During a recent visit to the Vredefort Dome I thought of going for a “night drive” along the service roads closest to the Vaal River to find some owls. No owls, but lots of Rufous-cheeked Nightjars instead!
I haven’t seen a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar since October of 2011 when we stayed over at the Gharagab waterhole in the Kgalagadi, plus, I have never been able to get photographs of this species. So, my impromptu night drive paid dividends big time! The birds were most common on narrow stretches of gravel roads where the surroundings were Acacia savannah in areas punctuated by granite koppies, within 1 km of the Vaal River. The abundance of this breeding summer migrant to southern Africa peaks between late August and early April. It is largely absent from southern Africa in winter when it migrates to the savannas north of the equator.
The fun bit of this encounter was how accepting these birds are of the close proximity of a vehicle, allowing me to within five metres of them. The burst of light from my camera flash also didn’t bother them either as they remained posing shot after shot.
This nightjar is easiest identified by listening to its unique song: three or four gulping notes as if it is swallowing air to enable it to produce the prolonged, unvarying trill that follows, lasting sometimes longer than a minute! This bird is easily overlooked even when one keeps eyes peeled for it and many are flushed from the road verges prior to getting a visual.
The white in the wing and tail are the extent of sexual dimorphism in this nightjar, indicating that the bird in this photograph is a male, these markings being beige or rufous brown in females.
Rufous-cheeked Nightjars exclusively eats insects, mostly flying insects, ranging from flying ants, mantids, grasshoppers, locusts, cockroaches to all sizes of beetles, hunted mainly at dusk, less often on moonlit nights or dawn. It sits on the ground, usually near water, trying to locate prey. Once it spots something, it goes on a short foray, demonstrating astonishing aerial agility as they execute rapid twists and turns in pursuit of their prey. After nabbing the insect, they often return to the same spot.