The Nightjar is one of Britain’s most intriguing birds. They have an air of exclusivity – you aren’t going to see them unless you go to special sites in peculiar habitats at certain times of year; they aren’t birds you can just bump into.
It was for these reasons that I hadn’t seen one until last year, at the advanced age of 23 – I simply hadn’t been anywhere where there were any. When I was younger, I listened to tape recordings of ‘churring’ and thought what a bizarre, un-bird-like sound it was; they remained one of those mythical birds which were really interesting but that I might never see.
So last year’s experience was pretty amazing. But nobody told me they were going to fly around my head at barely an arm’s distance!
A year on, it was time for a return visit with Steve Dudley, former Brecks resident and repository of local knowledge. The Brecks, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, have some of the country’s largest Nightjar populations in the heathland/open pine forest. On the way, we stopped at Cavenham Heath and saw a family party of Wood Larks, a hunting Hobby, a pair of Little Owls and a Red Fox trotting around, watched by Rabbits.
Onto the main event. As we walked along the forestry track to the Nightjars' arena, numerous 'roding' Woodcock flew over (click here to hear what that sounds like). At about 21:30, we heard the first 'jar of the evening... a hollow, distant, whirring, rattling, rasping buzz, dipping and rising in pitch every few seconds...
Perhaps I don't have to labour too hard to describe it to you, because you can listen to an MP3 here!
Soon, we saw a bird floating against a backdrop of cloudy sky and dark pines... a male, with white wing flashes. Walking further along the track, a young Brown Hare lolloped along towards us next to a timber stack. We heard more churring, saw males flying around and into the forest, before another, much closer bird started up. It's only when you get really close to a Nightjar that you get the full impact of just how... strange the sound is. It doesn't sound like a bird at all, more like something mechanical.
Most of the churrers... churr for a minute or so, then just stop dead. It's when there's a female in the vicinity that things get really exciting. It's all about sex, of course. The churring goes on for a while as normal, before breaking down, coming to a clattering, squawking halt, with exuberant wing-clapping (and probable mating). That's pretty special to hear.
One of the ways to attract a male Nightjar's attention is to mimic his wing-clapping. We tried it, with immediate results... we watched as the male flew towards us, silhouetted against the darkening sky, calling, and flew in a small circle around our heads, having a good look before vanishing back the way he'd come.
The late birder gets the worms, too...
What's in my CD player: Noyoucmon - Lambchop