The bliss of beginning a summer liberal of commitments (or at least ones I rather wouldn’t do). Having come home to Hampshire from university five days before, the sadness of leaving behind the Cornish landscape, the constant ‘happening’ and great friends is equally balanced out by the old familiars of the homestead, and in particular the local natural history I’ve grown up with, and as equally keen to catch up upon as I am with family and college friends. With the ‘real stuff’ been done down west now, coming home always feels like returning to Tolkien’s Shire – where good company, good food, and above all comfort, take precedence.
Now, if I could just get this bugger of a summer cold out the way.
One of those irritating ones where you’re still perfectly capable of functioning, but are considered to do toss all in terms of productivity, it’s been a waste of a day so far with the sun glowing smugly outside. Between re-enactments of Vesuvius’ eruption with truly Oscar-winning performances from my sinuses, the idle sitting has got too much, and as the day gives way to cooler, more operational climes, I clamber back into ‘Hugo’, my trusty Peugeot 107 (who’d almost certainly hate me if he was human, the way I treat his buzzy form lithe for urban driving like a 4×4 as we batter down country lanes), and head out for a midsummer evening’s performance that should be a highlight of every New Forest naturalist’s calendar
It’s only been a few minutes since driving past the first post that marks the boundary of the national park that I’m pulling up to the venue. Not particularly assuming, and not the most characteristic of settings in the Forest – a tiny copse of firs sheltering little more than bracken and pony-cropped grass upon a small rise. Yet stepping outside, the cool dusk air of a half-woken dream compares favourably to the atmosphere of dog walkers and picnickers in daylight hours. Nature is reclaiming the world. Just stopping to listen will reveal minute yet endless scuffles in the bracken litter, the bedtime chorus of blackbirds punctuated as the sense of sight dims.
It only takes two minutes walk to reach the top of the rise, and though the view stretches far towards Romsey and Southampton in the distance, the immediate vista is somewhat bleak – a vast plain that was once a conifer plantation. What appears now is a bleak waste of bracken interspersed with occasional birch trees, standing idly like stragglers at a wrapped-up party. It’s a textbook example of a managed manscape for forestry, that sits as the New Forest’s ying to the yang of ancient woods where royals once hunted.
But in nature, nothing’s ever completely deserted. And this waste is Shangri la to the enigmatic bird I’ve come to visit.
They’re all over the Forest, but previous visits have marked this place as my top spot. And sure enough, my reasoning is proven within ten minutes. Following a brief prelude appearance from a shrew, yittering like a bicycle wheel in need of oil as it scurries through the heather at my feet, that unearthly reel chorusing across the heath signals the first bird rising for the evening. A monosyllabic churr that sounds neither natural nor man-made – a signal from a UFO would be the closest thing I’d attune – is the first I’ve heard this summer, and all thoughts dictated by the bugs in my throat and sinuses disappear.
It’s not even dark yet, and the bearer of that cry reveals themselves. The nightjar’s flight pattern is always said to be akin to a raptor, but floating seemingly effortlessly in a hypnotising lull makes it entirely unique – even the wings, long and appearing paper-thin, seem far more like a butterfly’s than a bird’s.
Bursts of white underwing appear with each flap like a flashing can-can dancer, and as it disappears to a perch the churring starts anew. These are the males, eager to please the hens and equally concerned for their own bravado, as performances kick off from all corners, echoing like a music hall despite the vast openness of the scene. At one point there may be up to 4 or 5 males calling, while 20 individuals in a square kilometre alone isn’t unusual.
As the light dims, further denizens of the night join the spectacle. Starling-sized noctule bats, with a low, placid flight and clearly audible squeaks as they echolocate the same moth prey as the nightjars. From afar, the growing shadows and similar flight pattern can even confuse the two. A trio of fallow deer bucks drifts across the heather from the far left – two of them, perhaps only a year or two old, have only the single-root like beginnings of the antlers they will grow into. The older individual’s still aren’t spectacular, but have at least developed their first points, and a clear message of who’s the leader in this cervine lad-gang can be seen as his comrades follow him obligingly.
The unmistakable silhouette of a nightjar once again flies directly within my line of vision, and takes perch in a birch. Hunchbacked on the branch, its figure sits within an uncanny valley between a crow, a falcon and an owl – like an otherworldly goblin taking an avian shape. One can see easily how it earned its folkloric name and mythical behaviour of ‘goatsucker’.
As it takes flight, the wings emit a slow, deep clapping sound akin to an (undeserved) mocking applause. The excitement as a hen is located perhaps? It’s only then the sound of another churring male blasts out so suddenly my ears almost begin to ring. It’s probably in the shrubs about 30 feet away, but the ventriloquistic quality of the call makes it sound as though he is at my feet.
The intruder is swiftly dealt with, and I just put my binoculars down in time to feel the air from their wings wiff my hair as the two weave and dart in a high-speed chase, passing within arms reach.
The churring and clapping wings continue as the world darkens relentlessly. In the horizon, the ugly lights of Southampton’s docks and tower blocks spew an unhealthy orange murk into the distant sky: yet silhouetted against that, nature brings it back with the most bizarre and beautiful of our summer migrants skimming over the bracken. Even in our seemingly inescapable man-made world, both rural and urban, nature triumphs once again with the at once gothic and Lewis Carroll-esque life of the nightjar.