An Indian Nightjar with its fledgling is cryptically camouflaged on the forest floor in Bannerghatta, near Bangalore. Photograph: Bijoy Venugopal/ The Green Ogre

Indian Nightjar, Sweet Child O’Mine

When did you first see an Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus)?

Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t have an answer. It took me years of watching birds before I set eyes on a nightjar of any kind, let alone learn to identify a species by call. My earliest encounter was as I shuffled through a forested wilderness near Bangalore in the early 1990’s. It must have been late July or August. The aroma of eucalyptus, our Australian guest now well established by social forestry programmes as the dominant tree species in our countrysides, lingered in the air, mixing with the scent of mulch trampled by our boots. Underfoot, life went on. Fungi dotted the dark nooks near tree roots, while lichen frescoed their trunks. The undergrowth, if I remember correctly, was then not yet dominated by lantana, and paths snaked through the woodland, inviting us to explore deeper.

I remember stumbling and almost stepping upon a bird that shot up into the air and melted like a puff of smoke into the shadowy darkness. Someone behind me shouted in excited recognition: “Nightjar!” The memory of that moment, that first encounter with a new life form, was burned into my brain. Years later, I ticked off the Indian Nightjar as a lifer on a birding trip, but that sighting was too brief and fleeting to be completely satisfying and I always carried a pang in my heart from it.

Nightjars own the night, and in darkness there’s no way for poorly equipped human eyes to appreciate their glorious earthiness. Most of the nightjars on my checklists have been confirmed by calls but the ones that I have sighted I have always cherished.

Tramping through Masinagudi on my last birding trip before the pandemic locked us down, Arun, Shashank, and I were led by our guide Rajkumar towards a patch of savanna that was contiguous with the jungles of Mudumalai. And there, we crept upon an Indian Nightjar nestled in its roost on the dry ground. Without being guided, we would have passed it by, which is what the bird may have been hoping for. From our vantage, we could see it through the tangle of scrubby vegetation regarding us with a half-open eye, showing no inclination to fly. We kept our distance, held our silence, and observed it before moving on.

On the Kalkere Biodiversity Walk of July 2023, I had my finest view of the Indian Nightjar. One of the two groups had chanced upon the bird earlier so we went back along the trail to try our luck. I scanned the mat of dead leaves, in all shades of brown and tan and tawny and russet, for signs of avian presence. My eyes could pick out nothing.

At first, the carpet of leaf litter gave nothing away. Then, I thought I caught a glimpse of an eye twitching. Was that really an eye, or my imagination that leaves nothing to chance (even bad puns)?

I peered through my binoculars and saw nothing.

Then, a blink. Well, that was an eye. And it was ajar. A slit opening into a mysterious, liquid cavern of darkness! And what was that next to it? A neat row of well-cropped, bristly whiskers. And, wait! Another eye, this one shut tight in a daylight snooze. I could discern the thin cuticle of an eyelid, too. Rock-a-bye baby! This was a fledgling, snuggling next to the parent, which was watching us as it feigned sleep.

I tore my joyous eyes off this evasive subject and fumbled for my camera. It took achingly long seconds, several of them, before I could again locate what my eyes had quickly unseen, perhaps by Nature’s design. A nightjar by daylight is a chance encounter. But a nightjar with a baby? That’s a vision from birding heaven. And I was so glad that twenty other birders got to witness it that morning.

There it was — an Indian Nightjar with its fledgling, lying right there in the mottled leaf litter, still as frozen death, confident of its cryptic camouflage.

Sweet child, sweet child…


Encounter with the Large-tailed Nightjar

Newsletter signup

It's more fun when you subscribe.
Great content. Zero spam. And your data stays safe. Promise!

Newsletter signup

It's more fun when you subscribe.
Great content. Zero spam. And your data stays safe. Promise!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.