At the end of June I returned to the usual meeting place for the nightjar survey on the Surrey heaths near Camberley. About 20 volunteers met by the cattle-grid at the end of King’s Ride at 7.45 on Sunday 28 June. James Herd, manager of the Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Manor Farm, Barossa and Poor’s Allotment reserves, divided us into small groups and gave us maps of our territory for the evening.
Most of the volunteers are local, but I like to visit a different habitat from the Chilterns. This is usually my only chance of seeing heathland birds such as nightjars, woodlark, Dartford warblers and tree pipit, and I really enjoy it.
I was in a group with three others, Mike Whitaker, Roger Murphy and his daughter Rosie. We walked across our site, which was the nearest to the start point, taking in Saddleback Hill, and looked out over the heath with its pine trees. We heard a tree pipit’s song and I would have loved to have seen it, but it was not visible.
We came across the belted galloway cattle which are grazing the land to maintain the heathland. Then in the gathering dusk we split up to record the nightjars churring. This normally starts at about 9.45pm.
I was with Mike and first we heard (briefly) then saw a roding woodcock. That was at 9.45. Then at 9.47 we heard our first nightjar churring some way off. At 10.04 we heard one close by in a single pine tree and I got a fleeting glimpse of it, which was thrilling as I rarely see them.
The sunset was impressive as we walked back towards Saddleback Hill and met Roger and Rosie on the top. We could hear nightjars on both sides of the hill. So we reckoned that in total we heard at least three.
We returned to the rendezvous at 10.45 to pool our results. A few days later James sent us the map showing our findings. He reported that this year the numbers were down to 22 from 30 last year, but this is only a snapshot and some birds may have paired up already and not been churring.
James will not be organising the survey next year: he is moving jobs to become the Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Commercial Development Officer. This is a sad sign of the times: Surrey County Council, which contracts Surrey Wildlife Trust to manage its reserves, is wanting both to save money and to make money from its estate, aiming for a self-financing countryside by 2021. Consequently, Surrey Wildlife Trust is looking at how to raise money while remaining true to its purpose: a tough assignment. So we can only wish James luck with this tricky task.