Mysterious and frequently unseen, European Nightjar is the only member of this cryptic family to breed in Britain and Ireland. Arriving from late April, but most typically in May, the first sign of their return is the eerie ‘churring’ song given by the male from a perch within its territory. Each song phrase can last several minutes, with a number of short but faster trills, lasting about half a second, during the longer trilling. These short trills may be when the bird breathes in and would explain how it can sing for so long without stopping. These phrases contain about 1,900 notes per minute and, by analysing the trill rate and phrase length, it is actually possible to distinguish between individual birds.
Insects, especially moths and beetles, make up most of a European Nightjar’s diet, which is why the species largely feeds at dawn and dusk, when these insects are most active. Nightjars are powerful fliers and, with their falcon-like shape, are capable of rapid twists and turns. They have two main methods of feeding: ‘trawling’, simply flying back and forth catching whatever insects they encounter, and ‘flycatching’, darting out from a perch after an individual moth or beetle. They have unusually large gapes, both wide and open-jawed, around which are stiff ‘bristles’ – actually feathers without barbs – which help them to successfully detect and trap prey.
All nightjars have acutely sensitive eyesight and their large eyes are situated on the sides of their heads, giving good all-round vision. The retina lacks cone cells, as they don’t need colour vision, and has layers of motion-sensitive rods instead. A membrane layer behind the retina, called the tapetum, reflects any light which has missed the rods back through the retina to give extra sensitivity. It is this layer which gives all the members of the family their distinctive reflected eyeshine in artificial light.
Courtship includes a ‘butterfly’ display flight involving slow wing flapping with occasional wing-claps, and gliding with wings held up and tail held down. During this display the male’s white patches near the wing tip and under the tail are clearly visible. If there is a full moon in early June, then many European Nightjars will start nesting close to that date, ensuring that when the moon is next full, the conditions will be at their best for catching moths for their growing young.
The European population is estimated at 930,000-2,100,000 individuals, but the species has been declining in numbers and range, especially in north-west and northern Europe. In the UK it is still a Red List species, after its dramatic decline between the 1950s and 1980s. Loss of suitable heathland and a decline in insect prey are likely causes of its disappearance from some areas, but it is now increasing again, thanks to the greater availability of young plantations.
Little is known about this species’ movements, as it is infrequently seen on migration and fewer than 4,000 have been ringed in Britain and Ireland; only 75 of these have been recovered. Birds arrive here from late April, and begin to depart in late July, though some remain until at least early September. They may occur anywhere on their return journey, and in September 2002 one was even photographed sitting on a garden fence in Twickenham. Their southward route from the UK is through France and Spain and then into Morocco, continuing south of the Sahara, probably to west Africa. The breeding range stretches across Europe to as far east as Lake Baikal in Siberia. Some wintering birds have been seen in eastern South Africa, but their exact origins are unknown.
How to find
Lowland heathland and recently cleared forestry plantations are the preferred habitats of this species, but your best bet is to go to a known site and listen. European Nightjars usually become active around sunset, singing most during the hour after dusk, and again before dawn. They can be heard from at least 200 metres away, sometimes up to a mile. Warm, still, dry nights are best. European Nightjars will often come and inspect a visitor. Soft claps, imitating a wing-clap, may attract one, but the most successful method is usually to wave or flick a white handkerchief at arm’s length. This mimics the white wing flashes of the displaying male and can attract a bird on territory. Do not use tapes of singing birds as this could adversely affect breeding success.
Where to find
The sites listed below are among the better areas for this species, and reflect its geographical range during the breeding season. They are chosen for their accessibility, as well as offering a fair chance of finding the bird.
- Dorset: Arne RSPB (SY 970877)
- Hampshire: Fritham Plain, New Forest (SU 230140)
- Surrey: Thursley Common (SU 900418)
- Kent: Blean Woods RSPB (TR 116602)
- Gloucestershire: Nagshead RSPB (SO 60650850)
- Suffolk: Westleton Heath (TM 454695) and Mayday Farm (TL 792832)
- Norfolk: Salthouse Heath (TG 071425)
- Nottinghamshire: Clumber Park (SK 620720)
- Yorkshire: Wykeham Forest (SE 941889)
- Dumfries and Galloway: Dalbeattie Forest (NX 837599) and Mabie Forest (NX 953709)
- Merthyr Tydfil: Glasfynydd Forest (SN 860248)
- Ceredigion: Ynys-hir RSPB reserve (SN 679964)