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An Observational Diary of the Habits of Nightjars, Selous 1899

 

AN OBSERVATIONAL DIARY OF THE HABITS
OF NIGHTJARS (CAPRIMULGUS EUROPÆUS),
MOSTLY OF A SITTING PAIR. NOTES TAKEN
AT TIME AND ON SPOT.

By Edmund Selous.

 

June 22nd, 1898.—Crawled up behind a small elder bush some three paces from where a Nightjar had laid her eggs. When nearly there the bird flew down, not on to nest, but close to it. Shortly afterwards the other bird flew down beside it, and immediately I heard a very low and subdued "churr," expressive of quiet contentment, I think, and very different from the ordinary loud note of the bird. After I had got up under cover of the bush the following occurred:—One of the birds came on to the eggs, and began to "churr" softly. The other bird then flew down and sat close beside it, also churring (I think, but cannot be certain if both churred together). The bird last arrived then flew away, leaving the other on the eggs. This one, after ten minutes or so, also flew away, uttering the "quaw-ee" note. In a little while one of the birds returned, and settled near the eggs. Its mate very shortly joined it; and I now heard another note, a low croon, quite distinct from the "churr" uttered by one or both of them. One bird then flew away, and the other came and sat on the eggs, and began to "churr" softly at first, then loudly, the ordinary churring note. In some ten or fifteen minutes' time it flew off. In a little while one of the birds returned, and was followed almost at once by the other. Both flew down near the eggs, and soon one settled itself on to them, the other flying away. I had now got my watch out, and this bird sat for fifty-five minutes silently (no "churr," no sound at all), at the end of which time its partner flew near by clapping its wings, and then sat on a bush close behind me (as I judged, for I could not turn), and "quaw-eed."[1] Upon this, as in answer to a summons, the sitting bird left the eggs, uttering the same note, and both flew away together. They were away for nearly twenty minutes, when one of them returned (this time flying right down on to the eggs in silence), and continued to sit silently for an hour or the best part of an hour (it being now too dark to see the time), during all which time I was digging out the sand behind the bush so as to have a better place to sit and watch in. I then went out and brought some branches to make more cover, but in placing these I startled the bird away. Having made a good shelter I left. I imagine that the bird which sat twice for a short time only and churred on the eggs whilst alone was the male, whilst the silent and long-sitting bird was the female.

June 23rd.—Found bird sitting at 3.15 p.m. The Nightjar seems almost as good an example of protective colouring as any insect. It harmonizes to absolute perfection with the sandy ground, dry sticks, and pieces of fir-tree bark, amongst which it so often lays its eggs. My shelter was at some three paces of the bird as it sat, and I could distinctly see the outline of the latter part of its body, and one wing with the tail. Yet, scrutinizing it with the utmost attention for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour at a time, it was only at twenty minutes past four that I finally became convinced it was the bird and not a piece of fir-bark at which I was looking; and this though I knew the eggs to be there, yet could not see them. Stayed till five, during all which time the bird sat in silence.

Returned at 6.10 p.m., and found bird (presumably the same one)[2] still sitting in the same position.

6.25.—A. bird in clump of fir-trees near churred slightly.

8.15.—First flying note of the Nightjar heard as well as the "churr."

8.40.—Sitting bird relieved by her mate. He settled down facing her, and then, as it were, snoozled up to her, churring softly. Whilst doing so he waggled his tail from side to side, as did the other one also in exactly the same way. I believe therefore that both birds churred together, though I could not be quite certain that I heard the two separate notes. The bird I had been watching then flew away with a "quaw-ee," the other one having insinuated itself into her place on the eggs, but with the head turned the other way (to where the tail of the other bird had been). In a minute or two only the first bird returned, when both immediately flew away together (at 8.40) quaw-eeing. I could then see the eggs plainly. They had not till then been uncovered, one bird having, as it were, squeezed itself on and the other off them. (My tame Doves used to act in the same way, the one snoozling itself up to the other, and thus taking its place.)

8.55.—One bird certainly (I think two) flew near, clapping their wings loudly and repeatedly. I took them to be the pair.

8.55.—Two birds (probably the pair) flying about near, clapping their wings and quaw-eeing.

9 (nearly).—Bird flew down direct on to eggs and sat on them (in the accustomed position) for a second on two only, then again flew off quaw-eeing.

9.5.—A bird settled down somewhere not very far from the eggs, and kept churring. Another bird flew by quaw-eeing.

9.25.—A bird flew silently down near the eggs, then rose, hovered a few seconds over the tops of the nettles, thistles, &c, and again went down near them. It then again rose, and hovered over the eggs with its wings aloft over its back (characteristic), and once more flew down a little way off. Finally, at 9.27 or 9.28, it rose and came down on to the eggs with a clattering noise, made no doubt with the wings. It took some time to settle itself comfortably on to the eggs (which it did in the accustomed position), and then sat silently, not churring.

9.35.—A bird (the mate, I make no doubt) flew quite near (settled once, I think), clapping its wings and "quaw-eeing." From the sound I thought it clapped its wings whilst settled on the ground, as well as whilst flying, but cannot be sure either of this or that it did settle. During this time, and till 9.45, when I went away, the sitting bird was quite silent.

June 24th.—At 8.10 p.m. found bird sitting, but in a different position, the head being turned the other way. It was a wet night, and came on to rain a little worse as I arrived. At 8.25 an Owl flew by (flying fast and high) in exactly the same direction, and about the same time (for I had not looked at my watch) as the night before.

8.28.—Churring commences.

8.33.—A Nightjar flew by, uttering a single note like "queek queek," not the more usual "quaw-ee."

8.42.—Sitting bird relieved. The arriving bird hovered for some time above its mate, waving its wings rapidly, but uttering no sound. Whilst it was acting thus the sitting bird churred quietly and contentedly, wagging its tail from side to side as before. The whole body waggles as well as the tail, but the tail is the most noticeable. In a second or two the hovering bird settled on the ground beside the other, which then flew off quaw-eeing. Its partner continued to sit where it was—not on the eggs, but close by them—for two or three seconds, when it also flew off.

8.49.—Two birds (probably the pair) flew by pursuing each other, one of them clapping its wings loudly and repeatedly. The birds being now gone, I went round the bush, and picked some of the nettles and grasses from about the eggs so as to have a better view of them from my shelter; then went back.

8.55.—Two birds flew near quaw-eeing and clapping their wings, and one settled not very far off—in a small fir tree, I think—and churred. After a little it rose, clapping its wings. At this time some other Nightjar, after churring, uttered a note like "chu-oo chu-oo chu-oo," quite different from the usual "quaw-ee" as the bird takes flight. Whether this note is uttered whilst the bird is still sitting, or only as it flies off, I do not yet know.[3]

No bird returned to the eggs for over an hour, and I grew more and more uneasy. At last, at 10 o'clock, one returned, and hovered for some time above them. Instead of settling on them, however, it made a dart off to one side, and came down on the ground a little way off. Shortly afterwards it flew away. At 10.30 the eggs were still uncovered, though one of the birds had again hovered in the neighbourhood, though not very near them. I now went away. The eggs had therefore been uncovered from 8.42 to 10.30 as a minimum.

June 25th (10.15 a.m.).—Found bird sitting in the accustomed position (head towards me, that is, and tail overlapping dried stalk). Could see it even better than before, owing to having removed what thin and scattered herbage had become interposed. It sat quite motionless, the large eye shut, but occasionally opening to a very limited extent so as to show a long black slit.

10.30.—The low sleepy "churr" of a Nightjar from neighbouring fir-clump. Left a little after 10.30.

At about 11 a.m. crept up behind a bush, near which sat another Nightjar with young birds (I had disturbed this family three or four days before, when the old bird spun along the ground as if hurt), From here I could see the bird sitting just as the other one did on her eggs with a young one on each side of her. This I did not remark till one of the young birds moved and then shuffled itself more under its mother's breast, causing her to sit with the head held higher. I then saw both this and the other young one for the first time. Just then (11.25) the old bird either saw me or suspected my presence, and went off the nest, spinning over the ground in various directions. She then flew to a small bush near by, and sat there, uttering a note like "chook chook chook." Shortly after she flew off and out of sight.

