Churrings at Dusk

The RSPB's Grahame Madge encounters one of the county's more enigmatic birds

The RSPB’s Grahame Madge encounters one of the county’s more enigmatic birds

Birdwatchers are the first to realise their pursuit leads them to experience some of the most wonderful sights and sounds in nature. Here in Devon, enthusiasts know there are few more enchanting experiences than listening to the churring call of the nightjar float on the breeze of a heathland at dusk.This migratory bird, a distant relative of the swift, is one of the county’s strangest creatures, and although the bird is more often heard than seen, its bizarre call and behaviour make the bird one that birdwatchers can’t wait to catch up with every year.A traditional inhabitant of heathland, the nightjar suffered a severe population crash in Britain last century, following the decline and abandonment of heathland and the increasing use of pesticides which have affected the numbers of flying insects, the nightjar’s prey. However, following the actions of conservationists who are busily trying to recreate heathland across the region, the nightjar has steadily been increasing its numbers over the past decade. Nightjars return to the Devon from their African wintering quarters in May. The male birds establish territories and advertise for mates, using their churring songs as territorial boundary posts with rival males warning each other of their presence. This churring carries on through summer. To hear them, pick a suitable heathland site and wait quietly from around an hour before sunset. Out of nowhere the males will start to call. Although they are easy to hear, they are often difficult to locate while calling. If you do, it’s most likely the bird will be sitting lengthways along the branch of a prominent tree. And don’t forget, they also churr at dawn, so if you fancy getting up an hour before sunrise...As dusk approaches, more and more nightjars become active, and gradually as the light fades the dove-sized birds take to the wing in search of all manner of flying insects, including moths and beetles. In flight, nightjars strongly resemble paper airplanes as they twist and turn above the gorse and heather silhouetted against the glow of twilight. One of their remarkable features is the set of stiff whiskery feathers either side of a rather large mouth, which are used to help them sense and then shovel up flying insects while they are out hunting.


This migratory bird is one of the county’s strangest creatures and the bird is more often heard than seen

When roosting, male and female ground-nesting nightjars are almost impossible to see as their cryptic camouflage almost defies detection, but when seen on the wing the sexes can be easily distinguished because only the males have large white spots on the wing tips and corners of the tail, which are even visible in the half-light of dusk.Nightjars nest on the ground, laying an average of two eggs. From hatching it normally takes a month for the youngsters to become independent, at which point they’ll spend time getting themselves in condition for the long flight to Africa. To experience nightjars in Devon, one of the better sites is the RSPB’s Aylesbeare Common, a lovely rolling sun-drenched and windswept hilltop heathland in the east of the county. And while you’re waiting, you can also enjoy birds such as stonechat and even, if you’re eagle eyed, the occasional Dartford warbler flitting through the heather and gorse.