TABLE 3 (ABOVE). Tail length and ratio of apical tail spot to total tail length. Data adapted from Jackson (2000).Swamp and Square-tailed have full outer tail panels, while Rufous-cheeked, female Fiery-necked and male European have only small patches.
TABLE 4 (ABOVE). Size of apical tail spot or panel on outer tail feather in male and female nightjars. Data adapted from Jackson (2000).
Other plumage characters
In addition to the scapulars, wing spots and tail spots, a number of other relatively easily visible plumage features can help birders identify nightjars. In the following section, all diagnostic features, or diagnostic combinations of features, are discussed for each species individually. Particularly important characters to adjudicate are:
- General ground colour and markings on upperparts.
- Presence, colour and width of hind-neck / nape collar.
- Colours and markings on face and ear-coverts.
- Amount of white on moustachial streak and throat.
- Presence of a pale band on trailing edge of wing formed by tips of secondaries.
- Whether the lesser coverts (i.e. “shoulder”) are clearly darker than the rest of the wing.
- Patterns on tips of tertials and wing coverts, and in particular median wing coverts (i.e. horizontal bar below “shoulder”).
- Whether the terminal halves of the primaries are plain black, mottled grey, or barred with rufous.
Summary: Fiery-necked Nightjar
FIGURE 8. Main diagnostic features of Fiery-necked Nightjar.
A medium-sized nightjar with a large head, broad shoulders and thick neck, giving it a “bull-necked” look. The primary projection is long. Uniquely, the bases of the rictal bristles are white (see Fig. 9). Even at a glance this species can usually be identified by its distinctly black-spotted appearance, due to the black-centered scapulars with only narrow cream fringes. As its name implies, it has a very broad (about finger-width) and conspicuous orange to rufous “fiery” collar on the nape, that extends around the side of the neck. The ear-coverts are also strongly washed rufous. Both sexes have clear white wing spots, situated right on the emarginated outer edges of the primaries, which gives the white spots a pinched or attenuated look. Both sexes have white spots on the two outer tail feathers: in males the tail spots are large, encompassing about half the length of the tail, while in females they are restricted to the last third. The outer webs of the white patches usually have “dirty” corners. In addition, the length of the white patch on the outer web is almost always markedly shorter than on the inner web. Female: Like male, but wing and tail spots may be faintly washed buff (Fry et al. 1988). White tail spots smaller. Variation: Four subspecies occur (see Fig. 10-11). An uncommon rufous morph occurs in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania. In general, birds in the Western and Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are considerably darker and more heavily barred below (see also Table 1). Habits: Usually sings from and perches in trees, on posts or on other elevated perches at night, but roosts on the ground (rarely in trees or on roof beams); often roosts under a bush or in a thicket (Hockey et al. 2005).
FIGURE 9 (ABOVE). Uniquely among Southern African nightjars, Fiery-necked has white bases to the otherwise black rictal bristles. Also note the bright rufous collar and dark rufous ear-coverts.
