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The Nightjar: or Fern Owl

An Afternoon Walk - The Nightjar's Egg - Oxshott Woods - Nightingales and Mayflies.
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And pleasures flow so thick and fast
Upon his heart, that he at last
Must express his love's excess
With words of unmeant- bitterness. (Coleridge.)

They answer and provoke each other's song. (Coleridge.)

The scene to be recalled is that of a close and somewhat misty June evening, when a heavy thunder shower which is popularly supposed to have settled the weather, has as a matter of fact, unsettled it for weeks or months; when the sun, which rose in unclouded splendour, is sinking behind the heavily dripping fir trees, and is half obscured by the exhalations from a swampy heath and an overheated soil; when all the birds, who have remained mute and motionless while the thunder rolled among the hills and the rain flashed down like bayonets, have once more come forth from their hiding places, as though resolved to attend vespers together, and to testify to Nature their intention of praising their creator; when the man and the maid, who have taken sweet counsel together in a stroll through the woods instead of attending Whit-Sunday evening service, and who, like the rest of those that perish, have acted as troglodytes during the fury of the storm, sally forth from the shelter of a bank and hasten homewards in the gloaming, fearful of the lateness of the hour; when the new moon sails high in the heavens, and the soft west wind causes a miniature shower to fall from every pine and silver birch on to the knee deep bracken and drooping bluebells.

At such a time as this, and in such a locality, the wavering churr of the fern owl is bound to arrest attention, even if the bird is not itself seen sailing or flapping its wings over its back between us and the lowering sky. I had often seen nightjars, had listened to their humming on warm evenings, when the landrail responded with its unvarying call, which had 1 thought a complaining scrape in it, and noted the contrast between the querulous and discordant voice from the rich meadow, and the droning content uttered by the nightjar from the high elms on the other side of the road.

I had often tried, in the gathering dusk, to watch their wheeling forms as they played round me in their erratic hawking after insects. I had often had their eggs brought to me by country children. But never, until this WhitSunday evening, had 1 found one myself. The rain had given over, and the woods and common seemed literally alive with bird life, jays, cuckoos, and woodpeckers.

Only a few minutes before. I had heard, for the first time that year, the r-r-r-r-r of the nightjar, when, under a larger dump of larches than usual, I saw one fly round the trees. A few steps ahead another - evidently the hen bird, seemed to be wafted up from the ground, and. flew round uttering a low guttural note like ' ku-ep ' with each gyration. I at once guessed that something more than chance chained both birds to the spot.

One peep among the ferns was enough: there, upon the half dry fir spines, lay an egg. Had a cuckoo dropped it, it could not seemingly have been laid in a more unlikely place. Yet the nightjars intended the spot to be their house and home for some weeks to come. From a distance of ten or fifteen feet the appearance of the egg was pure white; so white indeed, that it would have attracted the attention of the most unobservant passer by. If the bad reputation which jays enjoy of egg suckers be true, it is wonderful that a bird like a nightjar, which lays on the ground in the open, and in the very places where jays abound, is able to hatch out its clutch.

Though the wild duck and the moor hen contrive to cover their nest when they leave it, the nightjar makes no such attempt. Yet the eggs of this bird have no protective mimicry to rely upon, as have those of the plover which are hard enough to see even a few yards away from the nest. As a matter of fact die nightjar's eggs are not white, hut are most artistically blotched with grey and amber. The one colour overlies the other so distinctly as to look as though the eggs had been coloured by hand, first with a brush of the grey paint, and then with a second brush containing the richer brown.

They are in form, no less than in colouring, quite unmistakable; and should not be confounded with those of any other British bird even if the situation of the nest - but there is no nest - were unknown. They are almost an exact oval, that is to say the thick and the thin ends are hard to detect. In shape and size, as well as in polish, they are like a woodpigeon's; so much so that a clever artist in days to come, when nightjar's eggs are as valuable as those of the great auk, might colour the pure white eggs of the woodpigeon so as to deceive many a buyer.

The nightjar's family, like the pigeons, consists of two; so that the single egg I saw had probably been laid that day. Had not I felt sure it could not escape detection, bring so very close to a footpath, I should have left it: but, knowing how all the boys of the village would be upon the prowl on the Whitmonday holiday, it would have been too mortifying to seek out the place the next day and find nothing. In all probability the birds made another home, as the female would be bound to lay her second egg, and I felt that by taking this one I should never have any excuse, or any desire, to do so again.

The bird is tar from uncommon, especially in the southern counties, and can be heard and seen as near to London as Wimbledon Common. The open heaths of Surrey, in any place whose name ends with 'shott, Aldershot, Bagshot, Oxshott, Eushott, nightjars are regular visitants, arriving long after many other migratory birds have eggs and young. In colouring the nightjar is sombre almost as sombre as a London sparrow, and in habits crepuscular arid nocturnal.