11.30.—Bird returned to a bush close to the one she had left, and again uttered the note "chook chook"; then sat silent.

11.55.—Bird left the bush and flew around evidently disquieted. At 12 I came out, but before leaving walked to where the young birds had been, and where I had seen them after the mother had flown away. To my surprise they were gone, and, though I looked carefully all about, I could not find them anywhere. The "chook chook chook" therefore of the mother may have been the danger signal.

12.30.—Came back to the first bird, and found it (assuming it was the same) still sitting, but in a changed position, the head being now turned the other way. This time I was entirely deceived by the bird's resemblance to an inanimate object (though the bird I had just left had not deceived me). Not catching the outline of the tip of the wings and tail across the dry stalk (to which I had become accustomed) my eye rested full upon it, and I thought I was looking at a piece of fir-bark, one of those amongst which it sat. I, in fact, looked for the eggs upon the bird, for I knew the exact spot where they should be. But as I should have seen them at once, owing to their light colour, I felt sure that they must be covered, and, gazing still more attentively, all at once, by an optical delusion as it seemed, rather than by the passing away of one, the piece of fir-bark became the bird. The broad flat head, from which the short beak hardly projects noticeably, presents no special outline for the eye to seize on, but is all in one line with the body. It looks just like the blunt rounded end of a stump or piece of fir-bark, whilst the dark brown lines and mottlings of the feathers not only blend with and fade into the surroundings, but have in themselves, at a little distance, a great resemblance to the flaked surface of the bark, the lighter feathers exactly mimicking those patches where some of the layers have been more newly flaked off. This would only be of special advantage to the bird when, as in the present instance, it had laid its eggs amidst pieces of fir-bark, and, did it invariably do so, a special protective resemblance might perhaps be admitted. This, however, is not the case. It lays them also under beeches or elsewhere where no fir-bark is to be found. Unless therefore it could be shown that a large majority of Nightjars lay their eggs in the neighbourhood of fir-trees, the theory of a special resemblance due to the action of natural selection must be given up, as I believe it ought to be in other apparent instances. No doubt when the objects adjacent are different the sitting bird may often appear to have a special resemblance to one or other of them; but as, owing to its habits, such objects would be mostly of the same general description, the bird's colouring may have been made generally protective in relation to its incubatory habits. The Nightjar lays on the ground, and one of the birds sits on the eggs without leaving them the entire day. Day, however, is night to the Nightjar, which not only sits on its eggs, but sleeps, or a least dozes, on them as well. It is therefore much exposed during this period, and would be liable to be taken unawares without some protection, and such protection it has by virtue of its plumage and its habit of sitting very close. Drowziness may in this case have meant security both to bird and eggs, for the most sleepy birds would, by keeping still, least endanger their young at all stages.

The two birds that I am watching have laid their eggs in the midst of pieces of fir-bark of various sizes lying on a sandy soil, from which spring nettles, thistles, &c, with alder bushes scattered about singly or in clumps.

Left at 1.30, the bird not having moved perceptibly.[4] During most of the time the eyes were closed.

June 25th.—Found bird sitting at 8.15 p.m. Position a little varied from the usual one. The eye shut, the bird seeming to be asleep or dozing.

8.21.—A bird churred sleepily, but soon ceased.

8.30.—The first prolonged churring. I shall refer[5] to the occasional modification of the "churr" when it becomes less instrumental, and more voice, as it were, enters into it (for the ordinary "churr" sounds more instrumental than vocal). I shall also allude to the "chu-oo chu-oo chu-oo" uttered just after the "churr." But besides these the "churr" (as heard by me at this moment) sometimes ends in a sort of jubilee of gurgly notes impossible to describe.

8.35.—First bird seen flying slowly and clapping its wings in a very leisurely manner. Upon the sound of a gun fired near the noisy "churr" sinks into a low bubbling note.

8.37.—The Owl flies high in the air in same direction as night before.

8.49.—Sitting bird relieved. Her mate came, I think, from neighbouring plantation, uttering the "quaw-ee" note, which she acknowledged with a soft churring. The newly-come bird then seated itself beside the other in exactly the same attitude (like a Swift on the ground) at a distance of about six inches, and both birds churred together,[6] wagging (it is the best word) their whole bodies, as well as their tails, from side to side, especially the one on the eggs. In a second or so this latter rose from the eggs, and flew away to the plantation from which the other had come. This one did not move on to the eggs, but continued to sit where it was, and in a few seconds (before I had finished making the note) flew off after the other.

A little before nine a bird passed near quaw-eeing. Another flew by a little after, also quaw-eeing, and clapping its wings in a rather peculiar manner. No doubt they were the pair. At a few minutes past nine one of the birds came back, hovered a little over the eggs, then darted to one side, and settled on the ground a little way from them. Soon it walked up to them (or rather waddled,[7] the legs being quite invisible); and now I witnessed a curious action. I must say that just previously, when both birds were away, I had left my shelter in order to pick another nettle or two, and thus give myself a still clearer view, and I had then noticed that the two eggs were rather wide apart. As the bird now got on to them (which it did by pushing itself along the ground), it must, I think, have moved them still farther from each other. At any rate, it became necessary, in the bird's opinion, to alter their position, and in order to do this it went into a very peculiar attitude. It, as it were, stood up on its breast, with its tail raised almost perpendicularly in the air, so that it looked somewhat like a peg-top placed peg upwards on the broad end, the legs being at no time visible. Thus poised, the bird pressed with the under part of its broad beak, or, as one may say, with its chin, first one egg and then the other against and under its breast,[8] and, so holding it, moved backwards and forwards over the ground, presenting a strange and unbirdlike appearance. The ground, however, was not even, and, despite the bird's efforts to get the eggs together, one of them (as I saw) rolled down a little declivity. At the bottom some good-sized pieces of fir-bark lay partly buried in the sand, and under one of these the egg became wedged. The bird was unable to get it out so as to bring it up the hill again to where the other egg lay, for the bark, by presenting an edge, prevented it from getting its chin against the further side of the wedged egg so as to press it against its breast as before, though making the most desperate efforts to do so. Wedging its head between the bark and the ground, the bird now stood still more perpendicularly upright on its breast (or rather, in this case, on its head) than it had done before, and in this position shoved and shouldered away most desperately. After each effort it would lie a little, as if exhausted, then waddle to the other egg, and settle itself upon it; but in a minute or two it would return to the one it had seemingly abandoned, and repeat its efforts to extricate it. I must have watched the bird make at least half a dozen of these attempts; but at last, after nearly half an hour, an idea occurred to it (or rather it altered its tactics then, as the idea may have come sooner). Again going to the properly placed egg, the bird, instead of covering it as before, began to move it to the other one in the way that I have described. "If the mountain will not go to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain." That was clearly the process of reasoning, and, seeing how set the bird's mind had been on one course of action, how it had toiled and struggled and returned to its efforts again and again, its sudden adoption of another plan shows, I think, both intelligence and versatility. It, in fact, acted just as an intelligent man would have acted. It tried to do the best thing till convinced it was impossible, and then did the second best. Still, we cannot any more, than in the case of the man, assume that the alternative course of action was not in the bird's mind from the beginning. Having got the two eggs together again, the bird appeared to me (for it was now too dark to observe accurately) to be trying to push the piece of bark away backwards with its wings, feet, and tail. It certainly propelled itself backwards against the edge, after the manner—observed by Jenner, and now, I believe, authenticated by photography—the young Cuckoo ejects its foster brothers and sisters from the nest. Finally, at 9.40, it flew away. I then went out to look, and saw that the bird had been successful in its efforts to a certain extent. The two eggs lay together, and though not quite on the same level, and though the piece of bark was still in the way of one of them, it might still, though not with ease, have sat on them both. However, had I left them as they were, I have no doubt that the birds would have worked away till matters were quite satisfactory. But having watched what had been taking place for a full half-hour at only three paces distance, and as, on the bird's return, it would have been too dark to see anything more, I thought I would assist them, and so smoothed down the declivity, and laid the eggs side by side on a flat surface. I must add that while the bird was thus struggling to extricate its egg it uttered from time to time a low querulous note.

