I’ve talked before about how gardens can turn up real wildlife surprises. However, the events of last Sunday perhaps took the biscuit!
I had sat down at the lounge window to have my bowl of cereal as I do to start my day - my feelgood touch-base with nature. There was plenty of bird activity in the garden, and at this time of year it is always worth watching for a migrant or two – maybe a Blackcap or Willow Warbler, or Whitethroat if I’m lucky.
I could see that there was lots of tit activity from my resident Great and Blue Tits, coming down to the pond to bathe or working their way through the apple trees, but there seemed a particular congregation of them in my spruce tree.
With binoculars, I could see the source of their excitement and agitation – a tail. A bird’s tail, flat along a branch. It was rather long and strongly barred pale and dark brown. However, the owner of the tail was hidden behind sprays of spruce needles. Below you can share my first glimpse of the visitor.
The bravest of the Great Tits and Blue Tits were daring to bounce within inches of the tail. This mobbing behaviour is usually reserved for a roosting owl or sometimes a Cuckoo but not for Kestrels or Sparrowhawks. But owls don’t have long tails, so who was this?
I crept outside and used the first rule of field craft – move at an angle to the creature you’re interested in rather than directly towards it; make them think that you haven’t noticed them instead of instantly signalling that you’re coming to get them.
This got me to a position where I could see the whole bird. It was perched lengthways along a lichen-covered bare bough, and was about the size of a Collared Dove but with the most intricate of camouflage plumage. Totally unmistakable and yet wholly unexpected – it was a Nightjar.
Now this is a species that breeds on heathland, moorland edge and clear-fell conifer plantations, with an estimated 4,000-5,000 pairs in the UK. A summer visitor from Africa, they tend to arrive in May and then leave between August to October, but because it is so strictly nocturnal, very few are seen during migration.
My theory is that this is one that was migrating south on Saturday night but reached the English Channel a mile south of me, didn’t feel quite ready for a sea crossing, and so headed back inland to find somewhere to rest up and my spruce tree was the first suitable place it found.
Once in their roosts, Nightjars have a tendency to stay put and just pretend to be a branch for the day, so that’s what my Nightjar did, and I was able to put the word out and several local birdwatchers came to admire it and photograph it.
The plumage is the most incredible piece of evolution. And this is a bird with a character all its own. Check out this leaning-forward posture, which has its very own name - the cigar position!
Note, too, the long stiff bristles alongside its bill – the rictal bristles. These probably help guide flying moths and beetles into its mouth as they feed on the wing, but may also protect the eyes from being scratched by spiky insect feet. Nightjars even have a comb on their toes that they are thought to use to clean their rictal bristles - how cool is that?!
Most of the time, my Nightjar kept its eyes closed or at least gazed at us through slits. It occasionally adjusted its position, rocking strongly from side to side.
Then, at 8pm, with the light fading fast, it began to preen itself. It yawned, revealing quite how huge its gape is, extended its immensely long wings, and in an instant flitted up into the night sky, did one loop of the spruce tree and was gone.
By now, maybe it is somewhere in France or Spain, but probably still has a fair way to go to get to the Congo, its likely destination. And with luck, next May it will be back on some UK heath or moor.
It was another reminder that there are occasions when any garden will turn up something that will blow your socks off. And while my garden may not be important in the conservation of the Nightjar, for one day at least it was a safe refuge for this individual, and a chance for many people to come face to face with something quite special. I know I will never forget this encounter, and my sense that nature is incredible feels it has gone up yet another notch.
friend had one land in her garden resting on a wall for over 1 hour in st abbs berwickshire
I worked in a study centre in Southampton in 1987 on a night walk I came across this bird on the ground ,I saw it by touch light, so picked it up, so nobody in the group I was with would step on it . Gave the bird to the ecologist who was leading the walk, looking for bats that evening.He was registered as a bird handler, so put in pouch till morning ,to check ok . And let go in the morning, I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have handled this bird....it was a night jar.
I've always been fascinated by these birds but , being a town-dweller , I've never seen one. I've often hoped to spot one at dusk on some rickety fence on a country holiday but never have!. How exciting to see one in your garden! They are weird and spooky but attractive and in a way endearing.
I've always been fascinated by these birds but , being a town dweller, have never seen one. How remarkable to see one in your garden!. They are weird like ghosts but at the same time attractive.!
Thanks for your account and the wonderful photos. I once went on a 'nightjar walk' in Suffolk and heard them and saw them in flight from quite a distance but have never seen one close up.
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