Farnham Heath RSPB (11 June)

Photo by Pippa Hyde

A perfectly still evening, clear skies and later, a waxing moon so it hardly seemed to get properly dark. 22 of us were lucky enough to experience nightjars on this perfect summer’s evening thanks to Anna Cronin, an RSPB volunteer, who opened up the car park and toilets and accompanied us all evening adding lots of local knowledge. Due to the good weather, it was 9.40pm before the show began with one bird swerving in from our left and diving into the heather. It was an unmistakable male with white spots on its long-pointed wings and a long tail with white corners. Soon there were at least three birds in front of us. The males churred with a ventriloquial quality which required hands cupped around ears to pinpoint exactly where the birds might be. We looked like proper birders in this pose! Dan’s sharp, young eyes found one perched up on a branch while it was still light enough to train our telescopes on it and attempt photos. Their cryptic plumage turns them into just another broken branch on the Scots pines until you latch onto their distinctive silhouettes. In between perching up we heard their nasal ‘quaw-eek’ flight calls as they wheeled in front, above and behind us. It was difficult to drag ourselves away but by 10pm it was getting cooler and Anna took us on a route back that passed other nightjars churring in different parts of the heath. Because of the moonlight a few smaller birds including robins were still singing. Even back at the car park nightjars could still be heard at 10.45pm when the last of us left. Perhaps we saw or heard at least eight different birds?

Before the main event we had a walk around the reserve notching up some other summer heathland visitors; redstarts, Dartford warblers, a brief snatch of cuckoo calling and a tree pipit. The pair or redstarts gave particularly good views flying around a broken Scots pine. On closer inspection we saw that there was a juvenile great spotted woodpecker in a hole at the top of the stump. Was it just coincidence that the redstarts were flying backwards and forwards to that spot or was it disturbing them in some way? If it was predating their nest it took a long time about it! Willow warblers sang from many of the small silver birch trees that they favour and we managed to spot a couple although it’s their descending, soft, fluting song that’s best rather than their chiffchaff like appearance. Resident stonechats popped up on the gorse and heather along with their newly fledged youngsters. Goldcrests could be heard and glimpsed flitting about in tops of the pines. The tree pipit was finally heard when we were taking up our positions for the nightjars at the top of the reserve which promises ‘tranquil expanses of heathland with spectacular views’. Dusk was falling and we thought it might be too late until we heard its unmistakable descending call and then spotted it high up in the top of an isolated clump of pines, almost exactly where we saw it last year.

Nightjars are only with us from the beginning of May until August, when they breed, and the fact that you have to visit a heath as night falls makes them extra special. They fly silently like owls due to their soft and fringed feathers which adds to the magical effect. For me going to see nightjars at dusk on a summer’s evening is one of the highlights of the birding year and Anna says she’s happy to open up for us again next year!

by Rebecca Dunne