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On a wing and a prayer: Marcel the nightjar on the hunt for love

Posted on 8 August 2017

A lovelorn nightjar bird has travelled more than 600 miles across the UK in a quest to find a mate – an unusual occurrence for this nocturnal species in the breeding season.

Nicknamed Marcel by University of York researchers, the nightjar is yet to find what he is looking for, with only a few weeks of the breeding season left to go. 

Nightjar populations have been in decline for many years and they are species of conservation concern. They breed in the UK on heathlands and feed on moths and flying beetles. 

Studying the breeding and foraging behavior of nightjars on the Humberhead Peatlands near Doncaster, ecologists from York’s Environment Department fitted birds with miniature GPS tags so they can find out where they feed and nest. 

Analysing the tracking data, they came upon an unusual surprise. 

Finding a match

Dr Kathryn Arnold, Senior Lecturer in Ecology from York’s Environment Department, explained: “Last month, we were shocked when the satellite tracking data came back from bird 16840 - or Marcel as we have nicknamed him, in honour of Love Island. 

“After four days of searching and not finding a mate, Marcel then did a tour of England. In less than a week he flew over 600 miles. 

“First, he flew south to Cambridgeshire, then up to Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, before heading across to Milton Keynes, the Severn Valley in Shropshire and central Birmingham, before heading back to the Humberhead Peatlands. He made several stopovers but obviously never found a suitable female to start a family with. 

“My colleague Lucy Ryan then caught him again less than 100m from where he originally started. We had no idea that he had been on such an adventure until we downloaded the GPS tag data. 

“We checked and double checked that there was no malfunction with the tag or error with the satellites - but the data is correct. After all that, he still hasn't found a mate, but the breeding season still has another three weeks to go. 

“Of the 20 birds that we have previously followed, all of them have stayed within a few miles of the peatlands during the breeding season.” 

Nightjar tracking will continue throughout the summer, with researchers keeping their fingers crossed that Marcel finds his match.

Further information:

  • The nightjar research is part of the ‘That’s LIFE – Restoring the Humberhead Peatlands’ project, 2014-18, in partnership with Natural England and Doncaster East Internal Drainage Board. It receives funding from the EU LIFE programme (LIFE 13NAT / UK / 00451). For further project information go to
  • The Humberhead Peatlands (Thorne, Crowle and Hatfield Moors) is a National Nature Reserve, open to public access.

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