Grin Wood is a special place but at 4.00am on a cold but clear May morning it is particularly special. I was standing in the car park next to the wood, owned and lovingly cared for by Buxton Civic Association (BCA), waiting for the others to arrive for BCA’s dawn chorus walk. I was not expecting a crowd, but knew that Steve and Lyn would be coming, and Roger had emailed during the week to clarify times and to express his interest.
At least it was dry. Somewhere deep in the dark, dense, seemingly impenetrable heart of the woods an owl called. I switched on my night vision scope and pointed it out across the fields that lie at the foot of the woods. The dark lines of the walls stood out against the frosty white of the grass. A few small dark shapes moved slowly and purposely against the bright background of the grass. Rabbits feeding.
At 4.15am a blackbird and a robin opened up proceedings and Steve and Lynne arrived. Steve and I stood by the fencing of the temporary toilets and wonder if anyone else would arrive. We heard coughing and found that Roger had been patiently waiting by the front door. Roger joined us.
So this was it. The gallant four.
We set off up the steps into the gloom of the woods. We stopped to listen a few feet in. The dawn chorus was picking up, the blackbirds and robins, were leading the way, but a song thrush was warming up and a wren loudly joined in to make its presence known. Steve, who was leading the walk and providing the expert commentary pointed out a great tit, and then added that he hoped ‘we would get a nuthatch.’
The nuthatch had been the highlight of last years dawn chorus walk. Not that there had been much competition. It was hard to hear anything above the patter and splatter of the rain. But Steve was convinced that he had heard a nuthatch and everyone else was happy to go along with it.
But this morning was different. Now the light was creeping through the trees, lifting the gloom and brightening the horizon with reds and pinks and the birds were in fine voice.
We stopped about half way up the main path. Roger wondered as to why the birds sang so loudly and frequently at this time of the day and this time of year. Steve suggested that although no one really knew the real reason it was thought to be linked to establishing territory, and possibly attracting a mate. I pondered as to how different things would be if birds had the internet. No need to wake up before sun rise and sing for an hour, just log onto to one of the avian dating sites whilst placing your order for fruit, nuts or insects with one of the specialist bird food shops.
I decided not to share this thought with anyone else.
By 5.30 things on the singing front begun to ease off. The orchestra had finished and packed up and it was the turn of the soloists. The carrion crows were making a bit of a racket, and the great tit had been joined at various stages by the coal and the blue. There was a flurry of excitement as first a treecreeper was heard and briefly glimpsed and then a gold crest fluttered and stalked the higher parts of the canopy.
As we started to walk back down the main path, Lynne froze. She was sure she had heard a woodpecker. We were just beginning to think that she had imagined it when there it was, the familiar and I always think slightly primordial drumming sound, briefly silencing the wood with its urgent knocking.
But what about the nuthatch? There are at least several pairs in the woods and they are frequent visitors to the bird feeders that have been placed by the large end window of the cafe. But this morning they were silent.
Wood pigeons and collared doves had all joined in and to make the set of three complete a mistle thrush warmed up from one of the elm trees. Above us crows squabbled in the branches and several male blackbirds darted across the path and uttering their distinctive warning call disappeared into the trees. A female blackbird ignored the boys and perched on a low branch, getting her breath back, her beak crammed full of dried grass and small twigs for her nest.
And then there it was. The sound of a nuthatch. Calling not singing but a nuthatch. Surely now the morning was complete and we could stroll back to the cars and head off home for hot coffee and snatch another couple of hours in bed?
‘We’ve not heard a dunnock yet.’ said Steve with a twinge of disappointment in his voice. ‘We should have heard a dunnock, there are plenty about this year. Perhaps if we went and stood by the bird feeders in the picnic area we might hear one.’
In the end the hot coffee won and so we had to remain dunnockless. But there are plenty more mornings left.