Helen Chambers goes in search of Wivenhoe’s dawn chorus.
‘Listen. Learn to listen, and there will be so many more birds in your life.’
– Simon Barnes, A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion
I finally decide to attend the dawn chorus walk – for definite – when I wake unusually early, leaving the house just before 4am. Before then, the prospect of getting up and out was only a vague possibility, a pleasant idea in theory. In practice, there is an ominous chill in the air as I close the front door behind me. A distant owl hoots. I notice the intense scent of a viburnum. Stumbling down the path, I am uncertain of my footing; but by the time I reach the group huddled in the churchyard, my eyes are adjusting. Even so, I recognise no-one, and it is only later and lighter when I spot friends. The dark lends an air of mystery and excitement to the whole proceeding. This must be what Jeremy Mynott describes in Birdscapes as, ‘the dark before the dawn, the silence before the crescendo.’
‘Morning,’ whispers somebody, who I later learn is Chris Gibson, one of the group leaders. ‘Listen to the robin singing under the streetlight,’ he adds. ‘It never was a nightingale in Berkeley Square.’
Expectant, we stand hushed and unmoving. After a couple more arrivals, we are motioned to start, and walk in near-silence through the kissing gate out of the churchyard, whisper our thanks for holding it to each other in polite British fashion, and down Black Buoy Hill, along the front past the new flats and out onto the jetty. I have the beginnings of a headache and wonder how soon I can slip away and back to bed. A cuckoo calls in distinctive fashion across the water. A fellow fraud. I’m not a birder and I know so little about birdsong. I’d sooner be sleeping. Seagulls screech overhead and what with the owl and the cuckoo, we have already exhausted my limited range of recognition.
Out on the jetty, with the black lifting into the darkest of blue skies, and distant streetlights reflected in the curve of the river, I feel more positive. Wivenhoe is beautiful. The writer J. A. Baker described a May dawn as the time when, ‘one by one the songs of birds shine through.’ But the birds do not wait for the official sunrise time, nor take their turn in order. Had I really expected them to queue up and perform one at a time for us? They seem to have started without us, and while Chris patiently points out the songs of a nightingale and a skylark, everything has started singing. Birdsong assaults our ears from all directions – a veritable feast, but with so many courses there is too much to choose from. I hear everything and discern nothing. A traditional dawn chorus walk, Chris explains, would be in a forest, naturally limiting the sound to nearby birds, but out here by the river, we will hear and see birds from relatively long distances.
There is a lightness to the darkness now, and fingers of purple and pink reach into the sky. ‘Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning,’ I recite inwardly, and it is true. We have the best of the day now and I am glad to be awake. We walk to the sea wall near the sailing club; saltmarsh and the silted-up Colne estuary to our right and freshwater marsh sprinkled with reed beds to our left. Beyond them, the land slopes upwards in tree-ringed fields. The tide is low and still ebbing. ‘Now that we can see each other, we’ll introduce ourselves properly,’ says Chris.
Wivenhoe Watching Wildlife began with a gang of four: Chris, Glyn, Richard and Greg. Chris, a big, friendly man in shorts, is an environmental development expert and ‘one of the great field biologists of his generation,’ according to Greg. Chris records everything in his notebook and fields our questions with astounding patience. Glyn, constantly moving around the group like a sheepdog herding us, and pointing out new sightings, is: ‘a frighteningly perceptive birdwatcher and skilled photographer who will hear or spot a bird at 1000 paces and put a name to it before you’ve even got your binoculars out of their case.’ (Greg’s apt description.) Richard Allen is a highly regarded wildlife illustrator, who carries a scope and tripod, encouraging us all to look more closely each time we stop. Greg, naturalist and musician, celebrating his birthday today, ambles along at the back with his binoculars, his insulated coffee mug and habitual smile. I know him well from other Wivenhoe cultural pursuits.
Together, they are WWW – not a group or society, no members or committee; just four friends who run informal events like bat walks, moth trapping evenings, this dawn chorus walk, and Spring and Autumn Watch indoor meetings. They recognise that Wivenhoe has a wealth of wildlife and their aim is to introduce local people to all aspects of it. Together, and individually, they are knowledgeable, good-humoured and remarkably enthusiastic, even at this early hour. They rely on the local Forum and word of mouth to advertise their events. Such is their reputation that one of today’s group members has cycled from the other side of Colchester.
But back to the dawn chorus, which has been in full swing for some time. We listen to a yellowhammer: ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’. I was taught this mnemonic as a child, but never managed to apply it successfully. The ‘cheese’ is a long, drawn-out note, possibly a third lower than the others, sung more quickly, and the yellowhammer is hidden in a bramble thicket. This open marsh, studded with thickets for cover and edged by trees, is perfect habitat for this small bird. It, and other similar small brown birds, I am told, will fly up once the sun is up, and become easier to identify visually. The song (the male preserve) is vital to aid positive identification. I have so much more learning to do.
Back on the estuary side of the seawall we watch a whimbrel – curved beak probing deep into the mud – through Richard’s scope. The beak digs deep, but not too deep. Every single wading bird (and these birds form a shockingly large family) has a beak perfectly designed to reach into the silt to the exact depth to entrap the correct food supply. I’m familiar with the haunting cry of the curlew, but realise I have a long way to go regarding the identification of these waders. I am excited to see a pair of avocets flying overhead, pointed out by Chris. I’ve seen these before at the RSPB reserve at Minsmere, and it is hard to remember that they faced near-extinction in the 1960s. Reintroduction to this country has been successful. Now they have become more commonplace, though I had never thought to look for them here.
We turn again to the reed beds, listening to an exotically-named Cetti’s warbler. Its song, undeniably explosive, is beautiful and melodious. It is certainly distinctive, and I am thrilled to recognise it by myself a few days later. But our attention is drawn inexorably to the eastern sky, which has become bathed in gold. We stand silent once more, disregarding medical advice about not staring at the rising sun. The glow on the horizon first reveals itself as a crescent, develops into a complete circle, and in rapid succession becomes an orb floating above the treeline. I marvel at the speed of it, and am humbled by the thought of our planet continually turning, a tiny cog in an unimaginably large universe. The chill in the air evaporates in its welcome warmth.
We watch a barn owl, silent and ghostlike, settle on a post across the field. Every so often it flies off with fluid wingbeats, marks a steady course over the trees and returns a few moments later to perch on a different post. Has it been repeating this pattern all night? I’ve previously watched barn owls hunting further downriver, at Alresford Creek. Each time, I am struck by their majesty and solemnity.
At 6.30, rather cold and with my headache taking hold behind my eyes, I admit defeat, and turn back along the seawall towards Wivenhoe. The hardier souls, and the gang of four, carry on until 8.30 am and clock up an impressive list of 74 sightings (including birds identified by sound.) Walking away, I am far more aware of listening. There is the distinctive popping, draining sound of the water trickling from the mud banks with the tide; lambs bleat in the nearby field. The cuckoo calls again. I can add Cetti’s warbler and yellowhammer to my list of known birdcalls, and I vow to learn more. As Jeremy Mynott points out, ‘we always talk about birdwatching. Are we missing something important?’
Helen Chambers is an MA Creative Writing student at the University of Essex. In 2014 she won the Hysteria Flash Fiction Award, and has had short stories shortlisted in other competitions. She took ‘The Wild East’ (an option from the MA in Wild Writing) as one of her modules, and is always more pleasant to know once she has spent time outdoors. She also enjoys listening to, and writing, radio drama. Her short play, Revolution, was performed at the University of Essex Homecoming Weekend in 2014. You can email her at email@example.com.