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Whips, Chucks, Bullbats

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July 18, 2010 by wcobserver

By Joseph C. Neal

Walking around on summer nights, I hear the loud PEENT calls of bullbats – Common Nighthawks. I see them at dusk, usually where it is very open – over a big church parking lot, a well-lighted car lot, that sort of thing. They own the dusk sky and you can hear them in the full dark, too. Watching them making deep, graceful dives, I remember a trip from years ago.

Bullbats are in a family of birds called the Caprimulgidae, the goat suckers or nightjars. OK, I know that sounds pretty strange. Just put it down as ornithologist’s talk. You’ve heard of bullbats – but that’s one species only. We have two other species closely related to bullbats right here in Washington County.

But before I just blurt out the names like some kind of smarty pants, I want to share a tale from many years ago, when I first got serious about studying the bird life in northwest Arkansas. We are talking 30 years ago, long before we got so busy with everything. On a mid-summer afternoon I loaded up my bicycle with a tent, small camp stove, and a few sandwiches. I was on my way, non-stop Fayetteville to Devil’s Den State Park, before dawn the following day.

Yep, had my binoculars with me. And nope, not really non-stop. It took almost all day to pedal to the Den. I kept stopping to look at bluebirds around the farm places, meadowlarks on fence posts, over head flights by Red-tailed Hawks, and a Summer Tanager that made a dash across the road in front of me. And in the cool very morning hours with low light, a timber rattler lay across the highway, enjoying the warmth.

My campsite was down in the bottoms, along Lee Creek. I was pretty wired-up from late night coffee around a campfire, but at some point I crawled in the tent, dead to the world. Or so I thought. First I was suddenly awakened by this WACKING & caterwauling, so extraordinarily wild, unearthly, and YIKES! right over the tent. It scared the bejesus out of me until I realized it was a couple of Barred Owls. This is maybe Barred Owl courtship?

I crawled out of the tent and things got quiet – sort of. I soon heard a Whip-poor-will, then another call like a Whip-poor-will; this one was a Chuck-will’s-widow.

Whip-poor-wills have this very clean cadence that just rolls down the wooded hillsides. Ole Chuck says “chuck” quickly followed by “will’s-widow” but if you are far away, it is easy to miss the opening “chuck” and all you hear is a rhythmic “will’s-widow.” It’s probably because of this the old timers can all tell you we only have Whip-poor-wills here, but the discerning folk know there are two kinds of them: Whips and Chucks.

I had them both at Devil’s Den, and a wonderful bicycle trip, too.

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