The pennant-winged nightjar is on most birders’ bucket list. Although more common in Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is at the very edge of its southernmost range in South Africa. There is, however, one place where you stand a good chance of spotting it. By Harriet Nimmo

So there we were at Punda Maria Rest Camp, in the north of the Kruger National Park, booked on a guided sunset drive. The game-viewer, led by charismatic SANParks guide Promise Ngobeni, was packed with expectant, excited birders. We were driven down a private no-entry road, and as the sun set, we all climbed out of the vehicle to sit in a row along a dry gulley. As we sat in silence, a distant hyena whooped and a pearl-spotted owlet began whistling.

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Pictures by Mike Kendrick

Nightfall crept in and, suddenly, there it was: swooping above us, a mystical angel of the night. It was far bigger than I’d imagined – like an ethereal bat or child’s kite. The pennant-winged nightjar shimmered and fluttered, its pennants streaming behind. As it swooped and dipped, it chippered like a cricket. We sat in awe and astonishment, watching the incredible display. It truly was magical, and I marvelled at nature’s creation.

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Even more amazing… The male has these elaborate streamers for only about six weeks – from the end of October to the beginning of December. So, you must carefully time your visit, and it is recommended you pre-book your sunset drive as it’s a popular activity with birders from across South Africa. It’s thought that this specific male has been returning to this non-descript patch of rough ground for more than 20 years.

Thank you, Punda Maria, SANParks and our guide, Promise, for delivering this extraordinary encounter. Pennant-winged nightjar? Ticked!

Photography tips

With the low light levels and a fast-moving bird, photography is a challenge. Photographer Mike Kendrick wanted to explore two different possibilities: a silhouette against the evening sky, and illuminating the nightjar using a fill-in flash.

Mike says:

“The flash option was particularly challenging as I don’t have much experience with this technique. I wanted to expose for the lighter feathers but avoid overexposing and burning the detail out. I used a Canon 5D MK III with 100-400 II zoom lens at 100mm. I set the flash-gun to high-speed sync mode. I selected ISO 3200 as it offered a compromise between an acceptable level of noise and gave me a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 sec at f/5. The image was processed using Lightroom and Photoshop and the noise reduced using Niksoft’s Define plug-in.”