Lucy McRobert: dawn chorus spectacular


It's still pitch-black outside when the alarm goes off. It's 4.30 am. This is not my natural biorhythm, and I want nothing more than to roll over and go back to sleep. No. Get up, woman. It's been warm on Scilly for a few days, but the night is chilly when I step outside. I love the air here and take a deep breath in the dark silence, breathing in the smell of the sea. I pause to listen. Not a sound. Perfect, that's just what I want. I've dragged myself out of bed to enjoy a Scillonian dawn chorus and I don't want to miss a second.

It's usually a 10-minute walk to Lower Moors, but I walk fast (partly from cold, and partly because I'm a little unnerved). Scilly is very safe, but the streetlights are few and far between and the darkness swallows me up as I head out of town. I've only got my phone for light – a paltry beam. I pause when I reach the nature trail. As I push the gate open, the briefest shout of a Cetti's Warbler explodes out of the scrub about 50 feet away. Show time.

My plan was to record a full dawn chorus to use on social media for the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. It was windier than I would have liked. The previous morning would have been perfect, but that was the morning after Scilly's famous 'Gig Weekend' (the World Pilot Gig Championships) and the only people up at 4.30 am over Gig Weekend haven't gone to bed yet. The sound of raucous cheering in the background might have ruined the atmosphere somewhat, and I'm not sure I would have made it along the narrow path without falling in the marsh (I only had a couple of wines, I promise). 

Reed Warbler was one of the species Lucy heard during her dawn chorus stakeout (Mike Haberfield).

As I walked quietly along the path, I could hear a Reed Warbler tuning up ahead. I got myself into position with the camera, before realising that turning on the recorder meant turning off the torch. I didn't think this through. I was on the boardwalk in the little copse of wet woodland trying to shelter from the breeze; as I flicked off the torch, shadows loomed out of darker shadows. I was most concerned about meeting an over-enthusiastic morning dog walker and scaring the life out of them – crazy lady that I was, standing in the dark with my phone in the air. I strained my ears for footsteps, but the warbler and whispering reeds were all I could hear.

I should mention that I am rubbish with birdsong. I'm bad with most songs to be honest; growing up in the Nineties has given me a penchant for cheesy pop, boybands and RnB (the terrible tunes that make normal people want to pull their ears off). Although I have excellent hearing (ironically, I can identify bats by sound reasonably well!), I'm almost completely tone and tune deaf. When I'm in the car with my daughter, I will belt out Let It Go from Frozen convinced that I am nailing every note; in fact, the windows have just shattered, and she is sobbing on the backseat.

As such, birdsong is very much something I have to keep relearning every spring. It doesn't come naturally, although I would love to share that skill that so many top birders have, picking out every tic, tac and trill from 50 m away. 

As the minutes ticked by, a couple more Reed Warblers joined in, followed by Sedge Warblers. There were at least two angry Cetti's Warblers, once a rare bird on Scilly. The Song Thrushes and Blackbirds came next, followed by Eurasian Wrens, European Robins, Dunnocks, Blue and Great Tits and a solitary Willow Warbler. I didn't hear a Common Chiffchaff, despite it being the most-ringed species on Scilly. Common Pheasants and Woodpigeons joined in about 5.20 am. The scary bit came when I was mugged by a Common Moorhen, which squealed and nearly ran across my foot. 

Despite the cold wind, the next two hours were magical. The chorus peaked just before dawn, as the sky turned streaky pink. I didn't see another soul, nor hear a car. It was lovely to be out birding before anyone else and not have a small child demanding snacks, piggybacks and Bluey (a wonderful Australian children's cartoon) every five minutes. It made me realise I've got a long way to go with birdsong, but every second was worth leaving the house for.


Written by: Lucy McRobert

Lucy McRobert is a wildlife author and communications professional, as well as a Birdwatch columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @LucyMcRobert1