard State Forest (Hopkinton and Concord) and the Ossipee Pine Barrens (Madison and Freedom). Habitat management at both sites has the potential to improve conditions for whip-poor-wills, through either harvesting (Mast Yard) or burning (Ossipee). Starting in 2008 we have been mapping Whip-poor-will territories at these two sites and comparing the areas birds’ use with the habitat across the site as a whole. Preliminary results suggest that birds are far more likely to occupy previously disturbed areas, and may move into newly harvested areas relatively quickly. Starting in 2010, a graduate student from Plymouth State University has been doing radio telemetry on whip-poor-wills in an attempt to better determine where birds are when not singing, and will be relating bird locations to variation in habitat and insect abundance. 2012 will be the last year of intensive monitoring at Mast Yard, after which we hope to develop management recommendations that could enhance existing habitat for this declining species.

Project Leader: Pam Hunt