A lit­tle night mu­sic

Matt Gaw tunes into the mys­te­ri­ous night­jar

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE -

The sound starts soon after we en­ter the wood­land clear­ing in Kings For­est. A cold en­gine re­fus­ing to turn over, a bub­bling, pneu­matic drilling. The song comes from nowhere and ev­ery­where, bounc­ing from oak, birch and pine, ric­o­chet­ing against us in puls­ing, click­ing churrs of 1,900 notes a minute. The night­jars are here.

I look over at Olly. He is stand­ing with his hands cupped around his ears and turn­ing slowly like a hu­man radar. I grin and raise my eye­brows, but he urges me to give it a go. I can’t be­lieve the dif­fer­ence it makes. The song is am­pli­fied tremen­dously. It pours into me, the vi­bra­tions en­ter­ing my bones. But more than that it helps to iden­tify the di­rec­tion of the song. I turn slowly, count­ing. One, two, three dif­fer­ent songs.

The win­dow for hear­ing and see­ing night­jar in the UK is small. Win­ter­ing in sub-Sa­hara Africa, they ar­rive in late spring to breed be­fore de­part­ing again in Au­gust. What we are hear­ing now is the males es­tab­lish­ing a ter­ri­tory, ready­ing for courtship.

One night­jar, a male, leaves his perch and cir­cles with a liq­uid bat-like move­ment. A pa­per­plane glide, with tail up and kestrel-shaped wings marked with a lichen flash of white. He turns again and claps his wings to­gether above his back, like a rock star lead­ing ap­plause, or an air­borne fla­menco dancer. Each slap of feath­ered bone the sexy clack of a cas­tanet. But this dis­play isn’t for us, there must be a fe­male be­neath him.

I’ve heard night­jar be­fore dur­ing a night walk on Dart­moor, but I’ve never seen one. Not many peo­ple have. It is prob­a­bly one of the rea­sons the bird, like many other crea­tures of the night, is shrouded in myth. For cen­turies it was be­lieved the night­jar suck­led on goats, leav­ing any an­i­mal vis­ited blind, and its pre­cious milk soured. It’s folk name of goat-sucker is echoed in the Latin Caprimul­gus eu­ropaeus, ‘milker of goats’.

Like the witches of the early Mod­ern Age, any ill­ness that be­fell live­stock would be blamed upon the night­jar, whose prox­im­ity to an­i­mals was due to the as­so­ci­ated in­sects rather than a de­sire for milk or mis­chief. Cows too would ‘fall vic­tim’ to the night­jar’s feeds, with the bird known as ‘puck­eridge’ after the dis­ease it was said to cause in cat­tle – a re­sult of it sup­pos­edly peck­ing their hides at night. In other parts of the coun­try the night­jar was also known as the Lich fowl, the corpse bird, born not from egg but the souls of un­bap­tised chil­dren, and doomed to fly through the night un­til Judge­ment Day.

Olly points as the night­jar re­turns to its pine tree perch. Even though I know ex­actly where he is, it still takes me a while to lo­cate him with my binoc­u­lars. He is singing again. In the last light of the day I can make out a sphinx-like head and bark-coloured plumage that is a cryptic plumage of greys, browns, mot­tled streaks and bars. A log with wings. Its eyes large, its wide-mouthed, moth-fun­nelling gape larger still. A su­per, nat­u­ral beauty.

‘Like witches of the early Mod­ern Age, any ill­ness that be­fell live­stock would be blamed on the night­jar’

Matt Gaw is ed­i­tor of the Suf­folk Wildlife Trust mag­a­zine

A male night­jar dis­play­ing on warm sum­mer night at Suf­folk San­dlings

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