Confusion risks: Distribution and habitat overlaps widely with the migratory Rufous-cheeked, which is usually the main confusion species. Normally fairly easily differentiated by Fiery-necked’s broader black centres to scapulars, with only narrow creamy outer margins, giving it a black-spotted (instead of streaky) appearance. Fiery-necked is generally darker and more mottled on the back and tertials, whereas Rufous-cheeked is paler and plainer grey, with narrower black streaks. The hind-neck collar is broader (finger-width in Fiery-necked, pencil-width in Rufous-cheeked), more conspicuous and is generally richer in colour, often with fairly heavy black blotches or light-coloured mottling, but not with fine dark transverse bars as in Rufous-cheeked. The grey sides of the crown have coarser black markings and often faint cross-barring, absent in Rufous-cheeked. The rictal bristles are white-based in Fiery-necked, but all-dark in Rufous-cheeked. The breast is generally slightly darker and more rich in colour (not soft grey with marbling), and the belly tends to be more clearly barred and thus not as clearly demarcated from the breast as in Rufous-cheeked (but variable). On Fiery-necked the white wing spots are situated right on the emarginated feather edges, which gives the spots a pinched looks (spots are situated proximal to the emargination and thus appear broader in Rufous-cheeked). Male Fiery-necked has larger white tail spots (about half of the tail), but white tail spots are similar in female Fiery-necked and male Rufous-cheeked; in this case note the dark corners of the white spots in Fiery-necked, plus the fact that the white on the outer web is shorter than on the inner web. Female Rufous-cheeked lacks white on the tail completely. Also tends to look somewhat larger and bulkier, with a bigger head than Rufous-cheeked. Large white tail spots with dark corners could suggest Freckled but Fiery-necked is smaller and much more clearly patterned, and has the white wing spots extending onto the outer webs (not only on inner webs). Male Fiery-necked’s long white outer tail patch may suggest a full white outer tail panel, which often leads to confusion with Square-tailed. However, Fiery-necked lacks the distinct white or buff trailing edge to the wing formed by the pale tips of the secondaries of Square-tailed. Fiery-necked has much narrower and less conspicuous pale bands on the lower border of the scapulars and median coverts, and is generally less clearly patterned than Square-tailed overall. The hind-neck collar is broader and less yellowish than in Square-tailed, and the ear-coverts are darker and richer rufous. The upperparts are overall darker and more boldly patterned (paler, plainer grey with finer “granitic” marbling in Square-tailed). Finally, Square-tailed lacks white markings on T4, and has more white/buff in the opened wing. Swamp shares Fiery-necked’s black-spotted appearance, but has longer legs/toes, a shorter tail with full white panels on T4 and T5, a darker (less “fiery”) face, with an obvious pale supercilium, a dark chest with large buff spots, and lacks distinct pale tips to the wing coverts. See also under European and Pennant-winged.
FIGURE 10 (ABOVE). Geographical and phenotypic variation in Fiery-necked Nightjar. From top to bottom: A) A particularly dark male from Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, collected in April, of subspecies crepusculans; B) A grey female fervidus, collected near Brits, North West, South Africa in July; C) A richly coloured female from Mooketsi, Limpopo, South Africa collected in October, on the border between fervidus and crepusculans; D) An example of the uncommon rufous morph, in this case a female of the subspecies shelleyi, collected at Chintheche, Malawi, in February. While there is considerable variation in dorsal colour, all exhibit the distinctive black-spotted scapulars and broad “fiery” rufous collars.
FIGURE 11 (ABOVE). Geographical and phenotypic variation in Fiery-necked Nightjar (continued; same birds as in previous figure). The dark topmost bird is a male whereas all the others are females; note the male’s much larger white tail patches (about half the tail looks white in males, but only a third in females). Also note the shortfall of the white on the outer web compared to the inner web, and the “dirty corners” best visible in the second bird. Birds of the nominate race from the Western and Eastern Cape, as well as populations of fervidus in central and southern KwaZulu-Natal, are notably darker and more heavily barred below compared to other subspecies, being almost black on the upper chest.
Summary: Rufous-cheeked Nightjar
FIGURE 12. Main diagnostic features of Rufous-cheeked Nightjar (dark male above, pale female below).
A medium-sized nightjar of open savanna and semi-arid plains. Despite its name, rather drab and greyish overall, with the rufous on the cheeks and ear-coverts not as striking as in Fiery-necked. Dorsally, pale to medium grey and very finely barred, each feather with a narrow black central streak, giving it the appearance of dead wood. As in European, the scapulars have broad pointed black central streaks, broad cream outer webs and darker mottled inner webs; the latter creates a distinctly darker oval contrasting with the paler back. The relatively inconspicuous hind-neck collar is thin (about pencil-width) and buff in colour, with darker crossbars that reduce the overall contrast. The checks, malar stripe and chin are brownish rufous, and profusely mottled. Males typically have 3 prominent white wing spots, situated inside (proximal to) the emarginated primary edges. Males have white patches on T4 and T5 that cover about a third of the tail, and are roughly equal in size. Both sexes have fairly prominent pale tips to the wing coverts. Female: As male, but the wing spots are buff instead of white. The two outer tail feathers lack white, but usually have small grey-white or grey-buff patches, that may be faint or even lacking in some birds. Variation: The western C. r. damarensis is slightly smaller and generally paler. Habits: Roosts on the ground, usually near cover but sometimes on completely exposed gravel stretches. May alight on a low branch when flushed (Fry et al. 1988). Sings from the ground.
