The call of the Nightjar

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On this still, windless night the forest is silent.  The trees watch, like inscrutable sentries.  Moths flutter past silently, gossamer scraps pale against the darkness.  Bats swoop soundlessly, dusky shadows whose voices are beyond our hearing.  It seems that the creatures that stalk the night woods are mostly unseen and unheard.  But the forest isn’t quite silent.  There is a whirring in the air, something that you wouldn’t really notice unless your attention is drawn to it.  Something that sounds alien and a little eerie.  It seems to be coming from the trees – all of the trees, as though the air itself is singing.  Listen, and you’ll hear it too…

This is the sound of the dreaded goatsucker, the corpse fowl.  It is said that this creature steals milk from the udders of goats.  That it sheathes the souls of unbaptized children, haunting eternity.  And kills calves by giving them puckeridge disease.  It flies only by night, resting on the ground in daylight, protected by its camouflage.  Each year, it makes the long journey from Africa to sojourn here, a nocturnal shadow to the day-time swallow.  It is a creature of myth and witchery, yet in reality it is only a bird: the enigmatic Nightjar.

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A European Nightjar flying. A lithograph of a painting by John Gerrard Keulemans. It is captioned with its old names.

The Nightjar’s reputation is beguiling but untrue.  It feeds on moths and insects and it is thought that its notoriety as a milk snatcher originates from its habit of nesting on the ground around livestock.  Puckeridge disease is caused, not by the Nightjar, but by an insect.  But the Nightjar is rarely seen, due to its nocturnal nature and don’t all creatures of the night deserve their own myths?

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On this night, we walk darkened paths, the pines looming in front of us darker still.  We have night vision telescopes, which illuminate the darkness in a square of sickly yellow light.  So much light soaking the eyes makes it difficult to see once you look away from the telescope and my vision is blurred by the end of the walk.  We can see in the dark, but we don’t see the Nightjar.  Despite all our technology, perhaps we aren’t meant to see what lurks in the night.

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John R. Neill: Peter and the Princess, Lighted by glow worms, the fairies were dancing, 1920 link

But there, in the hedgerow, is another kind of light.  Cold, green pinpricks, so bright they shouldn’t be natural.  As bright as fairy lights and indeed, these are the creatures that the fey carried as lanterns, so that they could dance through the night.  But the light of the glow worm isn’t meant for the fairies or for us.  It is the lure of the female, who will glow for just a week or two until she has attracted a mate and laid her eggs.  Once this is done, she will put out her light and die.

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Perhaps some things aren’t meant to be witnessed by human eyes.  We conjure myths from half-seen things and unexplained sounds in the darkness.  And this is part of the magic of the world.  That they exist, but we can know only a fraction of their mystery.  That we can create stories to comfort us in our lack of knowing.  I’m glad I heard the call of the Nightjar, but in a way, I’m happy I didn’t see it.  Instead, the mystery is intact, sailing on into the darkness.

75 thoughts on “The call of the Nightjar

  1. Like you, I think that some things have to remain mysterious, and even a little scary, so we can create myths and stories to reassure us and give a sense to the mystery of our natural world. Beautiful writing, as always, Andrea.

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    • Thanks Evelyne, it must have been quite a scary sound for those in the past that had no explanation for it – and the glow worms too – they don’t look like a natural light at all, so our ancestors must have been quite unnerved by them.

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  2. Wonderful post Andrea 🙂 I find it so interesting how some myths have travelled! for example I think the Nightjar myth must be truly ancient as I came across this myth in my travels through Portugal and Spain. Maybe the Romans spread that story?

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  3. I didn’t know any of that about the nightjar, that’s so fascinating. I absolutely love that John R Neill picture – it reminds me of stories from my childhood. Thanks Andrea for another mystical post!

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  4. Well you already know how much I love fairies and all things mysterious living in the woods Andrea, so I loved this post. I always had a fascination for the Nightjar, my dad used to tell stories of this secretive bird that very few had ever seen and as with his stories about the red fox, I had wild childhood imaginings about it and it’s apparent powers, so what you shared here intrigued me. I had forgotten what it sounded like too. Very eerie! How wonderful that you can go out at night like this, and to see glowworms too! Nice to know that the mystery is still intact, lovely post, thank you taking us through this mystical walk in the woods with you 🙂

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    • Yes, you did cross my mind when I wrote this one Sherri, as soon as I found out about the fairies using glow worms as lanterns! I love that your dad would tell you stories about Nightjars and foxes, they’re magical enough to me as an adult, but must have seemed even more magical as a child. I’ve heard that it can be quite easy to see a Nightjar if you’re in the right place at the right time – that they’re not all that phased by watchers, but that night they were content just to sing 🙂

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  5. I love the look of your site!

    This is a lovely post. I was unfamiliar with the story behind the nightjar. I agree with you about the beauty of mystery, and how stories evolve from not knowing everything about everything.

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  6. What a fascinating post. No doubt Nightjars are found near the cattle as they have a particular liking for the Puckeridge-disease-giving insects! I’ve seen glow worms and they’re always a good sign, as it means nobody has been spraying nasty pesticides anywhere in the vicinity.

