In the decade since designating the whip-poor-will a threatened species, the Ontario government has done little to halt its decline. Yet, without the bird’s call, Ontario outdoors would not be the same
DUSK CREEPS IN LATE once mid-June arrives in Ontario. It’s not quite full summer, but, when taking a slow turn down any secondary highway or backroad in the diminishing light, a person is inundated with smells, sights and sounds.
In the right location, and with a bit of luck, a shrill, repetitive call might punch through the rest: “WHIP-poor-WEEA, WHIP-poor- WEEA, WHIP-poor-WEEA.”
Above image: Eastern whip-poor-wills — and the summertime evening presence of their loud, unmistakable song — have been declining by a rate of about 3 percent a year in Ontario since the 1960s
That sound — the loud, unmistakable song of the eastern whip-poor-will — is what a team of about 30 volunteers with the Orillia-based Couchiching Conservancy will be listening for this season across Carden and Ramara townships east of Lake Simcoe. “It should be done as close to the full moon as possible,” says Dorthea Hangaard, the organization’s citizen science project manager. That is when the whip-poor-will, a member of the nightjar family, is most active.
The volunteers will adhere to a protocol Bird Studies Canada (BSC) developed: start at sunset, follow a planned route, stop every kilometre, and listen for at least three minutes. The goal is to record as many locations of whip-poor-will activity as possible. The conservancy is currently updating the focus of its conservation efforts on the basis of the location of provincially endangered species and critical habitats, Hangaard explains. The data will be coupled with observations gathered last year west of Lake Simcoe to eventually map known locations of all endangered species in the six municipalities around Lake Couchiching and Orillia where the conservancy does its work.
Not so long ago, the idea that volunteers would have to be recruited to listen for whip-poor-wills — or that this species would be listed, both provincially and federally, as a threatened one — would have seemed laughable. Though infrequently seen due to their nocturnal habits and mottled grey, brown and black camouflage, these medium-sized birds were once common from May to September across southern and central Ontario through Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and northwest of Lake Superior. (Too common for some campers and cottagers kept awake at night by male whip-poor-wills singing relentlessly to ward off intruders into their territory during the breeding season.)
But since the 1960s, the whip-poor-will population has declined by about 3 percent a year. Two Ontario surveys conducted 20 years apart for the Breeding Bird Atlas — the first from 1981 to 1985 and the second from 2001 to 2005 — showed a 51 percent drop in whip-poor-will numbers. In 2009, the species was officially listed as threatened in the province. Yet in the decade since that designation, little action has taken place in terms of meeting legislative requirements to reverse the decline, and the development of a plan to help the bird may now be further delayed. Can summer’s iconic singer hold out?
THE CAUSE OF THE whip-poor-will’s decline remains unknown, but the main threat, according to a provincial government fact sheet, “is likely habitat loss and degradation.” Because the bird requires a mix of both forested areas (for nesting) and open areas (where it feeds on moths, beetles and other flying insects), that “loss” can mean either the regrowth of forests in fields historically cleared for agriculture or growing incursions on the species’ habitat by farms and new development.
The 2009 Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) report that declared the bird threatened nationally lists several other factors. Foremost, according to the report’s author, Alex Mills, an associate professor in the department of biology at York University, are hazards that migrating whip-poor-wills encounter en route to and in overwintering areas in Mexico and Central America. Others include changes in the food supply, collisions with automobiles, and nest predators such as raccoons and feral cats.
Despite these threats, to date the Ontario government has done little to address the bird’s plight, as required under the Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA). When a species is listed as threatened, it is protected under the law, as is its habitat. (The latter applies only to existing habitat, however, not to areas where the species once lived.) Listing also starts the clock ticking on a process that requires a draft recovery strategy within two years, followed by the publication of a government response statement nine months after that. The first document essentially lays out ways to reverse a species’ decline; the second indicates the steps the government intends to take.
