It can be easy sometimes, particularly for people who don’t have an ardent interest in nature, to see the animals living around us today as ‘boring’. I know that some people look back on the fossil record, at all the dinosaurs, flying reptiles, giant insects, huge sloths, sabre-toothed cats, alien-looking marine crab-things, and think ‘gosh, life on Earth used to be so amazing, why isn’t it like that anymore?’ I have been guilty of similar thoughts myself. Yet, this is all down to familiarity, we see trees and birds and butterflies all the time and so they become ‘normal’, they are just an everyday part of the world around us. Even exotic animals like Elephants, Tigers and Sea-lions are seen so regularly on television, in films and in zoos that they can barely keep a persons attention for more than a few minutes it seems.
Yet take the feral pigeon, probably the dullest, commonest and most familiar bird in the world – we humans now barely even register their existence, unless they defecate on our vehicles. But these birds possess tiny molecules of magnetic material inside their brains which allow them to effectively ‘see’ the Earth’s magnetic field and can use it to navigate their way back home from anywhere in the world, regardless of whether they are familiar with the landscape or not. That is amazing.
On a smaller scale, Britain’s wildlife can also seem quite mundane to those of us that live here. Compared to the tropics, or even the rest of Europe, our assemblage of organisms can, at first glance, look unexceptional and be far from exciting. Of course, a Blue Tit is quite capable of being the most beautiful thing in the world to someone who has never seen one before, it’s all a matter of perspective.
The wildlife in Britain still amazes me every day, but even so, when it comes to birds, having been a birder for about a decade, I have seen so many of our commoner birds so frequently that even I am guilty of wishing I could see something a little more exciting or unusual. But I have a cure for this, a cure which comes every year around June time and which never fails to completely enthrall me and re-fire my passion and love for British birds. I talk of course, of the Nightjar.
Nightjars might well be my favourite bird, possibly. Each year I make an effort to see one of these remarkable birds once they have returned to their heathland breeding grounds from a winter spent in sub-Saharan Africa. This year was no different; I tried a few weeks ago but failed to see one, despite hearing the calls of several, so I tried again last Saturday and finally connected.
My friends and I headed up to Ashdown forest, an area with a large population of Nightjars and the place that we go to every year to see them, the evening was overcast and windy, which was not ideal. We walked about until we stopped at the best looking bit of habitat, an area of gorse-choked heath on the edge of a mixed conifer/deciduous woodland, and waited and waited and waited in the failing light.
Then, at about a quarter to ten, fragments of a distant rattling noise wafted into our ears on the breeze, so faint we weren’t sure we’d even heard it. Then a louder, closer trilling reached us from the other direction and we plunged into the bracken and tufts of rushes to hunt down its source. Finally, we stood in front of a tall pine tree with the deep, otherworldly churring song of the Nightjar filling the air around us, loud and clear.
Then, as I watched, the bird took off from the branch and proceeded to spend the next ten or fifteen minutes patrolling the sky around us in a wide circle, hunting for its moth prey. On several occasions it flew low and close to us, passing directly overhead at one point, giving us excellent views despite the low, grey light. As I watched it with wide eyes I marveled at its strangeness – it flew with deep, flicking wing-beats with regular short glides and its path through the air was irregular and jerky, bouncing up and down and side to side almost like the moths it was hunting. Its proportions are strange too, with long thin wings that end in a rounded, blunt tip and a long square tail attached to a wedge-shaped body with a head that looks just a little too big.
Its strange, curious flight style, odd body shape, remarkably un-bird-like song and its dusk-time habits combine to make a bird that is utterly fascinating, jaw-dropping, exhilarating and even exotic. This is not a particularly rare bird, but because it is only here in the summer months, in specific habitats and only becomes view-able at certain times of day, I only really get one or two chances each year to see one. And every time I do I am floored by them; these are not boring birds, they never could be, and are the perfect antidote to any feelings of dissatisfaction with Britain’s share of the world’s wildlife.