The nightjar is a scarce bird that breeds on lowland heathland, in forest clearings and clear-fells. It is found throughout Britain, in southern Scotland, and in coppice woodland in south-east England. Nightjars were once much more numerous and widespread than today, but now appear to be recovering.
Extensive clear-fell harvesting in mature commercial forests planted after WWII has produced large areas of new habitat and, at the same time, conservation initiatives have restored much of the lowland heathland. Nevertheless, large parts of the former range of this bird remain unoccupied and the nightjar is still at risk from habitat change.
Nightjars are summer visitors to the UK, usually arriving between April and May. They usually raise two broods of one to two chicks in secluded patches of bare ground within low, often shrubby, vegetation, before migrating south in September or October. On lowland heathland, nests are usually located in small, naturally occurring gaps in deep heather in dry heath, with a scatter of plant debris, but not live grasses. This offers shelter and camouflage and seclusion from potential predators. Scattered trees are used to sing from and to roost in.
They are nocturnal birds and can be seen hawking for food at dusk and dawn, and through the night when they need to. They feed on moths and other large flying insects, which they catch mainly on the wing.
With pointed wings and a long tails their shape is similar to a kestrel or cuckoo. Their cryptic, grey-brown, mottled, streaked and barred plumage provides ideal camouflage in the daytime. They have an almost supernatural reputation with their silent flight and their mythical ability to steal milk from goats. The first indication that a nightjar is near is usually the male's churring song, which rises and falls and can seem to come from somewhere else.
There is increasing evidence to suggest that nightjars are vulnerable to disturbance, for example by dogs, which flush the adult from the nest allowing predators to take the eggs or chicks. Significantly, fewer chicks are raised to adulthood on sites with high levels of disturbance than on undisturbed sites.
The nightjar is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species, is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and is listed on Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive and Appendix II of the Bern Convention.
Listen to the Night Jar's call by clicking here : http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/n/nightjar/index.aspx