Standing by an eastward-facing gate, looking out over a grassy slope peppered with isolated stands of birch and the odd bright yellow flash of gorse as it rolled away into the distance one night in early spring, I posed myself the question: 'do I prefer dawn or dusk?'
A few minutes later, as I watched not one but three Barn Owls silently quarter the landscape, occasionally halting and plunging softly into the grass to take unseen prey, I was erring towards the latter.
I began to conjure dusk scenes from my personal birding history. Owls have always featured prominently in my birding. While common enough to be encountered reasonably frequently, they always stop me in my tracks. Perhaps it's those big eyes that are a little more human-like on what is after all a fairly sizeable and obvious bird. Their habits, too, appearing to cruise around the land just as we're withdrawing to our beds.
Dusk is not just about the owls, though. Who can resist the sound of a reeling Grasshopper Warbler on a mild April night as the light fades, or the sudden start-up of a churring European Nightjar cutting through the midge clouds as the sun sets behind dark pines at dusk in May?
The sound of a reeling Grasshopper Warbler is one of the many enjoyable experiences that can be enjoyed at dawn or dusk (Kit Day).
Reedbeds are another place that come alive at dusk – in spring, the sound of Sedge and Reed Warblers scratching and rattling in the gloom and, increasingly in Britain, the low boom of Eurasian Bittern pushing out like a wave across the late evening sky.
Autumn dusk sessions bring the first calls of overflying Redwings, the distant sound of southbound Pink-feet and post-breeding waterside gatherings of Grey Herons, with their deep primordial croaks. Even in winter, there's an avian soundscape from the melancholy of seasonal European Robin song, to the pinking of soon-to-roost Blackbirds in the wood by my garden that draws me out to listen.
But what of dawn? How can I ignore those feelings of possibility and excitement that rise like the sun over the Newbiggin lobster pot flags on a sunrise seawatch? The distant calls of Sandwich Terns cracking the cold morning air during an early morning beach walk and the first notes from an unseen Ring Ouzel perched on a rocky ledge above the dew-glistened carpet of heather in a Cheviot valley.
Could I ignore the other-worldly experience evoked by a misty morning woodland dawn chorus – an orchestra urged into song by the first coarse croaks of a Carrion Crow, rising to a crescendo of outpouring song from Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Common Redstarts, interwoven with the occasional echoed drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker?
Dawn is not just about song though, it's that sense of newness – new birds waiting to be found that may only be there for the briefest of times. Who doesn't enjoy rocking up at their local lake to find the morning sun glowing on the brilliant orange of a newly arrived Mandarin Duck or the still calm waters reflecting the Persil white of a party of migrating Whooper Swans before they noisily nick off north?
At this point I need to confess to needing both. I couldn't ditch either dawn or dusk birding and thankfully I'll continue doing both as long as I can.
- This column was originally published in the June 2023 issue of Birdwatch magazine.