Confusion risks: Frequently confused with Fiery-necked (see that species for a discussion of distinguishing character traits). Forms a superspecies with European Nightjar, and separating these two species is arguably the most difficult problem in a southern African context. Rufous-cheeked is obviously smaller and shorter-winged when directly compared, but a small female European and large male Rufous-cheeked can appear similar in size in the field. However, European has longer primary projection (39% of wing length, vs. 32% in Rufous-cheeked), and generally appears more elongated. In terms of plumage, differences are very subtle. In general, Rufous-cheeked is a warmer, richer-coloured bird, whereas European has cooler greyer colour tones. Rufous-cheeked has a narrow but complete rufous-buff hind-neck collar that is more pronounced and reaches the ear-coverts to form a contrasting rufous patch that reaches to just below the eye. European may have a few scattered buff feathers on the hind-neck, but never a complete collar. Keep in mind that when bathed in the glare of a strong spotlight, the scattered beige feathers on the hind-neck of European may look warmer in colour. Compared to European, the ear-coverts are generally more rufous, less barred and often noticeably darker in colour in Rufous-cheeked. White patches on the throat play an important social role in courtship and calling, and are thus more likely to be flared out in Rufous-cheeked than in the non-breeding European. In Rufous-cheeked (especially males), there are two clearly separated, bold white patches on the throat that form triangles pointed towards the bill base. These are often bordered by blackish and rufous feathers below that accentuate the white flares. In contrast, most Europeans have the two white throat patches connected to form a narrow pale bar across the throat. This bar is often infused with subtle mottling, and is not bordered by rufous and black feathers; some male Europeans and many females appear to lack white on the throat altogether (see Fig. 13). European tends to have a more striking, broader and longer white submoustachial stripe, that broadens markedly towards the back and sometimes even forms a distinct spatulate shape; the white submoustachial stripe is much less pronounced in Rufous-cheeked.
FIGURE 13. Comparison of throat and underparts in Rufous-cheeked Nightjar (left) and European Nightjar (right). The white throat “flares” are generally more pronounced in Rufous-cheeked, and the lower breast and belly less boldly barred.
Both species show a dark “shoulder” patch on the lesser coverts, but this patch is generally plainer (less freckled), overall darker and more pronounced in European. Rufous-cheeked has more striking richly-coloured tips to the median and greater coverts on the folded wing, giving the impression of a warmer-toned bird. Male Rufous-cheeked has white spots on four primaries (P7-P10), whereas European only has white spots on three primaries (P8-P10); in Rufous-cheeked three (rarely four) white spots may be visible on the outer webs when the wing is folded, but in European normally only 1-2 (sometimes none) are visible, and the white spots are situated further down (distally) on the wing, about halfway between the last tertial and the wing tip. Female Rufous-cheeked has prominent albeit buff-tinged wing spots whereas these are much reduced in female European. Beyond (distal to) the wing spots/emargination, the tips of the outer primaries are often plain dark grey or blackish in Rufous-cheeked, but distinctly grey-mottled in European. The latter also has the outer edges of the primaries flecked with buff along most of the length of the feather; Rufous-cheeked lacks these flecks and notches. Finally, on the secondaries and bases of the primaries, Rufous-cheeked has broader, brick-red bars, whereas European has yellower, narrower and irregular bars. Given a decent view of the tail, easily told from both sexes of Square-tailed by the latter’s complete white or buff outer panels on T5, and lack of any pale markings on T4. In addition, Rufous-cheeked is more streaked (less barred and mottled) above, has less prominent pale covert tips (and does not have the pronounced pale “shoulder” bar of Square-tailed), lacks the broad golden scapular edges (“snipe-like pattern”) of Square-tailed, has less black on the central crown and lacks the pale trailing edge on the secondaries. The hind-neck collar is similar in size and colour in the two species. Told from Freckled by smaller size and more pronounced markings. Differs from Swamp in tail pattern, build, more striking patterns and different dorsal markings. Female told from female Pennant-winged by smaller size, shorter wing, distinct wing spots, and narrower and less reddish hind-neck collar.
