Book Review: Nightjars of the World, Princeton University Press

A long day of birding in the neotropics typically ends with the birder in a state of utter exhaustion. You’ve spent all day on your feet straining your senses to hear and see something fabulous or new, trekking from one site to another through deep mud and stultifying heat. Thirsty, itchy, and aching, you’re secretly pleased in knowing that the day’s efforts are finally over now that the sun has descended. Your mind drifts into reverie as you stagger back to camp, but suddenly your guide drags your attention back to a high whistling call coming from a bush nearby or points out several silhouetted forms overhead diving and darting in the dusk, more bat like than bird. The day’s birding is indeed over, but the night’s has only just begun. Now, it’s time to search out some of the most mysterious, cryptic, and difficult members of the avian world, the Caprimulgiformes, or goatsuckers (this colorful name originated in ancient Greece, where it was believed that the bite of nocturnal birds caused blindness and even death in domesticated animals).

This highly diverse avian order includes nightjars, nighthawks, potoos, frogmouths, and the unique Oilbird, all covered, as well as the owlet-nightjars, in Princeton University Press’s wonderful new guide, Nightjars of the World, by Nigel Cleere. Amazingly, almost all 135 species are depicted in the wild in over 580 photographs taken by some of the most renowned ornithologists, bird photographers, and bird guides (no, none of my photographs were solicited, but thanks for wondering). Except for Antartica, the Caprimulgiformes are distributed over every continent, and the guide’s stunning images range from Australia to the Andes and from Southern Argentina to Far East Asia. After a rich fifty-page introduction that discusses the distribution, taxonomy, and general biology of the Caprimulgiformes, the guide launches into extensive species accounts describing identification features, similar species, vocalizations, habitat, and status of each individual species, including multiple photographs of each bird in the wild.

While no artist drawn representations are included, any birder who’s tried to identify a cryptically plumaged nightjar based on a dense color plate filled with similarly looking species knows that the utility of that type of guide is severely limited. Much more useful is a detailed account of range, habitat, and vocalization, as identifying nightjars is usually more by process of elimination than confirmation. Based on my experience in the neotropics, if you want to find and identify nightjars in the field, then you must be thoroughly prepared with a short list of potential species to be found and an ear that is already trained to their calls. For example, I wouldn’t have been able to identify the Chocó Poorwill on my trip to Playa de Oro in remote northwestern Ecuador if I hadn’t already listened to a recording of its call many times and known that there were no similar species in the region. This hefty photographic guide for me, then, is more of a resource for the den than the field, where I can carefully compare my own photographs with the several presented of each species in the book.

In the book’s forward, Nigel Collar waxes poetic about the rare experience of flushing a nightjar by day: “it glides in offended, elegant silence back into cover, the night’s ghost revealed as a biscuit-toned beauty with a challenging pattern of white, black or buff in its flight feathers.” Hurriedly following the bird to its resting place is usually the most effective way to photograph nightjars, which are almost impossible to detect at their roost during the day. The same is generally true for potoos and frogmouths, which both perch more vertically in trees during the day, looking exactly like natural extensions of branches and stumps with their intricately adapted plumage (the rare Rufous Potoo actually mimics a cluster of dead leafs and can be noticed gently rocking back and forth, much like leafs in the wind). The monotypic Oilbird, on the other hand, roosts in dark caves and narrow ravines during the day, usually in huge colonies. It’s the only nocturnal frugivore in the avian world, and one of the few birds to use echolocation to navigate through the darkness. It can be photographed with relative ease at many well-known sites in the northwestern South America.

Recent molecular studies indicate that the book’s final family, the owlet-nightjars, is actually more closely related to swifts and hummingbirds than Caprimulgiformes, although they are included here on historical grounds. Found mostly in New Guinea and Australia, these birds are also more vertically perching and forward facing than typical nightjars, some with wide bills like the frogmouths and impressive facial bristles used for trapping moths and insects in flight. As I have no birding experience in that part of the world, these latter two families, the frogmouths and owlet-nightjars, particularly fascinate me. I imagine at some point in our careers, my wife and I will be posted somewhere in Southeast Asia, where we’ll finally have a chance to explore the biological significance of Wallace’s Line for ourselves.

Indeed, one shouldn’t discount the power of the awesome photographs in this guide to inspire a profound sense of wanderlust for the remotest corners of the world, from Tasmania to Tanzania to Tierra del Fuego. And if you regularly bird somewhere less exotic, like Texas or Tennessee, simply knowing what awaits you after daylight hours should be enough to help you catch a second wind the next time you're ready to call it a day.

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