I am alone in a forest clearing at dusk. It is quite plausible to think there is no one else around for a mile in either direction; it could even be that the blinking lights of the slowly groaning planes streaking over head are the closest thing I have to human company at this point.
But there are signs of a presence here. Across the clearing in front of me are the stubby shoulder-height tufts of coppiced sweet chestnut trees and, in the corner, a pile of machinery waits quietly next to the coppiced trees latest incarnation – a neat stack of sharpened fence posts. This is a working forest like many used to be. It partly explains why I’m here now.
From my vantage point in the middle of the large clearing I can see the line of trees, living and already fence-like, encircling me. Or rather I can pick them out against the sky - a ghostly shade of blue and dimming quickly. There is no wind to distort the scene and so a dusk chorus, that overlooked lament, resounds with the same fervour of a dawn. A bold, shrieking song thrush nearby is the undisputed winner and has its song echoed by another some distance away. Robin and Blackbird chime in too. High overhead, unseen, a party of swallows chatter by like late-night revellers. Otherwise the only sound I can discern is the occasional patter of moths as they flick against my jacket. I don’t know why they’re doing that.
And then in the half light, I spot some movement to my left. Silently, a smallish, long-winged shape glides from one of those chestnut stools and descends effortlessly to the ground, out of sight (and out of sheer chance) only 20 metres away. Though a fleeting glimpse, there is enough light to make out some subtler features of the bird, chiefly its mottled colouring and distinct shape.
Then it starts, a sort of gurgling sound, like a small engine ticking over. For a second I can’t work out if it is a sound carrying from miles away, but then I realise I am very close and this is akin to listening to a warm up behind closed doors. After several minutes there is a further flurry of movement – there are two birds – but I can only follow the path of one as it glides off towards the trees on the far side.
Over the next 20 minutes the sound continues, at first like a door creaking open, then an unearthly hum. It moves around invisibly in the near-darkness and reveals two males sparring from different sides of the vast clearing. I can see the silhouette of one perched in a tree some distance away. Then, I have a strange feeling that something has brushed past me or that there is something near me, I’m largely helpless to determine what, until I glance up and stare straight at the outline of a Nightjar hovering just feet from my face. It is an incredible moment and I sort of gulp with equal parts surprise and delight. There is a moment as it moves and whatever pale light is left flicks across, illuminating it - and I think it’s something I won’t forget for a long time.
Read about this fascinating bird here