The Supernatural Nightjar

06th September 2013
The Nightjar's scientific name of Caprimulgus means 'Goat Sucker'. This derives from bizarre ancient folklore that Nightjars had supernatural powers and at night stole the milk from the teats of goats. This belief came about because of the birds habit of lying near cattle and other animals. In reality the birds were waiting for insects that were drawn to the animals.
Other colloquial names for these mysterious birds refer to their odd appearance, call, habitat and diet. Just a few are: Nighthawk, Flying Toad, Fern Owl, Dorhawk, Moth Owl, Eve-Churr and Jar Owl.

On a warm summer's night, if they are lucky, a birdwatcher can hear the distant 'Churring' of the male as he becomes active right at the very last light of day. Then seemingly out of nowhere they appear and the males and females begin their hunt for large flying insects against the inky blue night sky. The Nightjar has a large gape with stiff whiskers at the corners so they can channel the insects into their mouths. They have an almost silent flight as they beat their wings like a giant nocturnal butterfly, it's little wonder that they have a mysterious reputation. They spend all day roosting low down on the forestry floor or sitting horizontally along branches. They are almost impossible to see because of their cryptic plumage and will only fly right at the last second if they are disturbed.

The male can be told from the female by his white wing patches, these can be seen as he flies around displaying to the female while loudly clapping his long wings.

They arrive sometime in May and can have two broods, normally two young in each, the young are out of the nest and independent within a month, the adult birds then migrate back to sub Saharan Africa in late August/early September, leaving the young birds to look after themselves. It is quite humbling to think that these young birds, who are only six weeks old and have never known anything but the 200 yards of forestry they were raised in, will during the next few weeks take on an epic flight all the way to Africa;

This summer I have had great views of both sexes and also the male displaying to the female, flying around and wing clapping right in front of me.
Last night I decided to have one more try at seeing them, I arrived just before dusk and decided to drive along the forest track where I had seen the adult birds previously. Young Nightjars do have a habit of sitting out on these forest tracks waiting for insects to fly over them. The light had rapidly faded and was now virtually pitch black, the only light available was very week moonlight, so I knew I had to be careful because young Nightjars don't 'Churr' they just make a faint squeak as they fly around.

I hadn't bothered bringing a big lens with me because it was a waste of time lugging it around in the dark and it is a recipe for an accident if ever there was one! I had dressed in some old clothes and I had a large 'Bean bag' in the boot along with my Canon 300mm f4.0 lens, I felt this lens was more manageable in those conditions.
As I turned a corner something caught my eye and I slowed right down to a crawl and on the track I could see two young Nightjars, I could barely believe it, a dream come true.
I inched closer until they were right in my headlights, then I quietly got out and opened the boot as slowly as I could and got my kit out. I snaked along the track, getting covered in stone dust and moss until I was only about fifteen feet from them. Amazingly they seemed completely unconcerned by me, I positioned my Bean bag and managed to take a few shots as they just sat there. One bird was swallowing a moth while the other was preening its feathers, they have a serrated middle claw which they use as a 'comb' for this purpose.

It really is very special to get that close to these elusive creatures of the night.

I moved back slowly and quietly reversed my car away and left them to their hunting and as I drove away I caught them again in my headlights flying around after their prey.

I have only spent two ten minute sessions with these young birds because I didn't want to disturb them. They need to feed and put on as much weight as they possibly can for their forthcoming journey, I really do hope they make it!!
What a fabulous bird they are.
Please see UK Birds, Nightjars