A master of camouflage, the nocturnal Nightjar is a graceful aerial hunter.
Nightjar perching in the forest trees
Nightjar laying motionless on a branch
Nightjar sleeping in its natural habitat
European Nightjar, Common Goatsucker, Eurasian Nightjar
24cm to 28cm
57cm to 64cm
51g to 101g
The Nightjar is a distinctive bird but rarely seen clearly in the light of day. Continue reading for more Nightjar appearance and identification tips.
Nightjars are Cuckoo-like birds with long wings and tails. They have very short legs, which creates the impression that perched birds are lying on their belly. Nightjars appear hawk-like in silhouette and fly slowly, with long periods of gliding interspersed with a few wingbeats.
Good light reveals the Nightjar's astonishing camouflage. These birds are marked in grey and brown, creating a bark-like texture. They have huge black eyes and a strange, short bill surrounded by hair-like bristles. Their most distinctive plumage features are barred primary and tail feathers and cream-white stripes on the chin and wing.
Nightjars are sexually dimorphic, and the most obvious differences are seen in flight. Male Nightjars have a white spot on either side of their tail tip and white spots towards the end of the wings. Female Nightjars lack these prominent markings. Juveniles are similar to females but paler than adults.
Nightjar perching on a branch
Nightjars are roughly the size of a Blackbird when perched, although they have an impressive wingspan when seen in flight.
Adult Nightjars measure 24.5 to 28 centimetres between the tail and bill.
Males are particularly variable in weight, with records between 51 and 101 grams. Females weigh 67 to 95 grams.
The Nightjar has a large wingspan of 57 to 64 centimetres.
Nightjar resting on the rocks
The Nightjar has an unusual and distinctive call. Their cryptic and nocturnal habits make them easier to hear than see.
The most commonly heard Nightjar vocalisation is an insect-like churring. This strange sound is the male's song and is usually heard in the early evening and before dawn. Both sexes produce a variety of frog-like contact calls and hiss when threatened.
Close-up of a Nightjar
Nightjars eat a variety of flying insects, including moths and beetles. They hunt their prey in flight, which is an impressive feat in low light.
Of course, these specialised birds are highly adapted for this hunting technique, with excellent eyesight and stiff rictal bristles surrounding their large mouth, increasing their chance of snatching their prey out of the air. Even so, these birds confine their hunting to dusk, dawn, and moonlit nights.
Baby Nightjars eat flying insects, caught and delivered by both parents.
Nightjar chicks roosting on the ground
The Nightjar’s Distribution is limited by its habitat preferences in the United Kingdom. Read this section to learn where to look for this remarkable bird.
In the UK, Nightjars inhabit moorland, heathland, and, increasingly, recently harvested pine forestry areas. They can also be found in open or dense woodland with clearings and glades.
The Eurasian Nightjar has an extensive distribution in Europe, Asia, and Africa. There are several subspecies, but only C. e. europaeus is a regular visitor to the UK. They have a patchy distribution in England, Wales, and southern Scotland.
Nightjars live in territories of about two to thirty hectares (5 - 80 acres). They spend most of their time perched motionless on the ground or a suitable perch and hunt in flight when conditions permit, slowly flying back and forth over open habitats in search of their insect prey.
Female Nightjar perching on a branch in natural habitat
Nightjars can be surprisingly common in suitable habitats. However, these habitats are limited, and their nocturnal habits make them difficult to see.
Nightjars are most common in the south of England. Look for them at dusk or dawn in open habitats like heathland, and listen for the long, churring call of the male. Nightjars are most often seen flying buoyantly while hunting. You may also see these birds perched prominently while singing.
The following locations hold Nightjars in the summer:
Nightjar sitting in the trees
Nightjars have a relatively long life expectancy, although ground nesting puts their young at increased predation risk. Continue reading to learn more about the threats and conservation status of these unusual nocturnal birds.
Nightjars have an average lifespan of approximately four years. The oldest known individual lived for twelve years and one month.
Nightjar eggs and chicks are especially vulnerable to hedgehogs, weasels, foxes and corvids like Magpies, Jays, and Crows. Adults may fall prey to Hen Harriers, Goshawks, and various other birds of prey in the United Kingdom.
Nightjars are protected in the UK by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.
Nightjars are assessed as a 'Least Concern' species at a global level and have an amber conservation status in the United Kingdom. The species declined by over 50% in the late 1900s but recovered well around the turn of the century to be removed from the red list.
Pair of young Nightjars
Nightjars nest on the ground in pine plantations and heathland. The site may be in the open, beneath, or between vegetation. They do not build a nest but simply lay their eggs directly on the soil or fallen leaf litter.
Nightjars lay two heavily camouflaged eggs, each measuring 32 millimetres long and 22 millimetres wide. The eggs are cream or greyish and covered in darker spots to resemble the ground around them.
Nightjars are usually socially monogamous in the breeding season, although they may switch partners for second broods. Some species are known to mate for life, but this is not necessarily the case in Eurasian Nightars.
Nest of a Nightjar with two eggs
Nightjar sitting on her nest
Nightjars may behave aggressively during the breeding season when males establish and defend territories. Vocalisations are usually an effective way of maintaining their invisible boundaries, but physical posturing and even fighting may sometimes occur.
Nightjars are nocturnal birds. They sleep during the day on the ground or in vegetation, often crouched horizontally on a level branch or dead wood. They are extremely difficult to spot when roosting, although they are often flushed and seen briefly as they fly away.
It is possible to see Nightjars during the day, but their incredible camouflage makes spotting them very difficult while they roost.
Nightjar during the night
Nightjars are summer visitors to the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, usually arriving in April and May. Most leave in Autumn (August to October) and make the long journey south to overwinter in East and Southern Africa.
Nightjars are a native species in the United Kingdom. However, they are breeding migrants and present only for the warmer spring and summer months.
Nightjar resting in natural habitat
The derivation of the word Nightjar is believed to stem from their nocturnal habits and sometimes jarring vocalisations. Birds from this family are also known as Goatsuckers and Nighthawks in other parts of the world.
Nightjars were long believed to drink goats' milk, leaving the unfortunate animal blind. The myth lives on in the Nightjar's generic name (Caprimulgus), which translates as 'goat' 'milk'. Of course, these birds do not really drink milk. The association probably arose when the birds were seen hunting in the vicinity of livestock, which may attract or disturb flying insects.
The Nightjar is not a bird of prey. They may be predators, but they lack the talons and hooked bill of a true raptor or bird of prey. Instead, Nightjars catch their prey directly in their large mouths.
Nightjars are not related to owls. They are part of the Caprimulgidae family, a group of birds containing over 90 species on every continent except Antarctica.
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