A little night music
Matt Gaw tunes into the mysterious nightjar
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