I’ve been learning to band birds at the South Florida Bird Observatory. Nothing like a little bit of mist-net extracting to make you feel like an absolute beginner! But hands-on bird experience has been a major gap in my knowledge to date and I’m astounded at how much more I’m discovering about birds. For example, last Sunday we found an unusually large bird in one of the nets. At first, from a distance, I thought it was a hawk or an owl. And then I heard its distinctive and weird call. A Chuck-will’s-widow! Of course I’ve seen these birds in Florida many times but I never really appreciated just how big these nocturnal bucket mouths are. These are the largest nightjars in North America, significantly larger than Whip-poor-will or any of the nighthawks.

A Chuck-will’s widow is extracted from a net at the South Florida Bird Observatory

 The size of the Chuck-will’s-widow is deceptive – until you get it in the hand.

Chuck-will’s-widows migrate from the south-eastern United States to the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America. In Florida, many birds remain year-round. Like all nightjars they are uniquely adapted to their life hawking insects in the dark. They have long raptor-like wings that enable swift flight, large eyes for nocturnal hunting, bristles close to the bill to aid in prey capture and a mouth that truly defies description.

The massive eyes are really evident in the hand

Chuck -will’s-widows feed predominantly on insects but they have been known to prey on birds and even bats too, swallowing these whole. When you get to witness the bizarre size of its mouth its not hard to see how these nightjars take advantage of these larger meals.

Seeing this bird up-close makes me realize just how much we can learn from birds in the hand. I hope to have another experience with ole Bucket Mouth when I’m next out at the nets.

Following our experience, we put together the following brief video:

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Written by James
A life-long birder and native of South Africa, James Currie has many years experience in the birding and wildlife tourism arenas. James has led professional wildlife and birding tours for 15 years and his passion for birding and remote cultures has taken him to far corners of the earth from the Amazon and Australia to Africa and Madagascar. He is also an expert in the field of sustainable development and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in African Languages and a Masters degree in Sustainable Environmental Management. From 2004-2007 James worked as the Managing Director of Africa Foundation, a non-profit organization that directs its efforts towards the uplifting of communities surrounding wildlife areas in Africa. James is currently the host and owner of Nikon's Birding Adventures TV and he resides in West Palm Beach, Florida.