It’s 4 a.m. Standing high on Wooston hillfort in the still night air. The full face of the moon picks out the trees on the crest of the Fingle gorge. It’s magical. Not a breeze or a rustle disturbs the meditative silence until a tawny owl reminds me of where I am. Stirring myself, I notice the horizon over my shoulder is beginning to brighten. A pale green-blue, highlighted with a tinge of amber reveals wisps of mist clinging to the hills and valleys in the distance. It’s cold and most of the world is asleep. I put an extra coat on and wander off to meet Tom. As I walk, the moon casts my shadow and flecks of light reflect from the waxy ivy leaves wrapped around ancient oak trees.
Talking in a pre-dawn whisper we decide on a good spot to set up Tom’s microphone. Our favoured patch of damp woodland provides a mix of wild habitats where a few tall conifers stand beside some patchy shrubs and twisted broadleaves. A diverse blend. Within minutes, right on cue, the calling and singing begins. Softly at first, the owls hand over from their night shift then song birds build up their repertoire … and the volume. It’s 4.45 a.m and the sky is getting lighter, silhouetting the spring-time leaves emerging on the trees. New birds join in the chorus, deepening the orchestral quality, and the last owl calls quietly in the distance.
There’s still a chill in the air and the overnight frost is leaving the valley. I close my eyes, surrounded by sound. The fluty tones of the story-telling blackbird mingle with the urgent twitter of the wren and gentle chatter of goldcrests. Competition for territory really has begun and the chorus rises to its peak. I can hear a distant song thrush reeling and I’m mesmerised.
The sun has still not risen but the creeping brightness enhances a few shades of green. It’s time for the monochrome world to turn into colour, reminding me of old sepia post cards with a dash of watery paint. The increasing light illuminates fresh emerald beech leaves and the bluebells’ hue begins to appear. It’s 5 a.m and the band of orange in the sky through the trees hints at the blue day to come. The chiffchaff and blackcap join in the song.
At 5.45 we have taken the microphone to the oak woods. Lambs call for their mothers in the fields across the valley and, looking up through the fresh green canopy of spring-flushing oaks, I watch some early morning arrivals on their way to Heathrow. They don’t disturb the peace and the birds keep singing with a purity of sound, echoing around the gorge and resonating between the trees. The sun is rising but it hasn’t warmed up yet. We’d love to hear the call of the pied flycatcher. After a long annual migration from Africa, it should be claiming its patch of Devon oakwoods for the spring season.
At 6.20 a.m we arrive at the top of Fingle Woods near Mardon Down. This is a favourite place for the woodland edge, heathland and hedgerow birds to establish their territories. Tom is hoping to hear some warblers and they are already singing as we set up. What a greeting; a charming chatter of the garden warbler, enjoying a prime position in a birch tree. Sitting on a log, my field of vision is filled with small birds hopping from perch to perch. Did I see the long tail of a cuckoo? I thought I did. The waiting has paid off. Not only did the cuckoo start to call but it sat in a small roadside tree repeating its message loud and clear for all to hear. What a moment!
Back down in the valley we went to where we heard some ravens earlier on. Morning dog walkers started to appear at 9.30 a.m and, standing beneath some of the mighty conifers we listen to the ravens’ ruckus around their tree-top nest. As large black feathered forms fly between branches a gruff conversation takes place. It sounds a bit combative. Is it time for the younger birds to leave home and go and make a life of their own? As the day warms up the heat has gone out of the dawn chorus but it been worth every minute. It’s been a long day, and it’s only half past ten!
Sound recordings and birdsong identification by Tom Williams
Written by Matt Parkins