Sunday, 11 June 2017

Watching Nightjars at dusk

The sun has set; the full moon must have risen but cannot yet be seen above or through the encircling trees. A breezy day has beclamed and the hazy sky softly glows in a palette of pastel shades. With  a growing sense of expectation, our small group steps forth into the gloaming woodland to search for churring nightjars.

There is light enough to spot warblers and thrushes still feeding their nestlings. A great-spotted woodpecker flies across a small woodland clearing and reveals a cowering, silent roe deer, a doe. She exits with caution to the right. Moths emerge earlier here than where the light lingers; I follow Agapeta hamana until it settles, Cochylis lacunana too, but a succession of suspected Green Oak Tortrix (Tortrix viridana) meander their cool blue-green way beyond my gaze.

We zig-zag our way along narrow woodland rides of oak and sallow, birch and sweet chestnut until a gap to the side opens out into a wide clear-felled area. Small pearl-bordered fritillaries have been control-released recently in this place. They are one of the woodman's followers who rely on woodland clearing made by the coppice cycles of our forebears. They are often found in the same places as nightjars.

Nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) nest on the ground without even bothering to build a nest. They are for this habit called the fern-owl. Their eggs are laid directly onto the bare earth, so we thread our way carefully across the clearing, gently uphill, sticking to the rough path to the opposite edge and fan out along the woodland edge. There is an excitement amongst the group and there is more chatter than I am comfortable with - surely this will no go without notice amongst the birds? In effect, we are chattering no more than the birds themselves. Blackbirds, song thrushes, nightingales even, can be heard calling across territories and their answers being returned. Distant corvids move in all directions; gulls move lazily towards the coast. Low cloud is hugging the downs and the weather there is less clement there than here. I give silent thanks for the perfect conditions which have followed a week of Atlantic storms.

A lump on a nearby pine branch is questioned: is it a resting nightjar? Binoculars are raised. It is just a lumpy bough, but the question seems to have had an effect on the group and the conversation subsides as the nightjars' time draws near. We meditate to the sound of the thrushes in their poker song (I'll take your notes and raise you something slightly more complex; well I'll take yours and do the same). Theirs is now mostly the only song being sung. From above and behind our right shoulders a large, silent silhouette glides across us. A hand points upwards, but I have already seen it. I lift my binoculars and get a perfect lock on the bird: its long wings tapering to a point, an underside speckled white and dark, an unmistakably-shaped face. Our first nightjar appears and is gone before some of the group are even aware of it. I think I got the best view and I am more than satisfied that it was our quarry - this one a female. The time is not much after nine. Low to the south the small full moon is glowing through a wash of gossamer cloud.

As we stand willing more to the wing, none appear. In the distance the churring call of one or more nightjars waxes and wanes, undulates, stops, begins again. It is almost a growl. The name: nightjar; I cannot help but hear the woodsmen of old call the beast noightchurr as they made their way home from the woodland clearing, leaving the gloaming beasts to the tightening murk. It is their time of day after all now and not a time that belongs to people, not even those of the woods. No wonder it's the stuff of myth, a beast that sucks the milk of goats. Sometimes it's too dark to tell what the truth is. Two or three bats skim closer and closer to our group, almost to an arm's length as they pick off the dusk moths. More churring becomes audible behind us and to the left. This must be close to where we started off in one of the first clearings we passed. Before us now there are at least two birds churring, maybe three. It stops and we pause, listening for a the territorial clap of the bird's wings as it takes to the air, considered by some to be an act of aggression to warn off a challenger. If there is a clap, I don't hear it and no birds appear above us.

The appeal of this bird for me is found in the time of day that it is active, that in-between time twixt day and night and night and day, the time of shifting shadows, wherein mysterious beasts lurk. Moths hold the same appeal (they are on the nightjar's menu too). The bird spends the winter in Africa, south of the Sahara. Recent study found that British nightjars migrate to and from the Congo. It isn't a rare bird, but is rarely seen while it is with us between April and September. Motionless by day, its cryptic plumage allows it to roost along a bough unnoticed. When disturbed it will, if it feels threatened, hiss. It is close to ten now and, with only a fleeting glimpse on one bird, we begin making our way back.

The path is a black ribbon. Dark clods plop around us in the torchlight, small toads on closer inspection. At a bend the churring resumes, much closer now, stops and I hear a clap. Above us, one - no, two - nightjars glide with silent arched wings. Again, only a few of us see them, but at least we know they are active and close by. Approaching the end we are diverted by a screech, then a second, in a large oak which splays its branches above the path. They are tawny owlets, two of them. One can be seen above us in the torchlight, still downy, but near fledging it seems. If the parents are near, they cannot be seen or heard. The owlet hides by turning its head away. The pause of several minutes is beneficial. Just to our left, very close by, the churring returns. There is a clearing behind the big oak. We make our way across the roots and a ditch which along with the big oak marks an ancient boundary. We wait. The churring of one, then two, possibly three nightjars pulsates through the air before trailing off into silence, then a clear clap, then the silhouettes of a first, second and third nightjar. Everyone sees them this time. It's a perfect coda to our night of 'churring.

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