Phil (my husband) was working from home again today, and while hanging out the washing at lunchtime, noticed something land in our plum tree out of the corner of his eye. Backing into the house so as not to startle the visitor, he was delighted to see that it was a great tit sitting in the tree, plucking a caterpillar from a branch, landing on the fence briefly before leaving. We’re really pleased that small birds are being attracted into the garden, especially after the problems we had earlier in the challenge with our neighbour. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of them.
This evening, we headed to Chobham Common, the largest National Nature Reserve in the south east of England, for an evening guided walk. Chobham Common is a really special area. As well as being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it has enhanced protection as a Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds particularly the dartford warbler, woodlark and nightjar, as part of the Thames Basin Heaths SPA. It is also one of the best British areas for insects and spiders with over half of British spiders recorded on the site as well as 300 species of ladybirds, bees and wasps, 29 species of butterflies, and 22 types of dragonflies. It’s a wonderful site to visit and is very peaceful, especially in the evenings, when we tend to visit.
This has in the past been a regular haunt of ours, for a picnic and a walk on the way home from work, but since March, when I changed jobs, my husband and I are no longer travelling to and from work together, and we haven’t visited the common this spring or summer so far.
Tonight it was time to rectify that absence. We met up with the site’s senior Ranger and about twenty other visitors, in search of nightjars and other creatures of the night.
Nightjars are doing well on this site, with between 38 and 48 breeding pairs this year. After a brief introduction to the site from the ranger we headed off along sandy paths to an area in between several nightjar territories. As we walked a hobby appeared briefly beside the path, although sadly I missed seeing it. We marvelled at the difference between a fenced area where conservation grazing reduces the amount of problematic purple moor grass on the site and allows the heather to thrive.
We arrived in the centre of the nightjar territories and all sat in amongst the heather and grass, watching the incredible sunset, with an amazing array of clouds stretched across the wide dome of skies above us. The setting sun caught the clouds, glimmering silver, gold, pink, and orange as the light faded. In the west the sky was streaked with colour and from on the ground, with the silhouette of trees in front of us but no visual sign of human habitation, we could have been on the African Savannah. As the sky darkened the first whirring churrs of a nightjar could be heard drifting across the heathland. I love this sound, it is so unearthly, so eerie. It is easy to see why there are so many superstitions associated with this bird, which only arrives in the summer, which sounds so odd, is so well camouflaged and looks so odd with its wide gaping beak, whiskered face and odd colourings. They have been called goat suckers in the past, due to a mistaken belief that they fed on goat milk and were also thought to spread disease to cows, due to their habit of hanging around the animals, feeding on the insects surrounding them.
As we sat, other nightjars could be heard calling from various points around us, with a keewik heard before a nightjar flew in front of us, clearly silhouetted against the clear night sky. Nightjars normally like to sit on perfectly horizontal branches, and we were watching a particular branch, sticking out from a beech tree in front of us. This nightjar, however, landed further up the tree, and sat churring, clearly visible to us sitting on the ground looking up at them. It is the best view I have ever had of a nightjar and a very special experience.
We moved on, making our way back round to where we had started. As we walked we heard more nightjars churring. We got the bat detector out and listened out for bats. I was expecting to see bats, especially walking on a path between trees and water, insects flying and a calm, still night, but there were surprisingly few around. We picked up a common pipistrelle on the detector, which flew in front of us, but we only saw a couple of bats. Three woodcock flew close in front of us, alarm calling loudly. We could hear tawny owls, and another person on the walk, further ahead of us, saw three tawny owls fly in front of them.
The long evenings at this time of year, allow for fantastic wildlife experiences in the evenings. We arrived back to the cars at quarter to eleven, and it was still just light enough to see our way across the common in the last light of the day. This has been one of my favourite wild days of the challenge so far.