How to help Will and his friends?

How to help Will and his friends, the Aerial Insectivores?

As residents of the Bruce Peninsula, we are so fortunate to live in a beautiful landscape of unbroken forests, sheer cliffs, wild shorelines, and unbounded watery horizons.

We share this wonderful place with many wild and beautiful plants and animals. Rare and delicate orchids grace the summer months, black bears roam amidst the trees, Massasauga Rattlesnakes bask on alvar rocks.

But do we know that the sky itself is an important habitat? The sky is alive and filled with food, invisible to us, but not to the millions of birds that depend on it! These birds are the Aerial Insectivores, a diverse group of Swallows, Swifts, Flycatchers, and Nightjars. The 18 species that can be found on the Bruce Peninsula are very different, from the loud but invisible Whip-poor-will of the moon-lit forest to the lively and familiar Barn Swallow flitting above a cattle pasture. But there is one thing to link them all! And it is food in the sky. All 18 species, disparate as they may, catch insects on the wing. They do it differently, with different habitats, but they’re catching them all on the wing. 

And Aerial Insectivore are in trouble! In big trouble, at a local (the Bruce Peninsula), regional (Ontario) and continental scale (North America). They are experiencing dramatic population declines, so severe that several species have been added to the Species-at-Risk list at the provincial and federal level. For example, Common Nighthawk, designated as federally Threatened in April 2007, has declined in Canada by 80% from 1968 to 2005. The Barn Swallow has also been designated as Threatened, both federally (in May 2011) and provincially (in January 2012). This species, once so familiar and ubiquitous that we took it for granted, has declined in Ontario by 65% between 1966 and 2009.

The Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory (BPBO) is a non-profit, member-based charitable organization with a mission to promote and foster the study, appreciation and conservation of birds and their habitats in the Bruce Peninsula. Its general aim is to be the Voice of the Birds on the Peninsula ( BPBO has been operating, among other projects, a bird migration monitoring programme at the Cabot Head Research Station (CHRS), at Cabot Head, near Dyer’s Bay, every spring and fall since 2002. 

Data collected from 2002 and 2017 at CHRS mirror the general trend of decline for Aerial Insectivores, especially swallows. However, migration monitoring is not always the best method to accurately survey species like Nightjars. Concerned about the fate of these denizens of the night on the Bruce Peninsula, BPBO has started a project in 2017 to better understand the current situation, building on previous work BPBO has done.

With funding from Environment & Climate Change Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program. BPBO started a two-year project in spring 2017 to address the knowledge gaps in key ecological factors for the Species-At-Risk-listed Common Nighthawk (Threatened) and Eastern Whippoorwill (Threatened), as well as bats (Little Brown Bat – Endangered). The project is conducted on the northern Bruce Peninsula north of Miller Lake between Dyer’s Bay and Tobermory. The Bruce Peninsula is identified as a regional priority area for its high biodiversity value and its unique biological/ecological landscapes where a high concentration of Species-at-Risk is found.

In 2017, we carried out monitoring surveys over the spring and summer months through direct observations and recording devices across a wide variety of habitats to determine habitat use in relation to habitat characteristics. 

In 2018, we aim at marking individuals of Common Nighthawks and Eastern Whip-poor-will with nanotags (small radio-transmitters) to determine migratory paths and patterns. We also want to search for nests to improve knowledge of demographic parameters.

All in all, these activities will address major gaps in our knowledge of the life history of both species of nightjars through a better evaluation and understanding of their populations and their habitat preferences on the upper Bruce. Because of the secretive nocturnal lives of Common Nighthawk and Eastern Whip-poor-will, there are still a lot that we don’t know about these species. It is important to better understand key aspects of their ecology, for example, what kind of habitats they prefer, how faithful they are across the seasons and years, how successful their breeding is, if we want to put meaningful and efficient conservation measures in place. 

Send us an email with your location, on the Bruce Peninsula, if you have heard whip-poor-wills this summer.  We want to know!


Whippoorwills and Nighthawks need your help. Here are some things you can do that will make a difference:

  • Both species like sitting on flat, open surfaces like roads at night when they are not flying.  Collision-caused mortality is a concern for them. Slow down and watch the road at night for these birds, especially from May to August. 
  • Protect habitats: Whip-poor-will and Nighthawks need large amounts of natural lands like alvar, open forest, wetlands, pastures. Help ensure these habitats are protected on your own land or through land conservation organisms (like Nature Conservancy Canada: 
  • Decrease in insect availability might be a major cause of Nightjar (and other Aerial Insectivores) decline. Reduce as much as possible your use of pesticides, on your garden, your lawn, your land.
  • Keep your cat(s) indoors! It is safer and more comfortable for your cats. And it will prevent cat predation on birds, including whip-poor-will and nighthawks (see Nature Canada website: 
  • Buy shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee. Whippoorwills are one of many birds that live in Canada that over-winter in shade coffee areas, among other habitats, of Central America.
  • Donate to BPBO and become a member! We need your support to be able to carry out our programs and continue to be the Voice for the Birds on the Bruce (!