At about ten one of the birds settled on a bush just in front of me, and sat there silently for some ten minutes, then flew and settled on the ground near eggs for a minute or two, and whilst there uttered a low guttural note. Finally, at 10.13, it came and settled itself quietly on to the eggs as I had placed them. This and my subsequent observations make me think that it was not the bird that had got into difficulties, but the other and more skilful one—the hen, no doubt—the cock bird being less perfect in the art of incubating.

June 26th.—Reached bush at 8.22 p.m., and found the bird sitting in the same position as night before. It seemed to be asleep, the eye being fast shut. The eggs appeared to have been moved slightly to one side, judging by where the bird sat.

8.34—Sitting bird relieved. Process exactly the same as on night before. The relieving bird came from neighbouring plantation quaw-eeing, and when near was answered by a gentle "churr" from the brooding bird. This latter's head was turned the other way, so that she could not have seen her mate as he flew up. Moreover, she opened her eyes for the first time at his "quaw-ee."

The new-come bird settled himself beside the brooding one as on previous night (same distance apart), and both of them churred, gently wagging their bodies from side to side. Then in a few seconds the relieved bird flew away (I think silently), and was followed a few seconds afterwards by the other one, which had not moved on to the eggs, or from where it had alighted. Upon going round the bush and looking at the eggs, I could not feel certain that they had been moved from where I placed them the previous night. The distance, I find, from where I sit to the eggs is just three paces.

8.53.—Bird flew near, and would have perched on the same little bush (just in front of me) as last night, but it saw me, I think, and, very little startled, settled on ground close by. Soon it flew up again, and came right down on to the eggs, settling itself in a different position to that at 8.22, the head being turned the other way. The eye, as far as I could see in the waning light, was again shut.

9.3.—The other bird flew up quaw-eeing as before, and, when near, the sitting one churred softly. He settled beside her silently whilst she continued to "churr," lifting up her tail and wagging it from side to side. I had not noticed the tail lifted so high before; it was raised considerably from the ground. In a few seconds the sitting bird flew off, and the other at once moved on to the eggs, but did not get on them properly, and began to pull them about with its beak (always the under part or chin), though not going into the curious attitude of the night before. The bird did not seem able to manage the eggs, and, after sitting hardly a minute on one only, flew off again, leaving them a couple of inches apart instead of side by side, as they had been left by the other.

9.22.—Bird settled on ground in neighbourhood of eggs, churred a little, and then flew away.

9.33.—Bird settled on ground near eggs, and in a second or two flew on to them, and got them together again, I think by stretching out a wing to one of them, and pulling it up to itself, but too dark now to see properly. At any rate, there was no clumsiness or uncouth attitude this time. This bird seemed master of the art of sitting; believe it to be the hen, and that it was the other (the cock bird) that got into difficulties with the eggs last night, and again this, though not to the same extent. If this be so, then the cock Nightjar is only a "'prentice han" at incubation. Had to leave now.

Note.—This same night (at 9.15) had several fine opportunities of watching pairs of birds chasing and playing about with each other high in the air (a beautiful sight), both of them clapping the wings above the back as an essential part of the performance. The clapping of the wings is as characteristic of this bird, as is the churring itself, and as much an expression of feeling between the male and female during the breeding season.[9] (I shall subsequently allude to this point under "General Observations.")

June 27th.—(Bad weather all day; rainy and cloudy evening.) Arrived at 8.15. Heard birds churring already. Bird sitting. Head turned towards stalk, eyes closed, and seemingly asleep. When sitting the tips of the wings cross each other over the tail, which projects an inch or so beyond them.

8.50.—At the loud bang of a gun not far off ("making night hideous") the bird just opened its eyes (the one next to me at least) to the smallest possible extent, hardly noticeable at all, and then shut them again. They had been closed until then, but for one little blink.

8.40.—The eyes still fast closed. A bird flew by quite near quaw-eeing, but the sitting bird took no notice. Again the bird (or another one) flew by, still closer, calling as before—no notice. But a little farther on he was answered by a soft "churr" from the ground, his mate, as I concluded, sitting on the eggs. He did not settle, but circled round several times, quaw-eeing and clapping his wings, the other bird answering with "churrs," and also a soft croodling note, very expressive of satisfaction. Note that my sitting bird paid no attention to the greeting of a bird, not her mate, which greeting was not addressed to her, though uttered quite close—in fact, just over her head.

8.55.—A bird flew near by quaw-eeing, and the sitting one answered with a very subdued and low "churr" (the lowest I have yet heard). The bird flew on without settling. The sitting bird had not opened its eyes properly till then. I seemed to recognize the note made by the flying bird, but wondered at the "churr" being so low and so quickly ended.

Query.—Was it a mistake on the sitting bird's part? It sounded like, "Was that——? No. I thought I recognized his voice."

Five or six birds now flew near about, seeming to chase and sport with each other. Some flew quite close, but to their cries the sitting bird made no response.

9.10.—Partner still not come. Sitting bird now became wakeful, moving her head round first one way and then another; then flew off so suddenly that I thought she must have caught sight of me through the screen. In all probability, however, this was not the case.

Walked about a little, and returned to screen at 9.30.

About 9.40 a bird came and sat on the same alder-stump as night before (some four feet high, and only a few feet from where I sat, with very little cover between—last night hardly any). It sat there about ten minutes, uttering during a good part of the time a low guttural note, perhaps something like "ho-oo ho-oo ho-oo," but impossible to write it. No doubt whatever as to this; heard it as plainly at that distance as if the bird had churred. At 9.50 bird flew from its stump round my bush and on to its eggs, which suddenly disappeared, but it was too dark to see the bird on them.

June 28th.—Arrived at 11.20 a.m., and found bird sitting, the head this time turned straight towards me, which had not been the case before. Evidently dozing. One eye, however, was a little more open than the other, showing just a black slit. A Blow-fly was walking over its head and beak, and the bird took no notice. Flies afterwards settled on it from time to time, and walked about over it. When they went over its eyes the bird blinked the one or the other of them, or just twitched without opening it. A large green fly flew right at one of her eyes, when, without opening it, she gave her head a jerk.

Three times, whilst sitting here, I observed the feathers just under the bird's throat to be quivering, whilst the beak was very slightly (as slightly as possible) open. I satisfied myself that this motion of the feathers was produced by the bird itself, and not by the wind, for it was only occasional, whereas the wind was continuous. They were often still during a sudden gust of wind, and, moreover, why should the wind have moved just those feathers and no others? I could hear no sound, though I believe there was one. The bird perhaps was dreaming and churring in its dreams.

Left at 1.10 p.m.

7.25 p.m.—(No rain during day and sunny, but now cloudy and almost raining.) Bird sitting in nearly same position as in the morning. Eyes shut.

8.25.—Sitting bird relieved. Its partner flew up quaw-eeing, and when near was answered with a slight "churr." It settled down a few inches off, and then both birds churred, wagging their tails from side to side in the usual manner. In a second or two the sitting bird flew off, silently at first, but when she had gone a little way gave a "quaw-ee." The other one sat where he was for a second or so (not going on to the eggs), and then flew after her.

9.28.—Bird began to "churr" on eggs,[10] and did so at short intervals in little bursts for a few minutes, as if it heard the voice of its mate, which I believe it did, though I could not.

9.50.—Other bird settled on elder-stump near, and kept uttering a peculiar single note like "quo quo," which was answered (but only occasionally) by a "churr" from the sitting bird.

9.53.—The bird on the stump flew near to the one sitting, which rose and joined it, and then both flew off quaw-eeing.

9.55.—Bird flew on to stump, and kept uttering low single note. In less than a minute it flew to eggs and sat on them. Was still sitting at 10.35, when I came away.

June 29th.—(Fine day, sunny.)

12.7 p.m.—Found bird sitting in same position as yesterday, head towards me, affording a very good front view. The bird kept constantly quivering the feathers of the throat. Just those particular feathers which make a sort of lappet dividing the throat and breast, were in a continual state of trembling, or vibration. The beak was very slightly open. I could catch no sound, except just once, for a single moment, the faintest possible "churr." There was a considerable wind, and the nettles all around the bird were swayed backwards and forwards (though the low plants were not to nearly the same extent). Yet no other feather of the bird's body was stirred, and I particularly noticed that one which projected a little from the side of the throat rather lower down was quite steady. Moreover, with the nettles still swaying in the wind, the tremulous motion I speak of would stop for a instant or two, and then recommence. During this time that eye of the bird which I could see was either shut or very slightly opened. Splendid view of the bird brooding to-day. The feathers of the breast are pressed outwards over the eggs, so that the bird seems sitting on a square pedestal of its own feathers. Could see one of the eggs projecting from under the feathers. Left at 12.44.

8.48 p.m.—Bird sitting. Position changed since morning. Wings and tail crossing dried stalk, as at first. Eyes closed. Other bird settled nine or ten paces from eggs on ground. Churred a little, and sat still. Sitting bird did not answer, seeming to be asleep. About nine the partner flew up and sat beside the sitting bird, who then just churred a little. The other did not "churr," and almost immediately flew away quaw-eeing. The other still sat on, and seemed to go to sleep again.

9.15.—The partner again settled on ground near and churred a little, the sitting bird taking no notice. The latter now moved, and two little white fluffy things (as at that distance and in the waning light they seemed to me to be) scrambled from beneath her. They were the chicks.

(To be continued.)

 

 

AN OBSERVATIONAL DIARY OF THE HABITS
OF NIGHTJARS (CAPRIMULGUS EUROPÆUS),
MOSTLY OF A SITTING PAIR. NOTES TAKEN
AT TIME AND ON SPOT.

By Edmund Selous.

(Concluded from p. 402.)

 

June 29th.—9.15. I suppose the eggs to have been hatched since 12.45 to-day, as I saw no sign of the young birds during the nearly three-quarters of an hour I was there, and saw at least one of the eggs projecting a little beyond the sitting bird's body. It might possibly, however, have been the empty shell projecting beyond the young bird as it lay under the mother's breast. Shortly afterwards one of the chicks made two or three quick little jumps upwards towards the parent bird's head, reaching its beak to hers. She bent down her head, and taking, as it appeared to me, the chick's bill in her own, she made two or three times that particular motion with the head so well known to those who have watched Doves or Pigeons feeding their young by regurgitation from the crop.[11] The chick then crept back under the mother bird's breast. Very shortly the other chick came out and jumped up to the mother's bill in the same way, and this took place two or three times. If it is not feeding by regurgitation which takes place, I am at a loss to account for the actions of both the parent and the young birds so strongly resembling those of Doves and Pigeons under similar circumstances. During all this time the parent bird kept uttering a low croodling sound expressive of pleasure and tenderness, and making one more distinctive note. Failure of light a great annoyance.

9.25.—Bird suddenly flew away, leaving the chicks.

9.30.—Bird (I believe the same one) settled on stump near young ones, and in a second or two flew down and covered them. The chicks then again jumped up to her, and again she appeared to me to feed them by regurgitation, this taking place two or three times. But again, and still more, I must regret the failing light. Whilst the bird sat quite near me on the stump, I noticed nothing in her bill, which, I believe, I should have done against the sky had she been holding anything not very small. On the first occasion the bird, of course, had nothing, and had (I make no doubt from my previous observations) been there all day.

9.40.—Bird relieved, and at once flew away; the partner covered the young birds. I do not think any more feeding took place, but it was now too dark to do more than guess.

9.45.—The first bird back, and took charge of the young, the other flying away. No further change up to 10.15, when I left.

June 30th.—(Cloudy, beginning to rain). Must have been about 5.30 a.m. when I got there, but had forgotten my watch. Bird brooding on its young. Another position, head turned away. Eye about a quarter open. Chicks quite covered. Bird shifted right round so as to face me. Young one struggled quite out, looking then, I thought, rather reddish and naked. The old bird kept shifting about, and slightly altering her position in consequence of the movements of the young ones under her. Cannot be sure now if both the eggs are hatched, or only one. At any rate, the eggs, whether both are empty or not, seem to be still under the bird. Both are hatched, I think (though one is much more en évidence). What I saw was a piece of the empty egg-shell. A piece of the shell of one egg at least—the bulk of it—seems to have been moved away some six inches, but cannot make sure of this for fear of disturbing the bird. It now coming on to rain, and having no waterproof, I had to go. It must have been 6 a.m. or a little later.

3.20 p.m.—Bird sitting, position changed. The greater part at least of the shell of each egg has been moved. The nearest lies some three or four inches from the bird, the farthest more than twice that distance. Eyes closed, opening very slightly at any noise of rustling, &c, which I could not avoid making. This time the wings cross each other over the tail, which projects about an inch beyond them; sometimes they lie (probably crossed) under the tail. Till about 4.30 bird sat quite motionless, with the chicks entirely hidden under it. Then one of the chicks began to grow restless, and several times crawled out beyond the parent bird's breast. It seemed to want food, and on one occasion in particular stretched itself up and touched its mother's beak (for I assume that the bird which sits all day on the eggs and young is the mother) with its own, as if seeking to be fed. But the mother, much to my disappointment, did not respond. The feathers of the old bird's throat were to-day more still; once only, whilst I was there, she twitched them, but not in quite the same way. The band or gorget of feathers just under the bird's throat is evidently very responsive to the slightest movement of the throatal muscles.

At 5 p.m. came away, disappointed in not having seen the chicks fed, which I thought might perhaps take place occasionally in the daytime.

8.5 p.m.—Returned and found bird in much the same position, but either it had moved a little back or pushed out another piece of shell, which now lay just beside it. Eyes closed. Chicks not visible.

8.40.—Chicks came out from under the mother's breast, jumped up to her beak, and were fed by her in the plainest manner—sparingly, however. The chicks were importunate, but the parent bird by no means bountiful, doubtless for good reasons of her own.

8.45.—Partner flew up, and the other one flew off silently whilst he was still in the air. He settled close by the chicks, and walked on to them. They immediately sprang up at his bill (as just before with the mother), and he fed one of them by regurgitation. This time the process was still more unmistakable than before, for, as the old bird fed the chick more thoroughly, his motions were more emphatic, and exactly like a Dove's.

8.50.—Bird flew off. In another two minutes a bird (probably the other, the hen) returned, and both chicks were fed by the regurgitatory process. The light, I am glad to say, was amply sufficient, and there could not be the smallest doubt. The chicks were thus fed several times—four or five times. A minute or two after feeding the chicks, and before flying away, the old bird opened, twice in succession, its enormous beak, or rather mouth. Quite a revelation; it looked as if it opened its head. The other bird had also done this, but neither of them before to-night whilst under my observation. They also moved their bills in much the same way as we do our lips after having swallowed something, and still having the taste of it in the mouth. The old birds could not have fed the chicks two or three times in succession, as they did, with anything they brought in their beaks; nor did I ever observe them to have anything in the beak, which I am sure I should have done had this been the case. Moreover, I observed the swelling and subsiding of the throat, suggesting the pumping of something through it.

9.5.—Bird flew off. In about a minute both birds flew up, and, I think, settled near on ground; then flew off again. The two birds now sported close by in the air, one of them uttering a note like "quick quick, quick quick"—a kind of loud modified twitter.

9.10.—Bird flew up and perched on same elder stump as night before, then almost at once flew to chicks and fed them as before. The light was now fast fading, but it seemed to me as if both the chicks had their beaks in the old bird's mouth at the same time, as with Doves. This, of course, may be a mistake, or it may have been due merely to the eagerness of the chicks. (This would explain the origin of the habit.)

9.25.—Bird rose suddenly, and flew away in silence. About a second afterwards bird flew down on to young, and churred slightly for a moment, then uttered the little croodling note of content. I could just see the lighter coloured bodies of the chicks in motion, and have no doubt they were being fed as before, but too dark to see it or anything.

