This week I managed to sacrifice a few too many hours sleep to come and see the Nightjars up at Nottingham. Thankfully, and as expected, the evening was worth every missing wink. It was an evening filled with chicks, churrs and a batman-esque fight between two very frisky males – an event that had to be shared with you at the nearest opportunity.
The Nightjar is a hunter of dark and dusk. It swoops and dives with incredible precision to catch unsuspecting moths, but unlike most other crepuscular species, does not attempt any sort of silence in the process. Nightjars will churr and chuck and clap and hoot with such distinction that even a novice like myself can tell these sounds apart with ease. If the calls weren’t peculiar enough, its flight habits are unpredictable and characteristically erratic as it soars across the darkening sky like a swift catching a sudden breeze.
Now you have a rough idea of how I could continue to describe this species with enough of my poetic sprawl to fill a small book, its time for a swift account of my evening.
First job: find a nightjar family
The first thing on the to do list, as I joined the local Nightjar experts of Sherwood and very good friends, was to find a nightjar nest in a known site. The four of us carefully skulked through the bracken, trying not to get stuck in any rotting wood masquerading as a sturdy trunk. Every leaf looked like the wing of a nightjar, and every light pebble looked like a nightjar egg – if anyone thought a needle in a haystack was the hardest thing to find, they need to give this a try. After a while, with a soft whoop of joy from a searcher, and a sharp rustle of bracken, a female shot up from the foliage and flew into the wood. We had found the nest!
Just a few beautiful little brown fluff balls were left, less than 5 days old, and so too young to ring. We caught a quick and quiet peak whilst beaming from ear to ear, before leaving the young pulli and the largely undisturbed foliage alone so the parent could safely return to her babies. It was essential to draw as little attention to this area, and leave as few traces of our presence as possible, so as not to leave any obvious clues to predators who may be nearby.
Second job: uncoding the language of the nightjar
This is a very cool bit of research going on at the moment, with students from Nottingham recording the nightjar males calls, to look at differences between paired and unpaired males in song. This project is in its very early days but has some awesome implications for remote nightjar monitoring if successful. We left the two students to begin their evening of recording in peace, and ventured off again to a nearby site.
Third job: watch a male-male spat off, front row seats included!
We had two day old chicks, and an insight into new research, but I would have been mistaken if I didn’t think the night could get any better. We stood on the edge of a dusky coppiced field, watching and waiting as a tree pipit called his last goodnight before heading to bed. Layer upon layer of shadows were cast across the clearing as we waited, until suddenly, like a scene out of batman begins, a Nightjar swooped across a row of pine trees. We saw it glide, feeding as it went, before landing to churr on a post. We carefully made our way across the clearing to get a better look, to see if this was a male with a female friend, or one on the hunt for a late mate (all information that was very important to accompany the girls recording research).
As we walked a churr began from the other side of the coppice, from yet another male. They each took in turn to let out their battle cries and before long they both launched into the air. In a powerful dance the birds soared across the moon, not 20ft from where we stood. The view was unbeatable, my hairs stood on end, and the nightjars were performing the act of a lifetime. Every dart and clap of the wings was accompanied by a teeewit and a churr from the other before another woosh across the sky. We stood for over thirty minutes, filled with energy and gratitude for being there to see such a sight. Confirmed, whatever the girls had recorded here, it was two males, who were not likely to be paired, and very likely to have their heads in a stew!
The night finally engulfed the last light that had hung in the sky, and the midnight hours arrived. We took down the nets that had not captured any birds, but instead, I had been caught with my mouth open and my eyes wide, as what I had experienced that evening was something that made me feel a very lucky person indeed.