During the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival last year in Texas, I visited Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. One of the birds I hoped to find was Common Pauraque, a nightjar that, in the U.S., can be seen only in South Texas. I asked about it at the visitor center and learned that a couple of birds were roosting just off a trail not far away. Park managers had marked the spot with a brush pile, I was told.
My birding companion and I found the pile, but finding the birds wasn’t easy. They were roosting on the ground in the shade of a grove of trees. One was close to a tree trunk, and the other was below a tangle of grayish branches. Can you find it in the photo at right? The pauraques’ camouflage was exceptional. It probably took me 10-20 seconds to find them, even though I knew they were there.
I wasn’t surprised at the challenge, of course.
“Nightjars are some of the most cryptically patterned birds on the planet,” wrote Chris Duke in his June 2012 article Finding Nightjars. “Their dappled plumage blends seamlessly with their preferred habitat. Worse, they are prone to sitting motionless and silent for long periods of time.”
Now, a fun new online game allows you to test your nightjar-sighting skills and help scientists at the same time. Researchers at the universities of Exeter and Cambridge in England who study how predators detect prey and the role of camouflage have unveiled Where Is That Nightjar, and they’re asking everyone to play.
The game asks for your age and whether you’ve played before, and then it offers you the choice of which nightjar predator you want to be: monkey or mongoose. Once you get started, you’ll see a series of 20 photos of African Nightjars hidden in the bush. While a 30-second clock counts down, search for the bird in the photo. When you find the bird and click on it, a green check mark pops up along with the time you took to find the nightjar. If you click the wrong area of the photo, a red X appears, but don’t stop. If there’s still time on the clock, you can continue to search for the bird and get the green check mark.
When you’ve finished with all 20 photos, you’ll see your average time. I averaged 5.78 seconds on a monkey round. During a mongoose round, I couldn’t find the bird in three photos but averaged 4.72 seconds with the rest.
Try the game! It’s bound to improve your ability to see nightjars, whether you’ve seen the birds in real life or have yet to add one to your life list. Plus, your efforts will help scientists develop a better understanding of how the birds’ plumage helps them avoid becoming lunch for other animals. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor