The history of the Nightjar in Gloucestershire reflects the national one; early records tell us that it was once widespread, that the species has endured a long decline throughout the twentieth century and has then had a modest recovery. Nationally, although overall numbers have recovered somewhat, its range is much contracted and this too is reflected in the county.
The Birds of Gloucestershire, published in 2013, is the most comprehensive account of the county’s birds. As well as species accounts, it includes an overview of bird records in the county, covering the emergence of systematic recording. A few one-off publications in the 19th century covered birds, but the forerunner of the current Gloucestershire Bird Report first appeared in 1925, as Gloucestershire Bird Notes. Eventually by 1963 an annual report covering the entire county was being published, by the predecessor organisation of Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society.
The Nightjar records that follow here have been gathered from those early publications, the bird reports, Frank Adams & John Sanders account in 40 Years On published by the Dursley Bird Watching Society, Swaine’s Birds of Gloucestershire (1982), results from the last national Nightjar survey and our own work.
‘Flora and Fauna of Gloucestershire’,1892
Nightjars noted at Speech House, and in 1881 at Cranham. They are ‘frequently met with in Summer at Highnam, Painswick and Robinswood Hills, Witcombe etc.
‘I took a pair of eggs off bare stone in the disused quarry at Painswick Hill, July 6th 1886’.
One was shot at Cirencester 1889, the circumstances not recorded. The status described as ‘generally distributed but not common.’
Historically, nightjar was both more widespread and abundant. Nicholls (1858) says ‘Fern Owls are very numerous’, and Mellersh (1902) reported that the species was present in ‘great profusion’ in the Forest. In the same period the bird also bred at Highnam and Michael Wood, and was widespread on the Cotswolds, including Cleeve Common where Nightjars were known to breed up to 1919.
Mellersh and Swaine
Mellersh, writing in 1902, described this as the situation on the edge of Cotswold woods: ‘when one is listening for (the Grasshopper Warbler) probably another reel may be heard. It sounds like a large wooden one with the spring loose and an occasional hard jar in the middle. The curious noise is the production of the Nightjar, the ‘Fern owl’ or ‘Fern Hawk’, a frequent summer visitor to most Cotswold Woods. The ‘song’ such as it is may continue for a minute and as it perches perhaps the bird will glide silently of its perch, weirdly flying past one in the gloom as it chases a beetle’. He mentions ‘Goat Owl’ as a local Gloucestershire name and identifies ‘Whip Poor Will’ as a rarely used name in the Cotswolds.
Swaine notes Tidenham Chase as the largest area of remaining heath in the Forest, with Nightjars as ‘typical’ birds. He says the Cotswold edge, when cleared and replanted provides habitat for ‘Tree Pipits, Grasshopper Warblers, and now (very rarely) Nightjars are early arrivals.’ Status at that time was a ‘regular but very local summer resident more widespread and much more plentiful at the close of the last century than now. The Forest of Dean has long been the main stronghold, providing a sequence of habitats, some always suitable for Nightjars. Decline appears to have been gradual with an acceleration from the 1940’s’.
‘Years ago, Nightjars nested along the Cotswold escarpment in the young plantations, for example at Cranham, and in the vale at Michaelwood – now they are confined to the Forest of Dean, where they survive in very small numbers. Why they are so scarce here is rather a mystery, as they get some protection from the RSPB and Forestry Commission, and there would seem to be plenty of suitable habitat in the clear felled areas and the young plantations. In neighbouring Gwent, for instance, they are far more numerous in apparently similar habitats. Studies have shown that Nightjars need two broods a year to maintain numbers, so the recent late cold springs may have shortened the breeding seasons so that they cannot complete two nesting cycles. I have never known them to nest on the Cotswolds, but years ago they were often seen in marsh sites such as Maisemore and Ashleworth.’
Adams & Sanders
‘Although the Corncrake has now disappeared from our locality there are records of the bird in our area in the 1950s. Another regular visitor that hung on longer is the Nightjar, and the Society studied these regular summer visitors to Michaelwood from 1957-61. Unfortunately their then favourite nesting location is now the fast lane of the northbound M5.’
From Cheltenham & District Naturalist Society Journal
1949 Young found at Cranham, 27 June
1950 Nest with young at Cranham
1951 ‘Although no evidence of breeding, 3 birds heard at the locality where breeding was proved in 1949, on the evening of 17 July
1952 Pair on 26 May seen at locality where breeding was proved in 1950
1954 One heard at Bull’s Cross. One near Highnam April & May. Male in young conifers at Parkend July 30th
1955 One present on the Maidenhall Estate at Highnam, between 26 April and 2 May. Not seen or heard since, possibly due to burning of undergrowth, thought the actual clump of bushes used not affected. Hornsleaslow (Bourton) seen twice in headlights. Seen in Birdlip and Cranham area and probably bred in Cooper’s Hill area.
1959 ‘Female found dead, evidently killed by a cat, in the main road near Rendcomb on 28 May and was given to me by Mr S D Lane.’
