When Sylvia Plath wrote her poem ‘Goatsucker,’ she described a bird that flew on “wings of witch cloth” that hunted from dusk till dawn. Nightjars are intriguing birds that have a supernatural reputation, as old tales claim they stole the milk from goats. In reality, the birds were only searching for prey associated with domesticated animals when near any livestock. Their flight patterns are silent, save for a distinctive churring made by males. They feed on moths and other insects, being agile flyers who can pluck their food from the air.
They are coloured grey-brown and mottled, giving them exceptional camouflage during the day. Nightjars are scattered around the world, with 80 species distributed throughout Europe, Africa and America.The UK only has one species that can be found mostly down south in heathlands and moorlands. A large number live in Dorset, Surrey and the New Forest.
Nightjars are seasonal visitors, arriving in England between late April and mid-May. Look and listen for them on warm, summer evenings when their haunting song can be heard. They usually leave in August and September and migrate to Africa for the winter.
Conservation for the birds is mixed, not due to a lack of effort, but because some species are hard to see and collect data on. A good example is the Vaurie’s nightjar in China that has only been seen once in 1929. It’s possible the Vaurie’s evolved only to recognise members of its own species, and so scientists are unaware as to whether they are extinct or uncommon.
Nightjars remain an elusive and interesting bird that will continue to fascinate ornithologists and scientists.