May sees the start of the WNS summer programme with several evening nature walks. The first couple of meetings usually end just as it’s getting dark, always a magical time to be in the countryside, particularly in woodland. As the light fades there’s a last burst of birdsong – the blackbird’s fluting tones, the urgent succession of loud repeated calls from the song thrush, and the intense vibrant song of the wren which resounds so loudly you feel the tiny singer might burst with the effort This is followed by the going-to-bed noises as wood pigeons flap about in the trees over your head and perhaps a distant pheasant blunders up into the branches to find a safe roost. The day is over; the night shift is about to emerge.
Probably the first signal will be from the local tawny owls – a tremulous hooting followed by answering whoo-whoos or that sharp kewick which forms the other half of the tawny’s vocabulary. (On one evening excursion a member of our party carried on quite a long conversation with an owl, answering hoot with hoot as the puzzled bird drew closer.) As our walk ends we’re always alert for a very peculiar call – a series of snore-like croaks, followed by a high-pitched explosive whistle, rather like a discreet sneeze. This is the call of a male woodcock as he circles his territory just above the tree-tops on the lookout for receptive females.
Although not uncommon in our local woodland, the woodcock is usually a secretive bird and you are unlikely to see one during the day unless you almost tread on it, when it will shoot up and fly away fast and low, jinking between the trees. Rather the shape of a snipe though larger, it has a long straight bill for probing the leaf litter for food and delicately patterned plumage in a mixture of browns, buff and black, which perfectly camouflages it as it rests on the ground or sits on its nest. So, the dusk flypast, or roding as it is called, is the best chance to see it.
Later in the summer we shall be visiting a local heathland in the hope of hearing, and perhaps catching a glimpse of, yet another night bird. Nightjars used to be heard regularly in our area, but they disappeared and for many years birdwatchers had to go to North Yorkshire to see them. About three years ago we had the exciting news that a pair had bred locally and, since then, we’ve been able to see these acrobatic birds on our own patch. You need to be keen and determined though. Nightjars are summer visitors which breed in damp heathland, ideally in clearings in conifer woods where there are plenty of flying insects for food. Like the woodcock, they are extremely well camouflaged; they nest on the ground and rest there immobile during the day, virtually invisible. At dust they emerge to feed, hawking for insects between the small trees or perching on a branch and emitting the long churring calls from which they get their name. To a seasoned birdwatcher it’s worth the long rough walk and the ferocious midge bites to hear and see this magical bird.