Summary: European Nightjar
FIGURE 14. Main diagnostic features of European Nightjar (male of dark race europaeus above, female of sandy race plumipes below).
A large, long-winged migrant that is widespread in lightly wooded habitats, and may even roost in plantations and gardens in urban areas. With experience, its large size is notable, but it is often tricky to judge size of single birds (especially small females). Generally looks elongated, with long wings, long primary projection (39% of total wing length), and a long tail. When spotted roosting along a branch during the day, looks sleek and flat (see Fig. 7); but shape transforms at night (as discussed in Size and structure, above). Has several subtle but useful plumage features that aid in identification. When first spotted, often the most noticeable mark is the pale oval patch above the wing, formed by the pale outer webs of the scapulars; contrasting with this is a narrow pointed black central streak on each scapular and a dark oval on the side of the mantle. Another eye-catching feature is the dark and rather plain “shoulder” or lesser coverts, bordered below by a prominent cream-coloured band formed by the median covert tips. Most individuals are predominately grey in colour, and lack the warm tones of many Afrotropical nightars (but see Variation below). The ear-coverts are greyish and mottled. There is normally a very pronounced white submoustachial streak that becomes broader distally, but unlike most other species the throat has only a narrow whitish bar (absent in some females). A few beige or buff feathers may be visible on the hind-neck, but there is no distinct rufous or buff collar. Males have smallish white spots on three primaries, although usually only 1-2 (sometimes zero) small white patches are visible on the folded wing; the wing spots are situated quite far down (distally) on the wing, usually about halfway between the last tertial and the wing tip. The bases of the flight feathers have small and rather irregular yellowish buff bars, and these usually extend along much of the length of each primary feather (unlike other nightjars, except Pennant-winged). Unless heavily worn, the tips of the primaries are usually clearly mottled with grey. Males have white apical spots on T4 and T5 (larger on T5). Female: Females normally lack obvious buff spots on the primaries and tail tip. Variation: Exhibits considerable geographical variation on the Palearctic breeding grounds, and five subspecies overlap in southern Africa. However, there is much individual variation, and overlap and intergradation between these forms (see Fig. 16). Habits: Occasionally roosts on the ground, but usually lengthwise along a horizontal or diagonal branch or palm frond. Rarely sings in southern Africa, but may give a frog-like call when flushed.
Confusion risks: Closely related to Rufous-cheeked and distinguishing these species is a considerable challenge; see discussion under Rufous-cheeked. Most of the traits that distinguish Fiery-necked and Rufous-cheeked are also applicable to Fiery-necked vs. European. Compared to Fiery-necked, European is larger and more elongated, lacks the black-spotted scapulars, has much wider and more prominent creamy edges to the lower scapulars, is plainer grey above with narrow black streaks, lacks rufous on the ear-coverts, does not have a broad rufous hind-neck collar, has a darker “shoulder” bordered below by a more prominent pale band, and has a more obvious white submoustachial stripe but smaller amount of white on the throat. In Fiery-necked both sexes have white in the wing and tail; female Europeans lack white in the wing and tail, but female Fiery-necked and male European are comparable. In such a case, the two species can be distinguished by the fact that the wing spots are not situated on the primary emarginations in European (thus lacking the “pinched” or attenuated look of the wing spots of Fiery-necked), and by the differing shape of the white apical tail spots (see Tail spots, above).
FIGURE 15 (ABOVE). European Nightjar. Note the generally grey colour (and lack of rufous tones), prominent white submoustachial stripe, limited white on the throat, yellow-buff (not rufous) bars on the primaries extending far down, and faint white wing spots. Photo by Joe Grosel.
