As the Earth tumbles ever backwards the sun is melting into the horizon, the night appears to creep upwards from the ground as though it were a waking creature; every hollow and ghyll fills up with black air in the absence of the light. This is the transition, when the retreating back of the day is still visible in the smoky blue sky but is being met halfway by the yawning mouth of the night; it is in this betwixt-between atmosphere some call dusk or twilight or the gloaming, that strange creatures stir. Predators are abroad, using the solid shadows to hide their stealthy forms, sniffing the humid air for late-to-bed rodents or birds, and silhouetted against the peach-blue sky are the swift dancing forms of agile bats – scooping up the myriad moths and copious wafting clouds of tiny winged insects.
I am facing northwards on the curving crest of a hill, in front of me a dry valley dips into the gathering dark, it is encrusted with gorse and bracken and its eastern side is cloaked in the bristly forms of pine trees – the sun is long out of sight. Then out of the gloom I hear a strange sound, rather like the distant croaking of a toad, the animal making it is moving towards me and before I can locate it the animal suddenly appears against the dying light; it is rotund and shaped like a mango with blunt sail-like wings, its head is square and carries a very long, straight bill held at an angle. It is a Woodcock and it rapidly turns ninety degrees in front of me and carries on ‘roding’ into the distance, defending the edges of its territory – it is a secretive, ethereal bird and it chooses to appear only at this most secretive and ethereal time.
But the main show is yet to make its presence known, for I await a bird of many names; a traveler from the south who carries centuries of folklore and superstition with it, and with good cause for this crepuscular creature is a strange and enigmatic beast. One of the signs of an interesting or important animal is if it has accumulated many country names, this one is known by ‘Lich Fowl’, ‘Scissors grinder’, ‘Puck hawk’, ‘Dor Hawk’, ‘Fern owl’, ‘Goatsucker’ and is currently titled ‘Nightjar’. Even its scientific name has not escaped the claws of folklore; Caprimulgus means ‘milker of goats’ from the old belief that these dusk-dwelling birds sucked the milk of goats and left none for the poor humans (they don’t).
Eventually the grating trill of a singing male Nightjar drifts up the valley, it is a hypnotic sound quite unlike any other noise made by any bird or indeed any other animal; somehow it seems like a fitting noise to fill the humid, dense, insect-buzzing mid-summer air. As the bird twists its head the sound recedes then increases in volume as though it is placing its wing over its mouth like a child; this individual is soon joined by two other churring males who have secreted themselves cunningly in the gloom. I walk carefully down the valley in what I suppose is the general direction of the bird, though it is hard to tell – the swarms of gnats don’t help in keeping me quiet as I swipe at them and spit out the ones I just walked into. By this time the stars are out and the last shreds of colour in the sky are fading into obsidian, in such thick darkness it is nearly impossible to see if the Nightjar is on the branch I think it is or not. I decide to attempt an old trick which is supposed to attract them; I whip out a couple of white tissues and wave them above my head – in the process resembling a crazed Morris dancer. The tissues are supposed to resemble the white wing patches that male Nightjars flash in their display flights; and by Jove did the bird fall for it! Emitting very peculiar croaking noises and clapping its wings the Nightjar flew straight at me and proceeded to swoop low in a circle around me – no more than a meter away it was clearly very interested in me and my tissues. Even after I had pocketed my fake wings the fern-owl continued to swirl around; at this distance I could see its long blade-like wings and long fanned tail, its body was wedge shaped with a stocky head that barely seemed to have a beak at all.
These mystical birds are purely summer visitors and as such they inhabit an atmospheric place in British wildlife; it is a bird of muggy summer evenings filled with mosquitoes, glorious sunsets, foxes, badgers, moths and all manner of dusk-reveling wild things. As a creature of the near-night, with a disembodied mechanical song and a habit of disappearing and reappearing each year there is little wonder that it gained a reputation as a malevolent spirit, the bird of witches and a consort to the fairies – even now this bird retains a taste of the unusual and eccentric.