From Africa to Irlam – nightjars return to Greater Manchester’s peatlands

Nightjar - David Tipling/2020VISION

Evidence suggests that the elusive nightjar has returned to, and possibly bred on one of Manchester’s peatlands for the first time in 20 years.
Male nightjar alighting on a branch at dusk with its wings outstretched

Male nightjar - David Tipling/2020VISION

Back in the 1950s when peat was still being cut by hand from the peatlands of Chat Moss in Greater Manchester, these rare birds would spend their days merrily ignoring the workers as they nested on the ground only a couple of metres away from them.

However, continued destruction of their habitat and landscape fragmentation caused breeding nightjars to become a thing of the past. Until this summer…

At first one of our intrepid birders wasn’t sure if they were hearing some form of malfunctioning machinery ringing out across the moss. But the distinctive churring sound of the nightjar quickly identified it.

Listen to the call of the nightjar below.

That said, actually spotting a nightjar is not easy. Usually they are identified by their call rather than visual sightings.

Our nightjar was first heard back in May and we were able to record their presence for around four weeks. It may have just been passing through, but the length of its stay could be taken to suggest the possible breeding of nightjars on the peatlands of Greater Manchester for the first time in 20 years.

There have been records of nightjars visiting the Chat Moss area over the past few years, but they have only stayed for a day or two before moving on. The last confirmed breeding pair in the area was in the year 2000.

Lowland heath area bordering one of Greater Manchester peatlands

Areas of lowland heath border some of Greater Manchester's peatlands

The return of the nightjar has been attributed to the extensive landscape restoration works that have been undertaken across the Chat Moss peatlands, especially on the lowland heath areas that border many of these sites. Work such as that funded by Viridor Credits to restore these UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats are vital as the UK has lost approximately 84 per cent of its lowland heaths since 1800.

Chat Moss birding legend, Dave Steel, was lucky enough to hear the nightjars call several times during its stay, and said:

“The decades of hope that they would return, was on this evening of fading light, realised. Nightjars were back on our mosslands, churring their breeding season song over a landscape that Lancashire Wildlife Trust has painstakingly and lovingly restored back to a habitat fit for so much wildlife. And when the nightjar approves, you know all the effort has begun to pay off.”

Nightjars are so-called because they are crepuscular, meaning that they fly at dusk and dawn, catching moths, insects and beetles in their unusually wide bills. They are most easily spotted at dusk when the males can be seen displaying to females, flying around them, wing-clapping and making their distinctive 'churring' calls.

Nightjar brooding chicks, well camouflaged against the ground

Nightjar adult brooding chicks (bill of chick just visible poking out of breast) - David Tipling/2020VISION

During the day nightjars tend to stay on the ground, protecting their eggs which they lay directly onto to ground rather than building a nest. They are incredibly well camouflaged with grey-brown mottled plumage that resembles the bark of a tree. A similar shape and size to a kestrel, the nightjar has a distinctive pointed tail, a flat head and large dark eyes.

Nightjars are migratory birds, arriving in the UK from Africa in April or May to breed, before returning around September.

Male nightjar flying at night, displaying the white markings on its wings and tail

Male nightjar - David Tipling/2020VISION

Throughout history nightjars have had some peculiar folklore associated with them, possibly one of the strangest being their moniker of ‘goatsuckers’. This comes from their Latin name, Caprimulgiformes, which roughly translates as ‘goat-milker’. It is thought that this name arose as nightjars would often be seen in close proximity to livestock. We now know that this is due to the large numbers of insects that would congregate around herds of animals. However, in the past it was thought that nightjars would drink milk from the goats udders, causing them to stop producing milk!

We are so happy that nightjars could once again be a regular visitor to our peatlands and are looking forward to welcoming them back next year!

Close-up of the carniverous plant, round-leaved sundew, with a fly stuck to it

Round-leaved sundew by Mark Hamblin/2020VISION