Carrying on the dusky theme of the week, yesterday I was caught out by that recent time shift into the bleak dark of winter. Seems to happen every year: one moment the memory of lingering summer nights is still fresh, the next we’re plunging into the darkest three months. If you don’t get your birding in early, the day starts to run away from you, but never fear — I’m actually rather fond of being out at dusk. It’s quite the best time for a walk, with the possible exception of early in the morning. Or midnight.
Setting out along the canal in Theale, I was indeed rewarded with many of the classic sights and sounds of birding just after sunset. Blackbirds called repeated staccato notes enthusiastically from the scrub, as if to reassure themselves of each other’s whereabouts before settling down to rest. The occasional squadron of large gulls planed over, beginning their gentle descent into gravel pit roosts, undersides picked out in the last pink-orange gasp of the afternoon. Few corvids in the area, but out in the countryside long lines of rooks and jackdaws on their nightly commute would be another thing to watch for — of which more to come later this week.
When I finally got a good view across the largest of the pits, and had finished admiring a peregrine barreling past, a quick scan of the gulls revealed a potential yellow-legged sat up on a buoy. Which leads me to dusk-derived birding lesson number one: obtain half-decent optics. I spent far less than a fortune on both binoculars and spotting scope, but they both contain half-decent glass — and the difference between that and very cheap glass is revelatory. They both seem to gather light, scurrying off and bringing it eagerly back to your eyes; things in shadow via the naked eye are resolved as birds of colour. Without, that would merely have been an indeterminate gull. With a bigger lens, it would probably have been firmer than ‘potential’, but never mind.
Next, I picked out an interesting diving duck, standing out somehow from the rafts of tufties. I got that light-gleaning scope on it, since I knew a drake Scaup had been seen the day before. Unfortunately, by now I had finally run out of light, so colours were out of reach — which brings up birding lesson number two: pattern and shape are important. I made a mental note (for shame, I had no notebook to hand) of a tall, rounded head, complete absence of tuft, white sides not standing out in the dark from the back (which was, by extension, pale), and a sloping, submarine-like shape emerging from the water (when compared to the more ‘upright’ tufted ducks). Looking good for scaup, though I confess I only recorded it as ‘probable’ on the Berkshire news site; I suppose I still lack confidence in my own abilities.
Twilight birding, then, provides both unique pleasures and testing challenges. True enough, it’s easier pickings at noon when shadows are short and the light evenly distributed. But you’d miss out on that special time when birds and other beasts are on the move, and the fleeting present moment of the daytime hours is eclipsed, once more, by the gathering ancient dark. And as the year wanes into autumn, we’re likewise coming into the very season of half-light — as night follows day, so winter is on its way, and the whole hemisphere is feverishly storing food and bedding down in preparation. For me there’s no better time of year to enjoy a crisp-leaved, woodsmoke-scented expedition into the half light.