Pennant-winged Nightjar

I already have an ‘on the trail of…’ page dedicated to nightjars and their allies, so it would have made sense to include this as an addendum to that page. The Pennant-winged Nightjar, however, deserves a page of its own. If the nightjars and their allies are the best birds in the world (and they are, obviously!) then the Pennant-winged Nightjar is the very best of them all. It’s a species I’ve long wanted to see for myself. I’d be lying if I said that this one nightjar species wasn’t a considerable factor in deciding the location for my next wildlife adventure. There’s already a general trip report of our time in South Africa but this particular species occupied my thoughts for so long while planning this trip and beforehand. While most people dream of seeing birds of paradise, a Harpy Eagle or a newly discovered hummingbird (and I wouldn’t turn any of those down!), the Pennant-winged Nightjar was the bird I wanted to see more than any other in the world.

We would spend three days at the northern end of Kruger National Park. It’s generally considered to be the ‘birdier’ end of the park, and while most of the predators and big mammals can be found there, they seem to be in smaller numbers than further south. The birding was excellent, though I must admit it was somewhat more difficult than I expected it to be. The most important thing was that this was the place where I thought we stood the greatest chance of seeing the Pennant-winged Nightjar.

Aerial view of location

Our trip was almost totally DIY. We hired a car that was just about up to the task and found all our own wildlife. However you’re not allowed to be out after dark without a government approved guide. Poaching, whether it be for Rhino horn, ivory or just meat, is still a big problem. We hired a guide and thankfully we had her all to ourselves and she was lovely. That was the good news. The bad news was that she had never in her life seen a Pennant-winged Nightjar but she had heard a vague story of a sighting in a previous year. She was new to this part of the Kruger. My heart sank at this news, but I tried to remain optimistic, asking her to take us to the site of that historic sighting. Rather than be our guide to the nightjar, she had become an enthusiastic and heavily armed driver.

After 30 minutes or so of driving along stony tracks we reached her location but things just didn’t feel right to me. We waited a short time but didn’t even hear the now familiar call of the Fiery-necked Nightjar. Our guide was keen to find some other wildlife but my heart was set on finding the Pennant-winged Nightjar having come this far and waited so long. I explained that I felt the best place to go was up a particular track which is off limits at all times of day. I assumed that someone in her position would be allowed to do this, and off we headed to that location.

The start of the track where it all started to go wrong!

Immediately upon turning in to the track the terrain became bumpier. Gravel and stone turned to rocks, and the vehicle was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, hanging on to camera gear, spotlights, etc whilst being thrown about and dodging giant flying insects attracted to the headlights. After some time we reached a fallen tree which blocked us from proceeding any further. The track was barely wide enough for the vehicle and was randomly lined with boulders and trees leaving nowhere to turn around and no way of going further ahead. The chance of seeing a Pennant-winged Nightjar was slipping quickly away, if indeed it hadn’t already dropped to zero long ago. The only remaining light was going to disappear in the next 5 minutes and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in the dark in an open truck with no way to go.

The only solution was to turn the truck around so I jumped out and set about trying to shift some rocks and boulders. Having spent more than a week driving around the Kruger and seeing lions, leopards, elephants, etc, I suddenly felt very vulnerable out on foot in the dark. Despite my having a careful scan for predators before jumping from the truck I still managed to spook a couple of Burchell’s Zebra that I hadn’t even noticed were nearby. This wasn’t turning out the way I’d hoped for for so long! After significant amounts of moving rocks and micro-movements of the truck back and forth we managed to get it facing in the direction we’d come from. Covered in red dust, I jumped back into the truck and after moving slightly back down the track I suggested we stop. In a moment of sheer optimism (and frankly not knowing what else to do next) I suggested we kill the engine, leave the headlights on and scan with the spotlights. I’ve spent enough time working with European Nightjar in England to know that a little light can often be all it takes to get their attention, but our powerful spotlights coupled with the headlights were probably taking the idea a bit far. Nevertheless…

To my total amazement within no more than three minutes of scanning the spotlight beams, I caught the unmistakeable silhouette of a Pennant-winged male. Apparently a long stream of expletives came from my mouth, almost as long as the streamers trailing behind this magical bird. It was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped it to be. It looked alien, ghostly, beautiful and a little sinister all at the same time as it soared closer to us. It circled the truck, wide at first, then tighter, and all the while we tried to keep up with the spotlights, and I tried to capture a photo. We were surrounded by trees and getting a clear view was near impossible. I was relying on manual focus with a heavy 600mm lens in a confined space, and a bird that was getting closer all the time in near total darkness. I fired off a shot as soon as I got the bird in the viewfinder – at least I had something to show for this sighting! It turned out to be out of focus, blurry, ruined by twigs and branches. In fact it doesn’t have one single redeeming quality, but I love it!

A bad photo by anyone’s standards, but it’s special to me!

The bird was visible most of the time but constantly partially obscured by branches. Within less than a minute of its arrival the bird passed through the one gap in all the branches that would potentially give me a chance. Somehow, more through luck than judgement, I managed to get a clear shot of it. The bird was reasonably lit by the flash and caught at a good moment, it was largely in focus and even the dark sky had provided some nice background colour. Again the photo won’t be winning any prizes but it is probably my favourite bird photograph I’ve ever taken, purely because of how special the subject matter is to me.

A photo of the back of my camera after the one opportunity for a clear flight shot

Two minutes later something happened that I hadn’t imagined at all. The bird was now right near the truck and decided to glide down on to the track just metres in front of us, illuminated by the trucks headlights. Some careful and painful contortion enabled me to hang out of the truck with the camera and lighting, clinging on with one leg wrapped around the truck’s frame, to get some frame-filling shots of the bird with its pennants trailed out behind it. Then it started to sing. When it eventually fluttered its wings to reveal that amazing shape again I was too ‘star-struck’ to take a photo. When it flew we headed straight back to camp. Nothing else mattered that evening, and a very special and unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience was achieved.

It transpired that our driver/guide did not have permission to drive along that track. On realising my enthusiasm for this bird she too had become keen to see for herself what the fuss was about and was keen to help try to make it happen. I’m particularly grateful to her for taking that risk with us, and would never have asked her to do so if she’d made it known in advance that she was acting outside of her authority. I’m very happy that she didn’t do that though!

A photo of the back of my camera after the bird landed in front of us

The following day we met her again. My original plan was to make sure that we didn’t have to rely on the one evening to get a sighting, so we’d already booked a driver for the second (and third) evening. Not wanting her to risk her job or everyone’s safety for a second night, I suggested we didn’t bother with the nightjar and instead looked for other things. She surprised me when she said that she realised that “it’s all about the Pennant-winged”, and that she’d been in touch with the authorities that afternoon and gained permission to drive that track, legitimately this time. She might not have known about Pennant-winged Nightjars or how/where to find them, but she was a star. How could I refuse…

In an almost exact replay of the previous night, we entered the track, reached the fallen tree, got stuck, I’d moved the boulders again and got the truck facing the right way again. On went our spotlights. Nothing happened. Ten minutes or so passed. Finally that shape appeared again. It was distant. It popped up above the horizon for no more than two seconds, behind us and way beyond the fallen tree. It was out of reach, it was brief, and yet it was perfect. That scene for those two seconds were everything I needed, and a moment I’ll never forget, just like the entire adventure that had occurred the night before. We left at that point, seeing no need to try to get better or longer views. The Pennant-winged experience was complete. It was certainly not how I’d planned it, not how I imagined it would be, and it was hard work but it was perfect and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

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