Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Night time manoeuvres

One of the joys of Summer nights is being able to take advantage of the long evenings. The only downside though of birding is that it means some of the birds don't come out till almost bedtime! Two of these are nightjar and woodcock, both birds which become active in the half-hour or so before dusk. We are lucky though in that both occur regularly, albeit in low numbers, on the Surrey heaths. So, with Judith off to a meal in town, I took advantage of a patch or reasonable, dry, warm if not sunny weather to do a visit to Chobham Heath.
This area of heath near Sunningdale is one of the hot spots for both species. I parked up in the Monument car park about 7.30, with cloud cover overhead but it was dry and reasonably warm. I was at least an hour too early but I took the opportunity to have a walk around. The photo below should give you an idea of the type of habitat.

There was a reasonable amount of activity on the heath. A cuckoo was calling and seen in flight. I picked up a pair of Dartford Warblers flitting around in the heather, and more calling as well. A tree pipit was showing and calling well from the top of a silver birch and chiffchaffs and willow warblers sung from the trees and bushes.
The main course wasn't served till about 8.50. It was by now pretty dim light, if not quite dark, and I picked up a shape flying just above the trees. At first it was a brief sight and could have been anything. Then it came back round and you could see the typical shape and flight of a woodcock. Round in body, wide wings, beak pointing down. It reminds me a bit of an airborne cuttlefish. It was also making a very sweet squeaking noise as it flew over. Not audible from a long way off but did give you warning of its approach. This is a typical behaviour called roding, whereby the male flies round his territory at dusk. It is very repetitive in the course and this one kept coming round about every 2 or 3 minutes. I saw at least two other birds as well, slightly farther off. You can listen to the flight calls here.
It had by now reached 9.15 and no sign of nightjars. I was getting bitten to death by mosquitos and I had to get back to pick Judith up. I gave it one last walk back up the main track to a wooden bench overlooking an open area of heath, very close to the picture above. Finally I picked up the churring noise of a calling bird (listen here) some way off on the heath. It was very dark, and I didn't have a good torch but I did pick up a bird flapping up off the heather and drifting over the hill. I need to go back one night next week when it's sunny and I can stay till after dark to get a bette view and try to get my own recording. Oh, and take some anti-mosquito spray!