Of all birds, the nightjars are perhaps the least noticed. Being both nocturnal and cryptically plumaged, few people are probably even aware of their existence. Two or three times the size of a swallow or a swift, they take over from these small aerial feeders after sunset, scooping up moths and other winged insects as they sail above marshes and pastures, through woodlands and orchards, with mouths agape.
Since moving to the southern Cape from the South African Lowveld, I have been surprised on more than a few occasions by the birds that I have encountered around Hermanus: Malachite Kingfishers hunting in the stinging cold waters along the coast, Southern Tchagras hopping along our garden wall, and Speckled Pigeons feeding on grape seeds in the local vineyards. But hearing the lyrical lullaby of the Fiery-necked Nightjar as savage waves crash against stubborn seaside rocks and the salty scent of kelp drifts across the Strandveld, is not something I was expecting. This is a bird that I associate with savanna, its bushveld ballad being backed-up by tree-frogs, fruit-bats and hyenas.
Of the seven species that occur in southern Africa, only the Fiery-necked has a call that would capture the attention of anyone other than a knowledgeable naturalist – but what a joyful song it is! As clear and as memorable as a Christmas carol, it was long ago verbalised as “Good Lord, deliver us!” by some spiritual soul, and this hard-to-fault description has been used in every field-guide and bird reference book since then.
There is pale cradle moon hanging above the mountain and the sky is filled with a trillion stars as I step out into the chilly night. The nightjar is so close that its song bursts through the air like a mini explosion. Quite what these nightjars are feeding on here, I have yet to discover – based on the paucity of moths around our outdoor lights, they must have a somewhat different diet to their bushveld relatives.
Vermont, Hermanus, August 2015