Poorwill Hunting

Common Poorwill, Eastern Washington

Last night, John and I went looking for poorwills. Common Poorwills are small, nocturnal birds mostly of Eastern Washington, who come out of hiding when it’s full dark. They lurk at the sides of roads, looking up into the night sky with their big eyes, searching for the sight of big moths and beetles flying against the stars. When the poorwills see such a bug, they burst forth from the road, open their wide mouths, and scoop up their prey.

The poorwills are starting their migration now. At least, I think they are. Their habits are not too well known because they operate almost entirely at night. During the day, these birds roost in trees or on the ground, so well camouflaged that they might as well be invisible.

Nobody knows how often they frequent the Fill. The only time one has ever been seen here was in May 2006, when two birders found a stray migrant at midnight. I have a feeling poorwills are more common than that, but who is ever awake and abroad in the dead of night at the Fill to find them?

Well, we are. At least whenever we can manage to stay awake long enough to greet the night. At our age, John and I find that Mr. Sandman usually comes by our house around 7 p.m. and coshes us over the head. Next thing we know, we’re sawing lumber. But not last night. Last night, we stayed conscious until full dark had spread its velvety shadow over the Fill, like a crow covering us with a protective wing. Conditions were perfect for finding poorwills.

The way you hunt for poorwills is by driving very, very slowly along a road, with your headlights on. The headlights catch the eye-shine of the poorwills crouching by the roadside. The eye-shine is exactly the color of a candle lit inside a jack o’lantern on Halloween – a kind of unearthly orange glow. I have seen this glow three times in my life while birding in Eastern Washington, and I want to see it again, only this time at my favorite place on Earth.

So there we were in full dark, with our little hopes up. John drove while I sat on the edge of my seat, binoculars at the ready, heart beating wildly from the excitement of the hunt. We held to a steady 3 mph, cruising up the roads and back, scanning for orange glow. Scanning for any glow, actually. Every beer can gave us a jolt, until we saw the glow was cold silver, not molten orange. No good. Drive on.

We searched for 45 minutes until…….

we grew too tired from the excitement to continue. We never did find a poorwill, but I discovered that didn’t matter. What we found instead was a long-forgotten, child-like sense of anticipation, the kind that makes you forget to breathe. It’s the belief that anything can happen and probably will. A treasure hunt, where the treasure you find comes not at the end. It is the purer thrill of just looking.