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Is it a cowpat? Or a piece of wood? Young nightjar shows reserve is on track

Last modified: 17 September 2014

Roosting nightjar

Bird of legend: an adult nightjar showing its characteristic large eyes and bark-like plumage

Image: Grahame Madge

Nightjars are rarely glimpsed in daylight but RSPB volunteer photographer Dave Braddock witnessed one on the RSPB’s Hazeley Heath reserve in Hampshire last week.

His appearance is a vote of confidence for the Heathland restoration at Hazeley which aims to increase the population of nightjars and other heath-dwelling species, building on the solid foundations of past work in the area.

Nightjars don’t come out during the day as a rule – this species is nocturnal and very well camouflaged. As RSPB volunteer Dave Braddock, who carries out regular butterfly surveys at Hazeley, discovered when he nearly trod on the young bird.

“I was in the area of the reserve where cows are grazing and I was avoiding the cow pats,” said Dave. “Then one of them moved, and I realized it was a nightjar!”

It is hard to tell a young nightjar from an adult female but some expert birder contacts helped Dave establish it was a juvenile. “When I saw it, its eyes were  closed – nightjars do not like daylight because they have large eyes so they can see to hunt at night – it is rather like us suddenly going from a dark to a light room in that it makes us squint and is unpleasant, and it works in reverse for nightjars,” he said.

Migration is another factor in identifying a juvenile. “At this time of year most adult nightjars will have left for their annual journey to Africa, but the younger birds stay here for a couple of weeks longer,” Dave said.

Nightjars, with their unusual churring call which sounds like a sewing machine motor and the myths and legends that surround their night-time feeding habits, are a target species for Hazeley Heath. The reserve was acquired by the RSPB a year ago and the Heathland restoration is underway.

The aim is to restore the habitat and the species which it supports. Eighty per cent of the UK’s heathlands have been lost since the 1800s.

“It is a vote of confidence for our Heathland management that we have managed to obtain this evidence that nightjars are breeding on the reserve,” said Mike Coates, site manager for Farnham and Hazeley Heath reserves.

“We have heard the males churring, but up to now we have not had concrete evidence that they are breeding. We knew that they have been present in the area for years, but it is unusual to see a fledgling like this because their camouflage is superb and you are not allowed to go out looking for their nests because they are legally protected and you would need a licence,” Mike said.

Nightjars nest in a shallow hole in the ground, often among dead branches and broken sticks. They are most active at dusk and dawn during the spring and summer. They open their large mouths to feed on insects and moths as they fly, and the males flash their distinctive white wing tips and tails and clap their wings as part of their mating behavior.

In the past the nightjar’s night time habits caused them to be suspected of devilish behaviour – they were known as goatsuckers or corpse fowl, and thought to feed on milk from unsuspecting livestock.

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