Being the unruly twenty-something that I am, I spent last Saturday night creeping around the gorsey heathlands of Iping Common, just west of Midhurst in Sussex. We were on the hunt for the European nightjar, one of Britain’s most elusive species, best detected by listening for its churring song at dusk. While the bird itself is beautifully marked, it also looks like a mouldering pile of leaves; this means that it’s almost impossible to spot unless flying above the tree line, silhouetted against the evening sky.
Nightjars are insectivorous, ground-nesting birds, but their crepuscular habits mean they have historically found themselves the subject of old myths and legends. Their Latin name caprimulgus europaeus refers to the idea that nightjars were thought to steal milk from goats’ udders, causing them to dry up or go blind. Yet artists have long considered the nightjar a harbinger of warm summers and ethereal evenings, as celebrated in the poem Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas:
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
Our walk was organised by the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and our guide Jane Willmott was absolutely brimming with information on local wildlife, history and archaeology. Iping Common is home to a number of Bronze Age burial mounds, crowned with bracken in an amaranthine sea of heather. Straining to catch the nightjar’s call, we followed a twisting path through the reserve, passing a chorus of yellowhammers, song thrushes and blackbirds warbling goodnight. The night also brought us pipistrelle bats and the distant kee-wit of a tawny owl, while an eerie glowworm shimmered in the grass like The Great Gatsby’s viridian harbour light.
After some time, the nightjars finally revealed themselves. A low rumbling trill began to echo across the heathland, and as we edged closer, another voice replied across the heather. The purpose of the nightjar call is to warn others of territorial boundaries, and we were soon exposed to a stereophonic churring display all around us. To my great pleasure as a tick-minded birder, one individual also showed himself to us against the night sky, his slim silhouette appearing momentarily above the birch trees for us to admire.
Despite their red status as globally threatened, the hard work of volunteers is ensuring these birds have one more safe haven at Iping Common. Thanks to the Sussex Wildlife Trust for a fantastic evening!