And if that didn’t scare you, nothing will. It is, of course, Halloween here in north Hampshire. Plagues of small children scuttle to and fro, cunningly disguised as comedy skeletons or white-sheeted ghosts, hauling bags of organic chocolate cookies and tangerines. Two and a half hours after the sun’s miserably early descent, I braved the pitch dark gloom and the depths of the local shop, dodging past a flock of ravenous zombie ducks by the pond. ‘Breeeead! Breeeeead!’ they seemed to quack. Yes, not-so-remote commuter villages are pretty hairy places at this time of year.
Joking aside, many of my best wildlife experiences of 2011 have been in the half light, or the gloaming. When our familiar, comforting dominion over the waking world seems, for a few hours, to subside, and we revert from hunter to hunted, predator to prey, namer and keeper of the animals to what in truth we each are, taken alone: small, vulnerable, fleeting.
Whilst in truth very few creatures abroad in the night hours will do us any real harm, darkness brings disorientation, and the slightest noise becomes seriously spooky.
And what better festival could there be to celebrate the power of night-life than Halloween?
Of course, I’m thinking in particular of some of this year’s owl encounters — for example, how we so gloriously rounded off our ‘Reading Big Day’ all the way back in January with a shrieking barn owl; young long-eared owls swooping in near darkness to an alarming chorus of stone curlews; or a woodcock, a mysterious enough bird itself, doing laps of the wintry car park at Otmoor.
Best of all was an evening wildlife spectacular with nightjars as the main event, also featuring the biggest bat I’ve ever seen. It’s a pity that Halloween can’t be in late May or early June — the best time to head for your local heath or woodland clearing of an evening to listen to them perform — or that nightjars don’t hang around into October. The churring song of the male is truly eerie, somewhat mechanical in tone but surely speaking of a deeper, diabolical origin. And then they fly close to you, letting fly a yelping, frog-like call and flashing neon warning signs on wings and tail. A bird that is definitely not quite of this world, deserving of its frankly bizarre mythical alter-ego: ‘Goatsucker’.
Despite these highlights, it has been some years since the most terrifying intrusion of the wild world of birds into a night’s repose that I can remember, and never hope to hear again. At the time we basically lived in a caravan, at nighttime at least. Don’t ask. Anyway, the point is, in the middle of a night we woke up to this noise, piercing through the stillness and orange street lamp glow of the suburban street. (Check your sound is on — not too loud — and follow the link.) If that isn’t a disturbing sound, I don’t know what is; I’m getting goose bumps just listening to it now. Happy Halloween!