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May Star Species: The Nightjar

This month, as our Thorpe Forest location celebrates its birthday, we turn our attention to the nightjar, which has increased in numbers in the area after a shaky few decades. 

Charlie, our Forest Ranger has been on their trail and has some fascinating facts about this unusual migratory bird, just returning to the UK for the summer.

Masters of disguise

“Nightjars, as the name suggests, are nocturnal birds, most active at dawn and dusk when their dinner (moths) is flying about! They are ground-nesting birds and, as befits such a risky nest-building strategy, they are masters at camouflage, their feather patterns resembling old leaves or bits of bark.

When seen, the nightjar has a very unusual flight comprising a deep flapping action followed by periods of gliding.  They are similar in shape to a kestrel or cuckoo, with pointed wings and a long tail.  The first clue you will have to the presence of a nightjar is likely to be the distinctive churring song of the male.

Nightjars under threat

Like many ground nesting birds, nightjars have their nests attacked by predators such as foxes, stoats, crows and magpies. Adders use nightjar nest platforms for basking and take eggs and small young birds. But these predators do not pose a serious threat to a successful breeding population. 

The main threat to the species comes from loss of habitat - a reduction in the area of lowland heath or changes in forestry practice that do not recognise the importance of clear felled and replanted forest. Their favourite food, moths, can also be affected by pesticide use and a major reduction in moth numbers will affect the nightjar population.

Encouraging the return of the nightjar

Habitat destruction led to a major decline in the nightjar population after the Second World War. Now, more enlightened management of forestry plantations and remaining heathlands has enabled a steady rise in numbers. 

Thetford Forest (where Thorpe Forest is based) together with much of the surrounding farmland make up the Breckland Special Protection Area (SPA). SPAs are designated to protect internationally rare breeding birds such as the nightjar. We are delighted with the increase in numbers at Thetford Forest, and when the last survey was carried out in 2003, in Norfolk 314 males were recorded representing a 41% increase in just over a decade. Well over 60% of recorded males in Norfolk, came from the Breckland region. 

The amazing travels of the nightjar

During 2011, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) staff attached 19 geolocators to nightjars in Thetford Forest. One of the birds was recovered in May 2012. After leaving the UK, it appears that he moved fairly slowly through Europe, and arrived in Libya in October. Thereafter he moved rapidly south-east to Sudan and eventually wintered in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

During summer 2014, BTO and Natural England staff embarked on a new ground-breaking study using GPS tags to examine the movements of breeding nightjars in Thetford Forest. I was lucky enough to go along on one of their nightjar walks to see this in action and get face to face with this amazing bird.

The GPS tags record hundreds of precise locations at five minute intervals over many nights, providing the most detailed information on foraging movements and habitat use ever obtained for the species. 

The results will greatly improve our understanding of species' habitat requirements and better inform management and conservation efforts. Plans are in preparation to use these GPS devices to reveal the actual migration routes and even to examine the habitats used in the African wintering grounds.

Nightjars at Thorpe Forest…and Cropton too

Since Thorpe Forest opened in May 2014 I have been lucky enough to see and hear nightjars on many occasions. They also nest at our Cropton location in North Yorkshire. As they return, May is a great time to visit for a sighting and we still have a few cabins at both locations.

I am eagerly anticipating the night when I am out in the forest on a Night Vision walk and hear the first familiar churring call of the male nightjar. Watch this space!”

Did you know?

The Latin name for the nightjar, Caprimulgus europaeus, means European Goatsucker. This name comes from ancient folklore that the nightjar sucked the milk from goats’ teats.  A strange myth that has no basis whatsoever in reality!

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