On Thursday last week a motley crew from the RSPB’s South East regional office headed out after work to look for nightjars on Ambersham and Heyshott commons. This trip was part of the long-standing Wealden Heaths Survey in conjunction with the Sussex Ornithological Society which is very important for tracking the health of the county’s nightjar population.
Nightjar are a species of conservation concern partly because their favoured habitat, heathland, has suffered a huge loss in extent and quality over the last century. This year we are especially worried about them because of the very wet summer weather we are having. Nightjars are ground nesters and flooded nesting sites mean very bad conditions for raising a brood. Nor is it easy to hunt for nocturnal insects in the driving rain. Many places are reporting much less nightjar activity this year. So although Ambersham and Heyshott is a good site for the birds we were more than a little apprehensive about what we might find, or rather what we might not find.
As they are nocturnal birds nightjars are often hard to see and the easiest way to detect them is often by the song of the males. This is an extraordinary, vibrant, churring trill that changes in pitch and tempo and can be astonishingly continuous. An evocative sound of the night.
Amazingly Thursday night was a fine one and the birds seemed to appreciate it. We had only just arrived on site, it was barely seven pm and very much still light when we heard our first nightjar churring. Things got even better after that as not only did we hear more nightjar but we also had fantastic views of them hawking in the night sky, the males displaying by flashing their white wing patches and clapping their wings together with a loud snap. We had split into groups to cover the area and some groups found several territories with the birds competing in magnificent display. A late night for us but worth it, as one surveyor put it: “it’s the first time I haven’t got into trouble for rolling into bed at half past midnight after six or seven ‘jars!”
We identified 21 territories, which while it might be a little down on last year, is still a very good total for the site. Now we just have to hope that the weather is kind enough to let the chicks fledge.
Also putting in appearances on the night were woodcock, tawny owls, glow worms and lots of bats including noctules, the UK’s largest bat species.
One member of the survey team who (much like the poet Keats on that famous occasion when he heard another nocturnal singer, the nightingale) was struck by poetic inspiration…
“Hurrah for the Nightjar, crepuscular chap,
His voice goes churr and his wing go clap”
Nightjar, by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)