Some bits of the Forest of Dean are hardly forest at all.
When Canute ruled England in the 11th century, he named the Forest of Dean and excepted the top of Plump Hill, then wild and treeless and scattered with ancient iron workings, and called it The Wilderness.
It was not far from here that I met up with wildlife photographer and conservationist Ben Locke. He knows a lot of the Forest like the back of his hand. He knows where the wild boar can be seen and good places to see the family groups with the little humbug piglets but that evening we waited as the light dimmed and the stars appeared, for something very different.
We stood on a path running through a clear-felled area. It was surrounded on all sides by woodland, some deciduous, some dense conifers. A few dead broken trees had been left standing stark like pale picked bones against the dark backdrop of woodland.
Ben was pretty sure we’d see a nightjar on the tall spear-like tree on the left.
A nightjar. I thought I’d heard one once but it was otherwise a bird unknown to me apart from images and illustrations in books.
A woodcock appeared, flapping steadily on its flightpath directly overhead, then another one, doing a circuit of the edge of the woodland, and another.
I’d only ever see one woodcock before. It was dead ‘un, hanging outside a butcher’s shop in Tetbury. I stared at its lustreless eyes and thought what a waste and what a pity my first sight of one of Britain’s shy native birds was that one, blooded and lifeless, ready for someone to pluck and roast.
But here, in the evening, there were woodcock, alive and doing their evening thing, patrolling their territories. Their calls were the weediest teeniest tweet-tweets imaginable – entirely disproportionate to their sturdy bodies and long bills.
A cuckoo called from the woodland – and then flew out to the topmost branch of a tree where I could see its head tick-tocking to and fro as it cuckooed! Another treat.
The light faded and bats appeared out of nowhere, flapping suddenly around us. They were much larger than pipistrelles, long-eared bats maybe.
It’s weird how I can be totally freaked out by a moth flapping towards me to the extend of sprinting in the opposite direction but stand unflummoxed by bats flittering around my head.
Not that there weren’t moths. There were. Small ones for the most part apart from the one I missed.
“Did you see that big moth?” asked Ben mischievously. “You must have heard it when it bumped into the fence?”
Ha. If I had, he wouldn’t have seen me for dust.
An owl was calling in the wood. Not the little owls that hunt where i live, screeching in the early evening, but a tawny owl. I’ve only ever seen captive tawnys and didn’t expect to see one that evening but about half an hour later, in the gathering dusk, there was a fine tawny owl sitting relaxed and fully fluffed out on a branch of the dead tree.
I admired him through my binoculars. He had his back to us but as I watched his head swivelled and his big round eyes blinked, looking straight back at me. Another thrill.
A songthrush sang a long and complicated song.
‘Did you hear that?’ said Ben. ‘You can hear a bit of nightjar call in the song. Songthrushes are great mimics.’
Some time later, when the woodland birds had fallen silent for the night, the muted call of a male nightjar began. It was distant – the extreme edge of the clear-felled area, but unmistakeable. They call it churring and it’s the perfect onomatopoeic description.
It was almost too dark to pick anything out with the binoculars but then we heard churring much closer – the nightjar was sitting on an upright branch of the dead tree – posed like a duck decoy might be displayed on a metal pole.
It churred the long distinctive cry. Only the males perform this song. They don’t need to stop to take a breath because they use circular breathing – rather like digeridoo players. The only sign of the nightjar taking an inward breath was the slight change in tone.
They had not long returned from Africa. They will mate and raise young and then return. This visit was at the end of May so now, in mid-August, I expect the young are well-grown and whole families will soon be flying south.
They are curious, weird, remarkable birds. They only have small beaks but they catch insects on the wing by opening their mouths until there’s a 180 degree gape – hunting in the air for moths much like a basking shark collects his fishy supper in the sea.
Their scientific name is Caprimulgus or ‘goat sucker’ and comes from a superstition claimed to date back to the ancient Greeks that nightjars, with their wide soft mouths and habit of feeding near grazing animals, actually milk goats! In the Forest of Dean they make do with moths, flies and beetles.
I wasn’t quick enough to detect much when the nightjars changed position but Ben knew pretty much exactly where they were. One nightjar would disappear from its tree branch and then reappear in a different place – next time sitting in line with the branch, churring.
Males, with flashy white patches of feathering amongst the camouflage – as though someone has dabbed them with a loaded brush of brilliant white – churr to invite females to join them. The calls are similar but they are all different and it’s possible to identify individual birds by their calls.
Their amazing camouflage means they can nest unseen on the ground on heathland and in young conifer woods.
May and June are the best months to go out at dusk and with luck, to spot the males displaying to females, flying around them and calling.
For me, the most amazing moment was seeing a nightjar fly overhead.
It seemed to be almost floating, with a fanned tail and its wings held aloft in a V shape before beating them together to create an audible clap!
Totally astonishing. So unlike any other bird I’d ever seen. An extraordinary and wonderful experience.
Click here for much better images of nightjars by Ben Locke!