January 19, 2016
A CRYPTIC HALLOWEEN VISITOR written by fifth-grade Esperanza Elementary School students Kaya Johnson and Cristian Torres with their principal, Brad Rumble "Mr. Rumble, there's a baby owl on the playground!" exclaimed Robbyn, a first-grade student at Esperanza Elementary School on Wilshire Blvd. just west of downtown Los Angeles. It was the day before Halloween 2015 and Mr. Rumble, the school's principal, thought this might be a Halloween prank. But, as any birder would, he went with Robbyn to take a look.
Unbelievably, there, on the asphalt of a corner of the playground, was not an owl but a Common Poorwill. It was 9:15 a.m. and in fifteen minutes 130 first-graders would be playing four-square mere feet from our unexpected visitor. What to do? Cordon off the area around the bird, grab a bunch of field guides and create an impromptu observation site for an autumn migration species.
A member of the Goatsucker family, the Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) usually is nocturnal. As students read about the poorwill they hypothesized that our bird was just trying to get some shut-eye during its southbound migration. Its cryptic color pattern helped it camouflage so well that some students thought they were looking at a pine cone. No one could believe this species actually hibernates during winter. Even though there were nearly 900 students on campus, not one of them disturbed the bird. One complication: at 1:15 p.m. hundreds of students, parents and staff members would gather on the poorwill's playground for the annual Halloween parade. Student leaders and educators debated what to do. In the end not even Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and scores of super-heroes and princesses could disturb our nocturnal visitor's slumber.
That evening, as Mr. Rumble was leaving campus, he observed the poorwill suddenly lift off and begin to fly low into the night. Though on campus just the one day, this bird captivated an entire school community and left us wanting to know more about it. For us, the Common Poorwill is anything but common.
**All photos by Brad Rumble