Gathering myself together after the initial Covid19 shocks to carry on with my series of posts about the creatures in my pamphlet, Vanishings. Just heard from Palewell Press that it is still going ahead even though there will be no party or launch. So hoping it isn’t the biggest flop in history…even worse than the rest!
Nightjars are one of my favourite birds and hearing them in the summer dusk always fills me with joy. They fly from sub-Saharan Africa to breed here and then make the long perilous journey back during August. Like many such birds, Dartmoor is quite a stronghold. Some have taken up nesting in clear-felled woodland areas and, for years, I knew I would find them in Soussons Forest, famous for its spooky prehistoric remains and a stone circle that is still used for ritual purposes. But, last summer, I knew I had to find a new nightjar place as the regenerating pine trees had grown too high for them to like that particular spot.
Knowing their preferred habitat, I had a plan though. One afternoon a friend texted me to get to her place at 8pm. She lives in a beautiful Dartmoor valley and runs a totally environmentally-friendly farm with open access. 8pm in July or June is rather early to look for nightjars or so I thought until I got there when I realised who we were going with… a BTO ringer who needed to set up mist nets. It was a good twenty minute walk from the farm yard on a beautiful evening with birds of all sorts singing down the day. Hard to imagine that at the moment.
Nik set up his nets and put on his nightjar recording. Actually they were already calling and he almost didn’t need to but it attracts them to fly round the interloper in their midst. They were flying and calling all around us, one perching on a very tall tree spike (looking more like a snapped-off pylon than a stump). It was a merry-go-round of nightjars in the half moonlight.
Press this to hear them..
One became caught in the net and my heart failed, imagining its panic. He quickly ringed and weighed it, said it was male and last year’s hatchling. I watched its enormous gape and its eyes seemed blue. And its body wasn’t black! He stretched out the wing to show us the pattern of white among the rich charcoaly- brown- chestnut feathering and then he let me hold it. I tried to refuse, thinking it shouldn’t be touched but he said it was fine and for a few seconds I held the bird in my hands, feeling its tough life-force and the fragile reality of its bone structure.
My poem from this encounter was published in Poetry Birmingham Review last autumn, to my delight. This is a wonderful print magazine ( yes, print (!) and beautifully produced) with very kind and enthusiastic editors. Here it is:
Holding the Night
Its body is all feather and bone.
I bring it close
wrapping my fingers over its wings.
My fingertips answer
its bounding heart
as if together they created vibrato.
It weighs almost nothing:
a ribcage enclosing
the inner life
air between wing coverts
With one wrong squeeze
it might shatter into birds.
I could fall into the gaping beak
vanish in the pink gullet.
Eyes reflect glints of star.
The moon has thumbed
its name on wing and tail.
Flight is a living thing:
only by being so light
can it fly so far and carry the dark.
That’s all for now. Hope we can get out to hear them again this summer.
Keep safe and healthy. Keep away from all possibility of infection if you can. Love and warmest wishes to all.