On the trail of a mysterious bird

Bracken owl, churn owl, churr owl, dewfall hawk, dorr hawk, goatsucker, eve churr, eve jar, evening jar, fern owl, gnat hawk, goat chaffer, goat owl, jar owl, lich fowl, moth hawk, moth owl, night churr, night crow, night hawk, night swallow, Puckeridge, razor grinder, scissors grinder, screech hawk, spinner.

The bird we gathered here in the late evening in hopes of hearing, and maybe even seeing, has gone by many names in the past, referring to its churring call, the areas where it is found, its crepuscular habits, its shape and the misfounded belief that the birds fed on the milk of goats.

The bird we were here for was the nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus).

Gathering at the edge of Ash Ranges, MOD land, the largest tract of heathland left in Surrey and looked after for its wildlife by Surrey Wildlife Trust, the sky was blue, the air was warm and apart from an, at times, stiff breeze, this was the perfect weather for an evening walk in hope of seeing nightjars.

These quirky looking, large eyed, crepuscular birds, are well camouflaged amongst the dull browns and ochres of the heathland vegetation. They travel here each year from Africa to breed, and Ash Ranges is a stronghold for these birds of heathlands and wild places.

The heathland here is extensive, covering 13 square kilometre, and as you walk up onto the heath the views stretch out, as far as central London and the shard in one direction. The sun was setting, bathing the land in a golden glow, silhouetting trees along the horizon like a cut out picture against a wash of fiery watercolours.

The rattling song of a Dartford Warbler drifted across the heathland, these rare birds being another speciality of the ranges.

Cuckoos called, the regular two tone song clear and unmistakable, a sound that stops you in your tracks so you can listen closer. As the sky darkened, there it was, a churring, low at first, then louder, a slightly eerie, spine tingling, utterly entrancing call. A nightjar defending his heathland territory.​

​Listening to the sound you can imagine why country folk of old, before electric light brightened the darkness, before an understanding of where this odd creatures appeared from every year, believed ill of them. For those inclined to superstition it is a spooky sound.

Across the southern heaths this would have been a common sound, explaining the number of folk names for this bird, and the mention of the bird in Thomas Hardy’s Afterwards, writer of the Dorset heaths that he was.

The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades
to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer
may think,
“To him this must have been a familiar sight.” 

Afterwards, Thomas Hardy

Night rapidly drawing in, we reluctantly made our way back across the heath, moving from one nightjar territory to another, the churring song accompanying us until we were almost off the heath. Sky turned deep indigo, trees deep black against it, pale path through sandy soils showing through the murky brackens, first stars of night twinkling in the heavens.

There was one last treat to this evening, as we were almost back to the cars, bats appeared, patrolling the edge of the rifle rang, big, the classic bat shape of vampiric fiction, diving and swopping after insects, noctule bats emerging for the night.

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