Feb. 4 Update. Brandon has sent me a picture of the poorwill neighborhood in Siskiyou County, plenty of rock outcroppings which is where the bird usually finds its winter hideout.
Feb. 3 Here’s an email I just got from Brandon Breen, a trained field ornithologist (did his grad thesis on Turkey Vultures on the Falkland Islands), author and naturalist who lives in Ashland.
Here’s an interesting bird story for you. On Wednesday (Feb 1st) I went hiking with a few friends along Jenny Creek in Siskiyou County (off to the northeast of Iron Gate Reservoir, right near the Oregon-California border).
I happened upon a Common Poorwill!!! on the ground. It was gaping, with wings outspread, and it could barely move. I assumed it was malnourished from being north of its normal winter range so I picked it up for later transfer to an animal rehabber. I hiked for a while with the bird inside my winter hat, and after 25 minutes or so it started showing some activity (growling like a gremlin and occasionally thrashing around inside the hat), and over the next 15 minutes the bird became progressively more alert and active. I thought maybe the bird had been in torpor and could now fly since it had warmed up. I found a clearing and I opened up the hat so the bird was free to fly away if it could. It sat in my hand for a moment before taking flight and flying away in sure, steady flight.
I checked the records on eBird, and this occurrence was the northernmost occurrence for this species in the December-February time period. See attached for a few pictures.
[Before posting this blog and these photos, I checked with Brandon. He told me there was solar heat that day under overcast skies. It was about 10:30AM and the air temp was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The bird was on a south facing slope that would have been absorbing whatever heat was being generated by the sun.]
Photos of Common Poorwill, one a view from above (northeast of) Iron Gate Reservoir, and photo of Jenny Creek.
Here’s map Brandon produced showing the location which is upstream from the northeast corner of Iron Gate Lake, east of villages of Hilt and Hornbrook. That dashed line north of the location is the Cal/Oregon border:
Here are three more images of the poorwill, taken by Daniel Sweeney. The first five images are from Brandon himself.
It was Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) who discovered the Common Poorwill on the Lewis & Clark Expedition. He also noted that the bird did not migrate but hibernated. Eastern scientists would not accept his word for it, so decades passed before science recognized that Lewis was correct after all. We have no other bird in North America that goes into torpor for so long at a stretch. Probably the Anna’s Hummingbird males are runner-up in torpor sweepstakes.
I checked in Arnold Small’s 1994 book, California Birds, and he notes that the poorwill is known to awaken on warmish winter nights and call out. Then he writes, “Calling birds in winter have been noted as far north as Shasta [County] and western Siskiyou counties…”
Alan Contreras’s book, Northwest Birds in Winter, has no listing for any member of the nighthawk family in Washington or Oregon. This bird came very close.
The poorwill’s breeding range includes juniper and chaparral slopes both north and east of where this bird was found.