What could be better than creeping out of the front door trying not to wake the neighbours and stepping into the chill of a spring pre-dawn (well, apart from staying snugly asleep in bed, of course)? Sleeping is for wimps.

Thorne Road is quiet, except for the solitary cyclist heading towards town for the five am. shift. The urban chorus of blackbirds is already under way as I cycle across the playing fields (Top Fields as we used to call them) over the watershed between the Don and the Trent catchments. Surely I’m too late – it’s already light enough to see! But then, it is never really dark in the suburbs.

I pass the corner of Heather Wood as I cycle over the brow of the hill near the Water Tower. Over in the middle of Intake the blackbirds perched on the topmost branches of the mature Sycamores beside Shaftsbury Avenue hark back to the days when these trees stood in the centre of the great Wheatley Wood. The nightingales have long-since sung their last trill, as the woodland was gradually lost under Intake housing estate. Only Heather Wood now remains, with the green croziers of bracken and the haze of bluebells just visible in the gloom.

I continue down the hill, past my old school, alongside the hockey pitches full of mole hills ready to steal the ball from the unwary left winger on the way towards goal. The ground is often soft and muddy after winter rains have tried to recreate the old fen habitat in this part of the wood. On old maps the area is named ‘The
Rush Beds’ so it is hardly surprising that the blocks of flats in Intake stand in a lake after heavy rains…

At the bottom of the hill I cycle across the football pitches towards the dark and misty woods of Sandall Beat, my eyes still watering from the wind when I freewheeled down the hill. The moon is just setting into the mists over the white railings of the Straight Mile as I cycle towards the darkness of the Car Park.

There is already a car parked up with Derek standing beside. We exchange the usual greeting of “Only us fools again I see! We must be mad!”

My hands are cold as I fumble in the back pocket of my cycling jacket for my notebook. Derek reaches down into the bottom of his rucksack of useful items and retrieves his torch to help me write down the time (4.30am) as we listen for birdsong at the first recording station, the car park itself.

At first there is silence, then the unmistakable song of a robin comes from the holly bushes at the edge of the car park. Another robins answers from a little way off. We continue to listen for another couple of minutes but we just hear the territorial battle of the two robins “Robin; one near and one distant”, I write in my notebook. As we walk on from the car park to follow the Woodman’s Trail, the alarm call of a blackbird interrupts the regular clicking of my gear race as I push my bike. Will we hear a Tawny Owl this time? Is my hearing still good enough to detect the bats hunting along the Middle Ride? How long before the Cockerel at Sandall Beat Riding Stable joins in the Chorus? Will ‘Chaffinch Corner’ live up to its name and what chance is there of hearing the Grasshopper Warbler in The Fen again?

Why not come along this Sunday to find out?

International Dawn Chorus Day 2 May 2020
Meet at the Straight Mile Car Park, Sandall Beat Wood at 4.30am.
Wear warm clothes. Bring a snack and a warm drink.
Duration – approx. 2hrs. We take a break for a snack at the bridge near the Woodman’s House. Distance 2km.
Leader: Louise Hill


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