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25 July 2018

Glimpses of the elusive nightjar

Imagine a slim bird like a big swift, one as long as your hand from wrist to fingertip, and with huge, black-ink anime eyes.

By Helen Macdonald

Though the days are still long in late July, by nine the sun has already set. As we walk into the King’s Forest in Suffolk the sky is a soft Tiffany blue, darker above us, and there’s not a breath of wind. I’m here with my friend Judith, an expert naturalist who worked here on a muntjac deer study many years ago. She knows the place well, and leads me through deep woodland to a few acres of open land, a block of head-height pines growing up through grass and brambles and surrounded by tall walls of mature plantation trees.

Part of the pleasure of this summer pilgrimage is anticipation. We’re waiting for something that won’t happen until the light is nearly gone. We amble for a while along the sandy paths, and all my senses stretch to meet the oncoming night. I feel a skin-prickling attention to the slightest of sounds: a roe buck barking far in the distance, small mammals rustling in the grass. The scratchy, resinous fragrance of heathland is stronger, more insistent now. As we pass clumps of viper’s bugloss growing in the sand, dusk turns their leaves blacker, their purple petals bluer and more intense until they almost glow. The paths become luminous trails through darkness. White moths spiral up from the ground, and a cockchafer zips past us, elytra raised, wings buzzing.

Soon all colour will be gone. The thought brings a prickle of unexpected tears. Over the last few weeks I’ve spent much of my time visiting a dear friend in a local hospice. And now, watching the slow diminishment of sense and detail around me, I can’t help but think of what we face at the end of our lives’ long summers, when the world parts from us; of how we all, one day, will walk into darkness.

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Then the sound begins. It spools out from the trees behind the sapling pines, and I catch the flash of a smile on Judith’s face in the gloom. The noise resembles a sewing machine running at top speed, or an unspooling fishing reel, but such mechanical analogies fail to capture its rich musicality. It’s a deep and beautiful churring that lasts for four or five seconds before the creature that’s making it breathes in, briefly lowering the pitch, before starting up again. Judith cups a hand behind each ear, turns her head to pinpoint the source, and gestures out in front of us, a little to our left. Somewhere in that direction, sitting lengthways on a branch, his throat puffed out to raise this strange song to the night, is a nightjar.

Imagine a slim bird like a big swift, one as long as your hand from wrist to fingertip, and with huge, black-ink anime eyes. Imagine its plumage is patterned with all woodland things rolled together: bark, rotting wood, the tips of dry bracken fronds, cobwebs, the bright ends of broken twigs, dappled shadows, dead leaves. Nightjars are cryptic beasts for whom subtlety is safety; during daylight hours they rest and nest upon ground that so perfectly matches their feathers they are almost impossible to detect, even from a few feet away. Their neat beaks look ordinary enough until they open their mouths into a huge, frog-like pink gape surrounded by bristly feathers that help them catch their flying prey: moths, beetles, other insects.

The bird we hear calling spent his winter in Africa, and has come here to mate and rear young in this chequerboard landscape of coniferous forest and heath before he heads back south in late August or September. Another churr begins, then another. Five birds, six? It’s hard to tell, but they’re calling all around us. It’s an exquisite chorus, but I’m hoping we get something more.

We do. There’s a soft, fluting nightjar flight call. I whistle something like it back into the darkness. The call comes again, closer now, and as I strain my eyes into the noisy blackness I see the barest suggestion of a bird flying towards me, wings appearing and disappearing as thin, wavering lines. And then, sailing out just above our heads, dark against the sky, is a nightjar. It’s the shape of a skinny kestrel, but somehow the quality of its flight makes it look like a paper aeroplane. It’s so light in the air it seems to have no weight at all, and there’s something dusty and mothy about it too.

I can just make out the barring of the underside of its wings, the lack of white near their tips – it’s a female – and we watch as she hunches herself in mid-air, curls down to the left and hovers, briefly. A male joins her, white wing-patches blurring, tail fanned; they circle for a few seconds before breaking apart and disappearing into darkness. Then a quick, flat clapping noise as the male slaps the top of his wings together in flight, a nightjar display that sounds like quiet applause.

We walk on. Slow minutes pass, until night thickens completely and there is little but starlight and dust and the feel of sand underfoot. But the nightjar song continues, and I know that the air around us is full of invisible wings.

I feel those tears at my eyes again, but they mean something different now. It’s so dark that I can barely see myself. But I feel a growing, rising reassurance in my heart that’s something like love, or hope, or both, knowing that the darkness around us is full of unseen, beautiful life.

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special