Country diary: nightjars no longer chur among the rhododendrons

Beddgelert, Gwynedd: The birds seem to have deserted their old breeding ground by the river. I miss their strange song

A riverside path leads from the outskirts of Beddgelert to Llyn Dinas. I often walked this way years ago after days out on the Eifionydd hills, calling at a Beddgelert pub on the way back to my then home, a caravan near the end of the lake. What I remember best about those walks in dimity light by the swift green flow of Afon Glaslyn was the nightjars’ churring from Rhododendron ponticum thickets around Sygun Fawr. It both puzzled and pleased me, especially when – as often happened – in pursuit of its food along the riverbank one of these mistle-thrush-sized, exquisitely camouflaged birds brushed softly past, “more like a great grey mottled and marbled moth than a bird” , as WH Hudson put it.

The dense rhododendron slopes are atypical as habitat for the nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), but Thomas Hardy’s “dewfall-hawk” was there in some numbers, its resonant, penetrating call a sure sign this was a breeding colony. At the time nightjars were a red-list species. They are no longer so. Yet I’ve only once seen them by Sygun in recent years. They’ve gone too from slopes above the hill hamlet in Ariège where I spend some part of each year. In both places, I miss their presence and strange song, referred to by old writers as “reeling, spinning or whirring”.

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