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 Nightjar - Fact File
Caprimulgus europaeus
Summer visitor to suitable parts of England, Wales and S E Scotland. Few in Ireland.
Lowland heaths, open woodland, commons and young conifer plantations and felled areas of forest.

Nocturnal. Wonderful cryptic plumage looking like tree bark, and is difficult to see when roosting during the day. Hunts insects on the wing from dusk. Male has distinctive churring song, given at night.

25 - 28cm (10 - 11")
A Guide to Nightjars
and related Nightbirds
Nigel Cleere
Illustrated by Dave Nurney
Published by Pica Press
Book (£30) ISBN 1-873403-48-8
CD (£14.99) 1-873403-CD-1


My encounters with that mysterious bird, the nightjar, have been few and are perhaps the more memorable for that.

The British Trust for Ornithology survey in 1981 showed there were only about 2000 males in this country, mostly restricted to the southern counties, so the chances of stumbling over one were remote.

In fact I did literally stumble over one as it sat tight on the ground on Mousehold Heath during the 1950s. My eyes were sharper then, and yet it wasn't until the last moment that I distinguished the bird from the clutter of ground litter which provided such a perfect background.

Those were the days! Red-backed shrikes, three woodpecker species seen during a short stroll and red squirrels cavorting in a clump of Scots pine. Little wonder I rarely revisit those old haunts. The contrast is too great. I would rather explore localities new to me and establish new datum lines.

One of these was an area in the New Forest where we camped just two years ago. It was mid-May and we woke before dawn to hear the long, seemingly endless churring call of the nightjars all round us.

Quite by chance we had, not so literally this time, stumbled upon one of the most favoured sites in the country for the declining bird. It was an area of open heathland broken up by small clumps of trees, many mis-shapen and stunted by the constant attentions of wandering ponies.

A typical habitat, one would say, but that is not wholly true. The ploughing of ancient heaths, encroaching buildings and recreational pressures have certainly helped to reduce numbers at an increasing rate during the last half century, but even before that fears were already being expressed. Not until fears were proven as fact was much done to attempt to reverse the situation and now a few of the remaining heaths are carefully managed to aid not just this bird but other heathland species.

All the same, if the future of the nightjar depended upon these few strongholds, it would be bleak. Fortunately, nightjars find conditions to their liking in such places as cleared blocks of forestry plantation. They will stay just so long as the vegetation is at the required height and then will move on to another cleared block.

By Rex Hancy

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.