UK's spookiest bird comes back from the (almost) dead

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The Independent Online

The nightjar, one of the most unusual and certainly the spookiest bird in Britain, is in the throes of a remarkable resurgence. Just over two decades ago, it was thought to be in terminal decline, but later this month the results of a national survey will reveal that numbers have doubled since 1981 to more than 4,000 males.

The nightjar, one of the most unusual and certainly the spookiest bird in Britain, is in the throes of a remarkable resurgence. Just over two decades ago, it was thought to be in terminal decline, but later this month the results of a national survey will reveal that numbers have doubled since 1981 to more than 4,000 males.

The resurrection of this bird of the night is one of the happiest conservation stories of recent times; which is odd, because for centuries the last thing the nightjar was associated with was anything pleasant. Flying and feeding at night, with a ghostly plumage, it was called the "corpse fowl" and sight of it was supposed to presage a death. It has a reptilian appearance that caused it to be called the "flying toad"; in some places it was thought to be the spirit of a baby that had died un-baptised; and in other parts its large mouth (4cm across at full gape) and nocturnal habits gave it the name "goat-sucker" because it was believed to do just that when no one was looking.

And then there was its weird, mechanical call, or churring. This rapid series of clicks most resembles a two-note radio signal being broadcast from outer space. Add to this the fact that the nightjar is never seen during the day, spending the hours of light hunkered down in the grass and bracken of its favoured heathland, and you have a bird as ethereal as any in Britain.

This camouflage made it difficult to spot, and, for many years, even those who knew its jerky, puppet-on-a-string flight as it hunted moths at dusk found fewer and fewer to record. Its heath habitat became bitten away, dense conifer plantations arose, and its decline, especially after the Second World War, was steep. But a striking comeback is now under way. The first signs were a 1992 survey showing 1,300 more males than in 1981. And last year's survey, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), English Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Forestry Commission, will reveal the bird is now 25 per cent more plentiful than it was 12 years ago.

The reasons, say the BTO, are that we are, by accident or design, restoring its habitats. Heathland is being conserved, restored and even expanded in places such as Sussex, Norfolk and Dorset; and, on Greenham Common, the churr of nightjars has replaced the drone of US nuclear bombers. But perhaps most crucially, the conifer plantations started many decades ago are now being harvested, creating the clearings that nightjars like so much. The great storms of 1987 and 1990, especially in places like Kent, also helped.

It is recovering in the Midlands on Cannock Chase, doing well in Wales and throughout the South, especially in the Suffolk Breckland, Dorset (up nearly 40 per cent on 1992), Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex, and in North Yorkshire its numbers have quadrupled since 1981. One place it thrives is Cropton Forest on the North York Moors, which was used as the Forbidden Forest in a Harry Potter film. Brian Walker, environment officer for the North York Moors district for the Forestry Commission, said the management of plantations has helped: "There is a super-abundance of ideal habitat here. Coniferous forest was often reviled but has now developed a wildlife value of its own."

He says that even close up the bird loses none of its mystique. Its gaping mouth is "at least as big as a circle formed by your first finger and thumb", there are the strange bristles on its mouth used to detect and catch its prey, and, when captured, "it hisses like a snake". There are no birds quite like it, and, happily, as the nightjars start arriving from Africa in the next few weeks, they are getting a welcome that they haven't had in many decades.

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