Stumbling upon the unexpected

Perfectly camouflaged eggs of our mystery species (Photo by NCC)

Perfectly camouflaged eggs of our mystery species (Photo by NCC)

March 1, 2016 | by Liv Monck-Whipp | 0 Comments

There’s almost a rule among biologists: when you’re out looking for one species, you will have a difficult time finding it. But you’ll often see some other amazing species incidentally!

This past summer, fellow Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) intern Benjamin Teskey and I were out searching for skinks on some rocky outcrops characteristic of the Frontenac Arch in Eastern Ontario. We were dutifully scanning logs and flipping rocks, thinking like skinks and trying to focus on watching for their lightning quick get-aways.

As I was flipping rocks on one half of a clearing, Benjamin covered the other side. We were finding mostly spiders and grubs, with only the occasional skink. At one point I let out a yelp as I surprised a mouse that had been warming up under a rock and it jumped out at me. Benjamin dashed over to check on me and we laughed together a little bit over my startled reaction. As Benjamin started to walk back to his skink-searching-spots, I bent over to tie up my shoe...

...and noticed some funny-shaped rocks.

Camouflaged against the rock with perfect mottling and flecks of grey, the small clutch of eggs blended in perfectly with the rocks around them. In fact, Benjamin had come within inches of stepping on them! Luckily though, they were ok, and we both stopped to wonder: whose eggs are these?!

After snapping a few photos, we backed off a bit, not wanting to stress out any parent birds who might be nearby. From across the rocky area we ran through all the possibilities we could think of. Benjamin is a more experienced birder than I am, but neither of us were very confident in egg ID.

Our mystery species turned out to be a common nighthawk — a species at risk (Photo by NCC)

Our mystery species turned out to be a common nighthawk — a species at risk (Photo by NCC)

Just as we decided to consult guides when we got back from the field, our mystery mother bird made her appearance! A large, dark bird flew in and called a few times before landing near the nest. Benjamin recognized the calls as nighthawk-ish, and we backed away even more to give the bird space.

We were amazed and delighted when she began incubating, and the mystery was solved! A few zoomed-in photos confirmed her as a common nighthawk, a species at risk, raising a small family on the rocks of the Frontenac Arch.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada's properties in the Frontenac Arch region provide critical habitat to the at-risk nighthawk species. Field staff continue to monitor their numbers, as well as the prevalence of other species at risk, as a part of their ongoing stewardship activities.

About the Author

Liv Monck-Whipp is a conservation biology assistant in the Ontario Region for the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

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