Learn more about these distinctive birds, which serenade the Lowcountry all summer long.
Hilton Head Island’s warm weather and summer months brings back the elusive Chuck-Will’s-Widow. These birds serenade Hilton Head Island from dusk to dawn. While hard to spot, their call is distinct and nostalgic for both visitors and locals alike.
Chuck-Wills-Widows, antrostomus carolinensis, are commonly mistaken for Whip-por-wills. A Wip-por-will call sounds just like its name, but is sung in a higher pitch and can be repeated on end for hours. The Chuck-Wills-Widow call has pauses in between each vocalization. The call sounds just like their name – “Chuck Wills Widow.” The “chuck” at the beginning of the call is very subtle and may not be noted if the bird is far away. These melodies tend to be vocalized at sunrise and sunset, but can be heard throughout the night.
The Chuck-Wills-Widow is the largest bird in the Night Jar avian group.
They can reach up to 32 inches in length and have large flat heads with long wings. Their brown tone coloration and intricately patterned feathers allow them to camouflage very well in our Lowcountry environment.
They spend most of their time roosting on the ground, but can be found in tree branches at dusk and dawn. They will hang out on the ground by road sides and may be noticed because of their orange eye reflection; otherwise these birds are quite hard to spot.
This particular species can be found throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic coast during the summer months.
They spend their winters in South America and the Caribbean. They prefer to live in dry woodlands such as pine, oak and hickory forests and select spots on the edges of open wooded areas, hiding in brush, thickets and fields.
Chuck-Wills-Widows have narrow hair-like feathers at the base of their beak called rictal bristles. It is thought that these bristles may have sensory features similar to whiskers. These rictal bristles will aid the bird in scooping up their food, which is primarily insects. Moths and beetles are among their favorite food. They are well equipped at flying low through dense brush in search of their flying prey. Chuck-Wills-Widows have also been known to eat small birds and even bats. They prefer to eat at dusk and dawn, but can be found hunting all night long on full moons, or if there are street lights present.
These birds arrive in our area to breed through the summer months.
During courtship, males have been known to chase competitors up to a quarter mile away. Their song is the first step in finding a mate. They will also impress their female by drooping their wings, spreading their tail feathers and puffing out their chests while ruffling their feathers.
The females lay nests on the ground in dead leaves, pine needles or bare dirt. Once a year she will lay between one and four eggs at a time. The incubation time takes about 21 days. The young will stay with their parents for about 50 days, fledging at about 17 days.
This summer, keep an eye – and an ear – out for this elusive Lowcountry resident. Don’t miss the chance to catch a glimpse of this fascinating bird.
By Kathleen McMenamin, Master Naturalist
The H2O Nature Center focuses on the wildlife and habitats of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Offering eco adventure tours, live animal exhibits, educational programs and hands-on displays, The H2O Nature Center is a great place to spark curiosity and inspire learning in all ages. To make reservations for the Alligator and Wildlife Tour, please call 843-686-5323. For details about other water activities offered by H2O Sports, visit www.h2osports.com.
Photo By DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19616795