Nature Revealed: Tracks, Traces and Trails is delighted to release this pair of works: – ‘Crossing the Shades’ and ‘If It Be In The Dusk’ – by Sara Hudston. These are a written piece and a video, respectively. In these creative responses to a pair of nightjars that she observed over the course of two weeks, Sara describes the fascinating attributes of these mysterious birds, detailing their calls, behaviours, and their individual characteristics. See more in the author’s note below (and turn your sound up for the video so you can hear the nuances of the nightjars’ calls!). Enjoy!
You can download Crossing the Shades here or read the full text below:
Crossing The Shades
by Sara Hudston
… in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink, The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight Upon the wind-warped upland thorn … “Afterwards’, Thomas Hardy
Nightjars are crepuscular – a word with a whispering, creeping pulse, something seen and unseen, to-ing and fro-ing, here and gone.
“Crepuscular” literally means “of the twilight”. Twi-light is both “half-light” and “two-light”, the word alternates: sparking and dimming like an unstable electric current.
Scientists divide twilight into three stages. Civil twilight happens first at the time just after sunset when the Sun has sunk below the horizon and the sky is irradiated. The soft light still shows colour and detail. Robins sing, the notes trickling clear and cold.
As the sky dissolves in veils of smoky-violet, the evening star appears, “bringing back everything the bright dawn scattered” as Sappho sang. Dew falls like nectar, reviving the earth scents of moss, leaf and pollen. It is now nautical twilight, with the hidden Sun at six degrees beneath the horizon. Tawny owls wake and call “kwick, kwick” followed by their long, fluttering “hooo” – hunting has begun.
Twelve degrees under, and stars prick the firmament. It’s completely dark in the woods, but out on the open heath, the flinty track glimmers white. This is astronomical twilight, filled with the whirring purr of maybugs.
Actual night, dense and blinding-eye-shut-black, comes when the Sun is eighteen degrees below the horizon. But not tonight, and not for any night in June. From 26th May until 17th July, night is lost in Dorset, the hours infused by the summer never-quite-dark that ebbs and flows between sunset and sunrise.
Being a good naturalist, Thomas Hardy conjures his Dorset nightjar, the dewfall-hawk, at dusk, which is the darker stage of twilight belonging to sailors and stargazers. Nightjars cease their daylong imitation of rotten branches and metamorphose into birds.
Their flight is silent, pointed wings sliding smoothly through the air, quiet and fast. That soft, quick slapping you hear, as if leather gloves are being shaken around your head? That’s the bats flipping past.
Nightjars can be stealthy, and oddly loud. Both sexes will clap their wings in display or warning, and call to each other. The male I’ve been watching this year usually claps several times on waking. He then warbles softly to his mate with a strange, liquid song as if his throat were full of wet pebbles. She’ll be active already, ghosting the heath edge where the moths gather. She qweeps to him and comes sweeping by, skimming the furze. Having got her attention, he’ll alight near the top of his first singing tree – preferably a tatty young oak on the west of the hill – and begin to churr.
The hot flicker of his song is full of the sound of insects. It speaks of night-ratcheting crickets and bugs, of heat, tree frogs and still evenings, the volume rising and falling as he turns his head so you are not sure whether he’s here –
– or over there.
Now and again he leaps from his singing perch, silhouetted, wings spread, catching a moth. Later he’ll slip from the oak and move to his next post. I never seen him go, or even know he’d gone, until I hear him churring somewhere else. His favourite perch is one that nightjars use every year – the mobile phone mast at the peak of the hill. Perhaps it makes a better platform for his transmissions than an old-fashioned wind-warped upland thorn.
Secretive during day, nightjars can be bold and curious in the dark. Stay still and perhaps they will fly about you, swooping and circling at head height as if on a falconer’s long-leashed creance. It’s said they will come to you if you wave a white cloth, though that hasn’t worked for me. There are other methods – tales are still told of a BTO nightjar specialist who would use his thick, blond beard as a lure. It was said he would lie on the ground, spade-shaped beard jutting palely upwards, tempting birds down into the mist-net so they could be ringed and released.
