Heath

Fern Owls and the full moon

Another full moon and another trip to the South Dorset Ridgeway – a mystical place even by day. This time I was in search of the elusive Nightjar or Fern Owl – a bird of myth and mystery. Dusk was falling as I climbed through narrow lanes towards Hardy’s monument at the top of the Ridgeway. Swathes of cow parsley glowed along the verges, seeming to have kept a little of the sun to light the way. The setting sun skimmed across the contours of the hills showing up tumuli, strip lynchets and other traces of prehistory.

In ancient times, the slopes would have been forested so all dwellings and monuments were created on the barer summit. I stopped on the landward side of the Ridgeway before reaching Hardy’s monument and set off through darkening woodland with the sun disappearing between the branches. Black slugs were slithering out of the ferny borders onto the heathy path and I picked my way between them listening to the sound of birds settling down for the night.

As the sun dipped to the western horizon a huge pink moon appeared in the east. I can easily imagine how primitive people would have seen this as a portent. It rose quickly above the Ridgeway and suddenly there were strange sounds among the trees. A whirring of insects, a rustling and fluster of moths. The air was full of the whispers of dusk – a language only heard in remote places after sunset. Then the sound I’d been waiting for – a soft rhythmic chirring and the silhouette of a bird overhead – swooping with staccato movements, bat-like – a nightjar, sometimes call the eve-jar. Then there were three dipping down low into the trees looking for moths.

In the distance on a high branch was one of these mysterious birds keeping lookout. It was joined by another and they stayed there long enough for a photo in which its eye shone like a tiny moon. I waited for a while seeing glimpses of dark shapes flitting among the trees and listening to the distinctive whirring and chirring of their calls in the shadow of the Ridgeway.

I drove home towing a huge golden moon behind me. A barn owl drifted low over the road and I heard myself say ‘wow’ – a totally inadequate word for such a special moment.

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A Jurassic experience

Only a couple of miles from the Jurassic Coast, but here were giant ferns, a tree canopy that excluded the light and a stony track leading deeper and deeper into woodland. The silence was profound, yet any slight noise seemed magnified in that enclosed environment. The dogs ran on ahead, plunging into the deep green undergrowth. We followed more slowly, stones pressing uncomfortably through the soles of our shoes.

Then a strange noise stopped us. It sounded like a huge bullfrog croaking nearby. After a minute or two we realised, after my friend checked on her mobile phone, it must be a deer rutting. We couldn’t see it, but its rhythmic grunting sounded quite close. Another answered from the opposite direction. We turned to walk on but a loud piercing cry came from overhead. It was beginning to feel even more like Jurassic Park … We looked up almost expecting to see a pterodactyl fly out of the canopy. A large buzzard wheeled above, primary feathers silhouetted against a small patch of sky, its cry echoing among the trees.

Warm damp air made it feel clammy and claustrophobic. I looked up to see a gap in the canopy where a tree had been struck by lightning. The bare trunk pointed a jagged finger at the sky. Spikes of gorse with luminous yellow flowers bordered the path. In the hollows were dark peaty pools. As we emerged into a lighter area, soft mauve grasses with feathery seed heads signalled a change in the habitat and we left the primeval forest for open heath-land.

Something of the night …

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.

(Thomas Hardy)

 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.