This mysterious creature is one of the birds rarely seen by casual birdwatchers due to
its specialist habitat and nocturnal lifestyle. It was known as the ‘goatsucker’ in mythical stories as their open mouths look as though they could suckle goats. The mouth is surrounded by hairs and held open to catch moths and insects flying at night.
Nightjars live on heaths and young conifer plantations. During the day the Nightjar lays on the ground, hidden in the heather or amongst dead roots and is almost invisible using its superb natural camouflage. They are usually found by hearing their weird, almost mystical song, a continuous churring sound rising and falling, sometimes described as being like a distant motorcycle. The song is ventriloquial so it takes some time to locate the bird in the dark, sitting along a branch with a shape rather like a Kestrel, but its plumage is dark brown and grey with white spots on the pointed wings and tail feathers. It is also possible to locate them from their ‘kru-ik’ call made in flight which is often accompanied by audible wing clapping during courtship.
I once took a party of Reading Ornithological Club members to a local site and we had wonderful views of the birds as they hawked for moths around our heads. They first rose from the heather and we could see and hear them on the lower tree branches in the distance churring and then calling as they flew. The best nights to find them are in June and July, just before dark and when it is warm and still. You need to be patient as they wait until it is almost dark before they start churring and flying.
These birds are migrants and come from Africa in the spring, late April to early May, staying until September. Only 75 ringed birds have ever been recovered (caught a second time or found dead) so information is limited and Morocco is the most southerly place they have been caught. However, it is believed they venture much further south, possibly even to South Africa.
On a serious note, the heathlands surrounding our Valley are Special Protection Areas (SPAs), designated under European law for the protection of rare bird species, one of which is our Nightjar. This habitat is one of the world’s rarest and needs our care and protection so whenever you visit a heathland please keep to the main tracks, avoid smoking and do not allow your dog to run off the lead.
I once heard a story about a Nightjar found in Teddington, Middlesex that was apparently lost and confused as it sat on, sang and hunted around an urban lamppost night after night providing local residents and interested birdwatchers with much entertainment – not a likely way to see the Nightjar!
Berkshire Ornithological Club