John Whale: Reflecting on Nightjar Nights

Tonight we conclude the fantastic Nightjar Nights series with a thoughtful reflection from Professor John Whale, Director of the University of Leeds Poetry Centre, as he looks back on the inspiring creative works we’ve shared over the last 2 weeks. We hope that Nightjar Nights has helped us all to see this elusive bird in a variety of new and fascinating ways! For more events, activities and updates from our Land Lines projects, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for our newsletter via the homepage! You can either listen to the audio of John’s reflection, or read below at your leisure. Enjoy!

Thank you to Katie Marland for her brilliant illustrations for Nightjar Nights – including this one!
Audio Recording of John Whale’s ‘Reflecting on Nightjar Nights’

Reflecting on Nightjar Nights

by John Whale

‘Nightjar Nights’ has helped reacquaint me with this strange, elusive species. I say strange, but the words spectral and uncanny might also be apt.  The nightjar is a bird which has always haunted our imaginations because of the ways in which it inhabits the borders of what we think of as ‘knowable’. So, a creature which is active in the twilights of dusk and dawn is always likely to hover between superstition and actuality. Sara Hudston’s contributions capture with precision the liminal nature of bird as does Cosmo Sheldrake’s soundscape – an eerie re-thinking of the dawn chorus. Tim Kohler’s report from Humberhead Reserve reminds us of its existence on another border – its precarious presence in our eco-system due in part to the vulnerability of the habitat on which it depends. Anita Roy’s beautiful creation myth taps into the nightjar’s metaphysical presence as she connects it by a thread to the moon so that it becomes a fascinatingly displaced and resonant exiled identity. The children of Hatfield Woodhouse School, while eagerly reaching to understand the nightjar’s habits and geography, are clearly engaged imaginatively with its migration and, most movingly, with its average life-span of just four years.  Their lanterns magically recreate the atmospheric location of the bird, its silhouette projected through the crepuscular light. Even the practical activity of catching and ringing specimens lends itself to the poetic when Jane Adams informs us ‘[t]hey caught nightjars in soft mist nets’. David Higgins’s helpful brief literary history of the nightjar begins with the eighteenth-century naturalist Gilbert White attempting to release the bird from mystery and legend through the power of disciplined observation so that we can see it as a dynamic living creature rather than as a dead specimen. One of the things with which White has to negotiate is the problem of names. As Stephen Moss points out, the very fact that the bird has so many names despite its elusive nature – and many of them reaching out to the borders of our imagination – is part of what makes it so special to us. ‘Goatsucker’, ‘Gabble-ratchet’, ‘Dew-fall Owl’, ‘Fern-owl’, ‘Lych-fowl’, ‘Razor-grinder’, ‘Screech-hawk’, ‘Moth-gobbler’. Not just the number of names, but the peculiarity of the names – and their associations with death and the dead – makes the bird something different, gives it its peculiar resonance in our minds. 

This capacity of a species to occupy and haunt our minds is something familiar, I think, to most amateur naturalists and birdwatchers and is not unique to the nightjar. When I was a child I pored over the rather dull little brown job of the Observer’s Book of Birds. A few birds were depicted in colour – bullfinches surrounded by apple blossom, linnets on gorse. Most appeared only in black and white and rarities might not be illustrated at all. Then there were oddities. For me, the Nightjar came into that category along with the Wryneck: species which might almost challenge the category of ‘bird’ because of their physical and behavioural idiosyncrasies. (I was yet to have my imagination triggered by its strangely elongated middle toe.) As I remember it, the nightjar appeared in black and white and appeared rather inert – in flight, but without its characteristic gape. On the basis of this little book and an artist’s impression, the different birds began to be established in one’s head. If I was to see a bullfinch would it be perched in apple-blossom? Would a linnet grace the gorse bush? In the unlikely event that I encountered a nightjar, how would I recognize its movement in flight? Cameos of rural England filled my mind as the places in which I might see these exotic species. I mention this to point up the importance of our minds in the business of seeing, observing, and spotting birds or indeed any other species that we are interested in.  It is a heavily predetermined thing. Every birdwatcher will know the power of the mind working in conjunction with the eye to want to see a new species – the discipline needed to hold back from making too much of nothing and the need to face up to honest disappointment. Every day on natural history blogs there are hundreds of people asking if they’ve seen a golden eagle when they’ve ‘only’ encountered a buzzard. Though they might now be condescending in response to such a category mistake, every true birdwatcher remembers – and quite likely still encounters – the power of anticipation and the way in which a raptor sailing high in the sky with no point of comparison can lead the mind to play tricks and succumb to wish-fulfilment.

And so back to my encounters with nightjars: a bird – as I’ve suggested – which carries more than the usual freight of distorting anticipation along with it. Even if we – as good naturalists – might want to leave folk-lore and superstition behind, in its case there is the twilight and the seeming unbirdlike oddity of its behaviour so that in our imaginations it hovers between an owl, a hawk, and a cuckoo.

Over the years, I’ve walked a number of heathland areas in search of nightjars with no luck whatsoever. I’ve visited Skipwith Common in North Yorkshire on numerous occasions when everything looked right. Warm summer evenings, bell heather, a stand of ancient Scots Pines majestically rising from the unmistakable lowland heath habitat, and moths a-plenty. But never a nightjar in sound or sight. And then there’s the other side of ‘spotting’ or encountering a species, particularly one you’ve longed to see. When it happens, it’s certain. You know it’s not a buzzard. And very often – especially if you’re not a twitcher – it will happen when you’re not expecting it. Like a gift.  That was my first experience of the nightjar. We were a family with small children camping in Dalby Forest near Rosedale on the edge of the North York Moors. The girls had just got off to sleep and we were hoping for a peaceful night. No sooner had we zipped up the outer flap than I heard a strange mechanical sound like a generator. My first instinct was to assume that a peculiarly anti-social camper was deploying some new techie gadget at everyone else’s expense and so I emerged from the flap flush with indignation. A brief exploration of the site revealed nothing. I remembered something which resembled an electricity sub-station down the track, but again, nothing. And then it hit me as a sudden self-chastening revelation: this strange mechanical sound was a nightjar ‘churring’. No sign of it, but it had made its mark in my mind and answered in this self-correcting way part of the quest I’d been set upon for years.  As if the spell had suddenly been broken, the next evening we were driving back from the pub in Rosedale through the forest and there it was haunting the glade between the plantations, floating and flickering in the strange substance of half-light like some phosphorescent hawk.

About the Author

John Whale is a poet and an academic. He is Director of the University of Leeds Poetry Centre and Managing Editor of the international quarterly ‘Stand’.

Photo by Dominic Somers @ Wentworth & Elsecar Great Place (used with permission)

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