Nightjars: the Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttaillii)

The banner photograph above has been color-enhanced and doctored to make the overall effect more abstract (less cluttered) and highlight the major features of this unusual bird. This poorwill was found drowned in a pool of water. As you can see, it has short wings, a short tail, but a very large head.

On August 20, 2004, I [Dick Henderson] hiked up a north-facing hillside in lower West Wash, hoping to catch sight of our pathway leading to higher points on Soza Mesa. This is one of the lower-slope washes below the Mesa proper, and it becomes quite lush when we get good summer rains, which this particular part of the lower Mesa slopes has indeed received this summer. Well up the slope, I suddenly flushed a pair of Poor-wills, who had been sitting on bare rocks right in my path. For the first time I had the chance to see Poor-wills in flight from a position above them, and was quite surprised by the color patterns of the male. We rarely see these birds, even more rarely in the daytime. Sometimes in the Fall they fly up from the edges of the Cascabel Road as a vehicle approaches in the twilight. We much more regularly hear them -- I remember an antiphonal chorus while camping at the Notch Camp one winter, as the invisible birds -- perhaps 60 or so yards away on several sides -- repeated their calls to one another. One January while hiking down from the Notch along desert pavement toward the Camp I flushed one at dusk, almost stepping on it. That time, the bird's flight patterns appeared only in flashes of black and white. (In the photograph above you can see the almost checkered black-and-brown wing patterns when viewed from overhead.)

Miklos Udvardy (citation misplaced, p. 606) says that Poor-wills in the California Desert have been known to endure "a long cold spell in torpid condition without food and with its body temperature lowered almost to that of the environment", so the one I flushed might have been near such a state (though it flew a considerable distance after being flushed).

Poor-wills inhabit arid uplands from the Canadian border (where some of them go to breed) southward to California and Texas (where all of them winter). They lay their 2 pinkish-white eggs directly on the ground.

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