Nightjars & their allies

The concept of having a ‘favourite bird’ is a strange one, but if pushed, I would have to say that the Nightjar, or any number of its allies around the world, is mine. We only have the one species of Nightjar in Britain (European Nightjar) but I’ve been lucky enough to see various species of their allies in the order of caprimulgiformes and podargiformes, such as pauraques, nighthawks, and potoos. They’ve held my fascination for years.

A male Nightjar ‘churring’ from his perch

I’ve spent more time observing European Nightjar than any other species of bird. I’m lucky to live in a place (Forest of Dean) that has a good number of breeding nightjar every summer, despite it not being their prime heathland habitat. Here, they favour clearfell.

A radio-tagged male Nightjar

Along with a couple of friends, we’ve been audio recording, catching, ringing and radio-tagging nightjars as part of an ongoing research project.

A female Nightjar on the nest
A ringed Nightjar

In the 2016 season we started using radio tags for the first time. They are lightweight tags, attached to the tail feathers of the bird, and will eventually drop off. The battery lifespan is good enough for one season at best, and in order to locate/track a bird, it is necessary to be in the vicinity with a directional receiver. We quickly learned that telemetry is a skill in itself, especially in the Forest of Dean, where perception of distance and direction are both confused by dense vegetation, trees, valleys and hills, not to mention interference from power lines, radio towers, etc.

A fitted radio tag
A male Nightjar in flight

Footage from a trail-cam at a Nightjar nest.

My first Central American species were in Costa Rica. Around Arenal volcano I watched a number of Common Pauraques feeding. They did so only 20 metres or so from each other – a much denser number of birds than I was used to with the European Nightjar. Their strategy was much different too – the pauraques would sit on the ground, then rise a few feet up whenever an insect flew overhead. With a flashlight showing nothing but eyeshine, it took me a while to work out what I was even looking at, faced with a row of distant static lights that would occasionally leap up and down.

One trip to the Nicaraguan border was rewarded with no less than three species. First came the Lesser Nighthawk, perched motionless in the classic nightjar pose along the length of a branch. Next were a pair of Short-tailed Nighthawks similarly perched, but higher in the canopy, making identification particularly difficult (Nightjar may be my favourite birds, but they all look incredibly similar to each other!).

Lesser Nighthawk
Short-tailed Nighthawks

On a riverbank in gallery forest, still on the border, completely infested with midges, is where I saw a Common Potoo. Typical of the species, it had chosen a broken branch on which to roost, and had effectively become one with it, its crypic plumage morphing into bark.

In Sri Lankan leech-infested rainforest (Sinharaja) I saw a pair of Sri Lankan Frogmouths. I’d love to have enough time and money to track down all the species of nightjar and their allies around the world, as they always seem to exist in such amazing places. Sinharaja was another such place, even if it wasn’t the most comfortable of environments.

Trying to photograph Sri Lankan Frogmouth in dense rainforest

In South Africa I saw European Nightjar, Fiery-necked Nightjar, and Square-tailed Nightjar, but the big one was the Pennant-winged Nightjar. Nightjars are my favourite birds, but this particular species is, for me, the best of them all, and one that I had wanted to see for myself for a long time. Read all about that adventure here.

The most up-to-date list of species of nightjars & allies that I’ve seen so far:
European Nightjar
Common Pauraque
Lesser Nighthawk
Short-tailed Nighthawk
Common Potoo
Sri Lankan Frogmouth
Fiery-necked Nightjar
Pennant-winged Nightjar
Square-tailed Nightjar

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