Here on the heath tonight we have no need of lures. The moon will rise late, after midnight. We are waiting with Hardy, in nocturnal darkness, mothy and warm, knowing that the birds are here. They paired on the 27 May, on a hot evening when the moon was waxing. Now the female is brooding, tucked down on her eggs in the heather somewhere near the king barrow. She’ll incubate them all through the waning dark of the moon. They should hatch later this month, soon after the summer solstice, in the swelling light of a new moon that helps the parents sieve moths from the air.
Hush now, be still; try not to scratch at the midges biting your head. That rustle behind us? Probably a hedgehog, but don’t move yet. Did you tuck your trousers into your socks? There are deer ticks here, which will sidle crabwise up your ankles and bury their heads in your flesh.
Listen. It’s quiet now; the dogs have all been fed and the noise of the village below dwindles away. There’s the church clock striking eleven, the note floating up to us in faint, wobbling bubbles of sound.
Ah yes, here he comes, the dewfall-hawk, crossing the shades.
Note from the Author
The video is a response to Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Afterwards’. For two weeks from 15-27 May 2020 I observed a pair of nightjars on Hardown Hill in Dorset.
I’d been told that it was too early in the year to see them at this place, so on my first visit I went expecting nothing. I heard the male churring as soon as I arrived.
I first realised there was a female as well on the second night – not on the hill but back at home when I reviewed the footage. There she was, flickering silently in and out of the shots as the male sang.
I began watching in the last week of a waning moon, when the moon wasn’t visible at all because it hadn’t risen at the time I was on the hill. This made it very dark but I could see Venus, brilliant in the west. I made the timelapse during this first week and you can see Venus descending in the top right-hand corner. It’s there again later in the shot of the mobile phone mast.
The new moon was first visible at twilight on 25 May. On 26 May I got the shots of the crescent moon, with Gemini to the right. It was setting to the right of the phone mast that the nightjars use as a singing perch.
When I began filming it was cold – the temperature dropped to around 7C while I was out there. So I wore lots of layers, a scarf and my dark wool coat. The evenings got warmer over the two weeks; my last night of filming on 27 May it was 15C on the hill at 11pm and windless and I was down to a light hoodie. All the nights were dry, too dry really as the earth was parched. The dewfall was a scanty blessing for the plants and animals. In the last couple of days up there, I noticed an increase in crows and rooks.
That last evening was incredible. The waxing moon was strong enough to throw a faint shadow and the birds engaged in their mating flight. You can see them both briefly in the clip towards the end of the film. You can also hear them wing clapping and calling to each other.
You’ll need to whack the sound up high to get the most out of this film – all the sound was recorded on my iPhone, so it’s a bit soft. But I was really pleased to get samples of the main noises that you might hear when listening to nightjars. That odd sound over the timelapse is the male warbling, then there’s lots of his churring, plus the wingclaps and qweeps they both make when displaying and calling to each other. The only sound I haven’t got is the hiss they make when directly threatened or touched – but of course that’s because I took great care to be unobtrusive and not threaten them in any way.
The bell you can hear at the end is the church clock of St Candida, down the hill in Whitchurch Canonicorum. This was recorded on the hill, not added in afterwards, though I have to admit it wasn’t recorded next to the phone mast.
The video was filmed on a standard iPhone 8 and a Panasonic GX8. I used the full auto settings on the GX8 but as it got darker, I gradually opened the aperture manually. I did tweak some of the exposure and colour balance afterwards when editing, but not all of it and less than you might think.
It was a magic experience – thank you to the Land Lines project for the commission.
About the Author
Sara Hudston is a writer living in a rural part of west Dorset. She writes fiction and non-fiction about the living world and spirit of place. Sara is a Guardian Country Diarist, occasionally reviews nature writing and memoir for the TLS, and contributes to the Dark Mountain project. She makes pieces for spoken word performance as well as written work to be read on the page. She’s particularly interested in the concept of “summoning” as a literary and oral storytelling device. In recent years she’s been developing her interest in photography.
Join us again on the Land Lines homepage again tomorrow at 8pm, when we release a piece from Tim Kohler at Natural England!