Driving east towards Exeter, the flat cloud above could be seen to end abruptly with the promise of clear skies beyond. It had been a warm day, even for June, and the prospect of a full moon shining without interruption on a still night, increased our expectation.
In the large, circular car park surrounded by the gorse scrub of heathland at Aylesbeare Common, near Sidmouth, the cars of the watchers began to assemble on the perimeter and the passengers disembarked, standing beside the cars, reminding me of village dances where no one was brave enough to take to the floor or pass more than the most perfunctory remark to their neighbour.
Before we set off in search of nightjars, the purpose of the assembled company, we had first to spot the guide. There were a number of likely candidates dressed for the occasion in sweatshirts advertising various wildlife events and organizations. Binoculars, cameras and notebooks hung by straps and strings from the necks of these good folk seeming to prejudice their chances of a comfortable walk. All of us were well covered in layers to keep in the warmth of the day and exclude the night chills. As the appointed time to meet came, an old pick-up turned into the car park and a young man with an open shirt and none of the expected equipment strolled to the centre of the space, introducing himself as Toby, the warden.
We shuffled into a circle around him like primary school children on an outing, and to complete the image Toby’s assistant checked our names against her register.
Toby gave us confidence – it was clear from our answers to his questions that none of us was a “twitcher”. We were just folk who were excited at the prospect of seeing nightjars.
These mysterious birds, with many local names such as “goat suckers”, hover like spectres around the folklore of the places they frequent. Because they are nocturnal, and are therefore difficult to investigate, they remain magical and mysterious even to those who study them.
They arrive in this country, which is at the northern limit of their distribution, from southern Africa in early May and males establish territories on heathland. The males advertise themselves, in the hope of attracting mates and deterring other males, by a churring sound made whilst they remain grounded. This is often followed by a flight low over the vegetation, with a high whistling flight call and possible wing clappings as pigeons do. A nightjar is about the same size as a pigeon but is swift-like in shape, with a wide, gaping mouth, the lower jaw of which can detach to increase its size as the bird trawls for insects as it flies over the heath and in pastures beyond. Their cryptic camouflage allows them to rest by day on the brown earth under and between the gorse and heather.
All this we learned from Toby; and much more. I suppose we could have read about it in books and pamphlets but they would not have predicted, as he did, the precise moment when churring would begin (it was 30 seconds early) nor would we have learned about the ancient and modern history of the heathland.
As the intensity of the churring increased we waited in silence, excitement mounting, for a glimpse of this elusive bird. And then …… such a fleeting view as a male (recognised by white wing tips which I would have trusted only Toby to identify) flitted across the low sky line, seeming to tangle with a small silhouetted birch tree, before disappearing. It left such clear visual images that my spine tingles to review them in my mind’s eye. Long scimitar wings, a streamlined body, erratic, eerie flight and (I at least thought) a wing clap.
A wait, ten minutes or more, before the churring began again, much closer. The interval was spent with more whispered information from Toby. Two broods a year, incubation seventeen to twenty days, fledging about a month after, by which time the female will have laid two more eggs in a scrape some few yards away from the first. The initial brood migrates quite soon, independently of the parents, but the second brood usually flies with the parents, returning to southern Africa.
Suddenly another bird (possibly the same bird) rose from a few yards away and flew along the line of watchers spread along the pebble path, as if for inspection. We gasped. “That,” said Toby, “is as good as it gets.”
We stayed on the heath for another half hour or so and heard the churring all around us from time to time. The moon, by now, was lighting the sea some ten miles away as we looked from the highest point on the common.
Toby gave us more information about the numbers and territories of the birds, but it was 11.30 p.m. and nightjars would not be obvious and active again until close to dawn. A little bonus on the return walk was the sight of a single female glow worm doing her best to light a path for a prospecting male.
Such magical nights are rare and to be cherished.
June 2012 (Summer issue)