The sun sinks peach through a faded, pastel blue sky. Either side of the road wheat fields gently glow, poppies burn red in the verge and the green oak leaves are gilt-edged. The sun is finally making itself felt, four days after the solstice. This means Nightjars, at last. For a nocturnal bird its curious how inextricable they are from the sun: a warm dry night is what they require, following a long hot day to create the swarms of insects which they devour. You get roughly an hour as the sun drops to pick them up; when it’s dark enough to coax them out, yet light enough to see them. They feel like a fleeting presence in the forest, here one month and gone the next, like cuckoos, yet curiously they’re one of the longest staying migrants. They’ll churr in this forest until early September. Curious just about sums the bird up, but we have no such luck trying to summarise their song, the ‘churr’. If it sounds like anything at all it sounds like a melodic white noise.
The car pulled up in the forest just as the sun dropped to the tree tops, casting the conifers in black and gold. As we got out it was chillier than expected. The sun had lied. It was a bad omen. Omen is a portentous, creepy word. It suits the otherworldly Nightjar perfectly. Goatsuckers as shepherd’s used to call them, for the belief that they used to suck their goats dry at night. Thomas Hardy, poet of the pastoral despair, called them Dewfall Hawks. Hawks of the dewfall has a certain poetry to it. The track into the forest was appropriately damp under foot, the long grass harbouring countless slugs of several species, while a Chiffchaff called the dusk in from the conifers. A Yellowhammer sung, perched up beside the path, its beak full of insects: food for its chicks. Slightly further away a Tree Pipit ran through a few notes of its freewheeling song perched on top of a tree trunk denuded of branches in the middle of the clear fell. Patterns of forestry have created an amphitheatre for creatures of the night: a ring of old growth pines around a weed strewn clear fell, with patches of bare sandy soil. A curlew flew to the tree stump to roost for the night as the orange evaporated from the sky. A flew wing claps from somewhere over the wood and the thrumming song of the Nightjar filled the air. And a glimpse of (I guess) a Noctule bat, jerkily flying over the clearfell momentarily raised pulses. It came low overhead, squeaking, its long flappy wings creaking. It makes an impression to see a bat so large its very act of flying makes noises. I was glad too, I suppose, that my much-punished ears can still pick out their high frequency squeaking.
In the end five of these creatures did dizzying flights overhead: at times seemingly the size of the Nightjars, and yet, unfortunately the Nightjar remained hidden, despite churring from all the corners of the clearfell. I guess that the unexpectedly cold night kept the insects close to the trees, and the Nightjars flush to them. It’s impossible at gone ten at night to see dark birds against black trees; it’s hard enough to pick out the bats as they flit against the rapidly darkening sky. A failure then, if you look at it that way. In the context of 2012 it’s just another brick in the wall of disappointment, a continuation of current form. I’ve yet to see a decent amount of dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, any flies at all. Normally the journey back through the winding roads of west Suffolk after Nightjars results in the mass slaughter of chunky insects, for whom the light at the end is a Ford Mondeo’s headlights*. The knock-on effect of this is in the dearth of insectivorous birds I’ve seen this year: single figure amounts of even the commonest warbler species. I can’t offer reasons why. I reckon, hope, the fault is with me and that the birds are still there and going unseen. If not, maybe it’s a blip, a statistical curiosity, a knock-on effect of from a succession of weird winters. Other options seem too bleak to contemplate.
*if insects had the cognitive ability to be disappointed by this fact, they would.