9.35.—Bird perched on same elder stump, upon which the other bird left the chicks, this time quaw-eeing when it got a little way off. A second or two afterwards bird on stump flew down to young.

9.50.—No further change. I now left, it being too dark to observe anything beyond the coming and going of the birds.

July 1st.—(Raining, but had been fine day.) Came without watch. Must have been about 8.25 p.m. when I got there. Found bird sitting some six inches nearer to me than day before—the first time it has left its original position. Sat facing me. Eye closed or just blinking. Chicks quite covered. Wings of bird not crossed, but some inch and a half between the tips. Chicks came out from under old bird's breast, and jumped up importunately to be fed, but, she not complying, went back. A second time même jeu. And a third; and a fourth; and a fifth; and a sixth. This time the chick pulled at the mother's beak, but she refused to feed it. The other bird settled near, and the one with the chicks flew off. Chicks left uncovered for some minutes before bird came (cannot say which), and fed one of them by regurgitation in the plainest possible way. Could see the throat of the old bird swelling and subsiding. Afterwards it opened its mouth as on night before. Bird relieved and flew off before the other had taken its place. Feeding renewed. Always the same process, but am not quite clear whether the chick put its beak in the parent bird's or vice versâ. Bird flew away. Had stayed much less time than the other. After some five or six minutes one of the birds flew back, and settled on elder stump; then flew down to chicks, which were fed as before. Too dark now to see properly, and also had to go on account of rain.

July 2nd.—(Fine all day.) At 8.30 found bird sitting in the old place, with tail crossing the dried stalk. Eyes closed. Chicks quite covered.

8.35.—Bird, which, I think, was the partner, flew near quaw-eeing. The sitting bird took no notice—that is to say, she did not "churr."

8.37.—Young ones out to be fed, but old bird declined.

8.40.—Partner flew up and settled on ground near, where he churred softly. Sitting bird did not answer.

8.40.—Other bird flew up, and settled beside the one on chicks, who immediately flew off. The other, after churring slightly for a second or so, followed. One is much lighter coloured than the other; both are covered with down. When handled they opened their enormous mouths (which seemed as large in proportion to their size as in the old birds), and one jumped up at my finger from the ground as at the old bird's beak. Though dependent on the parents for food, the chicks seem almost as active and well able to get about as young Fowls or Pheasants; but, their food being in the air, and they being unable to fly, there is no inducement for them to run about.

8.50.—Bird settled on ground near by, and churred slightly; then almost immediately flew to chicks, but seemed unwilling to feed them.

8.53.—Bird relieved and flew off. Chick fed by the other four times, the parent bird making a low clucking or crooning noise during the feeding.

9.2.—Partner flew near, and bird left the chicks. Both birds now circled round about in the air, hawking as it seemed for insects, and often clapping their wings. They would sink gracefully down, and then rise up, somewhat perpendicularly,[12] with a curious fluttering action of the wings. I take this to be an antic, and nothing to do with securing prey. I notice now, or rather I now pay attention to, the fact that one of these pair of birds is lighter than the other in the colouring of its plumage. The lighter bird is the one that sits all day, and which I take to be the female.

9.8.—Lighter coloured bird back. Chicks fed once or twice.

9.12.—Bird flew off silently.

9.17.—Bird hovered above chicks, who uttered a note.

9.17.—Lighter bird back, and fed both chicks twice; other bird flew near.

9.20.—Bird left chicks.

9.20.—Darker bird flew down and fed chicks, I think twice.

9.28.—Bird flew off.

9.28.—Lighter bird settled on elder-stump near, and then flew to chicks and fed them. Too dark now to see properly.

9.32.—Bird flew off clapping its wings. It is the bill of the young bird which receives that of the parent during the process of feeding. To-night heard a bird making a peculiarly shrill "churr."

9.50.—Bird flew away.

9.55.—One of the birds back. Too dark, of course, to observe. Both the chicks were fed once at least by the arriving bird, and in a manner which suggested regurgitation and nothing else—jerking of the parent bird's head, muscular action of the throat, &c. Whatever they got was disgorged in some manner from the crop or gullet. It was not carried in the beak and dropped into their mouths. But to-night I could not feel so sure that the chicks were fed a second, third, or fourth time. If fed at all after the first time, it was in a very inferior degree. The bill of the old bird, indeed, was placed within that of the chick (or rather the chicks so placed it by grasping it with theirs), and jerks of the head were made by the parent bird, but with much less emphasis than the first time.

At 10.10 came away, leaving bird still with the chicks.

July 3rd.—(Fine all day.) Arrived at 8.30 p.m. Bird had moved again, and was sitting where I found her on July 1st. Note here that "Bird" at beginning of entry means throughout the lighter coloured bird that sits all day, and which I take to be the hen. Henceforth I shall call the dark bird the male, and the light one the female. This, however, is only assumption, however probable.

8.45.—Chicks came out and jumped up to be fed, but, as far as I could see, were refused. This twice. The third time they may have got something, but I do not think they did. Nor the fourth. During this, one of the little chicks ran with perfect ease some four or five inches from the old bird, and then returned. Afterwards the other did the same. Find it difficult to be quite sure if the parent bird gives the chicks anything before she flies away for the first time. One of the chicks running all about.[13] Again, they may have got something, but cannot be certain. Old bird gave a great gape with her enormous jaws—and just now again; quite a wonderful sight. This makes me think that the chicks did get something, as I have not seen the birds gape except in connection with the process of feeding, either at the time or afterwards, that is to say.

8.58.—Hen bird flew off, uttering a note which was not the "quaw-ee." An indefinite note, as of impatience. Chicks still; they do not move when left by the parent bird.

9.4.—Hen bird settles on stump close by. In a minute flies to chicks, and feeds them—both of them—more than once. Then a pause whilst the chicks are covered. It must be by some process of disgorging—regurgitation, that is. After pause chicks fed again, more gently, less violent motions; but feel sure they got something. Could make out nothing in the bird's bill. Chicks out again. May have got a little. They seize the parent's bill. Another chick fed. Feel sure he was fed, though gently. Feeding attended with little crooning noise on part of parent bird (not, of course, while she is actually regurgitating the food).

9.13.—Female bird flew off suddenly and in silence. Chicks quiet.

9.15.—Same bird back. Both chicks fed more than once. Regurgitation it must be.

9.18.—Chicks out again to be fed. Only gentle motions of beak on part of old bird.

9.19.—Old bird flies off. No cry. Chicks quiet.

9.24.—Bird (same one—I think, female) on elder-stump.

9.25.—Flew down and fed chicks as before, but not so much it seemed. As bird sat on stump (four paces off) I could see head and beak pretty plainly against the sky, and she seemed to have nothing in the beak. Chicks (I believe) fed again, making third time. Too dark to see well, but judge from movements of old bird's head and croodling noise. Believe chicks fed again. Much croodling. It does not seem likely that the bird would croodle if she merely refused to feed the chicks, and she croodles when she certainly does feed them. To go by the croodling the chicks were fed four or five times.

9.40.—Bird off, silently.

9.40.—Bird on stump. Almost immediately down to chicks, and fed them with much croodling. Croodling repeated twice, at intervals, up to 9.50, when bird flew off, and I left. The two birds were never together this night; I mean, of course, near nest. At least, I did not see them. I think it was the hen bird that was down the last time before I left, but could not see if it was. To-night, as I walked away, I heard two Nightjars uttering a new note—a sort of "jig jig jig jig jig jig" to each other—varied with the usual "quaw-ee" and "queek." One of these birds clapped its wings quite thirty times, for I did not begin to count till after the first bout, and then counted to twenty. There was a short pause between the two bursts of clapping, as a pause in music.

July 4th.—(Fine most of the day.) At 8.43 p.m. found bird covering young. Place changed; more than a pace nearer to me than originally. Eye quite shut.

8.50.—Chicks came out from under breast, jumped up and tugged vigorously at old bird's bill; but, as far as I could see, she refused to feed them. Also the croodling noise made by the chicks, not the old bird.

