Nightjars on Dartmoor

As the evening twilight began to creep in, blackbirds were still singing from their hearts. Rivalling each other in their fluting and trills they answered each other across the large area of cleared trees. The tall pine trees surrounding the space swayed slightly. Darkness seemed to be trapped between them and I fancied the blackbird chorus held it at bay. The final blackbird continued for a few minutes, perhaps responding to a faint echo of his phrasing from deep in the wood. Listening to him I couldn’t help catching now and then what seemed like some notes of the nightjar’s call. I might have imagined it because that was what I was waiting for, in the gloaming.  

Just then came a clap of wing-beats and a call of ‘Coo-ik’. Our most agile flyer then flew round my head and halted in mid-air right above me as if levering himself on his wings that he held aloft without a movement. Yet I heard the flutter of feathers. In the half-light I could see the bright spots of white on his falcon-like wings and tail. He flew round me calling ‘Coo-ik’ intermittently while another two males joined him in circling me. One of them landed on an old stick nearby and watched me for a minute. In that moment, everything seemed on the alert. The clouds were whizzing overhead, opening and closing on the moon. The trees sounded like the sea. I didn’t dare move a muscle.  And yes, I was indeed feeling a bit threatened and supposing youngsters must be close by I moved away reluctantly.

As the birds vanished into the twilight the ‘churring’ started, the male’s song which rose and fell in waves and seemed to come from all directions. They are skilled ventriloquists and can apparently throw their voices. It is a most hypnotic sound and you feel as if a spell is being crooned to you. Not surprising in this location which was once full of ancient cairns, stone circles and burial chambers. It was planted with coniferous trees by the Forestry Commission and of course the kists and cairns were brutally shifted about in the planting and in the felling. When patches are clear-felled or begin to regenerate one very good thing is that this provides the right habitat for nightjars.

They are beautiful birds with cryptic feathers the colour of bark, earth, stone so that if you came upon one you’d never tell the difference … until you hear the churring. They hunt moths by night, favouring open ground to swoop on their prey, opening their beaks from cheek-to-cheek to trawl the skies like a whale in the sea. Their flight is perfectly co-ordinated so that they can chase down moths and larger insects like craneflies. Their stay in this country is short for they leave for tropical Africa with their young in August, having only arrived in late May. Their eyes are very large in order to see well in low light levels.

As I left the place I kept stopping to listen to the orchestra of nightjars tuning up all along the valley. There’s only a short time left to hear them this year and I hope there are enough moths to go round after all the rain. (If they decided to trawl for midges, they’d be fine.)  Image

Thank you to Arkive for this lovely photo.



About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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7 Responses to Nightjars on Dartmoor

  1. Julie-ann Rowell says:

    How lovely to hear and see nightjars, I’ve always wanted to and never managed it. Good to hear there are a few around, I understand they are quite rare now?

    • Apparently, less so….with the clear felling they did a few years ago. I can take you there one evening maybe if you like…… or go to the spot above Yarner Woods near Bovey Tracey where they ahd the fire on the Common a few years ago but there’s only a week or so of churring left and every night it gets a bit weaker.

  2. janfortune says:

    Fantastic post, Becky – wonderful, lyrical prose 🙂

  3. elly nobbs says:

    Thanks Becky. Great post. Love the descriptions and how you build up the suspence! I wonder if they would/could/might adapt their eating habits…to midges… Good photo too…shows off that wonderful big eye.

  4. This is lovely, Becky. I enjoyed the nightjars, but I especially liked the first paragraph – it’s very evocative and full of suspense.

  5. Val says:

    I’ve never heard (or seen) a nightjar anywhere where I’ve lived. I’m not sure they’re in Wales, or this part.

    By the way, Bruce Erde found me your blog – I’m his wife.

    • Nice to hear from you, Val. I don’t know about nightjars in Wales either. They like open land but obviously not where dogs can run as they are ground nesting birds. They also favour clear-fell areas or where trees might be regenrating. They are wonderful birds but I dread to think what all this rain has done to their favourite moths or how they will build up enough fat-reserves to fly to Africa next month.

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