When I visited Andalucía during the spring of 2002, the Red-necked Nightjar (Chotacabras Pardo o Cuellirojo – Caprimulgus ruficollis) had for long been a fascination of mine. It was a bird I had not yet experienced in the Western Palearctic, and my love of Caprimulgiformes had me searching for the species with increased enthusiasm.
During the last two weeks of May, I crisscrossed the Costa del Sol several times from Ronda through Málaga, spending some time along the Río Guadalhorce, stopping at Macharaviaya (ancestral home from my father’s side), and eventually passing Almería to the east.
By the time I reached Cabo de Gata – the region’s largest coastal protected natural park – I had seen several excellent species including hundreds of Greater Flamingos, ducks and shorebirds in the salinas (salt flats) of the region, but no Red-necked Nightjars.
During my first night at Cabo de Gata, I camped out near coastal crags that dropped steeply into the Mediterranean, taking drives and hikes up the arid roads and rocky cliffs north of the cape. I had heard an Eagle Owl from this location, so was intent in pushing my investigation well into the night. However, it was when I unexpectedly flushed nightjars from a sandy path that I was truly captivated.
I stopped the car at the sight of a Red-necked Nightjar on the ground, perfectly lit by my headlights, and managed to step out with my watercolor and paper to sketch the bird under the harsh artificial lights.
Unfortunately, several minutes into my sketch a police vehicle drove up and the bird flew off. I was immediately put under scrutiny and suspicion. The two officers were pleasant gentlemen not much older than me, and were very curious as to what I was doing. I showed them my sketches and they listened to my description of the nocturnal bird with interest. After an awkward moment of silence during which I continued painting under my headlamp, the officers simply excused themselves and drove away.
About a week later, while coiling down mountainous highways from Grazalema towards Málaga late at night, I saw a vehicle in front of me hit a nightjar. I pulled over to inspect the victim, and found a perfectly intact and fresh C. ruficollis specimen. Arriving at Tarifa – the southernmost coast of southern Spain – I spent it sleepless, doing the sketches included in this post.
1. I typically start most field sketches with a pencil drawing. If the shapes, posture and placement of body parts are not generally accurate in the pencil gesture, then the painting runs the risk of turning out awkward. If the bird flies before I can start applying watercolor, then I’m left with a sketch I can use for future field paintings or as reference for a longer study.
2. In this case, I had the time to put down a substantial amount of watercolor before the bird was flushed. Unfortunately, the nightjar was left half-painted, and I was without a life reference to confidently finish the rendering.
3. However, when I found a dead Red-necked Nightjar days after, and created detailed studies of its plumage, I was able to use my specimen renderings to bring the field sketch to a more complete place.
4. Over the years, I often wondered if I could add just a few strokes to further develop this sketch without ruining it. I kept the hope of returning to Andalucía during spring, and re-encountering a Red-necked Nightjar under similar circumstances, but this has not happened yet. As time went by, the more I looked at the watercolor studies of the deceased bird, the more I felt I should add dabs of color to the field sketch, to give it the desired density. One summer night, as I drove through the Everglades and came upon a Chuck-will’s Widow with my lights, I immediately thought of the nightjar. Both the Red-necked Nightjar and the “Chuck” were until recently classified in the same genus – Caprimulgus (the latter has been recently changed to Antrostomus). Both species are roughly the same size, and both tend to exhibit overall rustier plumages than their congeners. As I carefully observed the Chuck-will’s-widow through my binoculars, it occurred to me that I was gaining useful information to help me develop the field sketch from Andalucía – not in the detail of the plumage or in the shape of the bird, but in the way a nightjar appears under the contrasting lights of car, and how this affects its volume and color.