8.55.—Chicks again tried, both tugging together with all their might, at old bird's beak; but no good. Think the croodling is made by the chicks, but difficult to be quite sure.

8.57.—Tried again, but to no purpose; bothering the old bird very much—so much that at last she went away to the place she was in last night. The chicks ran after her and tried again, but gave it up, and then ran under her breast. The croodling sound seems too full for the chicks, and has too much expression in it. Yet it ceases after they get under the hen. This, however, is not decisive.

9.2.—Chicks tried again, and again, I thought, got nothing.

9.3.—Tried again importunately. No result. I think it is the old bird that makes the croodling.

9.5.—Old bird begins to turn her head and look about with eyes open; then gives tremendous gape.

9.10.—Another gape; and at 9.11 flies off. Ran out to clear away some nettles slightly obstructing view. Chicks lay quiet at first, then all at once scuttled away into surrounding herbage. I had not seen old bird about, or heard any note uttered.

9.18.—Same bird back, and settles in the empty place. One little chick runs out of grass from one side, and is fed twice with empressement. The other one comes afterwards from the other side farther off. The hen bird walks to it, and feeds it twice also. Process always the same. A minute afterwards one of the chicks tries for some more, but do not think he gets any.

9.23.—Both chicks try again. Doubtful if they get anything.

9.27.—Chicks out again, and it looks as if they are fed just a little.

9.28.—Bird flies off uttering a low and yet sharp sound—an unquiet sound. She circles around and about in the air, hawking, I imagine, for insects. Yet no cockchafers, moths, or other large insects are visible to my eyes where she is in the (to-night) cloudless sky. I believe she engulphs in her great cavernous jaws a vast quantity of minute insects, gnats, flies, &c, and that these are disgorged on her return down the chicks' throats.

9.33.—Same bird (hen) settles on elder-stump. Seems to have nothing in beak; nothing breaks its outline against the sky. Almost immediately she flies to chicks and feeds them, but not so fully as before.

9.42.—Chicks try again. Probably get nothing. Too dark now to see properly.

9.45.—Bird off. Circles about a little, and back at 9.48.

9.48.—Feeds chicks, but, so far as I can make out, very little. There is now a little piping note, no doubt from the chicks. The croodle is, I think, the old bird. It is, I feel sure, the same bird as before that has just fed the chicks, but cannot see that it is. Moon now rising.

9.52.—Leave, meaning to return when the moon, now full, is risen. Bird still with chicks. The sky, however, shortly clouded over, and I did not come back.

July 5th.—(Fine day.) 8.33 p.m. Found bird sitting in place where I left her last night. Eyes closed. Lighter coloured chick ran suddenly from mother to the egg-shells, some six or eight inches off, sat there a minute or two, then ran back, tugged at her bill, got nothing, and went under breast again.

8.41.—Chicks come out and try to get fed, tugging long and vigorously at the old bird's beak; but, as far I could see, she simply pulled back again, and they got nothing.

8.45.—Chick runs out from under old bird's tail, then round to her breast, and tries hard to get fed; but in vain.

8.46.—Bird flies off with the impatient or unquiet note. Came out and touched chicks with my finger. They sat quiet. Old bird has disappeared. Coming on to rain.

8.50.—Lighter bird flies up and settles on elder-stump; other bird flies after her, passes her, settles somewhere near, and "churrs." Bird on stump flies down almost directly to chicks, and feeds them as usual. She is careful, as it seems to me, to feed both, and not one only. The light-coloured chick is very greedy, but she dodged his importunate bill some half a dozen times and fed the other. During feeding the other bird flew by.

9 o'clock.—Lighter bird flies off. The two birds (as I think them to be) now together circle near about in the air. A bird settles somewhere close by on the ground, then rises and flies off with the "choo-oo-oo-oo" note, and clapping the wings repeatedly. Then settles (probably the same) somewhere near, and continues to "churr."

9.6.—The lighter bird circles round, making the most astonishing twists and zigzags in the air, and certainly seeming to pursue insects. I can see no insects, though I should certainly see anything like a cockchafer or fair-sized moth. Again she flies by, near, doing the same. My theory is that the bird engulphs numerous minute insects (much as a Whale does Infusoria), and disgorges them into the chick's mouth as a pulp.[14] Several times during this the male bird (as I take it to be) has sat near churring, then rising with "choo-oo-oo-oo," and clapping of wings.

9.15.—Hen bird flies up, uttering a note like "chug chug chug," and settles on stump. Has nothing in beak that I can see. If she had anything, perhaps she would be less likely to utter a note; but this must go for nothing, as I have observed that small birds (Redstarts) bring food in their bills, yet make a plaintive cry in neighbourhood of the nest. In a minute she flies down and feeds the chicks. One (the lighter one probably) is very greedy, and seems to get more than the other; but getting dark now. A bird (I think the partner) flies near quaw-eeing.

9.20.—Bird leaves chicks.

9.25.—Bird back on stump. Too dark now to see which one, though I believe it to be the hen. However, I get outline of beak against the sky, and it is not broken by anything projecting from it. In a minute bird flies down and feeds chicks in the usual way, her actions being almost exactly those of a Dove. Both chicks, I think, are fed, but too dark to be sure. It is the old bird, I feel sure, that makes the croodling noise. The chicks have a plaintive, piping note, and the two notes are often being made at the same time. The croodling is always made by the old bird when the chicks want to be fed, but she has nothing for them. Equally therefore when she feeds and does not feed them, so that my inference to the contrary was wrong.

9.35.—Croodling again, meaning that chicks are trying to be fed. The chicks begin now to hold up their wings, and wave or flap them more than at first.

9.40.—A bird (doubtless the partner) flies close by quaw-eeing, and the other bird flies from chicks. The partner then settles near and "churrs" softly for a moment, then flies to chicks, feeds them, and instantly flies away. I thought I recognized the dark bird's voice—the male's, as I take it to be. It is not likely that the hen, after flying off, would have returned almost instantly and fed the chicks again. Moreover, since the eggs have hatched out I have not heard her "churr."[15]

Left at 9.45. Both birds away.

July 6th.—Arrived at 8.40 p.m., and found chicks alone quite three feet nearer to me than the original place where the eggs were.

8.44.—Hen bird perched on elder-stump. Held nothing in beak. The light good. She opened and shut her beak once, and I saw the light between the mandibles. Wings, when thus perched, reached very nearly to end of tail; would do quite, I think, were they straight instead of the tips curved towards—sometimes crossing—each other.

8.47.—Bird flies to chicks and feeds them in the usual way. One at least certainly, but cannot feel sure about the other. It tugs at her beak, but whether her movements were not only to pull it away, as they certainly were at the end, I cannot say.

8.50.—Chicks out again, and the lighter and greedier one pulls long and vehemently at the hen's beak, but whether with success I cannot certainly say. Begin to think they must get something, after all—I mean after the first time they are fed by the old bird on each return.

8.54.—Other chick tries to get something, but old bird immediately flies away. The feeding went on in the original place—as night before—for the old bird walked away to it, and the chicks had to follow her. During above, a bird (I think the male) flew close by quaw-eeing. I notice that of the two chicks the light-coloured one is the most vigorous and greedy, which might suggest its being the male; but if so, the old bird, who sits all day and does most (if not now all) of the feeding, is probably the male too. This I can hardly think.

9.3.—Bird flies round with twists and evolutions in the air. Imagine it to be hawking for insects, but see none in the light clear air. I should certainly see insects of any size, even that of a bluebottle—I mean, of course, where the bird hawks—near me.

9.5.—Hen bird back on stump. In a moment flies to chicks. Feeds light one (who insists on it) first, then the darker one, both unmistakably (always in same way), and again flies away. Could see nothing again in bird's bill whilst she sat on stump. At a rustling which I make in my shelter, the light-coloured chick scurries away into nettles; the dark one sits still.

9.11.—Bird flies by hawking.

9.12.—Hen bird perches on stump. Can detect nothing held in bill.