European (both sexes) also has yellower buff flecks on the surfaces of the flight feathers, and these irregular bars extend further along the lengths of the primaries. European also has more distinct grey or buff mottling on the tips of the primaries. Should be relatively easy to tell from Square-tailed, which is considerably smaller and shorter-winged. That species is much more vividly patterned, with extensive pale panels on the outer tail, a broad pale trailing edge on the wing, more prominent covert tips, extensive crossbars on the upperparts, much more white/buff in the wing, a complete buff hind-neck collar, and more black on the central crown.
FIGURE 16. Geographical variation in European Nightjar. From top to bottom: sandy subspecies plumipes; pale grey subspecies unwini; dark subspecies europaeus. Five races visit southern Africa and overlap widely, especially in eastern regions.
Especially plain grey variants of European could be confused with the similar-sized Freckled, but still have more prominent markings on the scapulars, wing coverts and face. Easily distinguished from Swamp by less black-spotted appearance, head patterning, tail markings, larger size, longer tail and wing, and more prominent pale covert tips on the folded wing. Female Europeans, that lack tail and wing spots, can easily be mistaken for female Pennant-winged, which is similar in size and wing length. However, Pennant-winged has a broad reddish collar, is generally browner (less grey), has bolder and redder bars on the flight feathers, and has a narrow buff trailing edge on the wing.
Summary: Square-tailed (Mozambique) Nightjar
FIGURE 17: Square-tailed Nightjar (male above, female below).
A small, long-tailed species of subtropical areas. Both sexes have boldly patterned and attractive plumage, and exhibit a number of diagnostic features. The secondaries have clear-cut white tips (in males) or buff tips (in females), that create a diagnostic pale band along the trailing edge of the wing; while this is easily visible in flight, it can sometimes be obscured when the wing is folded; also beware of mistaking the pale primary spots for this band in other species. In addition, Square-tailed Nightjars also have particularly prominent pale tips to their wing coverts, and a broad, pale band on the median coverts, forming an eye-catching bar below the “shoulder”; in effect, these pale tips form a pattern of four parallel pale lines on the folded wing. The scapulars have large black centres fringed with beautiful golden buff, giving the upperparts a diagnostic “snipe-like” look. The back is grey with intricate “granitic” marbling, while the crown is often extensively black; separating these surfaces is a finger-width rufous-buff hind-neck collar, with black crossbars. The white submoustachial stripe is fairly prominent. Of all local nightjars, this species has the most extensive white wing flashes, with white or buff spots on up to six primaries. Given a sufficient view the tail pattern is also diagnostic: while T4 has no white or buff, T5 has a fully white or buff outer web, together with a pale tip on the inner web. Female: Like male, but wing spots, tail sides and shoulder bar buff-tinged. Variation: Three subspecies occur, differing mainly in general plumage tone, but this should not cause confusion at species-level. Habits: Roosts on the ground during the day, usually near cover.
Confusion risks: Separation from other nightjar relatively straightforward owing to tail pattern, pale trailing edge to wing, vivid scapular markings and prominent pale shoulder band. For distinctions from Fiery-necked, Rufous-cheeked and European see those species. Extensive white in wing of male could momentarily suggest much larger male Pennant-winged, but Square-tailed is much smaller, has a white outer tail, a more sharply defined trailing edge on the wing, more obvious wing covert markings and a much narrower wing. Freckled has somewhat similar grey marbling above, but is otherwise much plainer and larger. Perhaps most frequently confused with Swamp Nightjar as both species have extensive pale panels on the outer tail feather and may occur virtually side-by-side. However, Swamp lacks obvious pale tips or bars on its wing coverts, and has black-spotted not snipe-like patterns on its scapulars. While Swamp may show a buff or whitish trailing edge to the wing this is narrower and more diffuse than in Square-tailed. Swamp has less extensive white/buff on the primaries (none on P6 or P5). Although both species have most of the outer web of T5 pale, Square-tailed has a smaller portion of the inner web of T5 pale than Swamp, and has no pale markings on T4. Swamp has a dark breast with large buff spots, as well as blacker face and malar stripes. Lastly, Swamp looks notable short-tailed, whereas the opposite is true in Square-tailed.
