It can’t be often that Hall Road is the busiest place in West Bergholt. But at 03.40 on Sunday 7 May I would be fairly confident that this was the case, as seemingly floods of cars arrived for this year’s Dawn Chorus walk. That is certainly what it felt like!
And so 24 of us assembled in the pitch dark, with most of us wondering quite what they had let themselves in for, and me wondering why on earth I volunteered to get up at such an appalling time each year.
After a few words of welcome and explanation from Andrew and myself, we set off down the track towards the wood. As usual, I had stressed that, even though we start so early, we rarely have to wait long to hear our first bird. Sometimes this happens before we have left the church, otherwise it will be as we walk down the track. As leader, I always feel better when it’s confirmed that there are indeed some birds ‘out there’.
But not, apparently, this year. As we marched down the track the world remained resolutely silent. Surely something would call or sing by the time we reached the site of the hurdle maker’s cottage? Nope. So onwards we trudged.
My normal routine is to stop at the sharp bend in the track and wait for the first birds to start singing properly. It’s a good spot from which to hear birds in several woods, and at that time it’s still too dark to enter the wood anyway. But when we got there, we were still surrounded by the sound of silence.
To fill in time I explained a little about how the dawn chorus is phased, the history of the wood, and also about how the first species we hear varies between the years. Sometimes a Nightingale, sometimes a Tawny owl, once a Cuckoo, and once (bizarrely) a Skylark. What would it be this year? (If anything). Hopefully something a bit unexpected – exotic, perhaps? So, naturally, the first bird we heard was the clarion call of a …. domestic cockerel. Somehow the celebrated Dawn Chorus walk wasn’t quite meeting expectations. Mind you, it could have been worse – if nothing had called I was about down to reciting recipes.
I decided that, as nothing else was making any noise, we may as well walk further down the track towards the wood. At least down there the pitch dark would be different to the pitch darkness we were currently surrounded by.
At last, as we approached the wood, we heard a snatch of something. Which turned out to be a Nightingale – just tuning up, but a Nightingale nevertheless. Then a couple of distant Tawny Owls called to each other, a Pheasant called loudly, and someone heard a faint Cuckoo. But there was still no real singing.
Normally the Dawn Chorus is led off by the local Robins, Blackbirds and Song thrushes. But there were all still keeping quiet. Whether it was the relatively overcast morning, or the succession of cold and dry days, I don’t know. But it was the most reticent sing song that I have yet heard. One oddity was when a Mallard called from overhead, flying over us in the dark.
But by now it was light enough to enter the wood. The bulk of the singing was coming from two or three Nightingales – but if you had to choose one bird to listen to, this would probably be it. Gradually the others joined in, until all the usual suspects were having a go. As an overall ‘wall of sound’ chorus, it was definitely the least enthusiastic I have heard. But, on the other hand, this meant that it was actually easier to pick out, and listen to, individual birds. This is practically impossible when things are in full swing. And so it was that this year’s highlight, for me anyway, was a Nightingale that was singing flat out, from a position right next to the path. In fact he kept singing as we all filed past, never moving more than a few yards from where we were. It was the best Nightingale I’ve heard for years.
Overall, we managed to hear most of the birds that you would hope to – Blackcap, Cuckoo (which called again quite a lot), woodpeckers and, on the way back, a nice Whitethroat.
Next year, I just hope that the first thing I hear isn’t a cockerel.