9.13.—Bird on stump flies to chicks, and feeds the darker one well. The lighter chick comes running from nettles, and is fed much less, if at all. Bird then flies to stump, and for a moment I think I notice a swollen appearance of the beak, as if something was held or sticking within it. Then there are motions of bill and throat, as if the bird was swallowing something down, and, this done, she flies off. It looks as if she had retained something of what she had brought up into her mouth to feed the chicks. Thus the only time I have seen, or thought I have seen, anything in the parent bird's bill was not just before but just after she fed her young.

9.21.—Same bird back. No appearance of anything in beak.

9.22.—Bird flies to chicks and feeds them, I think more than once, but I cannot say for certain, nor if both chicks are fed or only one.

9.24.—Chicks try to get fed again, on which parent bird flies away with the impatient note. The chicks have now a well-defined piping cry, which they utter when the parent bird is with them; when alone they are silent. The croodling, I now know, is made by the old bird.

9.30.—Three birds fly by close together, one or more of them clapping their wings.

9.31.—Bird (I think the lighter one) back on stump. Nothing in beak, I think. Another bird, churring close by, rises and flies near (but cannot see it) with loud double claps of the wings.

9.35.—Bird on stump. Flies to chicks, and (as I think) either feeds them both or one of them twice.

9.33.—Bird churring on ground somewhere near, and rises choo-oo-oo-ing and clapping wings.

9.40.—Bird leaves chicks, and I come away.

July 7th.—Arrive at 2.40 a.m.—Cycling down, I put up a Nightjar sitting in the road. This bird kept flying in front of me all the way down the road (some two hundred or three hundred yards), and when I turned into the footpath amongst the trees leading to plantations still followed or rather headed, me nearly as far again. It seemed as if my appearance at such an hour piqued the bird's curiosity.

2.40.—Hen bird settles on elder-stump, and then keeps uttering a note like "tchug tchug," a low somewhat parrot-like sound. Soon the other bird flies to her as she sits on the stump, flutters about her without alighting, and flies off. In a minute or two again flies close by her.

2.50.—Bird flies twice quite near, clapping wings, and then twice again in as many minutes.

2.54.—Bird leaves stump.

3 o'clock.—Same bird back on stump. In a minute or two flies to chicks and feeds both well. She darted at them in a somewhat impetuous way, and fluttered over and about them several seconds before alighting with much whirring of wings. Both whilst thus fluttering, and afterwards whilst feeding the chicks, the male bird made a dash at her in the air, and then flew and settled a little way off. The instant the hen bird had fed the second chick she flew a few paces off amongst the nettles, where evidently the other had been waiting for her. I could see the two running about excitedly, pursuing each other as in courtship.[16] They soon, however, got out of sight amongst the nettles, so that I could not establish this farther.

3.10.—Churring of Nightjars all about. Quite light—almost broad daylight—though moon still bright.

3.15.—The two birds disport themselves in the air near, in narrower or wider circles, pursuing each other with animated cries ("quaw-ee" or "quee"), and clapping their wings loudly. The two chicks sit tightly pressed against each other.

3.22.—Turtle-Doves begin to call.

3.25.—Wood-Pigeons ditto.

3.30.—Broad daylight. Number of Bats flying about. Both birds away. Can hear one Nightjar churring, but not loudly.

3.40.—See no Bats now, but Swallows. May have mistaken the Swallows for Bats just before, the distance being considerable, but do not think so. Wood-Pigeons begin to fly about. The clapping of their wings above the back is now quite a marked feature, much more so than later in the day. Hear no more churring now. Turtle-Doves turring everywhere. Chicks still left alone.

3.45.—Chicks all at once begin to utter a note I have not heard before—"quirr quirr"—quite different to the piping note; more like a rudimentary "churr," but having no continuance. They seem excited about something, and begin to move from where they were. Soon I hear the old bird croodling, uttering various low sounds—call-notes evidently. Chicks get more and more excited, and run towards the sounds, running a little, then stopping, running again, and so on, always "quirr, quirring." They soon got right away from the nest. The old bird does not call continuously. There is an interval, and the chicks sit still. She again calls, and they run on. Same again. Old bird keeps calling them at intervals, and each time they get farther away from the old place, stopping between the calls. I walk after them. When I get to them—some seven or eight paces off—both the old birds start up from the ground. One (the lighter-coloured one) spins along the ground as though injured, with her wings extended (as a Partridge in same case), but when I walk away flies to the old elder-stump, where she sits clucking—perhaps to call the chicks back again. I then walk some distance off, keeping the bird in view, and sit down on tree-stump watching her. It must now be 4 o'clock or past (have left watch at bush). Thinking it better to let the bird get easy in her mind, I walk away altogether, and when I return to the bush (at 4.25) neither old birds nor chicks are to be seen. It would seem that the birds had divined my presence early in the morning, and called off their chicks to a safer spot. This, however, is merely conjecture. No action on the part of either of the old birds previous to the calling off of the chicks suggested that they were suspicious of my presence, and the more I think of it the less I believe that they were. Following the chicks was a great mistake. Leave at a little past 5 a.m., neither old birds nor chicks having come back.

July 12th.—(Fine.) 8.25 p.m. Found the birds again.[17] They were some fifty yards from the original place. Put up both the old birds. One (the hen, I have no doubt) first spun along the ground, then flew about much disturbed, then settled on ground some little way off, and kept up a loud continuous clucking. One chick had already run out of the way. The other—the darker one—lay there, apparently not at all disturbed. After a time hen bird rose from ground, and flew about in great state of excitement, coming quite near me as I sat on the ground, and hovering about; then darting off again, then sitting on thistle-tuft, then again on the ground, always making the distressed kind of clucking note, which at times became shriller, rising, as it were, to an agony. The other bird—the male—also flew about near, behaving in the same way, but not so violently—a little less moved. Sometimes he came quite near, and often clapped his wings. Also settled on elder-stump near.

8.45.—Took one of the young ones up, and put it down in the old place, then sat behind screen as before. The birds continued to fly about both near the place where I was and that from which I had taken the chick. Once the latter gave a loud harsh cry, which was not repeated. As one of the birds hovered for some time near the ground where I had put the chick, I think she must have seen it.

9.—Hen bird settled on the elder-stump near my shelter.

9.1.—Rose and flew off with impatient note, and in unquiet manner.

9.9.—Bird again on stump. In less than minute flies off suddenly and violently with short cry. Put chick back from where I had taken it with the other, which I found near. This one (the lighter one) was so much the larger of the two that I could hardly think they were of the same hatching. Yet it must have been so, for, having walked all about there before the time at which the Nightjar takes wing, I had disturbed no other grown birds than this one pair. They sit very close, however, so the possibility is not excluded.

 

Nightjars. (General Observations.)

June 11th and 18th, 1898.—Commence their churring about 8.30 p.m. Sit on the very extreme top of young fir trees in plantation. "Churr" for a very long time in succession (I believe sometimes for upwards of a quarter of an hour, but have not yet succeeded in timing a very long one, as it is never known at the beginning whether it will be long or short). Then rise into the air, giving very often several loud claps with the wings above the back, and uttering another note—"quaw-ee quaw-ee"—which I have not heard them make whilst sitting on tree.

I have heard—though only once, I think—a curious modification of the "churr" at its ending. It became less mechanical, less instrumental as it were, more voice entered into it, and it seemed to express joy. I did not see the bird at this time. It was possibly joined by its mate. Often when the bird has finished churring on the tree it settles, after a few circles, on the ground on which it crouches. Sometimes whilst here it will give a sort of hop into the air with wings extended, and then crouch down again. In a very short time it rises from the ground, and flies either to the same tree or another not far away, "churrs" again, and again settles on the ground either in exactly the same spot or close by. Last night (17th) I watched it do this four or five times in succession. Could not make out that this had anything to do with feeding, and think it probable the bird's mate is somewhere near on her eggs, though have looked all about for them without success. At this time (from 8.30 to 9.30 or 10 p.m.) they do not seem to be much occupied in catching insects—very different from Bats or Swallows. The short flights between "churr" and "churr" on the trees did not seem to be made for this purpose, though they may have been. I have never seen them settle on any part of these young firs except the extreme tip.

