Day 5 was time for the first one of the activities I’d found locally and booked on to add some extra interest to our wild month. On this warm and sunny Friday evening we met a group of about 20 other people and two countryside rangers from our local council for a walk through Swinley Forest to Caesar’s camp in search of nightjars and bats.
The rangers started by telling us a little bit about the creatures we were looking for and
then we set off walking through the forest. Part way to our destination, we stopped and talked a little about the area we were in. Swinley Forest is part of the Crown Estate and is a managed plantation, with lots of douglas fir. The name of the forest comes from the pigs (swine) who used to graze it in days gone by. I also learnt an interesting fact about fir trees- you can tell their age by the number of levels of branches they have growing up them (or that have dropped off from lower down).
As we walked the sun started to set and it got darker among the trees. Soon, we reached Caesar’s Camp, an iron age hill fort and scheduled ancient monument, where we were going to look and listen for nightjars and bats. We walked up and on to the fort and around the ramparts, listening out for nightjars and watching the beautiful sky.
As we walked round to the other side of the fort, we stopped to listen. At this point we were lucky enough to see a woodcock fly over and an owl of some sort swoop across in front of the trees on the other side of the fort. The day was fading into dusk and in the deep blue sky, Venus and Jupiter glowing brightly.
Then, finally, what we’d been waiting for, the unearthly whirr of a nightjar calling across the heather. It was amazing to stand there in the fading light and listen to the call across the iron age hillfort, a sound probably heard by the people that built this place two and a half thousand years ago, under the same dark skies.
As the sound faded a little we walked around the fort again, bat detectors out, set at 45 Mhz to pick up the echolocation of pipistrelle bats. From close to the trees around the site, a bat could be heard on our detector, then seen, silhouetted in the light between two trees.
Walking further round the fort, a nightjar flew up out of the heather, wing claps audible, as well as an alarm call.
As the night drew in, we left the fort and walked back through the dark forest, delighted to have seen nightjars in the air, the first time that we’d seen the birds, as opposed to just hearing them. Driving home, we saw the glowing eyes of a fox in the headlights, debating whether to cross the road, then turning back and slinking back into the bushes. This was a fantastic way to spend a wild Friday night.