Sometimes you just have to go with a primal urge and mine was simple: to be out in a marsh at midnight. The urge was so strong that it over-rode all thoughts of getting a good night’s sleep, of what I’d feel like later that day or any other reasonable objection my mind tried to raise. Part nostalgia and part hunger for adventure meant that come 10pm I was heading out from St Albans down to into deepest darkest Kent for what I hoped would be a magical night of nature’s little-heard orchestra.
This urge was not entirely without origin as, in my university days, I had been part of a mad bird-watching team that each year had attempted to see how many species of birds they could record within a 24-hour period in Kent. Our bonanza year had come when we discovered how advantageous it was to start in the dark at the midnight hour in the middle of the Stour Valley marshland.
It is hard to describe the din as you step out of the car upon arrival – or out of the taxi in those days, leaving a very puzzled and worried-looking taxi driver peering out at us as we shuffled off into the dark clutching binoculars and torches. Nightingales burst out their song from what seemed like every bush while Cetti’s Warblers shouted out across the reed-bed.
It was no different tonight but, as before, the most startling sound came from a non-avian and non-native resident invader to our marshes, the Marsh Frog. Not afraid to hide their amorous intentions the choir of frogs provided a sonorous carpet of croaking rolled out across the whole marshland. Stepping quietly lest a thousand bulging eyes turned to look at me, I headed out across the marsh.
I had no need of a torch as the whole auricular experience was played out under beautifully clear skies with the marshland bathed in a soft, pale orange light. Disney could not do better and I half-expected to encounter some other-worldly beings winging across the reeds or tip-toeing on the still pools. The magic I had hoped for was alive and well and, never more awake, I continued out along the path to Marsh Hide.
I paused every now and again, trying to find spots where the Marsh Frogs weren’t quite so deafening. This then allowed me to pick out some of the individual instruments in the marshland orchestra. A Tawny Owl hooted tentatively from a nearby copse while Reed and Sedge Warblers sang their scratchy tunes from the depths of the reed-bed. Overhead and out of my sight, Snipe ‘drummed’ in courtship dives, their outer tail feathers, vibrated by the accelerated air, producing a very appealing, wavering sound – perhaps akin to someone sniggering into a clarinet or bassoon.
I also picked out the ventriloquistic reeling of a Grasshopper Warbler probably with its little pink legs on a willow branch perched just above the reeds swaying its head back and forth to pour out its unique song to all near and far. Straining my ears I also listened intently for another gem of the marsh that I hoped to be able to pick out. Not one, but two Spotted Crakes, had been heard by other birders over the last two weeks giving their strong and insistent whip-lash of a call and thereby indicating their rare presence. A smaller and speckled brown version of the Moorhen, seeing the bird in the dark was out of the question so I closed my eyes and summoned all my abilities to separate out each sound I could hear to see if I could distinguish a crake calling from the general ensemble. Despite my best efforts I eventually had to concede that even Crakes have to sleep and maybe they would start singing nearer dawn. However, I had another venue in mind for the dawn chorus so would sadly not be around to hear them this year.
The Cuckoo who classically ‘comes in May and sings all day’ also, I discovered, sings all night too…but obviously that doesn’t rhyme! A lot of other diurnal birds also, consciously or unconsciously, added to the general hub-bub – Wood Pigeons (who I’m convinced have little control over what they are doing at the best of times) occasionally panicked and crashed around in the trees while Common Terns chattered restlessly as they roosted.
Tuning my ears to a further range I realized that, beyond the immediate cacophony, I was listening to a famous reed-bed bird, an accomplished wind-instrument and a master of camouflage. The Bittern, almost impossible to see during the day thanks to its perfect reed-like plumage, gives itself away at night with its ‘booming’ call. The call is far-carrying but subtle enough to miss. It’s a bit like the sound you get when blowing across an empty glass bottle spout. In its heyday a bird of common folklore with colloquial names such as ‘bog bumper’, ‘boom bird’, bottle-bump’ and ‘bull of the bog’ but now not so well known perhaps as its numbers have declined.
I lingered in the reed-bed wonderland for a little longer, my ears doing over time but with one eye on the clock as I didn’t want to miss my date with the woodland dawn chorus in the north of the county. Finally and reluctantly, I left the reed-bed with my own brief contribution to the pre-dawn overture – tyres on gravel track with gently accelerating diesel engine. The quiet of the driving seat seemed deafening all of a sudden as I left behind the busy nocturnal world, the magic now broken by the need to follow the road.
I hope to return, maybe next year, but for now, that primal urge has been satisfied in a baptism of myriad sounds and sensations – the symphony of the marsh and every bit worth staying up for!