Two days before the summer solstice, for some a magical time of year, but it’s stickily humid, windless and cloudy – perfect weather for the insects that are hatching in their millions. Walking the horses towards the wood for an early ride today, we were swarmed by hordes of little buzzing black flies who were irresistibly attracted to our hi-vis yellow safety tabards. Although they were an annoyance to us and the horses, we reasoned that the hatching insects would provide a banquet for the birds.
As we rode through the wood Katy told me how last night, at dusk, she and Dan had walked through the wood to an open heathy area where the trees are sparse. There, they had heard a nightjar churring. We rode to the heath and Katy pointed out the birch tree and the exact branch where they had seen the bird perch.
So, tonight at dusk, Peter and I set off for the wood hoping that the nightjar would visit the birch once again. We sat down, half hidden amongst tall green fern fronds, listening expectantly, keeping statue-still and submitting to the attentions of mosquitos and midges. We waited, watching moths being lured by the intoxicating scents seeping from wild honeysuckle blossoms. Like an inquisitive fairy, a huge dragonfly patrolled back and forth along the pathway deliberately buzzing us repeatedly. Each time it approached within arm’s length of us we heard the cellophane crackle of its wings. The twilight chorus of birdsong was interrupted for some time by two foxes who kept up a sustained barking duet close by. A pair of hobbies streaked past at alarmingly low level, deftly scooping insects out of the air, keening and chattering as they went. In the twilight, bats made increasingly audacious aerial passes and tawny owls called louder in the distance just as the last of the wrens, woodlarks, blackbirds and various finches finally tuned out. As the creatures of the day withdrew one by one, a whole new host of nocturnal beings emerged. Just before ten, silence, and a single shred of pink light persisting in the western sky. The scene was set for the nightjar’s arrival.
Darkness provoked twinges of doubt. Would the nightjar come tonight? Was our presence discouraging it? We decided to walk into one of the rides that intersected ranks of densely planted pines. No sooner were we amongst the trees than an unfamiliar two-syllable call rang out – kuik-kuik – from the shallow valley below us. Then, almost immediately, a momentary and unmistakeable churring sound from a much closer point. We could tell that the bird was rapidly moving up out of the wooded dip, as though puckishly distancing itself to refute the marker posts erected by the local wildlife trust to trace a walk named The Nightjar Trail. The nightjar had crossed two continents to reach this wood, and now in completely soundless flight, it was heading directly towards the birch branch Katy had pointed out. Without further ado the bird settled and began its song.
How do I describe the extraordinary sound? Perhaps as a long drawn out vibration steadily alternating between differing pitches. If you didn’t know that a bird was making the sound, it would be easy to believe that a tiny pulsating pump or engine was in operation somewhere far off, or that the continuous emission of sound was being generated by some tantalisingly familiar, yet unidentifiable, electronic device. It had the quality of ceaselessness, with the bird never seeming to pause to inhale. Perhaps the nightjar has evolved a skill equivalent to the circular breathing technique used by wind instrumentalists to produce an uninterrupted tone. When you listen for long enough, the apparently single sustained note clarifies into hundreds upon hundreds of tiny individual vocal pulses.
Maybe my description makes the song sound boring, the very opposite of the nightingale’s ever-varying trills and extravagant crescendos. Not so. The nightjar’s peculiarly burred, granular call is fascinating because it is enigmatic, slightly suggestive of the sustained notes of Mongolian throat singers, or white noise, or the continuous ‘om’ chanted by Buddhist monks. But those comparisons do not capture the other-worldly qualities of the sound. There is a deeply hypnotic quality about it that eludes description. Once you start listening, it is difficult to stop. Gradually the song supercedes all else and if you surrender and give it absolute concentration, the uncanny sound will penetrate into the core of your brain erasing every thought you thought you were thinking. You will have the strange sense that you and the song are unifying and that everything beyond the song is fading out of existence.
After listening for some while, I was overtaken by an urge to creep closer the birch tree. It was as though the sound was magnetising me. Even when I stood in open space within twenty feet of the tree, clumsily snapping twigs underfoot, the nightjar sang on undeterred. Then, without warning, the sound stopped as abruptly as it had started and I saw the bird’s surprisingly big silhouette rise a few feet into the air above the birch tree’s straggly crown. As the nightjar ascended, it lifted both wings vertically above its back and decisively clapped them together, the sudden impact resembling the smack of wet sheets flapping on the line on a windy day.
In the instant of the wing-clap, the bird dropped through the air like a stone. Its other beautiful name, the fern owl, sprang to mind as I saw the black silhouette vanish into the darkness amongst the bracken fronds. After a second or two of silence, the churring began again, just as strongly as before, but this time coming from a different birch tree. Somehow the bird had swooped along behind me, obscured by the bracken’s low horizon. We stayed and listened some more as the moon climbed higher and Jupiter became clearly visible. No other nightjars sang, just the one solitary bird. We hoped that the song was being appreciated by a prospective mate. Midsummer is nightjar breeding time.
Eventually, and reluctantly, we whispered our farewells to the nightjar and began to pick our way out of the dark wood, but as we backtracked we happened upon another beautiful natural phenomenon – glow worms. Peter saw the first one, a luminous yellow-green dot shining amongst the dry grass under a gorse bush. There were more dotted along the pathway so we lingered on, marvelling at these new nocturnal delights while the nightjar, who had travelled from south of the Sahara, sang on and on and the moon glowed and the sharp pinprick of Jupiter’s planetary light traversed the solar system. What a day it had been for the birds’ insect banquet, and what a night for the feast of the senses which had complemented the nightjar’s midsummer visitation.
by Kim Crowder
Note from the Author
The area of rural east Suffolk where I live contains fragments of rare lowland heath – nightjar habitat. Each summer these birds arrive at nearby locations including Upper Hollesley Common and Snape Warren. Over four decades here, my daily horse – or dog – assisted walks have enabled me to learn the lie of the heathland as well as the adjacent woodlands and Forestry England plantations. Since 2015 I’ve kept a nature journal detailing the appearances – and disappearances – of the animals, birds and insects I encounter, but somehow the paths of the nightjar and I never quite crossed until recently.
The only previous nightjar experience I’ve had was in France, several years ago, when on a late night walk the air was filled with the astonishing and unforgettable sound of a nightjar chorus, maybe a dozen of them calling simultaneously. The friend I was staying with insisted that the sound was being made not by birds, but frogs! So it was an especial thrill, and privilege, to learn of a new and perhaps as yet undocumented nightjar haunt so very close to my home. It seemed important to make the most of this rare chance to see the bird at last and to try to capture and share the experience by writing it into the journal from which this extract is taken.
About the Author
Kim Crowder is a writer, visual artist and researcher. Her writing and visuals draw together ethnography, history, personal reflection and nature writing.
Kim’s interests include human-animal relations and her current work focuses on aspects of nature, rural lives and the histories of people, places and things in East Anglia. A selection of her recent essays is available on her website.
Kim was awarded a PhD in Visual Anthropology by Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2012. Her academic writing has been published in various anthropological essay collections and research papers which have been widely referenced.