Posted 27th Jul 2017
Image courtesy of Neil Aldridge
We're at the time of year where the eerie mechanical call and wing-slapping of the nightjar will return to our heaths and woodland clearings
The nocturnal nightjar is without a doubt one of our strangest birds. A wide-mouthed, insect-eating summer visitor to heathlands and young conifer plantations, they will pass their days sitting on the floor, where they also nest. Cryptically camouflaged with an intricate mottling and patterning of greys and browns, they could almost pass for a fallen log, making them nigh on impossible to spot during the day.
However, as dusk sets in, this changes. The sun drops below the horizon, and the light thickens as a strange sound starts up. A mechanical whirring, whirring, reeling noise, similar to a distant motorbike engine, and a churring that you just can't place, so good is the ventriloquist at throwing his voice. Then, just as darkness arrives, the nightjar will appear - almost falcon like in shape, the silhouette of long stiff wings and a long tail, the nightjar will fly jerkily across the sky with odd claps of his wings - the sound and sight of a male nightjar, displaying to attract the attention of nearby females.
How to do it
Arrive before dusk, and find a good spot on a heath where you get as wide a view as possible, ideally with open skies. It's a lot easier to spot the birds in silhouette than against dark trees. As with all ground nesting birds, you should stay on the footpath, and make sure you leave the dog at home.
Rumour has it that patrolling male nightjars will investigate if you wave a (clean) white handkerchief in the air - you should give it a go!
If you are unable to visit any of the locations listed below, night time will be a great time to be out in the woods. Listen out for the sound of owls hooting, foxes screaming and maybe even the sound of a badger blundering through the undergrowth. You could be surprised as to how many birds wake up for a short song half way through the night.
Chobham Common in Surrey is home to a flourishing population of nightjars. Make sure you come for the day, as there’s a lot to see on this, the largest National Nature Reserve in south east England and one of the finest lowland heaths in the world.
Berkshire, Greenham and Crookham Commons
Berkshire, Wildmoor Heath
Conwy, Cors Bodgynydd
Devon, Bovey Heathland
Devon, Chudleigh Knighton Heath
Devon, Bystock Pools
Dorset, Tadnoll and Winfrith
Dorset, Higher Hyde Heath
Gwynedd, Gwaith Powdwr
Norfolk, Roydon Common and Grimston Warren
Suffolk, Sutton and Hollesley Commons
Suffolk, Blaxhall Common
Surrey, Ockham and Wisley Commons
Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts