Nightjars

Drinking cider in the afternoon with N. in the Swan, I overhear some visiting birders talking about nightjars: apparently they’re breeding on Buxton Heath and you can see them at dusk. N. offers to drive me and S. there straight away in his battered van. S. is keen, so we pick her up on the way. Wandering down the heath we see some people with binoculars who whisper to us that they’ve spotted some. We hear the distinctive, earthy croaking from branches where the birds sit in their perfect treebark disguises. Some of them will already be lying on their ground nests, almost invisible.

We stand still and silent for a few minutes in the blue light. I start to roll a cigarette but one of the birders waves his finger and says it’s too dry. Then someone points at the sky and we catch a couple displaying in surprisingly elegant flight, the male flashing the white stripes on his long wings. ‘I didn’t think they flew so well’, I tell S. ‘Well, they’ve come from Africa’, she says, ‘so they must fly pretty well’. I had no idea. The birder who spotted them is excited. ‘In twenty years of twitching I’ve never seen a display like that’, he says. His companion shushes him. We wait around for a while, then head back up the sandy path to the carpark. On the way a herd of black horses trot silently past us. It’s a strange dreamlike moment. Some of them stop and nudge us with their muzzles. We stand still with our hands behind our backs until they move on.

As we drive back to the Swan dark clouds move over us but it’s still hot. When we’ve sat down with our drinks there’s a sudden chill and a long roll of thunder. Rain! It falls violently. The pressure’s lifted from the air, people come alive and start chatting and laughing. A young couple go outside and stand with their eyes closed, getting drenched.

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