Nightjars in Hampshire

A nightjar perches on a branch in the New Forest, Hampshire

Nightjars are rare heathland birds that migrate thousand of miles to breed here, arriving in April and returning to Africa in August.

Being ground-nesting birds, they favour open heathland habitats, nesting in the heather and bracken. Their mottled brown appearance perfectly camouflages them from predators against the heathland landscape.

New Forest

We carefully manage our New Forest commons to retain the open habitats that birds like the nightjar need. Our rangers encourage fresh new gorse and heather but control the spread of seedlings such as birch, and non-native rhododendron. This creates ideal ground-nesting conditions, whilst scattered tree cover gives nightjars essential perches from where to ‘churr’.

Last summer, our restoring heathland project, Foxbury in the New Forest, announced a record number of breeding nightjars. This was closely followed by more exciting news - the discovery of the first breeding nightjars at Mottisfont. 

This fledgling nightjar was spotted by one of our rangers
A fledgling nightjar in a nest on the Mottisfont estate, in Hampshire
This fledgling nightjar was spotted by one of our rangers


While more commonly found on heathland habitat, nightjars are also attracted to woodland clearings and recently felled conifer plantations such as the one on the Mottisfont estate.

The Mottisfont woodlands have several areas of conifer plantation that was planted up for timber in years past. As these plantations are felled and the timber sold, the cleared area gets replanted with broadleaf tree species in order to restore the original native deciduous woodland to the area.

It is in one of these areas that the nesting nightjar was discovered. After volunteers heard the unmistakable ‘churr’ of the bird for a brief moment when working onsite, one of the ranger team decided to look for firm evidence of their presence. 

She was more than rewarded for her efforts when she came across an adult and two fledged young, proving beyond dispute that they had bred on the estate this year. 

" This is a great example of how active woodland management can benefit species that have sadly declined due to loss of habitat. With our ongoing conservation work across the estate, we’re hoping this wonderful bird and its evocative sound will return to Mottisfont’s woods and glades for years to come."
- Catherine Hadler, area ranger

Spotting nightjars

The best time to spot nightjars is after dusk, when they leave the nest to establish territories, fend off rival males and feed. 

Their food of choice is moths and other small insects. A layer of hairs above their beaks (like a moustache) helps them home in on prey.

Male nightjars make an eerie ‘churring’ call at dusk when establishing territory. They finish their call by clapping wings above their heads and making a ‘whooping’ call. After this display, they will fly in a circular motion back to the nest.

This strange night-time behaviour earned the nightjar the name of ‘goatsucker’ by local people. They believed the birds drank from the teats of goats at night. 

As if they weren’t strange enough!

Take care during nightjar season

Nesting so close to the ground, these birds are at risk of disturbance. This can be from predators, but most often from human activity.

To minimise your disturbance to these special birds, please follow three simple steps:

1.    Keep dogs on leads when walking through open heathland.
2.    Keep to gravel tracks and well-trodden paths.
3.    Choose to walk in woodland, rather than open heathland. Nightjars are less likely to nest in woodland.