Saturday night saw us heading to Wildmoor Heath, our nearest Widlife Trust reserve, managed by BBOWT, on a search for nightjars. Wildmoor Heath is part of the Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area. This was a good link to our visit on Thursday to the Heather Farm, a SANG (Suitable Alterntive Natural Greenspace), a site designed to attract visitors and relieve pressure on these important wildlife sites. The Thames Basin Heaths are special places particularly for ground nesting birds such as nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) and woodlark (Lullula arborea) and also for Dartford Warblers (Sylvia undata), who nest in the gorse. All these birds can be seen on this site, if you’re lucky!
We arrived in mid evening, the sun just beginning to set this close to the longest day of the year, and once the group had assembled, we headed off onto the heath. As it was still very light we took the opportunity to look for Dartford Warblers. We first spotted a stonechat (Saxicola torquata) singing from the top of a small birch tree, a striking looking bird with black and white markings and a russet orange chest. In a pine tree a song thrush (Turdus philomelos) repeated snatches of melody, it’s pale chest visible in the darkening night. We did not manage to see a Dartford Warbler, but heard its song, a gentle warbling, just on the edge of our hearing, which is the closest I’ve come to seeing these birds. I think a return visit is due to try and see them.
We walked down to another area of the heath, and stood for some time watching the light leech from the sky, mist form in a thin layer across the heathland and listened to the dusk chorus sound from the trees. A pipistrelle bat flew up and down along the line of trees we stood in front of, making the most of the midgies we were attracting.
Then, finally, we heard it, the unearthly, ethereal churring of a nightjar drifting across the heathland. Gentle, then louder, with hands cupped behind our ears to amplify the sound we stood, mesmerised, and listened. After a time we moved up along the path and into another part of the heath. The sound of churring was much louder here, the nightjar clearly closer, and then it stopped, sudden silence, and the nightjar flew from its spot, clearly visible, a wing clap echoing in the quiet night as it patrolled its territory. Once more the churring sounded, the most amazing noise, a real sound of summer for me. Once more the churring stopped and the nightjar flew, silhouetted in front of us in the light of the almost full moon, no more than 2metres from us over the heath.
These odd looking birds come all the way from Africa to breed each year, and have an interesting mythology, often called goatsuckers, as it was believed that they sucked the milk from goats. More likely, as they are insect eaters, they were taking advantages of the insects gathered around the warm blooded animals, much like the bat was doing with us earlier in the evening.
Standing underneath the moon lit sky, Mars visible in the sky next to the moon, natural environment all around us, nightjar churring floating through the air, I felt very small, insignificant, part of a much bigger whole.
Finally breaking away from the spectacle we walked back over the now dark heath, and headed home, a fox slinking through the streets the only creature out and about.