I spent this evening at Burrington Ham in the hope of encountering European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), and was successful at about 10.15 when a single male gave a few bursts of song, and showed itself briefly, To visit this site, park at the location shown on the map below, and walk up the path which leads west along the plateau, parallel with Burrington Combe. You will arrive in Nightjar habitat (bracken with clumps of trees and shrubs) very soon.
Nightjars are present on the Mendip Hills in two main areas: Burrington and Priddy. Several are present each year in the Burrington area, where birds can be found at Rowberrow Warren, Burrington Ham and at Rod’s Pot, which is midway between the two. Here the habitat is scrubby moorland/heathland, but Nightjars also inhabit conifer plantations in their early stages, abandoning them when the trees become too high. This is the habitat used at Priddy, where the birds are found at Stock Hill forest.
If you’ve not heard or seen Nightjar, I’d highly recommend a visit to one of these sites. Pick a warm still night, and listen out for a highly distinctive churring noise given from just after sunset. This song is typically given from a tree branch above head-height. Birds will also take display flights and feeding flights, and will often fly very close to people, enabling their white wing and tail markings to be seen. They will be present through until August.
I took these photos of a female (left) and male (right) European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) on the north-facing slope of Brean Down yesterday afternoon. Over most of our region Stonechats only occur in the winter and on migration, but there is a small breeding population of around 10 pairs in the western Mendip Hills, with the greatest concentration on Blackdown, their highest point. Pairs are seen in summer on Brean Down most years, and the habitat certainly looks suitable for a nesting attempt.
Stonechats of one kind or another are found virtually throughout the entire Old World. Their treatment as either full species or races of the same species follows a pattern seen in many widespread species: originally, prior to the twentieth century, each slightly different-looking form of Stonechat found in a new part of the world was described as a new species. Then, following changes in biological thinking in the mid-twentieth century, it was proposed that all of the different stonechats (from birds in South Africa that look like this, to birds in Europe like those above, to birds in south-east Asia that look like this) were in fact all one species, comprising 25 races.
In the last couple of decades, decisions like these have been re-evaluated in the light of new data, and the stonechats are one group that has been unpicked as a result. The mid-twentieth century ‘lumping’ into one species has been replaced by a three way split into African, European and Asian species. The position with the Asian stonechats could well be more complicated and when more detailed studies are done on the Asian races, some of them may be split further.
A male Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), one of two singing at Burrington Ham yesterday evening. Burrington Ham is the scrubby plateau on the northern side of Burrington Combe: it is usually a good place to see cuckoos in spring and early summer.