1956 Two nests at Cockshoot FoD
1957 ‘A considerable area of the FoD round Parkend yielded 24 churring birds
1958 ‘Two heard at Bourton Downs’
1959 ‘Present through Summer not far from Chedworth, reported to be there in previous years’. Female found dead at Rendcomb 28 May. Heard near Snowshill, where heard in ‘58 FoD and Tidenham as usual.
1960 ‘Two probably three pairs near Chedworth again, clearly breeding’
1961 ‘Bred again at Chedworth’ ‘Several near Hornsleasow’
1962 ‘Two probably three pairs bred at Chedworth again’
From Gloucester Bird Report
The Seventies was a lean decade for records, at least, with none, one or two records in several years. But two surveys in the Forest in 1973/79 both showed 10 pairs.
1982 Survey found 20
1984 ‘2 by radio masts Cleeve Common, 26 April and May 5. 18 located in FoD
1985 At least 18, possibly 20 at 15 possibly 17 sites.
1986 18 Again
1987 11 ‘sharp decrease from 17 in 1986’
1989 ‘Juvenile male spent day roosting in Riverley Rd, Gloucester, September 19
1991 Highnam and Stow
1992 Survey found 12. FoD, Highnam and ‘near Stow’
1993 ‘Near Wotton’: ‘discovery of breeding pair’.
1994 ‘Breeding recorded at Lydney park’
1995 FoD ‘8 males at 5 sites’
1997 Only 4 records, of 6 males at four sites
1998 6 possible at four sites and a male at ‘confidential site’ (now known to be Westridge Woods, North Nibley), two dates in June.
1999 2 males singing at Westridge in May
2000 Male singing at Westridge Woods, North Nibley and one seen hunting at Condicote on September 12th.
These records from North Nibley are the last to suggest breeding from the East side of the Severn and the species now only breeds in the Forest of Dean. There were more records from the Dean, comprising perhaps 11 males, suggesting either under-reporting in the late 90’s or signs of recovery.
2001 Foot and Mouth Disease access restrictions meant that there were only 4 records in the Forest
2002 An RSPB survey identified 13 territories in the Forest.
2003 Pairs were seen at 11 of 18 sites and breeding confirmed at 6.
Away from the Dean, there were reports of a single at Leckhampton Hill in May 2003 and one was heard at Bamfurlong in July 2004.
The BTO conducted a national survey, which provided evidence of a slight revival, with just over 4000 pairs estimated nationally. The BBC reported on the local survey:
‘One of the UK’s strangest birds could be making a comeback in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, according to a RSPB and Forestry Commission survey.
Nightjars were once common across Gloucestershire but declined over 70 years to just a few pairs by the mid 1990s due to the loss of heathland and woodland glades.
But results just released of a national nightjar survey in 2004 have flagged up a possible turnaround in the bird’s fortunes, with 18 males calling in the Forest of Dean compared to just 12 in 1992.
The bird’s success is being put down to the opening up of glades that nightjars need for nesting and feeding across the Forest of Dean. Ivan Proctor, RSPB Gloucestershire reserves manager, said:
“The increase in nightjars in Gloucestershire is very welcome news. It shows a clear opportunity in the Forest of Dean, as conifer plantations reach maturity, to recreate open heathland to boost numbers of amazing wildlife, such as nightjars.”
Rob Guest, Forestry Commission, added:
“It is really pleasing to see that the planned restructuring of post-war planting in the Forest of Dean is having such benefits for wildlife.”
2005 Birds were seen at 15 sites with breeding confirmed at 11. There were records outside the Dean in Newent Woods and Frampton on Severn.
2006 Among the Forest records, four sites had three males present.
2007 A male seen flying in broad daylight at 11:05am near Worrall Hill. Birds recorded from 9 sites.
2008 saw 70 records relating to 13 sites, with 6 sites having 2 or 3 males.
2009 13 males heard or seen, thought to be a minimum number.
2010 Only 20 records submitted, thought to represent 9 males at a minimum.
2011 33 records, including one on April 30th
2012 Records suggested about 17 males. A bird, presumably on passage, spent the day roosting in a bird bath at Twyning Green on May 18th.
2013 Records were from 15 sites, suggesting as many as 23 males.
Publication of Gloucester Bird Atlas, which estimates population to be ‘at least 20 -25 pairs’.
2014 We found males at 14 sites, estimate about 21 in total.
2015 We located about 16 males and confirmed breeding at one site.
2016 to present – our methods and thoroughness have only improved and hopefully this is reflected in the accuracy of our records. Coming soon…
The Forest Of Dean
H G Nicholls
John Murray, 1858
The Flora and Fauna Of Gloucestershire
Chas A Witchell and W Bishop Strugnell
Stroud Press, 1892
A Treatise On The Birds Of Gloucestershire
W L Mellersh
John Bellows, 1902
Birds Of Gloucestershire
Christopher M Swaine
Alan Sutton Publishing, 1982
Gloucestershire Birds Changes in Four Decades,
Frank Adams and John Sanders
in Forty Years On
Dursley Birdwatching and Preservation Society, 1993
Sketches Of Dean’s Birds
Magpie Publishing, 1999
The Birds Of Gloucestershire
Gordon Kirk and John Phillips
Liverpool University Press, 2013