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OBVIOUS BIRDS #78: Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)

By alicebg, Oct 17 2017 07:19PM

Okay, so this is not an obvious bird at all. True to its name, the Nightjar is a thing of dusk and darkness, so to actually see one you need to be either very lucky, or you have to plan it. Either way, it's an experience you're not likely to forget.

Nightjars are our spookiest summer visitors, their nocturnal habits and strange shape (like a squashed Cuckoo, which in turn looks like a squashed Sparrowhawk), giving rise to more myths and legends than possibly any other UK bird. Supremely camouflaged, they spend their days roosting silently and invisibly, only becoming active as twilight looms.

I am fortunate to live in an area that has a wide variety of habitats within a relatively short distance. One of these is dense deciduous woodland on a coastal fringe, and it was there that the SO and I first became aware of Nightjars on our patch. Not that we actually saw one, but we did run across a birder/cameraman who was setting up some pretty sophisticated equipment in order to capture them in action. That evening conversation planted a seed that was to germinate a few years later.

For an actual Nightjar encounter, we signed up to a 'Nightjar Walk' organised by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The venue was a high heathland site a few miles from where we'd encountered our hopeful photographer, and a nationally-recognised birding spot. What followed was a magical experience, from an early-evening sighting of a Hobby (q.v.) to seeing a Noctule Bat as the sun went down. And as the sky shifted to true purple, we heard the bizarre bubbling call of a male Nightjar (hard to call it a 'song' - it sounds more like the interference you get on Short Wave radio). Even better, a few moments later we saw the bird itself - inevitably silhouetted - flutter up like a giant moth and perch on a branch almost as if it were posing for us. After dark, from our high vantage point we watched a distant electrical storm light up the North Sea like a firework display.

I don't know if all Nightjar encounters are that good, but i'm willing to bet every time you meet one of these surreal birds, there's a good bit of magic mixed in.

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