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    • Yep, the theory is that maybe one was once seen plucking an insect from a goat’s udder and that could be where the story came from! I’m so glad I got to see a glow worm – would never have known what it was, the light was so surprising. I reported it to the UK glow worm survey who say it’s a new site (not necessarily that they haven’t been there before of course, it may just be that nobody has reported them before), so that’s good news.

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  7. Quite an eery birdie that goatsucker..never heard of the Nightjar before but from now on I’ll keep my ears open at night. I don’t know if it lives around this area but, boy sure the night is NOT so quiet at all over here as well. Crickets, bullfrogs, owls.. And oow yes, I love that last part you wrote Andrea about some things are not be witnessed by human eyes so as to keep the mystery in tact. Sometimes the need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

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    • The US version of a Nightjar is a whippoorwill, I believe, but it doesn’t sound anything like this European Nightjar! We did have some tawny owls calling as well that night, but otherwise silence – which of course just makes you wonder what’s happening silently in the darkness…I so agree with that last statement that the need for mystery is sometimes greater than the need for an answer 🙂

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  8. Something is not right about that Nightjar:) His name in Russian means The one who is milking goats:) And as I read in the comments, many nations suspect him in doing that:)

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  9. I love the multimedia approach to this post—the audio of the nightjar while I was reading added another layer of mystery and magic.

    Like you, I hope there will always be some mystery in the universe. Not of a kind that causes humans to lash out violently against what we don’t understand and fear. But of the kind that reminds us that there is so much more to the universe than our small planet and that we’re all part of a greater whole.

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  10. Lovely imagery. Especially loved how you ended with “We conjure myths from half-seen things and unexplained sounds in the darkness. And this is part of the magic of the world.” Nice job.

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  11. What a magical post…love it! Too bad for the girly glow worm though. It’s like a romantic tragedy.

    I, too, appreciate the mystery of the world and don’t feel like I need to see everything. Only a couple of years ago I saw fireflies for the first time. It was insanely awesome. I’m probably the only person who has never seen a shooting star. I’m always with people when they see one, yet by the time I look up, it’s long gone. In a way, I like that.

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    • Thanks Britt – it is a tragedy isn’t it! The thought of her sadly turning off her light before she dies…They don’t even have any mouthparts so in all their short life they don’t eat and whereas the males can fly, she has to stay grounded and wave her light for him to find her. I imagine fireflies must be amazing to see – I would love to see that. Perhaps you’ll see a shooting star just at the perfect time…the right star is waiting for you 🙂

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  12. Here in the US (Minnesota) our member of the nightjar (aka dreaded goatsucker) family is called “The Nighthawk”. I heard my first one of this year while walking before dawn this just morning! from wikipedia with notes added by me: “Its call is a short, harsh, buzzy [“Peent”] sound. The white bands on its underwings are easily seen [flashing in the dark sky] as it flies in the evening….. Also of note is nighthawks’ mating ritual. Males will gain considerable altitude, then perform a power dive; as they pull up from the dive, the wings make a sudden, low sound that is called “booming”.” [that is quite reminiscent of the sound of WWI vintage airplane going into a power dive!!!]

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    • Thanks for this Cnawan – and how wonderful that you heard one just this morning! I just had a listen on Youtube – it’s actually quite similar but in shorter bursts of sound – and looks very much like the European Nightjar. Ours also apparently make a ‘clapping’ sound with their wings, but I didn’t hear that.

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      • Oh if you link to someone else too – it would be so nice! When I was only a couple of weeks old blogger, a wonderful person noticed me and linked to my blog. Since then I always support my followers:) We are not writing to themselves, right?:) And some blogs are so inspiring I really want them to be heard.

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      • Yes, I agree – blogging has opened up a new world for me and that’s in large part because of the support of other bloggers, so I try to contribute to that community as much as I can – by taking part in blog hops and linking to bloggers I like. I’m also trying something new very soon, which is to have my first guest blogger on my blog! So I’m happy to link to someone else too 🙂

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  13. We have a bird here in the far north of Australia called a curlew. It makes a sound at night like a child screaming in the paddocks. I only recently saw one and now that scary mystical nightmare is broken! 😀

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    • I’ll bet that really is an eerie noise – we do have curlews in the UK, but I can’t say I’ve heard one – but if I ever hear a noise like a scream, I’ll comfort myself by thinking it’s just a curlew!

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  14. After I watched the video, several came up for me to choose from: Lindo at Large: Nightjars was a wonderful video (7 1/2 minutes) about catching them (one), tagging it, and checking it all out for general health.

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  15. I enjoyed this post, Andrea, very informative. I always love to hear learn new and interesting things about nature and wildlife, such as the Nightjar and the sound it makes. I wouldn’t have known those were the sounds from a bird. Also, I miss the fireflies. We don’t get them up here at our elevation and not typically seen in the west; however, my daughter has seen them here in Colorado. She has a small wetlands area near her.

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  16. Pingback: Shine Little Glow Worm | Plain Talk and Ordinary Wisdom

  17. A timely post for me as I heard my first ever nightjar on our holiday in Wales recently and meant to look into them more when I got back (I had heard their eery call in a music track, not so enigmatically called “Nightjar”, but had never heard one myself until then). Yet we heard ours during the day, along a canal bordered by farmers fields in Brecon so that was a little bizarre but no mistaking the sound. What a fascinating load of stories around it!

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