The elusive day-roosting Nightjar

Nightjar: Lincs. The holy grail - at last. (Photo: Graham Catley)

Over the 34 years since seeing my first Nightjar in Lincolnshire I have seen the species each year and have had many memorable encounters on fine summer evenings. Some males have been observed perching up in highly photogenic locations in the last hour of daylight giving excellent views, but it has been too dark for reasonable photography. While doing breeding bird surveys on north Lincolnshire heaths I have flushed a few day roosting birds inadvertently but they have never been in the same place when I have gone back a few days later. I had managed to get a few silhouette photos of Nightjars at dusk and even a few shots illuminated in car headlights, but the daylight shot remained a Holy Grail.

Nightjar: Lincs. The master of camouflage. (Photo: Graham Catley)

In 2004 I set out to try and find a bird at a day roost, scouring likely-looking areas on the heath where I knew there were four males. After about 15 hours I had come up with nothing - I must be looking in the wrong habitat but it looks right kept springing to mind! Then on May 31st I flushed a male and female from a good looking spot on the edge of a small birch copse. Over the next six weeks several more hours failed to reveal these birds again during the day but they were in the area in the evening. After another fruitless 3 hours of searching on July 13th I had just resigned myself to the fact that I was not going to locate my holy grail when I half paused in mid-step and there not three feet from my foot was a male Nightjar on the floor. Daring not to move I looked down at it and it looked up at me and the stalemate lasted all of 30 seconds before a flick of the wings drifted it up and round the corner of the nearest birch. It seemed that luck was certainly not on my side with this species.

Nightjar: Lincs. Spot the Nightjar! (Photo: Graham Catley)

The number of male Nightjars on the heath increased to seven in 2005 so there seemed to be more chance of locating one on the ground - so why were many more fruitless hours not bringing any results? Watching birds at first light I guessed that some of the males were roosting in tall pines on the edge of the clear fells but a couple of territories had no such options. I concentrated on these and on July 3rd I managed to flush another male again just as I had given up looking! This time it flew and landed where I could see it, but even at 30m when I moved it was up again and flew into a tall pine about 40m away. A careful approach got me within 20m and just ready to take some photos when a Woodpigeon clattered out of the tree above me and off went the Nightjar! This was certainly not my most successful species on the photography front!

Nightjar: Lincs. With careful stalking the views were superb. (Photo: Graham Catley)

It was therefore almost without hope that I set off for a walk across the heath on August 17th. I had briefly heard a Nightjar at dawn so I assumed there were still some on the heath. With the increased number of fledged juveniles also available I checked the usual spots but as usual nothing materialised then as I emerged from a patch of birch a distinctive shape caught my eye on a log right out in the open in the bright sunshine. Trying to calm down I managed to get the camera out and take a few record shots in case it flew off when I moved. Fortunately it stayed put and allowed me to move within 5m of it and to take as many photos as I wished from all angles. In the end I just sat down and watched it at close range through bins taking in all those strange features like the bizarre bill shape which are usually not visible in evening encounters. Maybe, like buses, I will bump into several more now I have found one but it has been a long trail to this first rather satisfying encounter.

Nightjar: Lincs. A view to be envied. (Photo: Graham Catley)
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Written by: Graham Catley