It was a beautiful Sunday morning in Turahalli, Bangalore, circa 2009. Our motley group of birders and wildlife photographers was bustling with excitement – we had seen a beautiful Crested Hawk Eagle perched on a tree, almost as soon as we’d alighted from the car. All eyes were now peeled to see some exciting birds that morning. We walked only a few steps ahead when a bird flew right out from underneath my foot, almost as if it had waited until it was certain that I would stomp on it. Startled, I regained my composure and started searching for the bird. Despite it having landed just a few feet away, it seemed to have disappeared into the forest floor. That was my introduction to the world of nightjars.
Nightjars are cryptically coloured birds that are active at night, as well as late evenings and early mornings. They are evolved for flying in the dark, with large eyes, long & pointed wings, short legs, and short beaks. They are largely insectivorous, hawking insects by flying out of their perch on the ground or on branches. One often comes across them on quiet rural or forest roads at night, with their eyes shining back in torchlight or the headlights of a vehicle. During the day, they roost on the ground or on a tree branch, and their plumage helps them blend in. The distinctive call of each nightjar species is a good way to distinguish between the species.
Their name comes from the words night (when the birds are active) and jar (the sound made by the male European Nightjar when the female is brooding). They are also called goatsuckers due to a myth that is narrated in ‘Natural History’, the Roman era book by Pliny the Elder – “Those called goatsuckers, which resemble a rather large blackbird, are night thieves – for they cannot see in the daytime. They enter the shepherds’ stalls and fly to the goats’ udders in order to suck their milk, which injures the udder and makes it perish, and the goats they have milked in this way gradually go blind.” Caprimulgus (the largest genus of nightjars) is Latin for goatsucker. The family name, Caprimulgidae, and order, Caprimulgiformes, are all derived from the same word.
India has 11 species of nightjars. Karnataka has 4 confirmed species of nightjars across 2 genera. A fifth species, the Great Eared Nightjar, is treated as an accidental record. I have however included it in this article as its presence has not been completely overruled.
Nightjars of Karnataka
Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus)
The most widespread species of nightjar across the subcontinent, the Indian Nightjar is a small bird that is commonly found in open areas in plains and foothills. Its vocalization – a series of clicks that increase in frequency – is a common sound heard across the countryside late in the evening and early in the morning. According to Jerdon, “Its usual note, however, is like the sound of a stone scudding over ice.” Hence it is sometimes called ‘ice-bird’.
This bird usually uses the ground as a perch and a roost. At night, they often use streetlights to catch insects that swarm around. They are spotted in vehicle headlights, and are at times stunned by the bright light, only to end up as road-kills.
Savanna Nightjar (Caprimulgus affinis)
The Savanna Nightjar (previously known as Franklin’s Nightjar) is widespread across the subcontinent and is usually found in open hillsides with scrub and thorny vegetation. It is very localised, and is often found is good numbers wherever it is present. It prefers to perch and roost on the ground.
This small nightjar species is around the same size as the Indian Nightjar. According to Jerdon, “The general hue of this species is more uniform than in any of the others.” It is distinguished from the other nightjars by the conspicuous, buff-coloured “V” pattern formed by its feathers extending from the shoulders to halfway along its back. The call, a single “chirp”, is another way to identify the bird at night.
Jungle Nightjar (Caprimulgus indicus)
The Jungle Nightjar is found across most of peninsular India (barring the driest parts of the country), and in Sri Lanka. The Grey Nightjar of the Himalayas, Northeast India and the Malay peninsula was considered a subspecies earlier, but is now considered a different species by most authorities. Jungle Nightjars are usually found in forest clearings and scrub-covered slopes. They are largely greyish or brownish in colour, with the female being distinguished by a rufous throat patch and sub-moustachial streaks.
They roost on trees, where unlike most birds, they perch lengthwise along the branch to make their camouflage more effective. Like all other nightjars, they don’t build a nest. Eggs – typically two, like most nightjars – are laid directly on the ground. Both parents are known to incubate the eggs.
Jerdon’s Nightjar (Caprimulgus atripennis)
Richly coloured with a deeper brown contrasting with the blacks (compared to the Jungle Nightjar), Jerdon’s Nightjar is native to southern India (mainly around the foothills of the Western and Eastern Ghats) and Sri Lanka. This bird was formerly considered a subspecies of the Large-tailed Nightjar, but was subsequently split from it due to its distinctive call.
During the day, Jerdon’s Nightjars roost on the ground, camouflaging well against the soil, leaf litter and undergrowth. At night, they usually perch on branches and even tree-tops. As a result, they are not often seen in vehicle headlights.
Great-eared Nightjar (Lyncornis macrotis)
The most distinctive of the nightjars of India, the Great-eared Nightjar is aptly named for its large ear tufts. This is the largest nightjar in the world in terms of length, and the second heaviest.
The subspecies bourdilloni is found in the Western Ghats and has been mostly reported south of the Palghat Gap. The records in the state are from south-western Karnataka, with a photograph of a road-kill from Agumbe and recordings of calls from the nearby Durga Reserve Forest.
Frogmouths of Karnataka
Frogmouths belong to the family Podargidae within the order Podargiformes. Once thought to be related to nightjars, they are now treated as a separate order. Their characteristic wide gape and broad beak gives the family their common name. They are similar to nightjars in some ways, including their crepuscular/nocturnal habits and their cryptic plumage. Frogmouths have forward-facing eyes, which give them good binocular vision.
Unlike nightjars, frogmouths build a nest. According to Ali and Ripley, the nest is “a small pad, c. 6 cm in diameter, of moss, leaves, and twigs felted with down from the bird’s underplumage, and camouflaged on the outside with bits of lichen and bark.” Typically, one egg is laid. They are insectivorous and hunt by hawking insects from the air or gleaning them from branches or the ground.
In a 2021 study, German researchers Katja Thömmes and Gregor Hayn-Leichsenring found the frogmouth to be the “most instragrammable bird” based on a study of bird photographs from 116 bird families on Instagram. They write – “The surprising winner in this ranking is the frogmouth which seems to be a matter of poetic justice, as this nocturnal bird with very distinct facial features was once designated the world’s most unfortunate-looking bird.” (Referring to an article “Tawdry Frogmouths” by Van Dyck, 2004 in ‘Nature Australia’).
India has 2 species of frogmouths, of which 1 species is found in Karnataka.
Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger)
An unmistakable bird, the Sri Lanka Frogmouth is very often heard in the late evenings, across the Western Ghats. But it is one of the toughest birds to see during the day, due to its cryptic plumage that resembles dried leaves. Added to that, the bird sits motionless on its roost, sometimes moving slightly to possibly mimic leaves swaying in the wind. When disturbed, the bird stretches its head upwards giving the appearance of a broken branch. They sometimes open their mouth as a threat display.
There is visible sexual dimorphism in the Sri Lanka Frogmouth, with the male having greyish-brown plumage while the female is rufous in colour. The species is found across the Western Ghats and in Sri Lanka. The subspecies roonwali is found in the Western Ghats.