Monday, 15 July 2013

Tales of the Gaywood Goatsucker

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

In July dusk is late to make way for darkness, but as night finally begins to arrive a strange sound fills the heath – an almost-mechanical mix of reeling, rattling and croaking. A nocturnal swarm of insects, or a frog chorus perhaps? No, the throaty, churring calls belong to one of the UK’s most enigmatic birds: the nightjar.

Nightjars are a scarce summer visitor, arriving in May and departing for their sub-Saharan wintering grounds from mid-August. In Norfolk, they are found mainly in heathlands and young conifer plantations. Their stronghold is the Brecks, but there are also healthy populations in the heaths of the North Norfolk coast, the Gaywood Valley near King’s Lynn, as well as a few smaller populations scattered around the county.

The clever camouflaged nightjar, photo by Andrew Ramsey
Nightjars are odd-looking birds. Their plumage is an intricate mix of camouflaged browns, perhaps most similar to a tawny owl, but their shape is very different: whereas owls sit upright, nightjars are elongated and horizontal, meaning that during the day, when they often sit lengthways along a branch, or on the ground, they are almost impossible to spot. In flight, they’re an entirely different prospect: long-winged and like a hawk, though with a jerky, flapping action, which brings to mind a giant moth.

Like most nocturnal birds, a wealth of folklore and superstition surrounds the nightjar. Since classical times it was thought (wrongly) that the birds feasted on the milk of goats, leading to one of their alternative names: goatsucker. The naturalist Gilbert White recorded a mistaken belief among the locals of Selborne in Hampshire that nightjars attacked calves and inflicted them with a fatal distemper (actually caused by the egg-laying warble fly). Norfolk too, has a nightjar tradition: the seventeenth century Norwich writer Sir Thomas Browne refers to the species as the “dorhawke or prayer upon beetles”.

One of the best places in Norfolk to see nightjars is RoydonCommon in the Gaywood Valley. Walk onto the heath just before dusk (a full moon on a warm, still day will help) and wait. With luck, the distinctive churring calls will soon begin and you will spot one of these long-winged enigmas flying low over the heath, hunting for insects. The males will often deliver their display calls from an exposed branch but it can be incredibly frustrating to try and pin down their whereabouts as the sounds have a ventriloquial quality, seeming to emanate from all around.

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