FIGURE 18. Variation in Square-tailed Nightjar (female above, male below). Note the proportionately long tail, vivid “snipe-like” markings on the scapulars, with extensive pale gold streaks, grey marbling on the back, fairly broad buff collar and extensive black on crown.
Summary: Swamp (Natal) Nightjar
FIGURE 19. Main diagnostic features of Swamp Nightjar.
A localised and generally uncommon nightjar restricted to moist floodplains, swampy grasslands and edges of dambos in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana, and coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal and southern Mozambique (Harrison et al. 1997) with a smaller isolated population in southern KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Medium to small, with a notably short tail that does not project far beyond the folded wings. Primary projection short. Build stocky. Toes and legs long, and often seems to stand rather higher above the ground than other species. As far as nightjars go, relatively easy to identify. Males have the most extensive white tails of local nightjars, with virtually all of T5 (outer web and inner web) pure white, and most of the outer web and much of the inner web of T4 also white. This is very conspicuous, especially in flight (but see comments under Female, below). Also has uniquely patterned upperparts (including scapulars), with scattered black spots in the form of stars, diamonds or Christmas trees, usually with white or buff tips giving it a scaly or spotty appearance. The secondaries have narrow paler tips, creating a diffuse pale trailing edge. Otherwise the wing coverts are relatively unadorned and this species lacks the broad pale covert tips of most other nightjars. The crown is mostly black, bordered below by a prominent spotted white supercilium, offset against the dark face. The breast feathers have blackish bases and buff tips, making the chest look dark with bold buff spots. Female: Wing spots are buff (not white), and the tail pattern is less striking, with a narrow buff outer panel on T5 and T4 and a variable pale tip, and the rest of the feathers coarsely barred in black and buff. Variation: Okavango race carpi is overall slightly larger, greyer and paler than south-eastern populations (Chittenden et al. 2012). Habits: Roost on the ground, often beneath overhanging grass or near palms. May perch on shrubs or posts (Hockey et al. 2005). Confusion risks: Tail pattern and pale trailing edge to wing often leads to confusion with Square-tailed (see that species for distinctions). Black spots on upperparts could lead to confusion with Fiery-necked. Unlikely to be confused with other species.
Summary: Freckled Nightjar
FIGURE 20. Main diagnostic features of Freckled Nightjar.
A large and robust nightjar normally encountered near rocky slopes. Plumage adapted for camouflage on rock surfaces; as such, lacks wing bars or other prominent markings, appearing plain dark grey or nearly black from a distance. Close-up, shows fine grey and black marbling, with a few scattered large creamy spots (like lichens growing on granite). Both sexes have white wing spots on four primaries, but the white colouration is mostly restricted to the inner webs; effectively the wing thus looks unmarked when folded, or shows only tiny white wedges. Males have extensive white tail tips, with “dirty corners”. Female: Lack white on the tail tips, but otherwise as male. Variation: Minor; probably linked to colour of rocks. Habits: By day roosts on rock surfaces, but at night forages in nearby woodlands or adjacent open areas. May call from roofs, boulders or even treetops. Attracted to electric lights. Confusion risks: Thanks to plain grey plumage unlikely to be confused with most other species. In size like European and Pennant-winged. Some dark grey variations of European are similar. Freckled differs from European in its plain plumage and lack of pale wing bars, and in that both sexes of Freckled have white wing spots whereas female European lacks obvious wing spots. Freckled told from female Pennant-winged by the former’s white wing spots, white tail spots of male, and plainer, greyer plumage.
Summary: Pennant-winged Nightjar
FIGURE 21. Main diagnostic features of female Pennant-winged Nightjar.
