The sight and sound of the nightjar

The sight and sound of the nightjar


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.

Special spots

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





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