Country diary: A crepuscular date with a dancing silhouette

Thursley Common, Surrey: I’ve entered a shadowy half-world in the hope of hearing the strange churr and clap of a nightjar

It’s become an annual pilgrimage. An appointment with magic. This year’s venue is Thursley Common in Surrey. It’s off my usual urban patch, but when you want a nightjar encounter it’s no use roaming the streets of West Norwood. What these scarce summer migrants like is a heath or a woodland clearing, not a B&Q car park.

Nightjars have a special appeal. Partly it’s the allure of the crepuscular. Glimpses of a shadowy half-world, admission by invitation and secret password only.

The common, at 350 hectares, is large; nightjars, at 24 to 28 centimetres, are small. But I’ve done some research. There is a spot. We head for it and wait. A nervy stonechat punctures the silence of gathering dusk. A silvery ribbon of robin’s song floats above us. From afar, there’s the once ubiquitous two-note call of a cuckoo. The dumpy silhouette of a woodcock flies low and direct overhead with an odd mixture of squeaks and grunts, like a marsh frog arguing with a squeeze toy. Fragments of sound on the still evening air. All marvellous. But not nightjars.

Dusk hastens. Gloaming gloams. Still nothing. The first sound is so soft I think I’ve imagined it. Distant, fleeting, untraceable. I cup my ear with my hand just as it stops.

And then it starts for real. A compressed, ceaseless, mechanical reeling pouring out from the bird, the pitch dropping slightly as it turns its head. An otherworldly, mesmerising sound, coming from everywhere at once, ventriloquist-style.

The sound stops abruptly, and my eye is caught by a silent presence, moving fast. Attention switches from aural to visual. It flies over our heads, thrillingly close. A scrap of cloth performing a nimble, erratic ballet to which only it knows the moves. It jinks, turns, dips. I trace the movement, take in the slender, pointed wings, Tipp-Ex-like marks near the tips. It feels impossibly fragile, unknowable. It flirts with the horizon, dips down, merges with the land, flutters up. A wing clap, the soft crack of a whip resonating across the common. A flip, a final flutter, then down for good. Almost immediately, the churring begins again.

I’ve seen this before, many times. Each encounter is familiar but different. Not so much deja vu as nightjar vu. The briefest glimpse into an alien world.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Lev Parikian

The GuardianTramp

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