The mouth, for it has very little actual beak, is edged with bristles or vibrisae, thereby aiding it to catch the insects on which it feeds.

Although known in certain districts as the 'Fern owl,' and the ' nighthawk,' it is more akin to the. swifts and swallows both in food and flight. The term ' goatsucker ' or caprimalgus is a delusion void of all foundation like the mythical thunderbolt; and, as a matter of fact, the bird would be physically unable to attempt any such action.

An interesting feature to naturalists is the serrated claw of the nightjar, seeing that no actual use has ever been discovered for so curious a characteristic. One theory which is accepted by Bree, and other ' separate-creation ' naturalists, as a proven and patent fact, is that the pectinated claw is used for combing out the rictal bristles which surround the bird's mouth.

Bree goes so far as to twit evolutionists on this point, and asks them how they can possibly explain so beautiful an adaptation. "To imagine that this comb, on the claw of the long middle toe, is an accidental variation, would be the inference that such a variation could have been produced by successive steps through a long series of years." Darwinians will own, with something like a sigh, that there are many more difficult matters to account for by natural selection than this one.

Both Alfred Newton and Seebohm - the latter art evident evolutionist - are far more cautious; " whilst Naumann was of opinion that it was of service to the bird when perched lengthwise on the branches." With regard to the rictal bristles it must be remarked that in many genera of the Family they are absent, although the serrated claw is still present, which Bree may possibly have overlooked.

For myself, I venture to think that the filelike claw can assist the bird in holding, or possibly in scaling, its insect prey, upon somewhat the same principle that rowers have the handle of an oar roughed with a file to prevent its slipping from their grasp.

How many a common is there now where the beetle is allowed to continue his droning flight untouched by the nightjar or the kestrel; and where golf balls lie ensconced n places where the fern owl laid her eggs. The making of golf courses is one of those deruralising processes which have waged war against the birds, by rooting up the bracken fern, and making the rough places smooth and lawn-like. Within the past ten years thousands of acres have been thus treated; so that the man who strolls out in the calm of a June evening across the common, now listens in vain for the soothing chur-r-r which used to make him watch for the flap of those, mystic wings against the moonlit sky.

Following fast in the track of the golf links, come asphalte and lamp posts, with the laying out of the old tangled common into summer gardens with band stands, or into recreation grounds for the children - yes, for that, generation of children who will in ages to come possess automatic nightjars and mechanical nightingales, and who may be happier and longer lived for the changes in their environment.

Birds too, which are being displaced by the improvement to commons, are the whinchat, and the stonechat - both very familiar in one's daily walks about Esher and Wimbledon. The lapwing also, and the green woodpecker, are being driven further afield since the days when we used to bunt Arbrook Common and the Oxshott Woods for the eggs and nests respectively. Those woods still contain a surprising amount of bird life; abounding with jays, cuckoos, long tailed tits and woodpeckers all the early summer.

Among the less familiar birds, which I have either seen or found the nests of in this district - which is after all only seventeen miles from London - are the turtle-dove, kestrel, sparrow hawk, greater spotted woodpecker, red backed shrike, crossbill, golden crested wren, horned owl, nuthatch, and hawfinch. On many evenings, when taking a two hour walk, I used to make a list of the different species seer, from door to door; and found that it compared favourably in the matter of numbers with walks in far more distant places.

All the borders and approaches to these woods are haunted by nightingales, thus making a walk, after ten o'clock on a calm May evening, a pleasure to look forward to.

At intervals during the day, especially in the afternoon, the birds sing freely in the tangled sides of Woodstock Lane, between Long-Ditton and Claygate, their nests being only too readily found - I hope this is not adding to the knowledge of nest robbing boys - in the nettle-covered banks of the broad ditches skirting the road. Even until the young are hatched they will continue their song; although it is never so full or intense after the eggs are laid. An angler may take the nightingale's song as a prelude to mayfly fishing. He will recall listening to the nightingales answering one another, as he sat on a hatch stile in the moonlight on his way back to the cottage, and link it with the capture of a fine brace of trout, hardly stiff n his creel, taken on an alder or a Welshman's button.

Similarly, from an angling point of view, one may always regard the nightjar as a bird of good omen. On a fine open stretch of the Itchen, where a narrow peninsula faces due west, I car. associate many a splendid splashing in the shallows from a lusty trout on a spent-gnat or straddle bug, with the erratic hawking of a pair of nightjars; so close indeed round the rod that the probability of foul-hooking one could not have been very remote.

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Pictures for The Nightjar: or Fern Owl

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