‘Nightjar’ – by Jane Adams

Nightjar Feather (Jane Adams)

We are so pleased to be able to share this piece of writing by Jane Adams, one of the Land Lines blog’s followers! Jane is a photographer, naturalist and writer, and lives in the east of Dorset where nightjars make their homes in the heathland. On following Nightjar Nights, she was inspired to write the following!

Nightjar’ – by Jane Adams

Trying to describe the call of a nightjar never seems to do it justice. 

“It sounds a bit like a lawnmower, no, a saw, something mechanical, metallic, definitely man-made but softer, more musical”, my attempt to recount the Nighjar’s call to my husband is pathetic, so on a warm July evening I drag him onto the heath so that he can hear one for himself. 

“It churrs”, he says simply, as the sound creeps towards us in the darkness, “why didn’t you say it just churrs?”. 

He’s right, all the literature says Nightjars churr, but I’ve never thought that was ‘enough’. Was too literal. Doesn’t explain how it makes you feel, how the call enters you and vibrates around your chest until you feel like you might burst. Or is that just me? 

Nightjar Feather (Jane Adams)

Years ago, when we first moved here, I walked to a fragmented corner of heath nearby. Hemmed in to the north by a secondary school, houses to the south and west. It was criss-crossed and eroded by deep sandy paths made by generations of children. In one corner a fire had charred an area the size of a tennis court, the metallic remains of a portable BBQ were still visible in the centre of the devastation. I tiptoed over the remaining heather and sat away from the paths, watching the sun set and bats flicking above the rooftops below. 

The Nightjar arrived in silence. Soft feathers held in the air by invisible strings, it hung motionless, checking me out. Head still, wings and tail moving, the kestrel of the night. I didn’t realise they could hover, hadn’t known how inquisitive they were of anything in their territory. It was magical. Other worldly. Unforgettable. 

‘Soft feathers held in the air by invisible wings…’

So fascinated have I become of these birds that last year I went along to a Nightjar ringing session. Four studious men, one woman, a table set up on a heath in the middle of summer at ten at night. They caught the Nightjars in soft mist nets, like giant volleyball-style nets suspended between tall poles. 

Within an hour they had caught six, one, a youngster, was brought to the table for measuring, weighing and ringing. Close up it looked like a bird of your imagination, cobbled together from different species. Its head was all mouth, the widest gape I’d ever seen, with long hairs growing around its beak – like the ‘menopause’ hairs I get on my chin, but even longer. Eyes, that when closed, disappear into a brown undergrowth of feathers that continue to the tip of its tail. Like a handful of autumn leaves. 

As I watched them carefully measure wings and take weights, a tail feather, white tipped, displaced, unwanted, wafted on the slight breeze and came to rest by my feet. I picked it up. “They’re moulting” one of the men said, “You’re lucky, not many people have a Nightjar tail feather”. 

Nightjar Tail Feather (Jane Adams)

“You’re lucky, not many people have a nightjar tail feather.”

I look at that feather now, a holy relic of a special bird, a bird that will hopefully travel from Africa to my tiny patch of Dorset for ten, maybe more, years. Confounding me, each time, with its song.

Note from the Author

Growing up in the 1960s as a nature-obsessed kid in suburban London, ‘wildlife watching’ started with grey squirrels and ended with house sparrows. When I eventually moved to Dorset thirty years later, and found myself in one of the most wildlife-rich counties in England, it was a bit of a shock. As a trained photographer, capturing this new wild-world in a photograph seemed the most natural thing to do, but nature writing came close on its heels.

I’ve visited the Land Lines blog many times in the past to be inspired by nature writers, and learn how nature writing has evolved, so when I read about Nightjar Nights I felt compelled to write this piece. For me, nightjars and Dorset go together like hot tea and rich tea biscuits. My home, which is in the east of the county, is surrounded by the nightjar’s favoured but fast disappearing heathland habitat. Their foothold here feels fragile. One false move, one more fire, and we could lose them forever.

About the Author

Jane is a naturalist, photographer and nature writer living in Dorset. Her work has appeared in books, anthologies and blogs for charities such as The Wildlife Trusts and the International Bee Research Association. Jane is currently studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University and can be found at www.janevadams.com and on Twitter @WildlifeStuff

Join us again tomorrow on the Land Lines homepage at 8pm – we will be publishing a selection of photos of homemade ‘Nightjar Jars’ shared with us on Twitter!

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