RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Nightjar's clever camouflage

This is what a nightjar looks like as it sits on its eggs. The camouflage is perfect with dead bracken colours, shades, and patterns. What gives it away is the big night optic which is needed for catching midges and mosquitoes in the dark.

Friday, 1st July 2016, 10:00 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 5:59 pm

Usually the eyes are closed and the bird is crouched flat over its two marbled eggs. Yes! I did say midges: those dratted insects which get in your hair and mine when we stand out in the garden trying to enjoy the last of the summer light. Most bird-watchers will tell you that nightjars, also known as goatsuckers, mostly eat large moths. Of course they eat large moths – if they can get them.

The human race mostly eats beef-burgers it seems sometimes, but if times were hard they would have to eat minute portions of whatever they could get such as potatoe peelings and crusts. And so it is with the nightjar. For most of the night it flaps around with its mouth open like a whale catching plankton. One nightjar killed accidentally in modern times had its crop contents analysed after a night out on the blasted heath. The scientists were amazed to discover one thousand insects of fifty different species in one lump the size of a pigeon’s egg. Another bird examined had eaten 500 mosquitoes. A third had gobbled 2,175 flying ants. The most minute insect in the first sample was the midge – scores of them.

Nightjars were called Goatsuckers because farmers in Ancient Greece noticed nightjars fluttering under the bellies of their goats and cattle apparently sucking the teats. The birds were in fact snapping up flies and mosquitoes sucking blood. Not until 1870 did somebody bother to look a little closer – an English ornithologist called Charles Waterton, ending millennia of foolish folklore and destruction of this ‘Devil-bird’or ‘Puck-bird’. Sussex has about 50 pairs of nightjars and with the Surrey and New Forest heaths is at the centre of UK populations.

The nightjar has actually increased a bit over the past seventy years and this is probably due to the felling of pine plantations giving the birds alternative new habitats for breeding. If you are lucky enough to see one you might notice that it looks like a big swift, and that is because it is related and in the same family.

It also resembles a cuckoo in shape, or even a small hawk such as a kestrel. It is a very mysterious bird what with its ventriloquist call, wing clapping, crepuscular habits and black cross shape in the snitching hour.