The Midnight ‘Goatsucker’
In the deepest darkest hours of warm summer nights, there’s a strange and elusive creature that flies silently across the countryside. In legend, he is somewhat supernatural and some very bizarre tales indeed have been associated with him.
Described as somewhat reptilian and almost dragon like in looks, the nightjar, or Caprimulgus europaeusis, is a nocturnal species and is a very rare sight in the UK. His strange call haunts the night hours of summer and it is his nocturnal habits that have awarded him a very firm place in folklore. For centuries, the nightjar was thought of as a ‘goatsucker’, stealing milk from nanny goats in the midnight hours, causing their milk to sour and blindness in the unfortunate animal. Although these were the most common myths, any illness that an animal contracted was usually attributed to the nightjar. Of course we now know this not to be the case, and it is more likely that insects, such as moths, that hover around livestock is what attracts this ‘phantom’ species. But the legends do not stop there. The nightjar was also referred to as the ‘Lich fowl’, meaning ‘corpse bird’, showing the kind of superstition that surrounded the bird. It was also believed that unbaptised children were doomed to wander the night in the form of a nightjar, until the Judgement Day arrived. Puckeridge was another name for this species, as it was thought that they pecked the hides of cows, causing the disease puckeridge, which is actually caused by warble fly laying eggs under the skin.
As fabulous, curious and unfair as these legends are, we now know of course that they are not true, but still interesting to hear. So back to facts. The nightjar, is in fact only a summer visitor to the UK, and can be found breeding on our moorlands, heathlands and open woodlands. Wintering in sub-saharan Africa, those nightjars that reach us, arrive in around April to breed. Though they are more common in the south in areas such as Dorset, Surrey and The New Forest, they can be found further north.
Unfortunately, our nightjars are on the UK Red List. With around 4,600 breeding pairs, the species is not exactly on the brink in the UK, but their numbers are thought to be declining. However, worldwide the nightjar has a very wide distribution, with an estimated 470,000-1,000,000 breeding pairs (IUCN) present across several countries. Due to their large range and despite a decline in numbers, the species is currently considered to be of Least Concern. But this is a good thing, right? Absolutely! We would never want a species to be classed as anything but. Though this does not mean that the population is without threat.
As a ground nesting species and like all other ground nesters, nightjars find their eggs and young chicks at constant threat from predators. Foxes, stoats, badgers, corvids and adders all pose as a threat to the breeding success of a pair, but overall, this threat is not significant enough to seriously damage our breeding populations. In fact, the nightjars most serious threat is habitat destruction. Heathland degradation and changes to forest management significantly reduce available breeding areas for this species, with the importance of newly planted forest and felled forest remaining largely unrecognised.
However, organisations including the Forestry Commission have specific plans that recognise those habitats that could be considered as vital to nightjar breeding and they try to conserve such areas. Other organisations, including the Wildlife Trusts, also have specific management plans in summer over lowland heath to ensure that breeding birds remain undisturbed.
So, we may currently find ourselves in the depths of winter with our nightjars happily settled in sub-saharan Africa, but wait until next summer. If you’re lucky and you are willing to brave the night hours, listen carefully and quietly and you may hear that bizarre reptilian call. Or, if you’re even luckier, catch a glimpse of this legendary ‘goatsucker’.
A rather odd churring sound echoed down from the dark hills and bounced off the lake edge. Sitting on the grass in our sleeping bags around the campfire, my friends and I froze, staring around in the darkness.
‘What the hell is that?’ One of my friends said, sounding worried.
I was surprised, I had never heard this bird before. Before I could offer my guess, our slightly more eccentric friend Charlotte, began to squeal and hid in her mummy bag, as the others began to laugh nervously.
‘It’s a bird.’ I whispered, still listening.
Popping back up from under her covers, Charlotte looked unconvinced.
‘Bird? It sounds like a velociraptor!’
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