Nightjar Residency // Blog Two - August 2023


Leeming & Paterson are the current Artful Migration artists in residence. 

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All images by Leeming + Paterson
All images by Leeming + Paterson

3am.  3am.  1am.  Early to Bed!  2am.  2am.  It turns out out the ˜dullest place in the UK" (see previous blog) might not be quite so boring after all.  I never imagined this residency was going to be my new rock and roll, but this curious enigma of a bird seems to have the ability to enchant and intoxicate.  They beguile with the briefest of glimpses as they silently dance the gloaming skies, and as often as not you see nothing at all, or at best a shadowy wisp fleeting the corner of your eye.  Gone as soon as you turn to look. Or perhaps it's their hypnotic churr (song) that casts the spell?

The privilege of time, space and focus through this Artful Migration residency has opportuned us entry into this extraordinary world to glimpse previously unseen imaginations.  The lost art of simply sitting in unfamiliar environments as the sun drops beneath distant horizons and the wind runs out of puff, embracing the tingle of of a Scottish dusk, in itself becomes harmonic.  And then, just as you think they might never arrive, they begin their chorus. And once they start their voices fill the skies in luring chants that mesmerise, reminding me of the snake with the rolling eyes in The Jungle Book.  I confess that before we started I didn't really get why there seemed to be such a thing about this quirky looking bird.  What was all the fuss about Chris Packham, that makes you exude so lyrically?   But as I sit in silence and simply marvel, I realise that this is one big, endless and easy to tumble into rabbit hole.

As I begin to relax, my mind follows the sun as it drops and I imagine being in their world for a few moments.  Flying twice a year to and from, from and to, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, nightjars, along with some 2.1 billion other birds a year that make the annual pilgrimage to their various homes, don't recognise or have boundaries.  Often as we retire, at certainty time of the year, the world above our heads becomes a motorway of freedom to their unrestricted lives.  The thought is enticing, though my reverie is short lived as I discover that this number is just half what it was just a few short decades ago, as the pressures of our anthropogenic world tightens its grip.  My romantic bubble pops.

Following ospreys on their annual migration from the UK to Africa along a similar corridor to that used by our nightjar, Sasha Dench and her team from Conservation Without Borders identified 38 human created threats along their migratory route.  In just a single example, at one of Europe's most important nature reserves for migratory birds, they discovered that planes fly overhead spraying insecticide to kill mosquitoes, one of the birds main food sources, because the tourists don’t like them.  You have to ponder this concept for the enormity of its message to truly sink in, and what it says of our priorities whilst in the midst of a biodiversity emergency.   Elsewhere across both continents land is, small piece by small piece,  being continuously 'improved' from salt marsh to agricultural land, a new container port, housing development, or some other form of human 'need'.  Closer to home, all around The (once) Great Moss, fields are cut for silage 3 or 4 times a year as young birds crack through the thin shells of their eggs to raise their beaks and take their first breath.

Such improvements become so familiar to us in the rapidly changing landscapes of the modern age that we barely question, assess or consider their true and incremental impacts, let alone the fragmentation each act has at a wider, non human scale.  We live for the minute and aside from nature, rather than part of it.  We are outraged at the actions of remote and developing nations,  be it aerial insecticide spraying, salt flat drainage or felling tropical rainforests, but who polices the protection and enhancement of our own shores?  The result of current policies and subsidies is that for our nightjar, there has been a decline in insect numbers (their food source) of some 60% across the UK in recent years.   This decline might seem unthinkable but because it has happened, like habitat fragmentation and so many things, on a generational basis it goes unnoticed.  Had we known the consequences would we have started on that journey?  Who knows but we need to act urgently to reverse the trend.

And as we do, amongst much gloom there are also real signs of proactive change all around us.  Individuals and projects of all sizes from back gardens to progressive farming and landscape scale initiatives paving the way towards new thinking.  And a true exemplar is occurring on The Lochar Moss itself, for the story of our nightjar is, at least in Scotland and the UK, a positive one with Numbers increasing.   Forest and Land Scotland, who own a huge conifer plantation on the bog, recognised its unique qualities and sought to designate it a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation in recognition of its ecological importance.  Following its designation they have implemented a 25 year plan to restore the entire plantation under their control to blanket bog.  Well done FLS.

Such local initiatives start conversations and leave others wanting to know more.  Perhaps even look at their own land holdings to see what they can do?  This is being implemented by many enlightened 'Land Custodians', but ultimately the direction of travel will have to be furthered through policies that both encourage and require all landowners to adopt nature based farming and other land use methods, to deliver generational guardianship rather than short term returns.