Interesting to spend an evening helping with an RSPB and Forestry Commission nightjar survey in the woods below the house. Nightjars were a common sight down there for many years but have recently tailed off to such an extent that surveys have been abandoned. After discovering two calling males on the hill behind my house, the decision was taken to resurvey this old stronghold, and we all gathered in the gathering twilight beneath a furious onslaught of midges.
If buzzards and bluetits represent “entry level” birdwatching, then nightjars are surely the equivalent of a black belt. They are small, shy and effectively invisible. If they didn’t have such a distinctive call, we might never have discovered them. Additional difficulties are posed by the birds’ scarcity and the inaccessibility of their habitat in Scotland. As I understand it, the South coast of England is home to dozens of nightjars, all easily presented in a mild, midge-free environment. That sounds like child’s play.
If you want a real challenge, come and look for nightjars in Galloway, where brambles rake your legs in the darkness and and jagged gorse lurks behind every obstacle. A nightjar is often a single (albeit noisy) needle in a five hundred acre haystack of rank heather, bracken and blackthorn scrub. Midges are ubiquitous; worse, they are in your ears and drowning in your eyes. Without a midge net, you wouldn’t stand a chance. Even in broad daylight, looking for nightjars would be almost impossible.
Woodcock were roding overhead as the darkness came on. Several passed by on their slow, patient loops, groaning and squeaking with the last muttered phrases from the song thrush. A barn owl drifted down the track at head height, fixing me with a black-eyed stare from a few feet away. Midges whined in a dark column over my head, and as the bats began to crackle out from the willows, I imagined one sweeping into the pall with its mouth open like a blue whale into a ball of krill – time it right and the bat wouldn’t have to eat again for weeks.
And then, at 10:48, there was a nightjar. At first it was a half-heard whirr on the edge of silence, then grew into a full-blown hum. For two or three minutes, the evening was wholly complete. No matter that this bird was not part of our survey and the evening would otherwise draw a total blank – like a corncrake’s grating call, this sound is burnt into our brains at some genetic level. You don’t need to have heard them before – we’ve known that sound for so many human generations that it is instantly familiar; it’s on the tip of our tongues.
Nightjars are a mystery. They are strange, reluctant heroes, operating without gloss or PR. They belong to a distant, half-forgotten age of myth and obscurity, and some of the old crazily inaccurate Victorian nightjar paintings provide a more useful depiction of their true character than modern HD photographs. It’s hard to explain why they are so fascinating by the cold light of day, but the bird is a great deal more than the sum of its parts.