Located within the city limits of Las Vegas, the Springs Nature Preserve encompasses a 180 acre section surrounding the original site where seeping water springs once flowed. This place attracted people long before there were slot machines and Wayne Newtons (and before Fig Newtons as well). Today nearly all of the ancestral springs are dried up, but the natural area and interpretive facility stand as a jewel tucked into city’s southwestern sprawl – the one case where you don’t have to leave Las Vegas in order to see something wild and real.
There are plenty of captive critters to see at the center – including Collared lizards, Kangaroo Rats, the fantastically named Vinagaroons (scorpion type beasts), and even a Black Widow spider but the one that really caught my eye was not a captive. While walking the nature trail, my eye was drawn to a peculiar rock laying on the ground beneath the cover a mesquite bush (I don’t know what kind of mesquite, mind you). It took a moment, but I finally resolved that the rock was actually a bird but it took a bit longer to figure out which end was which. It turned out to be a nocturnal Poor-will hiding in plain sight (see above and here).
Can you find him?
Poor-wills are the smallest members of the oddly named Nightjar family (also bizarrely called Goat Suckers by overly suspicious farmers). They share family ties with the likes of Whip-poor Wills and Chuck-will Widows – birds whose lives revolve around a penniless man name William. Nightjars are wide-mouthed night fliers that specialize in catching insects on the wing. During the day they employ their superbly camouflaged plumage to blend into the landscape. Eastern Whip-poor Wills often perch lengthwise on a branch or fence rail, while western Poor Wills habitually select bare ground under small bushes as a daytime roost. My little Will was following all the rules.
Detail of head – Note “whiskers” around mouth
Detail of scapulars and back feathers
It is hard to figure out the topography of this bird due to its unusual proportions. The head and eyes are oversized compared to the body, the beak is tiny but the mouth itself is huge. When in roosting position the eyes are tightly closed and the head turned downward. A series of long stiff “whiskers” leading from the beak to the eye give away the edge of the mouth. The long cinnamon brown wing feathers stand out a bit (just a tiny bit) from the mottled gray and white body feathers. A few distinctive Poor-Will features are the small size (around 7-8 inches), the short tail covered by the wing tips and, although the field guides don’t make much note of it, the “x-shaped” blotches on the scapulars. If the bird was flying, the rounded wings and white throat patch could be added to this list. If the bird was calling, the “poor-will-ip” notes would be noted. But, this bird was going nowhere and saying nothing. It ignored me completely even though I was only a few feet away (although I am used to that).
Here is extreme southern Nevada the Common Poor Will is at the overlap zone between the summer breeding range and the permanent range. In other words, birds north of here tend to migrate south while those south of here tend to stay put all year. I assume this is a non-migratory fellow at home in the dry stony Sonoran desert. This roosting patch could be a regular hang out, although I have no way of knowing. I also assume that this Will aroused later in the day and took off into the night sky seeking what few insects were still flying about. But, in this I also could be wrong.
Poor Wills are one of the only birds proven to “hibernate” for long periods when food is scarce. Apparently where there is a Will there is a way (sorry, that was a “poor will” pun). Meriwether Lewis noted this in October of 1804 when he found a bird he mistakenly took for a Whip-poor-will that was cold and lifeless, yet very much alive. For some reason he skewered the poor thing with a knife and noted that it took several days for it to die because of the lack of bleeding! Dr. Edmund Jaeger found another one a hundred and sixty years later sleeping on the bare sand under a small bush in California. He determined, without running it through, that the bird was in a state of torpor with a lowered body temperature, heart rate, and slowed metabolism. He showed that the Poor Will is the only bird in the world that can truly enter true hibernation.
As usual, however, the “discovery” of this trait only confirmed what the S.W. Native Americans already knew. I believe it was the Hopi who called the Poor-will Holchocko – which meant “the Sleeping One.”
I left the Poor-will to his own devices. Returning to the resting spot just before I left, I found him still sleeping but saw that he had turned completely around in my absence. He was now facing north rather than south. Apparently he was just cat-napping and not deep sleeping. He was also a little easier to make out at this angle because he cast a long shadow in the late afternoon sun. Perhaps when I return to the southwest some day, I’ll get lucky and stumble upon another one of these fascinating nightjars. After all, they are quite common throughout their range and, according to the bible, the Poor Will always be with us.