If it be in the dusk, when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn.
The nightjar is a bird of myth and legend. It is a crepuscular creature, feeding at dawn and dusk and sleeping by day. I read Richard Mabey’s fascinating description in his Birds Britannica of the nightjar as a bird which has been persecuted in the past as a result of superstition and fears associated with nocturnal creatures, and decided I had to see it.
I signed up at the last minute to a walk organised by the RSPB at the Arne Nature Reserve in East Dorset. The group assembled at 8pm with a near-solstice sun casting a dark gold light over the heath. After a short but impassioned speech by the group leader telling us we should see barn owls and nightjars as dusk fell, he declared birds were his life, and we set off at a brisk pace to see how many other species we could spot before the sun went down.
The air was thick with clouds of midges spinning like gold-dust around our heads so we all applied insect repellent before plunging into a boggy area and standing by a stagnant pool, where we saw a raft spider on the margins of the water.
We walked up over the heath on a path of soft white sand, printed with the soles of walking boots. In the distance Corfe Castle stood high above the landscape. Glimpses of Poole Harbour showed in slivers of blue to the East. In the valley below us a spoonbill was foraging on a mud bank in the middle of a large lake. Curlews and Shell ducks made the most of the last scales of sun on the water.
In the distance a fox was skimming through the long shadows and a herd of deer grazed on the mustard-coloured grass. Stonechats and Long-tailed tits entertained the group before we set off to the farm hoping for barn owls.
Unfortunately the barn owls didn’t show and all we heard was a lonely peacock who apparently has fallen in love with his reflection in puddles, in the absence of a mate – a sad story.
By now the sun was teetering – an intense red ball on the edge of the world. We headed for the heath, our ears straining for the sound of the nightjar. This bird has many names. It was called the Fern Owl by John Clare and Gilbert White as its habitat is bracken-covered heathland and woodland. It has also been called Churn Owl and Eve-jarr because of its call.
Then I heard it – a difficult noise to locate, one minute it seemed close, then further away. It sounded like a giant cricket or even a muted football rattle. Another name for the nightjar is the Wheel bird – after the mechanical nature of its call which sounds like a spinning wheel. In the distance I heard the revving of motorbikes at a rally – these two throaty rattles meshing in a weird symphony.
The sandy white path we were treading through the dusk was scattered with white pebbles – markers through the dark. I remembered the moths we had seen earlier flitting among the heather and bracken – airborne plankton to the whale-wide gape of the nightjars.
Suddenly I saw a bird darting erratically, silhouetted against the dusk-mauve sky, heard a wing-clap and it was gone. Others appeared at the corner of your eye shape-shifting in the insubstantial world between day and night. The rest of the group had moved on, hoping for more over the next hill. I stood watching silently with my sister who suddenly took out a white handkerchief and started waving it like a giant moth above her head. At this tacit sign of surrender a nightjar batted out of the dark, its wingtips nearly brushing our hair, before it vanished. I was left with an image of splayed feathers edged with the last remnants of daylight – a bird half moth, half bat, wholly myth and legend.