by Annette J Beveridge
The elusive nightjar arrives in the UK in late April to Mid-May opting for heathland, moorland or young conifer woods in England, Wales and in southern Scotland. They are most numerous in southern England with the New Forest being a prime breeding area. The male occupies his territory and then advertises his presence, patrolling, chasing off any birds that may trespass. Fanning his tail, he holds his wings in a V shape.
Masters of camouflage
With black/brown plumage resembling old leaves or tree bark, these birds are truly the masters of camouflage. During the day, they blend into the background remaining quite still. With a flat, wide head, large eyes and a bill with a large gape, the surrounding bristles help them to hunt. For identification, males have white patches on the wing and tail. They have a wingspan of 60cm and are 26-28cm in length. The average lifespan for a nightjar is 4 years.
Nocturnal, they appear like giant moths and the flight patterns are irregular, jerky. They have notable long wings and tail and it affords a falcon-like silhouette on a moonlit night. If the conditions are not suitable for flying, they induce torpor and lower their metabolism so to save energy levels until they are able to feed. Diet includes dragonflies, beetles, mayflies, cockroaches, and spiders. For those who are lucky enough to see nightjars, they leave a long-lasting impression of beauty. The distinctive churring sound can be heard at dusk.
The female lays two cream/grey blotchy eggs directly onto the ground towards the end of May. The female typically incubates the eggs and they hatch after 17-21 days. The female will brood the chicks for around two weeks unless they have a second clutch of eggs and the male broods them instead. After one month, they are fully independent.
Also known as goatsuckers in some European countries, this inaccurate name occurred through their close proximity to goats. They do not feed on goats at all but are drawn to the numbers of invertebrates that gather around livestock.
Nightjars are listed as amber on the Red List for birds due to habitat loss and potentially, climate change. As such, they are a species of concern. During the summer months, be extra diligent for nesting birds. If you are too close, you may detect what appears to be an injured bird trying to escape from you. This is a technique used to lead predators away from the nest.
Nightjars return to Africa to overwinter.