A warm evening on Chobham Common, Surrey. 15th June, 2023.

Two Heathland specialities- one a resident and one a migrant.

With the recent dry and sunny weather, the conditions looked perfectly set to try an evening out on this Surrey site to look for two special birds of heathland habitat. The main target bird is the nightjar, a summer visitor to the UK and always allusive and rather mysterious.

Arriving at the Jubilee Mount car park, Staple Hill at around 5.30pm we decided walk out onto the Heath to look for any birds whilst the conditions were still sunny and warm, before trying for nightjars later in the evening. Even singing in the car park area we saw or heard chiffchaffs, whitethroats, blackcaps, robins and blackbirds.

With luck, after walking for about 15mins on the heath we heard a low ‘tuk’ call in the gorse ahead, its almost like a little warning call of the Dartford warbler. Usually all you see is the bird diving into cover but this female bird showed really well, sitting up in a small pine sapling to snatch insects from among the pine needles. We then saw the male as well in the same sapling looking really smart with the slate-grey head and wine-red underparts. Dartfords have a really tiny body and short wings , the tail is long and slim and half the total length of the entire bird. They are resident in the UK, but look like they should be more at home wintering in Europe. They are on the Northern edge of their range and prone to cold winters, especially snowy weather. During the severe winters of the 1960’s the population dropped to just a handful of pairs along southern coastal site of the UK but since then they have made a recovery and have even increased in number at some sites. They can take cover deep in the gorse bushes but presumably need to find a lot of tiny insects and spiders to survive the winters. We also spotted a lovely male stonechat sitting up on top of a gorse bush and several singing whitethroats and chiffchaffs.

Dartford warbler male , photo taken on previous visit to Chobham Common, June 2018.

Back on the Heath at around 8pm and waiting at the known clearing and path where the nightjars usually show up, our first bird made it’s presence known, almost on cue at 9.34pm with the distinctive churring song. It really is strange and sounds mechanical, like a switch has been flicked to turn it on.

Nightjars are summer visitors to the UK from May to September and winter in Africa. Their hypnotic song is given as evening light starts to fade, male nightjars can sing for hours on end and even trying to locate where the bird is sitting is difficult as the sound seems to change its direction. If you cup a hand behind behind each ear it amplifies the sound level and nightjars can really turn up the volume to eleven! Birds will even hide their location by sitting lengthways along a branch so as not to reveal their outline in the half light.

By 9.40pm we could hear the churring song all around us, with 2 or 3 birds taking flight and calling with a soft nasal ‘koo-ick’ or sometimes ‘goo-eek’ sound, this is really eerie in the by now falling light. The nightjar flight is also rather ghostly and silent on long pointed wings as they hunt for moths and other flying insects. Males use the white patches on tails and wings for display flights which just show up in the gloom. They are so rapid in flight as they twist and turn or hover with amazing agility, all in complete silence. Almost impossible to follow, we found it best to just stand a wait as several birds flew right over us, at one point a female bird landed in a small scrubby tree right next to us but it was still impossible to see exactly where she was sitting !

By 10.15pm the light was really going fast so its back to find the car park, torch in hand . On the path back we could hear more churring and another nightjar took off next to us. Even in the car park we could hear another bird singing close by. Its definitely worth the effort to get a sighting of the secretive, mysterious and rather wonderful nightjar.

Report by Colin Strudwick and Jim Lawrence.

Nightjar roosting on a log in daylight hours by Andy Hay.

Nightjar closeup photo on the Home Page taken at The Lodge by Graham Madge.