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.)
Thank you to Arkive for this lovely photo.