June 22nd.—(Fine.) A bird would be circling about in the open when another would dart from a clump of fir trees close by and pursue it. Instantly the first bird would clap its wings loudly and excitedly above its back a dozen, sixteen, or twenty-five times in succession. These numbers must be taken as the minimum in each case. Very probably there were more claps. It is difficult to count them all, and one is always behind. Again, a bird circling about over grass and low sparsely scattered bushes has stayed hovering in the air a few feet above the grass, clapping its wings loudly and continuously, then sunk like a shadow on to the ground. My impression is that its mate was crouched there. Again, one has sprung from the branch of a fir tree in a swift downward flight to the ground, with a continual clapping of the wings, poising a moment just above the earth with the wings raised high above the back (most graceful), and then sinking down. Immediately afterwards the bird would rise again, still clapping its wings, whilst in front of it, also from the ground, rose another, which it pursued.[18] They by no means always, however, clap the wings when taking flight after churring. Often they do so with absolute silence, as silently as an Owl. No words can give an idea of the extreme beauty of the flight of these birds. In their soft moods they seem to swoon on the air, and again they flout, coquette, and play all manner of tricks with it. Grace and jerkiness are qualities quite opposite to each other. The Nightjar, when "i' the vein," combines them with easy mastery, and to see this is almost to have a new sensation. It is as though Shakespeare's Ariel were to dance in a pantomime, yet still be Shakespeare's Ariel. As one watches such beings in the deepening gloom they seem not to be real but parts of the night's pageant only—dusky imaginings, shadows in the shapes of birds. What glorious powers of motion! One cannot see them without wishing to be one of them.

The following are the different notes which I have heard uttered by the Nightjar, and have been able more or less to catch. There are many others which I could not set down: —

1. The ordinary "churr" uttered whilst sitting, either lengthways along a branch, or perched on the extreme tip of a young fir tree, or on the ground,[19] &c. I have never heard the bird make it whilst flying.

2. The "choo-oo choo-oo choo-oo," or "choo-ey choo-ey choo-ey," at the end of the churring uttered as the bird takes flight, and generally (perhaps always) accompanied with clapping of the wings.

3. The jubilee of gurgling notes, impossible to describe; also at end of the "churr." Whether uttered sitting or on taking flight, or indifferently, I do not know. Not so often heard.

4. The "quir quir quir" at end of the "churr," as above.

5. The beatification, as it were, of the "churr" itself towards the end, the sound becoming more vocal and expressive, and losing the hard woodeny insect-like character which it usually has. I have only heard this peculiar modification once, but the bird was quite near, and it was very noticeable.

6. The "quaw-ee" note uttered at and during flight, often immediately after the churring as the bird takes flight.

7. The "queek-queek" or "quee quee," uttered as above.

8. The "chook chook chook," being, I think, the danger-signal to the young, to hide themselves; whilst sitting, and, I think, whilst flying also.

9. The low crooning note (one syllable) of content, which the two birds utter when together in neighbourhood of eggs (as heard by me), and probably whilst caressing.

10. The little querulous note uttered when the bird is in trouble or perplexity; also one-syllabled.

11. A low guttural note (I think of two syllables) which I heard the bird make whilst sitting on the ground in near neighbourhood of eggs.

12. A note like "jig jig jig," which I have heard whilst two or more birds were sporting together in the air.

13. A note very much resembling one made by Blackbirds, so that I at first mistook it for this, but cannot now remember the note itself so as to write it down. The resemblance, however, was remarked on to me independently[20] by a good ornithologist.

14. A low croodling sound, expressive of pleasure and tenderness. With chicks.

15. A low guttural note, something like "ho-oo ho-oo ho-oo," but impossible to write it.

16. Peculiar single note, like "quo quo."

17. The "quick quick—quick quick," like a sort of loud twitter, uttered whilst birds sport in the air together.

18. A note expressive of disquiet and impatience, short and of indefinite sound, often uttered at the point when the bird, unable to sit still longer, flies hurriedly off.

19. A low somewhat Parrot-like noise, like "tchug tchug tchug." I do not now remember why I thought it Parrot-like, but something in the sound must have caught my ear at the time.

 

FootnotesEdit

  1. As it flew off no doubt, for this note "quaw-ee quaw-ee" is, according to my observation, only made in the air.
  2. One bird—no doubt the hen—sits on the eggs all day, and does by far the greater part of the night-sitting also.
  3. Only as it flies off, I believe.
  4. Except blinking the eyes.
  5. In concluding "General Observations."
  6. "This churring note... is said to be confined to the male bird, and only uttered when it is perched" (cf. Seebohm, 'History of British Birds'). "The well-known vibrating 'churr' is believed to be uttered by the male only" (cf. Howard Saunders, 'Illustrated Manual of British Birds'). "As the season advances the song of the cock," &c. (cf. Prof. Newton in 'Ency. Brit.' (last edition), and also in 'Dictionary of Birds').
  7. This word, though I could think of no better one at the time, does not properly express the bird's motion. As will appear later on, the Nightjar is quite at home on the ground.
  8. In such a position the bristles fringing the gape would help to keep the egg secure, whilst the toothed claw would help the bird to get a grip on the ground in its strained attitude; but I do not estimate this as any special adaptation in relation to these odd and probably infrequent proceedings.
  9. At least in relation with the bird's nuptial activities. Compare aerial antics of Peewits in the spring. This most salient peculiarity of the Nightjar appears to have been most inadequately noticed. I have not met with an interesting remark in regard to it.
  10. I have omitted to note bird's return.
  11. I take this opportunity of stating from my own observation that the parent Dove (that foreign species, at least, usually kept in confinement here) regurgitates the food from her crop into the beaks of both her young ones placed within hers at the same time. Not always, however; they are frequently fed separately. Neither in Seebohm, Morris, Lydekker, Howard Saunders, Prof. Newton, or the British or Chambers's Encyclopædias, can I find anything as to the Nightjar's feeding of its young, it being evidently assumed that it does so in the usual manner.
  12. I mean straight up, whilst retaining the horizontal attitude as one might draw up a toy bird dangling from a string.
  13. "The young of this bird, when able to crawl about," &c. (Seebohm, 'A History of British Birds'). "The nestlings... have been known to display a precocious activity approaching to that of the young of gallinaceous," &c. (Howard Saunders, 'Manual of British Birds'). I do not suppose my chicks were two infant prodigies. [My own italics.]
  14. It is true that I never observed the bird flying with its mouth open, but neither did I ever observe it open its mouth during those astonishing twists and twirls (presumably after insects). The beak need not be widely opened for many minute insects to be swallowed whilst sailing through a strata of such, nor need it be continuously opened. The Nightjar, it must be remembered, flies and feeds by night, when it is both dark and people are in bed. Still, I find in Seebohm's 'History of British Birds' the following: "The bird has been said to hunt for its food with its large mouth wide open, but this is certainly an error." The first part of the sentence impresses me more than the last. Why has the bird its tremendous bristle-fringed gape? Other birds catch individual insects as cleverly without it.
  15. After the hatching of the eggs the hen bird never greeted the male with a soft "churr" as he came up, or, indeed, paid any attention to him. This is human!
  16. And pretty fast. This from memory twenty hours afterwards. "Its helplessness on the ground, where it can only walk with difficulty." Seebohm, 'A History of British Birds.'
  17. They had not returned to the old place, nor had I been able to find them during the interval.
  18. "In general its flight is silent, but at times, when disturbed from its repose, its wings may be heard to smite together" (Professor Newton, 'A Dictionary of Birds'). It is in joy, not in fear, that the wings are smitten, and when the bird is least troubled by man's "gaucheries." Disturbance may produce the sound, but is no key to its real nature. Its ordinary cause is social, and especially (as I believe) sexual pleasurable excitement, of which it is the true expression, though so implanted that most excitations will produce it.
  19. On or near eggs or young, according to my own observations. Whether otherwise I do not know.
  20. In conversation afterwards, and as a general fact. I was alone at the time.