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Magic night of nightjars and glow worms

July 15, 2011

By Nicky Hoar

Communications Officer

It’s glow worm and nightjar time!  This is the magic time of year when you just have to get out for a twilight walk and meet some really mysterious wildlife.   I decided that, for my fundraising effort for our 50th Anniversary 50for50 challenge, I would invite people to join me on my local patch of heathland for an encounter with nightjars, one of my 2 favourite birds (buzzard is the other one, since you ask).   It seemed a much better idea than wearing myself out cycling vast distances or running round the county dressed as a giant lobster or whatever.  The glow worms were to be the icing on the cake, no guarantees but I picked the best time of year in hopes…

We met up at 9pm.  I had no idea who would come (apart from my colleague Jane and my husband Greg, who volunteered to do the manly bit of seeing that everyone could fit in to the small parking area) but around 40 people turned up, many of them never having seen a nightjar before and even more never having seen a glow-worm.  The pressure was on to deliver the goods but the omens were good.  It was a still, clear and beautiful night and glow worms had been spotted a few days earlier on Upton Heath.  Plus, I know these nightjars, having visited this site regularly for around 10 years now, they are my friends, they couldn’t let me down…

Setting out

Nightjars arrived in Dorset from Africa at the end of April and I first saw them here in Corfe Mullen in May this year.  They are very mysterious, with lots of folklore attached to them.  People used to call them goatsuckers, thinking they drank the milk of goats!  They actually love to eat moths, so they can find plenty to eat in southern Britain in the summer.  They lie up motionless and camouflaged all day so you just can’t find them (unless you disturb one) until they wake up and come out to hunt and socialise as it starts to get dark.

Brilliant camouflage of a nightjar by day

All we had to do was wait.  And wait.  We saw some swifts and swallows, debated the differences between them, listended to blackbirds saying goodnight and watched the twilight fall.  I was just thinking people would suspect me of fraud when the appearance of noctule bats overhead distracted them for a while.  Then, at 9.40 we heard our first nightjar churring (that’s the song – more like a lawnmower than a song but very eerie).  Still nothing to see though.

We're waiting...

It was also some distance away, so we waited, and waited and then started to see first one, then 2 nightjars flying around at low level.  It was our pair, the male clearly distinguishable by his white flashes on the wings.  They were ‘clucking’ and calling with a ‘huic’ call to each other and we watched them spellbound.  It was  great having so many eyes and ears on the case as they can be hard to spot in the gloom but every single person had a close encounter with them and it just went on and on.  I wasn’t happy to leave, though, until the male sang for us.  And, after 10pm, he finally did, perched in a tree and emitting his eerie sound across the air.  It was a magic moment.

We finally dragged ourselves away, with the pair of birds still flying around and getting closer and closer to us.  They didn’t seem to want  us to leave.  Fortunately heathland does tend to have light-coloured paths so we had no trouble trailing back and peering at the ground for glow worms on the way.  And there they were, first one and then we saw more and more, glowing low down in the grass at the side of the paths and in the heathland edge!  In all we saw 9 glow worms, (actually a beetle and it’s the female that glows bright green to attract a mate).  I’ve never seen so many, it was just a perfect night and I raised more than double my £50 for DWT while having a fantastic evening.  Have you thought what you can do for your 50for50 challenge yet?

Femal glow-worm, photo by Tony Bates

In the meantime, get out in the dark and have a look around your patch – July is the best time for glow worms and the nightjars will be off in September to their winter homes south of the Sahara.

Happy hunting!


UK & Eire Natural History Bloggers

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2011 5:34 pm

    I am very fond of your part of the world and get down there as often as I can. I have never seen a nightjar, or heard one for that matter – I would love to be out at dusk and experience these magical birds! I have also never seen glow worms before. I am really envious of your evening and happy for you that you raised a pretty penny doing something so wonderful!

    • July 18, 2011 3:20 pm

      Yes, it really is a special place and today’s weather reminds me that we just need to make the most of every beautiful summer day (or evening!). I hope you can get to see a nightjar when you are down in Dorset one day.

  2. July 15, 2011 6:29 pm

    It was a wonderful night Nicky – well done on raising so much money for the 50for50 challenge (remind me I still owe you £3!) the weather was perfect and the wildlife didn’t disappoint. Truly magical! Jane

  3. July 18, 2011 3:23 pm

    I was going to let you off the £3 for helping, Jane, but if you insist, it’s all going to a good cause – protecting Dorset’s wonderful wildlife so people can enjoy sights and sounds like this for years to come. Thanks again to everybody who came and to everybody who helps us with our work and our fundraising, in whatever way.

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