• Abi Starr

Nocturnal wildlife

I enjoyed writing this as part of a longer piece of work. I'm really getting in to bats lately and hope to one day have my license to work with them. I was lucky enough to both see and hear a nightjar whilst in Devon a few years ago. Still one of the strangest birds I've encountered! (Picture from Wix)


I’m an insomniac. I can lie awake for hours on end for no apparent reason; tossing and turning, trying to snatch every minute of sleep I can before the sun rises and I have to begin my day.

But I’m not the only creature that spends all night awake. Nocturnal wildlife in the UK mainly consists of mammals and birds, with the most familiar being owls and foxes. However, the diversity is much greater than this and includes beings stranger than fiction…

For some, the stuff of , for others an endless fascination. Flying through the sky in all manor of ways, bats are the only true flying mammals on the planet. In the UK we have 18 species, 17 of which regularly breed here. The smallest, the pipistrelle, is also our most common and weighs between three and eight grams. There are two main species of pipistrelle, with the most familiar being the common, Pipistrellus pipistrellus. Soprano pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pygmaeus) are incredibly similar, with the two species being so alike, they were not distinguished until 1990. The main way to tell the difference between the two is analysing their echolocation calls; a soprano pipistrelle calls at a slightly higher frequency to the common.

More unusual-looking British bats include Grey and Brown Long Eared bats and Lesser and Greater Horseshoe bats. The latter being named for the squashed up nature of their nose which allows them to use their echolocation to greater effect. Bats are seen by many as mysterious and elusive creatures, but with a bit of research, they become intensely fascinating animals that should be given a little more appreciation.

When you think of nocturnal birds, an owl probably comes to mind. With their enormous eyes and powerful talons, they are the essence of a night- time hunter. However, there is one much more unusual bird that is active after dark and you may not have even heard of it. The nightjar. These are migratory birds, coming to Britain to feed on insects such as moths and beetles; arriving between April and May and leaving in August. Barred in brown and black, they are perfectly camouflaged when resting up during the day. Pointy, swept back wings lead to comparisons with the cuckoo and kestrel. Nightjars are specialist birds, preferring vulnerable habitats such as heathland and moor. Hard to spot, you are more likely to hear the male’s bizarre churring call or his wing-slapping display, than you are to see him. Currently under threat due to habitat loss, the nightjar is a truly unique bird that has to be seen (or heard) to be believed.

Tusks that wouldn’t look out of place on a sabre-toothed tiger and antlers short and powerful, the muntjac is perhaps the oddest of the deer found in Britain; with its hunched appearance and striped face. Truthfully, muntjac are active all hours of the day, but populations that are frequently disturbed only emerge from cover at night. Also known as the ‘barking deer’ they make a variety of calls, including a scream when they are frightened, or squeaks between mother and fawn. Unusually for deer in Britain, muntjacs do not have a specific time of year where they court and mate (known as the rut) the females are receptive all year round and can conceive again just a few days after giving birth.

Although you might prefer being tucked up in bed to being out and about looking for nocturnal wildlife, some more familiar urban characters, such as foxes, badgers and hedgehogs, can be seen from the comfort of your cosy home. There’s lots of information available about how to make your garden suitable for these animals in order to attract them. Tips usually include setting out species appropriate food and leaving part of your garden unkempt and natural. If you’re not sure if any nocturnal wildlife is making use of your garden, you could invest in a camera trap. This would mean you could set the equipment up, get a full night’s sleep and then check the footage in the morning to see what has visited! Hopefully you’ll get some amazing sightings, opening your eyes to a whole new world.

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