A nightjar and a chick in their nest.
Nightjars on the rise
Once one of the UK's most threatened birds, the mysterious nightjar is delighting birdwatchers with its ever-growing numbers - and Devon is leading the revival.
The nightjar is fighting back - with Devon now one of its strongholds.
The efforts of an army of twilight bird surveyors has revealed that the mysterious nightjar, formerly one of the UK’s 40 most threatened birds, now has a population of at least 4,500 males, a welcome increase of over one third since 1992.
Of these, around a third, some 1,277 males are found in South West England, an increase of nearly a half since the last survey.
The nightjar survey, organised by the RSPB, BTO, English Nature and the Forestry Commission, involved up to 1,000 surveyors visiting heathland and forestry plantations across the UK at dusk and dawn to listen for the distinctive twilight ‘churring’ of singing male nightjars.
Up to the 1950s, the nightjar, a summer visitor to Britain, was more widespread, but the population and bird’s range declined considerably from the 1950s to the early 1980s.
A nightjar in the grass.
The dove-sized bird is most active at dusk and dawn over open country where they can be seen occasionally silhouetted against the last glimmers of light in western skies as they ‘hawk’ for flying insects.
In South West England, nightjar numbers more than doubled overall. Devon has 333 males, a rise of 45%, making it the home to over 8% of the nightjar population in the UK.
Cornwall and Dorset also have high numbers but the nightjar has almost disappeared from Wiltshire, where only three males remained.
The South West mirrored the rest of the country, cautious optimism twinned with some worrying areas where the numbers stayed small to non-existent.
“This survey involved a huge number of volunteers and many were delighted to find so many more nightjars than in 1992." said Greg Conway who co-ordinated the survey for the British Trust for Ornithology.
"However, while national numbers have increased, it is a concern that the species is declining in north-west Britain – particularly Scotland – and none were found in Northern Ireland.”
The nightjar - also known by the less-than-complimentary nickname "the goatsucker" for its fabled habit of stealing milk from livestock - is one of 26 species of bird to be covered by a Government Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). The BAP target of 4,000 males was broken, although the target to increase the bird’s range was not met. The nightjar is one of 40 species on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern.
The growth has been put down to an increase in the nightjar's natural habitat, heathland, a habitat that still stands as one of the rarest in the world.
“Active restoration and proper management of heathland has been one of the most important factors," said Simon Wotton, a conservation scientist with the RSPB.
"Initiatives such as Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage have played a crucial role in increasing the extent and quality of lowland heathland – a habitat rarer globally than rainforest.”
Now the nightjars are coming back the challenge is to keep them back and make sure the numbers continue to rise.
“The increase in nightjar numbers of heathland and forest Sites of Special Scientific Interest is welcome news," said Allan Drewitt, of English Nature.
"It's a great reward for all those who have put time and resources into improving their habitat. The next big challenge will be to increase their range in time for the next national survey in 2016.”
last updated: 27/02/2008 at 14:06