Churring at dusk

This evening, after dinner, we both headed out for a dusk walk at Kelling Heath in the hopes of hearing, and maybe seeing, a nightjar. These unusual nocturnal birds are summer visitors to areas of heath in various parts of the UK and we used to see them regularly when we lived near Thetford. I was pretty sure that they do frequent Kelling but I wasn’t absolutely certain.

We arrived with about an hour of daylight left and Brenda got down to identifying some of the specialist heathland plants. However we both immediately heard a very recognisable bird call – a turtle dove. Although I had seen two recently at Snettisham this was the first of the year for Brenda and we spent some time following the sound of this bird but didn’t manage to see it at all!

On this walk we definitely heard more than we saw – chiffchaff, yellowhammer, wren, robin, blackbird and more were all giving an excellent evening chorus. About 15 or 20 minutes after sunset we were walking round what seemed a likely area for nightjar but hearing nothing: These birds have an amazing “churring” call which is quite unmistakable! We were almost back to the car when suddenly there it was – a single nightjar calling. It stopped after a minute or so and although we both headed toward the sound it was quiet for several minutes. And then suddenly it started again and we were able to follow the sound to within a few metres of some trees. The bird was obviously somewhere in one of them, but even though there was still some light we couldn’t see it.

Then the “churring” stopped and the bird flew, giving its distinctive wing-clap as it took flight…..and we saw it, just briefly, as it flew off. I think it’s going to be worth another visit with a flask of coffee and the thermal camera in the not too distant future!

The completely distinctive sound of a nightjar, calling this evening on Kelling Heath

Brenda writes: “Today we had one new moth, a flame shoulder – which is, thankfully, instantly recognisable. It gets its name from the white flash along the edge of its wing which starts at the ‘shoulder’, if a moth can be said to have a shoulder.

flame shoulder

On the way to  Kelling Heath I saw my first bladder campion of the year on the roadside verge, and at Kelling there were some heathland speciality flowers to identify whilst a turtle dove led us a merry dance (we never did see it). But what a wonderful call, bringing back memories of the turtle dove that I used to hear in Brington when I was gardening.

Sheep’s sorrel is a tiny plant with arrow-shaped leaves and its stalks and flowers quickly turn red forming a carpet of colour on the heath.

A carpet of sheep’s sorrel

There were two other tiny plants, blue and pink, which were from the milkwort family. It was only when I was checking them in the guides at home that I realised the key identification feature was whether the leaves were alternate or opposite: The photo I took of the pink one clearly showed it with alternate leaves on the stem and therefore common milkwort. Sadly I couldn’t see the leaves clearly in my photo of the other plant – if they are opposite leaved then it is heath milkwort, but if they’re alternate it would be the blue form of common milkwort! So that will have to be checked the next time we visit Kelling. There’s always something new to learn.

Last time we were at Kelling I saw a sprawly plant which i put down as hairy tare, but was a bit puzzled at it flowering so early. I saw definite hairy tare a couple of days ago and so was keen to look again at the Kelling plants. What I hadn’t noticed is that the leaves were not right for a tare, so this particular plant will have to be a ‘don’t know’ for now.

So as dusk fell I’m thinking, “Why am I walking through a heath in the freezing cold* with this madman**”…and then we heard a nightjar. That’s why!”

New species for May 17th:
Birds: nightjar
Moths: flame shoulder
Flowers: bladder campion, sheep’s sorrel, common milkwort

* Definite exaggeration – it was nowhere near freezing!
** Me, mad? Some mistake surely!