A late night for Ptolemy, we arrived on site at about 9.35pm. On leaving the car we were immediately seized upon by midges but a short walk away we found ourselves in a light but cool breeze and the midges vanished, quite unusual for a midsummer nightjar session. A nightjar was already ‘churring’ sporadically from dense cover near the dusty forest track. In the dying light the colours of yellow rattle, red campion and hogweed were just about discernible in the clear fell. I was careful not to wish the precious light away as we waited for the first nightjar sighting.
We positioned ourselves with a great view of the north west sky, our horizon the smooth hills above Ampleforth contrasting with the jagged skyline of pines to our left and to our right. The sky was beautiful, a sky indicative of a very cool summer night ahead- the temperature dropped to 3C in the early hours of Sunday.
A lone swift flew west, silhouetted against the remnants of sunset, labouring into the breeze. I pondered where it was going at low level as the light rapidly faded and came to the conclusion it was a bird from a local village returning to its nest to incubate and roost.
In the wake of the swift a woodcock appeared on its first roding flight of the evening, dumpy and calling its high pitched ‘squeak’, interspersed with frog like croaks. Such characterful birds to see, the wings almost look too blunt and short to carry its rather fat form. We had multiple passes from woodcock roding, on one of the earlier passes we saw it in the same quarter of sky as a noctule bat, also on evening patrol.
Then the ‘churring’ started. It doesn’t matter how many times you have heard a nightjar; its remarkable ‘song’ always feels like a new sound to the ears, both strange and beautiful. I raced to try and find the nightjar perched before we ran out of light. It was against very dark pine trees so scanning the dimming foliage was not easy. Although looking through binoculars you realise your scanning is very much guided by your hearing. I found it on a bare branch, the sort that is made for nightjars! We were in time to discern some of its beautiful cryptic markings and its big eyes before the light faded too much for our optics. So Tolly had his first really good view of a perched nightjar, he even watched it quivering its head at times with the intensity of the churring.
It flew from the branch, lost against the foliage for a while, everything now increasingly silhouetted. We could hear its wing ‘clapping’ display flight but only had glimpses as it stayed below the horizon. Some quick claps with two fingers on back of hand seemed to draw its attention and it flew nearer, on unmistakable slow mechanical wing beats, making calls too complicated for me to describe; just otherworldly.
The light faded and time had evaporated. Tolly’s bedtime was two hours gone as we finally had a view of it flying against the beautiful peachy glow lingering in the north western sky. After a couple more perched views and Tolly’s voice crackling with tiredness, it was time to go. An unforgettable evening topped off with good views of roe deer and badger on the drive home.
There is often a quieter spell around midsummer before the youngest non breeders arrive. These are probably in the main birds born last summer and they really shake things up! They are easily discernible from older birds by their behaviour as they tour round different buildings and practice approach and landing anywhere on the walls- for many probably the first time they have touched a solid surface since fledging. They are not here yet in numbers if at all; in 2020/21 both years they turned up on 23rd June, so I am in anticipation of their arrival this week.
They are very entertaining to watch, just don’t expect them to go in your nest boxes until next year! Sit quietly in the garden with binoculars and you can enjoy fine views of them clinging onto walls if you are quick. Often one follows another and will cling onto its back as it hits the wall before they fall away making violent ‘screams’. They are fickle in poor weather and may disappear for days or even weeks until conditions suit them again. This can happen several times while they are here and often coincides with big swift movements down the East Coast.
These birds reinvigorate ‘screaming’ parties which are occasional for now. On the first evening they arrived in 2020 I recorded 104 low level passes between 8.19- 10.14pm- an exceptional evening’s swift watching! They also wake me up as they descend to perform dawn flypasts having roosted aloft- the 4.15am swift alarm call, but what a sound to wake up to! Indeed these birds swell the number of sky roosting swifts. So for the next month or so we will, in fine weather see the maximum numbers of swifts in the skies above colonies.
All text and images copyright Jonathan Pomroy 2022