For me there are moments in the natural history calendar that really suggest a season or a moment. First leaf burst in February, first swift in May, first bee fly in spring, the first seep call of redwing at night in autumn. There are many. I can add to these the first churring nightjar, which is for me a sign summer has arrived.
Generally arriving in this area of the Quantocks Hills in mid May nightjar will set up territories and begin their dusk churring soon after. There are a number of regular sites to hear churring in the South West, but my favourite is on the Quantocks. Last year we spoke to a local chap who gave me information about a nightjar lek which is a bit of behaviour I've set my sights on witnessing this year if at all possible.
Last night however Mrs Wessex-Reiver and I headed to this site, mainly as a reconnaissance as although we'd read of hesitant churring taking place this week it is still early in the season.
We arrived around 8pm, over an hour before sunset at 9.15pm. Sitting in the car having a bite to eat I thought I'd heard a brief churring down in the valley. But I dismissed this given the sun was still high and shining brightly. We did hear a cuckoo call though, our third or fourth in the Quantocks of this Bank Holiday weekend. On Saturday we'd completed a 7 mile circular walk starting very early in the morning from Hodders Combe. Close to Bicknoller post on the ridge not only did we hear a cuckoo but saw a male flying past. They really do look like a bird of prey when in flight. Later above Holford Combe we heard a male again plus the bubbling call of a female before she flew between the holly trees up there. The walk also produced a dozen or more green hairstreak butterflies warming up in the sun.
Returning then to the Nightjars. This site we come to has a handy picnic bench so we settled down with a flask and listened to a tawny owl. It was now 8.45pm and we had the place to ourselves. Shortly after I heard another very brief churring, I must look up if nightjar churr earlier in the day when they first arrive as this was another churr well before dusk.
Eventually the sun set, an astonishing blood red tonight, and we moved off to a spot which proved very successful last year. It was successful tonight too.
The church bells in the village below sounded at 9.30pm. It was still reasonably light but moments after we could hear churring in the distance to our right. Not long after to our left a 'choowee' contact call, followed by a flap-clap sound then a male flew low out of the trees and right over our heads, which as it was still fairly light his white wing bars were very easy to see. He perched in a tree just behind us, and although out of sight, then proceeded with very loud churring for a good 5 minutes before another wing clap and silence. He'd moved off.
Churring began again in the distance so we walked towards it, realising there was another bird in a different direction. This confirmed at least two were present. One of these moved about the site quite a bit resulting in us ending up back where we had begun, once more listening to very loud churring by an unseen bird in a tree.
By 10.15pm the two birds were still churring but as it was getting dark at last we decided to walk back to the car. Once there, down in the valley below, we heard two more nightjar calling. This suggested at least four males in the area. Were there more?
That conversation from last year gave us information that between 10 and 20 males converge from their individual territories in the area and meet up to a high point nearby to lek. If this is true then it will be a sight and sound to behold. And going by tonight's encounter there is a good chance the number of nightjar here already will make this a good year. As a Sunday evening reconnaissance goes tonight's encounter was fabulous. June is next week when activity should peak. We will be back soon.