Dawn chorus

The dawn chorus – we all listen in from time to time, often unwillingly if we’re lying wake, sometimes thinking – one day I’ll get up and get out there and …. just listen. You can’t worry about stuff when the trees enclose you, or the garden’s dew-covered in the dawn, or there’s a big sky and the last stars are losing out. You can’t worry about stuff when all you’re doing is listening. And maybe you’ll identify one or two birds amid all that joyful cacophony.

So one Sunday morning, early in May….

4.45 in the Buckholt beechwoods, the rain not long stopped, just enough light through the trees to see our way along a slippery path and avoid the roots. A tawny owl with a too-woo answers his mate’s too-wit. No too-wit: we only hear the answer. The thrushes give voice to the morning ahead of the crowd: their repeating phrases are mesmerising.

Robert Browning: ‘That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,/Lest you should think he never could recapture/The first fine careless rapture!

Browning was thinking of April, and we’re one week into May. But it’s been such a chill spring, April is still the abiding spirit.

A blackbird starts up its more random and fluting song in competition – as we hear it – with the thrush. For him it just might be competition for a mate, or setting out his territory.

It’s many years since I’ve walked through woods at this hour. Back in 1975 it was the tropical forests of Guatemala, and I remember a firefly that startled me, and listening for a jaguar, just in case. The dawn silence broken as I remember more by monkeys which took to swinging through the trees. My destination then was the vast temples of Tikal, in a clearing cut back from the jungle. My destination today – no more than a bacon sandwich, or maybe a return to bed.

But who needs destinations. Enough to be in the wood, and listening to the chorus. A great tit starts up, easy to recognise, then much too easy, and intrusive when we want space for other birds. Maybe take out the robin as well – which I love but its tuneful meanderings sound out from every direction. Without the great tit and robin, we novices would be able to focus more readily on other species. The coal tit, also a repeating call, but more mellifluous. The wren high-pitched, rapid and loud for a bird so small, so difficult to see. The chiffchaff chiff-chaffing. A goldcrest? – but maybe it’s pitched too high for me to hear – so another bird? But which?

We hear no more owls, but there are wood-pigeons, and collared doves. And by the side of the path Roman snails, tough-shelled and edible and enjoyed by the Romans who introduced them, and found more abundantly near Roman sites to this day. Too early for the adders and grass snakes, but who knows, later in the day, beneath the mats which are put out on the common, where adders find shelter.

‘It is the bright day that brings forth the adder. And that craves wary walking…’ (Julius Caesar)

But this is a dawn chorus walk…

The enemy – the pheasant. (We hear them but they belong on the woodland fringes.) 25 million introduced into the countryside each year, and they’re protected. There’s evidence they eat snakes. Which do we prefer? As someone said, you can see who drafted the legislation. Money of course comes into the countryside from the shooters, so the arguments aren’t all one way.

And habitats – we love our woodlands, but a hundred years ago great swathes would be taken out – clear-cut or coppiced or pollarded. The woods were resources not a place for recreation. And a place of mystery and seclusion, a place apart. There were the working woods, and the deep woods. And the deep woods still stir our imagination. One reason I love Buckholt and Cranham woods is that you can get lost there. There is always that frisson.

We try now, as Natural England does, to re-create the wildlife habitats of a one-time working woodland, without the working population. So we take out the saplings, we cut clear and we coppice – but it’s not easy to re-create habitats when we want them for recreation, not for work.

The chorus is better on bright mornings, than on wet, or cloudy. Better where the mix of habitat is greater – meadows next to woods, or gardens. Maybe. But there’s a magic in the woods at 5am, and at 6am – no sunlight reaches path or canopy (the clouds have yet to break), but the pale green, the bright new green, is illumination enough as I lift my eyes from the path. And to either side, a stretch of woods where bluebells thrive. This is mixed-habitat wood, and meant to be that way – there aren’t the great expanses of bluebells we can see elsewhere. Or wood sorrel. And only in a few places is wild garlic abundant.

Near the end of our walk, one crow. Only one. Distant. Too raucous. Round a corner, a field, scouts stirring from their tents – maybe collecting wood for a fire. Takes me back a few years. Then back to the road, and the village.

Fifteen hours later, sitting out on a patio, looking north to the woods where we’d walked. A song thrush strikes up, always inventive, compulsive listening. First bird of the dawn, the last (almost) of the twilight. 9.25 he flies down from the tree to roost. There’s a distant blackbird, and an early owl in the woods, a few seconds, then he’s quiet. And an evening crow. Like the morning just a single caw-caw, and that’s it. Then all is still. 9.30 a single bat flies past. There’s a breath of wind. 9.35, another bat and, a minute of two later, more than a breath of wind. Not only the leaves but the branches move.

All the while I’ve been contemplating a sunset sky which held its colour, its luminous reds, for at least half an hour, and above, alto-cumulus, a gentle bank of grey cloud against the light blue. The sky is as quiet as the land, and I feel I could step off into the woods and around the globe without disturbing a soul. Nearer at hand the oaks and ashes still gaunt in outline against the sky: the day (the 8th of May) has been one of summer warmth, out of the blue, out of the ether, a surprise and a wonder, summer in spring in winter.

It had rained before we began our morning walk, and after we finished. And it will rain tomorrow, then turn cold…

with thanks to Kate Gamez, of Natural England, our walk’s organiser, inspiration and guide

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