In my last blog I reported the results of our nightjar surveys. Elaine, one of our volunteers who took part in a survey, has written an evocative account of her experiences which I thought readers of our blog would enjoy. Here it is:  

"The mysterious nightjar, the subject of many myths and legends, was the focus of a late evening bird survey by volunteers and wardens at Broadwater Warren in late June.  We spilt up into groups to cover the vast heathland area in order to note calls and sightings, with times, on a map to be analysed by warden Phil later on. We set off into the twilight to chance our luck to hear or even see some of these unique birds.

These wonderful animals have some of the best bird names ever: whip-a- will (east coast USA) chuck-wills-widow (my particular favourite, from Florida) frogmouths (Australia) dusky nightjar (South Africa) pauraque (South America) with a wide distribution, on all continents (bar Antarctica). The nightjar family consists of a wide range of related species and date back in time to at least 34 million years ago, so they have had time to develop for a particular niche.

That niche is a time slot, just as the sun is setting.  Here potential predatory raptors cease their flying, and the moths and flies are at a peak. To make the most of these moments they have evolved acute eyesight for the crepuscular conditions and they also have wide soft mouths to hoover up flying insects, just like an aerial basking shark. On their upper beaks they have rictal bristles, residual feathers, that are thought to protect their gloriously large eyes from the legs and wings of their prey, as they scoop them up.

As the sun went down over the Warren, a glorious sunset decorated the horizon and we waited on tenterhooks. At nearly 10pm we started to hear the curious churring territorial calling and see them perching along horizontal branches as well as flying over the footpaths and heath. Their flight brought to mind a strange mix of bats, cuckoos and raptors, their vocal antics a bizarre alien/ electronic anthem.

Their eyes were particularly good at spotting humans too, sometimes flying very close, curiosity overriding caution.  Paul in our survey party, attracted the attention of three in one go, hovering above his head, close enough to reach out to. George, with keen eyes spotted one on top of a tree and we exclaimed loudly with joy (well, that might just have been me) as it flew directly at us. They might be curious about humans as they live and hunt well away from urban areas, so our mutual contact is limited or maybe it was a distraction tactic to ensure we didn’t get near the nests, either way it added to the atmosphere.

Unsurprisingly therefore, they appear in ancient stories and myths in many European countries, as gatherers of souls and befrienders of goats! They even have some superhero style nicknames: dewhawk, fernowl, night raven and goatsucker. The top prize for uniqueness must go to the whip-poor-wills, who hunt by the light of a full moon and time its egg hatches to coincide with this. Other variations on behaviour include wing claps above the heads whereas some prefer to clap below. All are highly camouflaged to nest on the ground and they frequently pretend to be tree branches.

The RSPB website recommends seven sites to see them and Broadwater Warren is one of these. If you manage to join a nightjar tour between April to August, during their stay in the UK, then make sure you wear a white t- shirt to attract them or to attract the flies that attract the nightjars and I hope that you will be as lucky as I was that evening to experience one of our most unusual, distinctive and memorable birds.

 Further reading: "

Wealden Reserves Office Manager