Notes from the Field: Eastern Whip-poor-will

Learn more about whip-poor-wills here!

I often hear from DNRT members about birds, other wildlife, and even plants that were once plentiful and now are seemingly absent from the landscape.  This news, like so much news about the environment these days, is disheartening.  Occasionally, though, there are sparks of good news – animals that were previously absent are now appearing on the landscape again.  This is the case with bald eagles, fishers, and even turkeys.

Last year I heard about some truly surprising and good news.  Two different DNRT members in South Dartmouth reported that they were hearing something they were sure was an Eastern whip-poor-will.  Whip-poor-wills are nocturnal birds that are members of the nightjar family, and their populations are plummeting.  They’ve lost about 60 percent of their population since 1966.  In Massachusetts they are listed with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program as a Species of Special Concern.

The primary challenge for whip-poor-wills, like so many species of birds, is loss of habitat.  They require dry evergreen-deciduous or deciduous forest with little or no understory for breeding, and they prefer the forest to be close to open areas.  This habitat is in short supply due to things like development, forest succession, and fire suppression.  Gas and transmission line corridors are often some of the most reliable places to find them.  For several years now DNRT’s land management staff have assisted with whip-poor-will surveys in the Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve, which is located in Fall River, north of Dartmouth.  This was the only place we were aware of there being whip-poor-wills in the Dartmouth area.

Given that both of the DNRT members reporting the bird last year lived in the southern end of town I was surprised.  However, the call of the whip-poor-will is fairly unmistakable (it actually says its name – handy!), so I was confident they had made the correct identification.  Later I heard a recording of the bird made by one of the members and confirmed the identity.

While I was delighted that there was a whip-poor-will in South Dartmouth, I tried not to get too excited in case it was a one-off.  Still, with the permission of the landowners, I reported it to the State, who indicated they did not have any previous records of whip-poor-will in the area.  The bird continued to call through the breeding season, and I began to consider the habitat in the area of the reports in more detail.  I could see how there were areas of open woodland that might have potential to support this species.  One of the properties is actually several hundred acres in size and is protected by a Conservation Restriction held by DNRT.  This means there will be no further development on the property, which is great news in terms of habitat protection.

Fast forward to May 2023, when I conducted a formal whip-poor-will survey myself with the landowners’ permission (why should they have all the fun?).  What should appear to my wondering ears was not one, but two whip-poor-wills!  What a thrill!

It is my sincere hope that a small population of Eastern whip-poor-wills can take root in this area on the south end of town.  Thanks to the forethought of private landowners who protected their land and manage their forests, it looks like there’s a chance.

To learn more about whip-poor-wills visit:  And if you think you’ve heard a whip-poor-will in your neighborhood, let us know!