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A Hot Night for Nightjars

An RSPB photo - my deepest respect to anyone who is able to take a recognisable picture of a nightjar -
An RSPB photo – profound kudos to anyone who is able to take a recognisable picture of a nightjar 

Having returned home last night from a long day on the road, I cycled up the hill hoping to hear a nightjar in the evening light. The air was warm along the road, and some pockets of delicious elder-scented stillness were actually hot. Foxgloves and ragged robin crowded the verge as a red sunset loomed over the hills to the West. Almost as soon as the sun had vanished, stars appeared as if they had been waiting to seize their moment, and only a single streak of navy blue cloud remained over the highest ground to the West.

I trudged up through the thick beeches on foot, ducking down and trailing my toes in the dry mounds of leaves. Above the trees, the ground opened into bracken, heather and flowering bell heath, with scrubby rowans and a spectacular burst of flowering dog rose to bind them all. Several ancient scots pine trees made sombre silhouettes against the darkening, and I had a great view down over the valley to the sea, with a full moon rising in the South East and the first breaths of mist wafting up from the wet fields below the road where the blue grey cows lolled and wallowed.

A few swallows raced overhead in the last wheeze of sunset, and the silence was held at bay by the scratchy, furious alarm calls of a whitethroat with balcony seats in the top of a willow nearby. Pigeons booed and gradually fell silent as the night came on, and a roding woodcock flew up the scrublands parallel to the path I had taken. Only his squeak was audible at first, but then creaking, groaning phrases rang through the trees as he came near, flew past and vanished off to the dark East. I hoped that he would be looping round and around and I would see him again in a moment or two, but it was half an hour before I heard him again.

The stillness, the humidity and the warmth made a wonderful world for the midges. For a while I was reduced to sitting with my shirt over my head, but still they found the cracks and seams at my cuffs and burrowed their bites into me. I tried blowing cigarette smoke into their faces, but to no avail – they came for me until small gusts of wind allied themselves together to form a very light but fairly constant breeze which kept them back, particularly when I stood and faced into it, gaining height and denying them the chance to lurk in the shelter of the deep heather.

As it grew darker, moths came out in crazy, whirling circles; many were anonymous white flecks, but there were several enormous ginger creatures, as much like bats as insects. These were fox moths or drinker moths or northern eggar moths; the species so commonly found as huge and hairy caterpillars in March and April, sometimes so abundant as to be absurd. The adults are very similar, and it was impossible to identify them as they purred past me at a sprint. The cuckoos eat great fistfuls of their caterpillars, and perhaps the moths time their emergence to coincide with the moment that the birds depart. It has now been six days since I have heard a cuckoo, and the moths rejoice.

But all the while, there were no signs of a nightjar. A grasshopper warbler trilled for a time, but perhaps it is too late to expect a reliable performance from the nightjars, which have already sung the bulk of their songs this for this year. I heard them well into July last year, but it was usually later in the night, and not so constant or dependable as late May and June. I gave up and headed home by midnight, but not before I was approached in my quiet corner by some large and cumbersome mammal. I heard the bracken crunching closer and closer, but the unfolding stems were crowded as closely as human beings and it was impossible to see anything. When it came within fifteen feet, I heard it snorting and snuffing, then it shambled on into the heather, where little sparks of arctic starflower lit up the darkness. It was certainly a badger, but I enjoyed the shadow of ambiguity and conjured up all kinds of more exciting alternatives. After all, we have wild boar in these hills.

I pedalled home under splashes of light from the full moon, relishing the darkness and the warmth through the silage fields and down under the oaks. Something skittered madly off through the verge at my heels, and I freewheeled the last half mile alongside a hunting barn owl.

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