Country: Nature Notes

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the most mysterious sounds of hot summer evenings out on open heathland or in young plantations is the song of nightjars: an almost mechanical whirring which continues for maybe a minute at a time, rising and falling in intensity as the bird turns its head from side to side. On the wing, hawking for insects in the dusk, males give out a quite different call - a high squeak, sometimes accompanied by a clap of wings, designed to keep rivals away.

The magic of the nightjar lies in its crepuscular habits: it performs only as day is dying or breaking. Perhaps it was this, along with its slightly sinister appearance - flat head and widely gaping beak - that earned it the name Caprimulgus, the goat-sucker, and gave rise to the legend that at night it steals milk from the teats of goats and sheep.

In Britain nightjars are only summer visitors. They come here to breed, and any time now will set off southwards to winter in Africa. The indications are that they have done well this season - and certainly over the past few years their numbers have increased spectacularly, partly as a result of the 1987 hurricane, partly due to sympathetic forest management, both of which have created large openings in southern woodland.

DUFF HART-DAVIS

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