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The Nightjar. The enigma. The legend. These almost mythical birds arrive from Africa every summer to raise their young. During the day their SAS standard camouflage makes them invisible to most. But as dusk descends, their unearthly sound shatters the silence across heathland and moor. Here’s your guide to one of the UK’s most cryptic birds and some of the best places to hear their eerie call.
With their small but wide mouth, large dark eyes and flat head there’s no getting away from the fact that the Nightjar is a strange looking bird. They’re slightly smaller than a Kestrel and in flight they look falcon-like, with pointed wings and long tails. As they’re mainly active from dusk, when they are seen it’s usually silhouetted against a darkening sky, hunting moths and other flying insects.
Their grey and brown mottled, streaked and barred feathers create the perfect illusion of bark, meaning they almost vanish when they sit hunched over their nest on the ground.
Like a strange creature from a 70s B-movie. The male’s churring is more alien lifeform than a shy brown bird. It has a mechanical feel, like a strange clockwork toy steadily unwinding, the constant notes gently rising and falling through the half-light. They often move their head as they call, throwing their voice and making it difficult to locate exactly where they are. As if to make things even more eerie, the churring is often combined with a percussive flapping of the wings.
Nightjars are a summer visitor here and they make us wait. They’re usually one of the last migrants to arrive in late April and May, with most travelling up from the scrub grasslands of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They come here to breed on heathlands, moorlands, woodland clearings and in recently felled conifer plantations. They’re most numerous in southern England but are also found in parts of Wales, northern England and southwestern Scotland.
Once they have found a suitable location, females lay their eggs on secluded patches of bare ground. The eggs take around 18 days to hatch, with the one or two chicks fledging around 18 days later. Each pair normally raise two broods each year.
By late August and September most Nightjars have left the UK, heading back over mountains, seas and desert to their Sub-Saharan wintering grounds.
The Nightjar is known by many names – the Fern Owl, the Wheeler, the Nightchurr and the Dor-Hawk. But the oddest is surely the Goatsucker. Long ago it was thought Nightjars would drink milk directly from goats, poisoning them so their udders wasted away and they went blind. The myth was once common in many countries all over Europe, not just in the UK.
The truth is less dramatic. Nightjars were probably coming close to the livestock because they were hunting the many insects close by.
Nightjars were once much more common and widespread than today. The loss of open woodland and heathland to agriculture and development caused numbers to dramatically fall by 51% across the UK between 1972 and 1992. But more recently numbers have begun to recover. This is partly because of successful conservation efforts to restore lowland heath but also the felling of commercial forests which has produced large areas of suitable open habitat.
Despite the encouraging signs, Nightjars are still absent from large parts of their former range and remain at risk from loss of suitable habitat. The decline in their main food source, moths, is also a concern, with a study by Butterfly Conservation saying the overall number of moths has decreased by 33% since 1968. The situation is particularly bad in southern Britain, the Nightjar’s traditional stronghold, where moth numbers are down by 39%.
Some of the best places to encounter Nightjars today are on RSPB nature reserves, especially those in England and Wales where numbers hit a record high in 2022. Surveys revealed there were 198 territorial males last year, up from 178 in 2021 – an 11% jump.
RSPB Arne in Dorset is now one of the best places in the UK to hear their call, with 60 territorial males recorded last year, three times as many as in 1990.
Conservation work to restore a mix of heathland, grassland and woodland on the reserve is the main reason Nightjars are increasing here. But humans can’t take all the credit, this mosaic of habitats was partly created by herds of native Red Devon cattle, ponies, donkeys and pigs.
These wild grazers break up vegetation, creating bare ground as they pass through, and moving plants around in their dung and hooves. The dung then attracts insects such as dung beetles which are great Nightjar food.
With their amazing camouflage making them pretty much invisible during the day, the best time to find Nightjars is dusk on moorland and heath. Below are some of the RSPB reserves which are well known for Nightjars.
RSPB Ynys-hir, Ceredigion
RSPB Aylesbeare Common, Devon
RSPB Arne, Dorset
RSPB Hazeley Heath, Hampshire
RSPB Blean Woods, Kent
RSPB Broadwater Warren, Kent
RSPB Tudeley Woods, Kent
RSPB Budby South Forest, Nottinghamshire
RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk
RSPB Farnham Heath, Surrey
RSPB Pulborough Brooks, Sussex