Curious Birds

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Nightjar’s delight in the depths of Galloway

Summer is slipping away. The long evenings simply vanish into work, and somehow the fulcrum of midsummer is now just a matter of hours away. There is no longer any meaningful darkness – the day is briefly compressed into a smear of washed-out light on the far northern horizon.

The effect will be ruined in less than a month – darkness will soon dominate again. I love to write long and detailed notes of summer, then read them in Janurary with a sense of cynical disbelief. How could it be possible to kill a roe buck at 10pm, or to walk home from an evening on the hill without any need for torch or headlight? Winter can crush the soul, but summer is giddy and ethereal – nature provides the raw ingredients for an entire dream world that is instantly perishable. These days soon pass and become unimaginable again. In an attempt to capture something of the moment, my wife and I headed into the forest last night to spend some time with nightjars, perhaps the defining symbol of true, deep summer.

We had been walking in the twilight for less than five minutes before we heard the whirring drone of a calling bird. The sound came to us in gusts through the breeze, which lolled in warm rolls over the rowans and stirred the old, multi-storey pines into hissing motion. It wasn’t the perfect night to listen, but stillness is the midge’s friend, and I would always choose a slight breeze over a mist of bloodsuckers. The bird was calling from a thicket of trees, and we walked further along the track through a tumbling mass of heather and myrtle.

A second bird called over the wind, and soon we could see the bird itself – a dark shape silhouetted like a cuckoo against the sunset. The wind buffeted his wings and long tail, but there was no mistaking that hunched, froggy wedge against the dying embers of day. Moths rose from the grass and drifted horizontally across our path like a blizzard of snow; fragments of velvet confetti. Bats crackled past overhead in the gloom, gathering up armfuls of insects in a frizz of excitement.

We walked on into a narrow track where willows leaned over the stones, creating a kind of breathless claustrophobia of foxgloves and bracken. I heard two wet, croaking calls and suddenly we were joined by a bird from another world – a papery, gliding thing from an infant’s mobile. Long, jointless wings seemed to flap from the shoulder like a moth. Previous experience had taught me that nightjars are always utterly black. They are silhouettes which are cut from the trees and cannot exist without backlighting. Framed for a second against the dark trees, this bird defied expectation and showed us a flare of colour to make us gasp – warm honey tones swirled into chocolate browns and streaks of deep, treacled purple. At the end of each wing, brilliant white spots provided an extraordinary contrast in this deep, breathless world.

For a few seconds seconds, he treated us as an object of extreme curiosity. Bouncing stiffly around our shoulders, he peered right into our faces. I felt that I could have reached out to touch him. In the context of that strange, jungle world, perhaps he would have come to me. Perhaps he would have landed on my hand and said “Good Evening”. These birds are an uneasy mismatch of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear – the rational product of an obscure world – anything might have been possible.

In discussion with a taxidermist last year, I heard that nightjars are the hardest British birds to mount successfully. Their skin is fat and greasy, and it slips to pieces when the carcass is skinned. The birds are so difficult that a well-mounted nightjar is esteemed by taxidermists as a defining and absolute showcase of skill. Even if it looks perfect from the outside, it’s likely that the inner skin is probably being held together by dozens of painstaking patches, repairs and glue. I love this idea – when humans try to preserve nightjars in glass cases, they simply melt away. The conclusion is then that nightjars are not really birds at all but are simply a strange and temporary flux of elements – a flickering flame without weight or volume.

That encounter wasn’t all. We saw four nightjars, and I learned more about these birds in a single half-hour walk than I have from enthusiastically pursuing them through libraries and online resources over the last five years. Of course we couldn’t have planned such a hair-raising encounter; the only certain fact is that you stand no chance of seeing anything if you stay at home. As somebody put it, “If you’re up and about, then you’re in with a shout”.

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