It was just after 8pm on the Saturday evening, it was a crisp evening on Thetford Forest and the attendees of BTO Bird Camp 2017 were in a group on a ride through an area of young Scots Pine trees. We were with Greg Conway, who is working on tracking technologies for investigating the private life of one of our least-seen species, the Nightjar. It was very interesting to hear of his research, and tonight we were there to try and help with it.
The Nightjar habitat at Thetford Forest
Right on cue, at 21:18, the first Nightjar was heard churring. The song of the Nightjar is a peculiar sound, quite unlike most other bird songs. As well as the male’s churring song the Nightjar produces another peculiar sound which is a loud, sharp cracking sound. This is not a vocal sound however. It is produced by the Nightjar’s body, and the sound was long attributed to the tips of the wings meeting each other in flight. However it is hard to believe that this is true as Nightjars, and other birds that make this sound such as Short-eared Owls, have very soft feathers that seem incapable of making such a sound in that way. One theory that seems plausible is that the quick downward motion of the wings creates the sound in the same way a whiplash would.
This photo was about as good as it got with the light levels not exactly going hand-in-hand with bird photography!
The first Nightjar was seen shortly after, at about 9.30pm, sitting right on top of a pine tree. We were able to watch it churring in plain view for quite a while, before it flew away producing some ‘wing-clapping’ sounds. I was incredibly pleased with this sighting as it was the first time I had ever heard a Nightjar, despite living only about 20 minutes away from one of the best sites in Sussex, Ashdown Forest. Nightjars are well distributed across most of England, Wales and southern Scotland on heathland, moorland and similar habitats. So if you have what you think is a suitable location for these birds nearby and you live within the Nightjar’s distribution I would highly recommend an evening walk there!
It wasn’t long before two Nightjars were giving close, although often invisible, fly-bys of the group. Occasionally however they would come into view, and when they did they were incredibly close above our heads. It was a memorable experience and I don’t think it would be easy to get much better.
Well, I was about to get proved wrong as a car came driving up the track towards us from the direction of where several mist-nets had been erected. Mist-nets are very fine, thin nets; so-called as they are not easy to see. They catch birds easily and safely, without harming the birds in any way. I knew that the arrival of this car meant one of two things: either the ringers had given up trying to catch anything or a Nightjar had been successfully caught. To have gone from not seeing a Nightjar to seeing one in the hand in the space of a few hours was an excellent thought, so I was overjoyed when a white bag emerged from the car, containing a Nightjar.
The Nightjar was quicky ringed, biometrics were speedily measured and all other details were transcribed into the book of data. Following this was a chance to admire the bird for a short while as well as one to take photographs. It was amazing to be able to see an otherwise mysterious bird up close and in detail like this, and surely something I’ll never forget.
Nightjar in the hand
Nightjars are long-winged and long-tailed. This makes them much lighter than they look!
Although most of us didn’t get to sleep until midnight, that didn’t mean we were able to have a lie-in the next morning. We left the camp again a little after 6am, on our way to the Suffolk coast near Felixstowe and more specifically Landguard Bird Observatory.
I have only visited one bird observatory before and that was Portland Bird Observatory, in Dorset, last August. It was an eye-opening experience to see first-hand what work goes on at an observatory instead of just reading about the sightings on the internet. I loved my visit to Portland Bird Observatory, therefore I was eager to visit another one.
Although it was still early morning when we arrived at Landguard the sun was already beating down and most of the wildlife was awake and active. We passed a large patch of Green Alkanet flowers on our way to the observatory building, just outside Landguard fort, which provided a vital feeding stop for 3 or more migrant Painted Ladies which had crossed over from Europe in the warm weather during the previous week. These were my first Painted Ladies of the year.
After pausing for a while to watch and photograph these strong insects (many fly all the way from Africa and still look pristine!) we continued on to the observatory building where we had a look at the observatory moth trap. It was really interesting to see how the lepidopterous fauna can change with habitat and geographical position. The species of moths were much different to what I usually find in my garden moth trap, so there were a number of lifers.
As in most moth traps there were lots of little brown jobs although also a fair few very interesting ones too – my favourite were the Small Elephant Hawk-moth and the Cream-spot Tiger.
The Small Elephant Hawk-moth is related to the much more common Elephant Hawk-moth although smaller and more brightly coloured. It is usually found in chalky and grassland habitats, where its foodplant (bedstraws) can be found. The Cream-spot Tiger is just as beautiful and impressive, with even more colour hidden behind its dark forewings with large cream-coloured spots. It has orange hindwings and a bright scarlet abdomen, which are revealed suddenly when the moth is startled to scare away a potential predator.
Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger
Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger showing its stunning hindwings!
Following the moth trap we went on a walk around the Landguard LNR. The LNR is a nice coastal reserve, with breeding Ringed Plovers probably the star attraction. Most pairs had chicks, in differing stages of development with some still quite young although others well developed. It was also great to learn about the shingle habitat and the plants that grow there.
Ringed Plover parent
After leaving the observatory the plan was to go to a piece of beautiful Suffolk heathland where we might be in for a chance to see another very elusive species, the Dartford Warbler. The Dartford Warbler is a species mostly southern in its British distribution, therefore it would be a lifer for many of the young birders who had come from Northern England or Scotland.
Upon arrival at this heath we were immediately greeted by the luscious song of a Woodlark, coming from right above our heads. This was a big surprise as Woodlarks are not common in Suffolk and therefore a very good species to see. It was excellent to watch performing its song flight, with the song of Yellowhammers also in the background. I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the Woodlark (it just turned out as a dot in the sky) however a Yellowhammer singing on a bush behind us was more than happy to pose for photographs.
We walked down a track through the centre of the heath and there we waited to try and get a glimpse of our target species. Although there were loads of other birds, a hunting female Kestrel, several Stonechats including a recently fledged youngster and a flyover Yellow Wagtail (my first of the year) we ended up waiting quite a long time without any luck. That was until David Walsh, a bird guide who was helping out, came running along the road where the vans were parked exclaiming that he had seen a Dartford Warbler on the other side of the heath. We all quickly made our way towards where the bird had been seen and scanned the area to see if we could re-find the bird.
After a few minutes of searching, someone eventually spotted the bird and tried to get everyone else onto it. I struggled at first as it was quite distant and exactly matched the colour of the heather, however when it flew it was easily seen. Luckily, I think everyone managed to catch a glimpse of the bird. Looking back at some photos it appeared to have a few green caterpillars held in its beak; the Dartford Warbler was feeding young in a nest!
After a very enjoyable break for lunch at a nearby pub we were on to our last site of the weekend, RSPB Hollesley Marshes. We soon set out to walk through the reserve towards the sea wall. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the wetland in the distance while Swallows hawked for insects over the water’s surface. The track-verge was bursting with umbellifers and insects sipping the nectar, and damselflies danced on the leaves of Horse Chestnuts. It was clear that this reserve was one that was full of life.
As we walked towards the sea wall, we passed a smaller marsh on our right. Here we could see Shelducks, and Avocet and a single Common Gull. From the sea wall we could see back over the marsh and out to the choppy water of the Alde River and the North Sea. Several Common Terns flew up and down the river and Herring and Black-headed Gulls battled the strong winds to keep in the air. Plenty of Avocets could be seen on the marsh, as well as a single Teal which was a surprise.
Avocet with food
Finally, we stopped off at a hide that overlooked the larger marsh. From here we were treated to a close-up view of a Swallow on the wires just metres away and some close sightings of Linnets too. Avocets gave good views once again – a good end to our visit to this RSPB reserve and to the Bird Camp as a whole.