In the whip-poor-will’s case, the recovery strategy remains pending. Over the past 10 years, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has done some population surveys and recently collaborated with Mills and University of Manitoba assistant professor of biology Kevin Fraser to study whip-poor-will habitat use and migration — capturing birds, fitting them with GPS devices that track their movements, and then recapturing them later to see where they have been. The ministry’s rationale for the long delay on the recovery strategy is that it was waiting for the federal government — which listed the bird as threatened in 2011 — to produce one first, as the Canadian Wildlife Service has the “jurisdictional lead” for migratory birds. That federal document was finally published last year. Since then, the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, which now oversees the ESA, announced it would adopt that strategy and, according to a timetable on its website, post it by the end of 2019.
That does not mean that the bird is on the cusp of a turnaround. Uncertainty about why whip-poor-will numbers are dropping means more research is required, particularly to clarify whether there are specific levels of habitat loss or insect prey decline beyond which recovery would be jeopardized, the federal strategy advises. Between now and 2028, the strategy presents the best-case objective as keeping further declines nationally to no more than 10 percent of the current population.
Conservationists also worry about the prospect of further delays and the potential loss of more habitat if the provincial government carries through with proposed revisions to the ESA. In making the case for the review, this spring the government noted improving protection for species at risk and seeking efficiencies for businesses. However, Anne Bell, director of conservation and education at Ontario Nature, argues that the solution lies not in revamping the ESA but in making sure the existing provisions are properly applied — something the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s office strongly argued for in its 2017 annual report. “Even with the law and the current requirements, we see that the problem for this species is implementation,” Bell says.
Bell notes that the government’s proposed revisions would do little to improve species protection. Instead, they focus on making it easier and quicker for development proponents to proceed with potentially harmful activities. “‘Increase efficiencies,’‘streamline approvals’ — that’s all about making it easier for business to go ahead in the habitats of species at risk,” she says.
Ontario is vitally important to the whip-poor-will’s long-term survival. That is underscored in a section of the federal strategy that covers known areas of critical nesting and foraging habitat. As of September 2014, there were 198 across the country — 110 of those in Ontario.
Credit for at least some of that provincial data lies with citizen scientists. The genesis of the protocols that Couchiching Conservancy volunteers use, for example, is a three-year, province-wide monitoring program — appropriately called the Ontario Whip-poor-will Project — that BSC ran from 2011 to 2013. That work was spurred by the 2009 COSEWIC report and the bird’s subsequent listing as threatened in Ontario. While report author Mills drew on the best available survey information, he acknowledges that because the bulk of non-species-specific data collection is done from dawn to dusk, it is not as effective at capturing whip-poor-will activity as it is for other birds.
To help fill in those gaps, BSC mounted its whip-poor-will project with financing from the provincial government’s Species at Risk Stewardship Fund. Legions of volunteers across the whip-poor-will’s traditional range conducted roadside surveys in late spring and early summer, tracking the moon and listening for the bird’s sing-song. “The goal was to provide a better picture of the distribution of the species and the centres of its abundance,” says Audrey Heagy, BSC’s project coordinator at the time. By and large, Heagy says, the surveys confirmed the known distribution pattern while also identifying “some real hot spots” for the species. Now a consulting biologist based in St. Williams, near Lake Erie, Heagy recalls one around Torrance Barrens, northwest of Gravenhurst that stood out. “It’s kind of ideal habitat for them,” she says. “Open rock, shrubby scattered trees and lowland areas.”
Heagy had no personal connection with whip-poor-wills before the work began. As she travelled around the province, she was struck by how many people wanted to tell her about their affinity for the bird. “It was mostly either camping or at cottages and hearing the birds calling,” she says. “They always associated it with summer. But then, with the decline of the species, they suddenly weren’t hearing it anymore and they wanted to know where the birds had gone, what had happened.”
It’s a sentiment that Couchiching’s Hangaard is hearing a lot lately as well. So it was heartening that the handful of volunteers — her “whip-poor-willians” — who did the monitoring last year identified 20 new locations not flagged in the provincial database where at least one whip-poor-will was heard, and she is optimistic volunteers will find a few more this year. “[The locations] were concentrated around the Oro Moraine and the Severn woodlands, areas already under consideration [for protection or restoration] in our natural heritage strategy,” she says, “so that just solidified that we’re on the right track.”
It does not mean, however, that the bigger story of population decline has changed, but it does offer hope that there are still enough birds and remaining habitat to build a recovery strategy that leads to an increase in whip-poor-will numbers and keeps their song alive.