A peculiar, unusual nightjar resctricted to rocky or sandy woodlands in northern regions (but a fairly frequent vagrant outside its normal range). In breeding plumage males are absolutely unmistakable thanks to their spectacular trailing pennants on P2. Even when these are lost by late summer, males are still easily identifiable by the broad white band running through the bases of most of the primaries, as well as the absurdly flared wing. Female: Females may cause identification problems. They are large and long-winged, with small heads and pointed bills. They lack white or buff markings on the wings and tail, but the flight feathers are boldly barred with rufous-red and black throughout. They have small buff tips to the coverts and secondaries, in the latter case forming a narrow buff trailing edge on the wing. The scapulars have fairly prominent buff outer borders. The crown feathers are black with rufous edges. The most distinctive feature is a broad reddish collar on the hind-neck. Variation: Minor. Habits: A sociable, polygynous species that may be found in flocks or loose associations that roost, display and migrate together. Roosts on the ground, but sometimes perches lengthwise on branches. At night displays in flight or by rotating slowly with raised wings on a raised vantage point (Fry et al. 1988). Confusion risks: Even in non-breeding plumage males should not cause identification problems. Females lack white tail and wing spots, and are therefore most likely to be mistaken for the equally big female European. However, that species lacks Pennant-winged’s broad reddish collar, is generally greyer, has smaller and yellower bars on the flight feathers, and lacks a narrow buff trailing edge on the wing.
Readers should be warned that the challenge of identifying silent nightjars under field conditions should not be under-estimated. While modern digital cameras now enable birders to easily photograph these birds in high resolution, the currently available literature does not always enable correct identification regardless of the clarity of a photograph. This is exemplified by the large proportion of wrongly identified photographs in circulation: as an ad-hoc experiment, we critically re-assessed a sample of 130 pictures published in books or online, and found that 32 (24.6%) were wrongly identified. Even while working with the museum specimens, several wrongly labelled study skins were discovered.
Nevertheless, we believe that at least in southern Africa, field identification of adult nightjars to species-level is possible in most cases, given sufficient views. Building upon the excellent work of Jackson and other authors of in-hand identification keys, we hope that our initial investigation presented here will motivate birders to observe nightjars more closely. In particularly, we hope that birders, guides and researchers will rigorously field test our suggestions, and we welcome any comments, queries and critique. Lastly we hope that by presenting an alternative to catching nightjars and identifying them in-hand, disturbance to these bizarre and extraordinary birds will be limited in future.
We are indebted to Joe Grosel for sharing his vast field experience of nightjars, as well his excellent photographs. He also provided many useful comments on the manuscript. A big thank you to Derek Engelbrecht for reviewing a cumbersome and technical manuscript – baie dankie Derek. All the specimen photographs were taken by Jason Boyce, of material curated by the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History. Also thank you to Wilma Meiring for pointing out two mistakes in the article – both have now been corrected.
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Fry CH, Keith S, Urban EK (eds). 1988. The birds of Africa. Vol. 3. Academic Press, London.
Harrison JA, Allan DG, Underhill LG, Herremans M, Tree AJ, Parker V, Brown CJ (eds). 1997. The atlas of southern African birds. Vol 1: Non-passerines. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.
Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ, Ryan PG (eds). 2005. Roberts birds of southern Africa (7th edn). Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.
Holyoak DT 2001. Nightjars and their Allies. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Jackson HD 1986. Identifying nightjars in southern Africa. Bokmakierie 38(2): 41-44.
Jackson HD 2000. A new key to the identification of the Afrotropical nightjars (Caprimulgidae). Ostrich 71(3&4): 371-379.
Maclean GL 1993. Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa (6th edn). Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.
Newman K 1983. Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa. MacMillan South Africa, Johannesburg.
About the Authors
Faansie Peacock considers himself a professional birder…but pays bills by being a publisher, author, artist, designer, speaker, consultant and book vendor. Favourite bird? Greater Striped Swallow. Best bird? African Pitta (local); Spoon-billed Sandpiper (world). Bogey bird? Manx Shearwater. Accomplishment? Seeing 302 species in 24 hours.
Jason Boyce is a semi-professional guitarist in his church’s band. When he’s not rocking out, he’s either leading birding tours across the globe, or trying to finish his degree in Environmental Science. He also enjoys photography, atlasing, butterflies and girls, in no particular order.