Nightjars, the elusive residents of Mottistone Common

Choose a warm still summer evening and climb to the higher parts of Mottistone Common on the Isle of Wight. There, if you are lucky, you will hear and see nightjars churring and feeding in amongst the scattered trees and clearings, although the weather and birds can never be guaranteed.

A most unusual and distinctive bird

 
Nightjars are summer migrants from North Africa. They are nocturnal birds and can be seen hawking for food at dusk and dawn between May and late August. They have long wings like a falcon but weigh only as much as a starling and they are similar in shape to a kestrel or cuckoo.
 
Their grey-brown mottled and streaked plumage provides ideal camouflage during the daytime. You can tell the sexes apart by the white patch on the male’s wing. They have large eyes for good night vision, and wide ‘frog’ mouths to catch moths.
 
They produce a unique rising and falling song of around 30-40 beats per second, which is usually called 'churring' because the word sounds a bit like the song. They choose a high perch for their display, and in flight clap their wings and make other strange vocal sounds. 
 

Nesting and moon watching

 
They nest in a shallow scrape on the ground amongst leaf litter, usually in woodland clearings or heath with scattered clumps of trees. Two eggs are normally laid, and there are often two broods. The first brood hatches and are then fed by the male nightjar whilst the female lays another clutch, sometimes after mating with a different partner. This ensures that there are two broods ready to fly back to Africa in late August.
 
Eggs are laid on a full moon, an example of ‘lunar synchronisation’, so that a month later the next full moon will provide the best conditions for the parents to catch moths to feed to their young when they hatch.
 

Goat sucking?

 
In mythology, the secretive dusk-flying nightjars were claimed to steal milk from goats, which is where their alternative name of ‘goatsucker’ comes from and their Latin name of Caprimulgus europaeus.