A single pair of the nocturnal birds have nested and raised chicks on an area of restored heathland on the reserve.
Local birdwatcher Neil Bostock was the first to discover the birds on 3 June, when, on a regular walk of the site, he heard the “churring” call of a male nightjar. Later, the male and female birds were seen engaging in mating displays, signally their intent to breed.
Nightjars nest on the ground, using their cryptic camouflage to stay hidden during the day, and only come out after dark to feed on moths and other flying insects, making them notoriously elusive and difficult to see.
This means that while all the signs point to their having a nest and chicks, confirmation that they have successfully reared young, and how many, will have to wait until after they have finished nesting.
This has not dampened the mood of team at The Lodge nature reserve though.
Peter Bradley, Senior Site Manager at The Lodge nature reserve said: “We’re over the moon, not only because these amazing birds have returned to the reserve and appear to be breeding here for the first time in so many years, but that they have chosen to nest on a part of the reserve where we expressly set about recreating the kind of heathland habitat used by nesting nightjars that has historically been lost for this and many other parts of the country. It is a great success story for The Lodge and for everyone who has been involved in the heathland re-creation work here over the last 15 years.”
Between 1972 and 1992, the nightjar’s population distribution, or range, in the UK contracted in area by almost 50% due primarily to habitat loss. Since then though, there are signs that nightjar numbers at least have increased, even if they have not returned to a lot of the places where they once bred. This recovery is thought to be down to efforts to restore lost heathland habitat and an increase in clear felling of pine forests, creating young open woodland in which nightjars can nest. [Note 1.]
In 2003, the RSPB purchased 59 hectares of forestry land adjacent to The Lodge nature reserve and started a project to restore the area back to heathland. Over two winters, the non-native commercial forest trees were felled and heather was sown using seed from existing heathland on the reserve.
Since then, as well as attracting nightjars to breed on the reserve for the first time in nearly half a century, the new heathland has benefited lots of other rare wildlife, including natterjack toads and woodlarks. [Note 2.]
Today, work to restore The Lodge nature reserve’s heathland continues with the support of the Greensand Country Landscape Partnership.
Claire Poulton, Programme Manager at the Greensand Country Landscape Partnership commented: “We are working on a number of projects across Greensand Country, an area of distinct, beautiful and loved countryside stretching from Leighton Buzzard to Gamlingay, to restore and regenerate living heathland.
“The partnership is very excited by the announcement of breeding nightjars on the heath at RSPB The Lodge. The objective of our project is to create better habitats for wildlife, which provide sustainable homes for a number of species and improve the chances of retention and colonisation on heathlands across Greensand Country. The news of nesting nightjars is a huge success in working towards that outcome.”
The nightjar is a summer visitor to the UK, spending the winter in Sub-Saharan West Africa.
At dusk in the breeding season, male nightjars emit a strange mechanical “churring” call that rises and falls as the bird turns its head and then takes flight, twisting and turning silently as it glides quickly across the heath.
When displaying, the males clap their wings, making a slapping sound, while showing their conspicuous white wing-patches to attract the female. At the same time, the male calls a liquidy “qwip qwip” in the air!
As ground-nesting birds, nightjars are particularly vulnerable to disturbance when they are nesting. RSPB reserve staff have been understandably keen to do as much as possible to give the birds the peace and quiet they need.
Peter Bradley, Senior Site Manager: “Thanks to the dedication of a fantastic group of volunteers we have been able to carry out watches each evening to monitor the birds’ nesting progress, engage with birdwatchers, and prevent disturbance. Visiting local birders hoping to catch a glimpse of the nightjars have played their part too, without exception behaving impeccably to avoid disturbing the birds while they nest.”
The nightjar in folklore
The nightjar is associated with many myths. In some European countries the nightjar is known as the “goatsucker”. The bird’s scientific name, Caprimulgus, comes from the Latin for “milker of goats". Folklore had it that nightjars fed on the milk of nanny goats, with the myth probably arising from the fact that they were often found in close proximity to livestock. In reality, this insectivorous species would have been searching for prey associated with domestic animals. Others believed the calls of the nightjar were the sound of witches hiding in the bushes.