Nightjars call at dusk
Fiery-necked Nightjar – Caprimulgus pectoralis (Afrikaans: Afrika-naguil)
Rufous-cheeked Nightjar – C. rufigena (Afrikaans: Rooiwang-naguil)
Of about 70 species of nightjars in the world, seven species occur in South Africa: two that are largely resident, four breeding migrants from within Africa, and one Palearctic-breeding migrant. The Afrikaans name naguil (“night owl”) is a misnomer, as they are not owls at all.
The species name Caprimulgus means “to milk a goat”, from the bird’s wide mouth and habit of hunting insects near animal pens at night.
The Fiery-necked Nightjar is probably the best known, mainly because of its beautiful call on still nights – it sounds a bit like “good Lord deliver us”, and it is therefore called the “Litany Bird”. It is said to call only on cold, moonlit nights, but I think it may be that it is heard more clearly on such nights. Nightjars are most active during dusk and dawn.
The Fiery-necked Nightjar, a breeding resident, occurs mainly in the northern and eastern parts of South Africa, but also along the eastern and southern coast as far as the southwestern Cape. They make no nest at all, but lay their two pinkish eggs on the bare ground. They are probably the birds with the best camouflage of all. During the day they will remain sitting on their eggs even if you walk right up to them. The pinkish colour of the eggs may make them more visible at night when the birds have to go off to feed. The male and female, who pair for life, take turns to incubate and brood the chicks.
The food of nightjars is mainly small insects that form big swarms at night, like midges. The birds fly through a swarm with their beaks wide open, and in a short while fill up their crops this way. If they have young at the time, they come to the nest and open their high gapes, and the chicks then help themselves.
After feeding the chicks the bird will then brood the chicks until the mate, male or female, calls. It then opens its wings exposing the white spot on the wing. This is how the mate can see where they are, as once the chicks have hatched they move a metre or two after every feed. By the time the chicks fledge they could be half a kilometre from where the original nest was.
They are said to be able to see through the skin of the gape when flying with an open gape through swarms of insects. They have strong bristles on the side of the gape which help to guide the insects into the crop. They can bring enough food in at one sitting to feed two chicks, enough to last an hour or more.
The Rufous-cheeked Nightjar occurs in the drier to very arid areas of Botswana, the northwestern provinces and the Karoo. They prefer completely open country like Bushmanland.
In Bushmanland they are called Langasems (“long-winded”), because of the strange call, a chirring sound like a diesel engine. A story is told of an old farmer who said he was not going to be outdone by a bird in holding his breath, so he stopped breathing for as long as the bird called. The bird was still chirring on the roof, where they like to perch, when they found old Oom Jan dead on the stoep!
Their habits are the same as that of the previous species, except the habitat. They seem to stay away from wooded areas. The books say they migrate to warmer parts of Africa in the winter months, but we have seen the birds even in winter where freezing conditions are normal. Most of them probably go north, as food would be scarce locally, but some definitely stay on around the farm houses and outbuildings which provide shelter from the freezing cold.
They also lay their eggs on the bare ground like the previous species, and also have a white spot on the wing when open to signal the partner.
Lovely birds the nightjars; it’s always pleasant to hear their call.
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