Nature Notes

On Greenham Common, the heat shimmers off the heathland, blurring the horizon, and the cows gather to stand in the pools. We seek the shade of the alder gullies that fold off the flat, gravel plateau like creases in a tablecloth.

In the evening, my daughters and I walk on a smaller fragment of heath. It is still hot and the scent of summer heath is warm in our nostrils; the pines melting sweet amber sap between the flakes of their bark-skin. The flowering grasses dust a heathery haze on our bare legs. I have come to show them nightjars – but we are too early. I take them off on a familiar route, but before long, have taken a wrong turn in this place I know so well. We end up short-cutting across yards of peaty-wet mire. We manage the first upended log stepping-stones, but soon run out of those. There is nothing for it, but to hitch up our summer skirts, and walk through with shrieks and laughter. I smile inwardly in the glow of winning an argument with my newly-teenage daughter over wearing her birthday-fresh trainers, but say nothing. The black peat- mud oozes through the lace holes in my boots, finds the gaps in my almost gone soles and finally, pours over the tops.

But we come onto the open heath at just the right time: gone sunset on a sultry night, the strange, warm, mechanical sound of a nightjar already churring. It is the sound of the very engine generating the pine-resined, energy-sapping, languid heat of this midsummer night. The bird comes to investigate us. Silently, its outline hawkish, wings snapping up in jerky, puppety flight, white wing spots visible like two moons.

It lands in slender outline on a pine bough, characteristically sideways-on, and calls again. Another appears and the two go off around our heads, lower and lower until we can see the wide open, moth-catching gape of one, its tiny bill open. We twist and turn about, trying not to fall over as they dance around our heads, as if suspended on invisible strings. Another begins to churr from deeper within the common – and a fourth calls ‘cooic, cooic’ near the lane. At that moment, the froggy call of a roding woodcock lifts our eyes and a muntjac barks.

It is 10pm on a school night. But the light holds as if it will not go dark tonight. No–one can sleep anyway. We make our way back across earth that radiates heat against the palms of our hands, the bone-white birches gleaming like coral, the sound of the nightjars filling our heads. We can still hear them when we get home in the hum of the fridge and our electric toothbrushes before we go to bed.

Nicola Chester


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