Nature Notes: No Chucks and Whips

I covered 65 miles of back roads between 8:30 and midnight without hearing so much as a single whip or chuck

On the evening of June the 11 I drove 43 miles on the back roads in Southampton Town listening for the breeding calls of whippoorwills and chuck-will’s-widows. I’ve been living in Noyac for 35 years and discovered a paved road right down the block that I had never been on, Old Sag Harbor Road, which connects Brick Kiln with Millstone Road where the old Bridgehampton Racetrack was situated.

A more rural road one would be hard pressed to find, just fields, trees, and a couple of houses. I did come across a noisy rookery of fish crows in the fading light, but not a single goatsucker did I detect. And so went the rest of that night: 31 stops not a single whippoorwill or chuck-will’s-widow. Aside from the crows, I heard green frogs and bullfrogs and saw several fireflies. Maybe it was the on-again-off-again full moon, the many motor vehicle motor hums or a stiff breeze that blew on and off. Disappointment reigned!

Last Sunday night conditions were perfect. There was not a wisp of wind. It was semibright. I finished Southampton’s western roads — Sagaponack Road, Merchant’s Path, Widow Gavitts, and the like — and started on East Hampton’s roads through the Northwest Woods and Wainscott’s pine barrens. Eleven times I stopped and listened here and there as far away from houses and their lights as possible, but again, not a single whip or chuck utterance. Because it was still, the rattlings of the helicopters coming and going from East Hampton Airport drowned out most of the other sounds. There were numerous autos, some of those speeding by as if engaged in a race. I did encounter 8 deer, 2 raccoons, and as many as 10 fireflies, which helped me get through the search.

On the following Monday night I covered the rest of East Hampton Town, halfway into Montauk. Except for passing motor vehicles, wooded roads that as recently as 15 years ago would reveal several calling whips and chucks produced only silence. Barcelona, which had at least one pair of whippoorwills calling last year, was silent. The Grace Estate, which in the past had several pairs of whippoorwills calling, was also silent. The west overlook on the north side of Montauk State Parkway, which produced a singing whippoorwill last year at this time, was silent, too. Napeague Harbor Road along which a chuck-will’s-widow sang repeatedly during last year’s outing, was also silent.

I covered 65 miles of back roads between 8:30 and midnight without hearing so much as a single whip or chuck. On the other hand, I saw 8 more deer, and 2 more raccoons, and was flashed by more than 30 fireflies. These last were especially abundant at the edge of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett and over a swale at the edge of Alewife Brook Road in Northwest.

At a stop along Phoebe Scoy Road in Northwest at dusk, a wood thrush sang repeatedly. A little later the same Ale­wife Brook Road swale resounded with one of the loudest and most thrilling choruses of gray tree frogs that I’ve ever experienced. At two stops, green frogs were singing. Thus I had no problem hearing night sounds, but not a single one was coming from a whippoorwill or chuck-will’s-widow.

Yes, it is very disappointing that there are even fewer of these two wonderful crepuscular species around this year than last. Apparently, they are going the way of ruffed grouse, bobwhite and other ground-nesting birds of which there were many hereabouts in the last century. But even if I didn’t hear a single bird or frog call, or see a firefly light up, there is something magical about witnessing the night tree canopies against a starlit sky. At every stop I appreciated how still the South Fork’s outback can be at night. It was if I was alone in some vast forest, completely apart from the hustle and bustle that dominates the summer daylight hours here.

The air was also delightfully fresh and redolent. Thus, I couldn’t resist smelling a few of those new PSEG poles that uglify the designated local scenic area that the farm fields along Town Lane in Amagansett represent. They stink now just as much as they did two months ago. That pentachlorophenol, or penta, that saturates them and the soil at their base is wicked stuff. These same reeking poles line two sides of Quail Hill Farm. I noticed that the fireflies were concentrating on the two sides absent of them. Some insects are smarter than some humans!

Larry Penny can be reached via email at­