Sunday morning, early May, 4.30 am. I walk down the lane in the pre-dawn darkness with my guitar strapped to my back. It sits uncomfortably on the curve of my spine, and bumps against it with each step. The zip of the guitar case ruptures the quiet around me with a tinkle like breaking glass.
I am late; it’s already started. A robin was already warming up as I left the flat, and wrens and wood pigeons sing softly in the trees I now pass. Other birds are singing too, but I cannot identify them.
There is just enough light from the moon to see the gate leading to Lower Marsh Nature Reserve, where I have chosen to conduct my experiment. I cross the road, guitar bag chirruping, lean over the gate, and unlock it. I can just about pick up a silver ribbon of path in the darkness, beckoning me in.
The chorus seems to develop and become richer the deeper in I go. I find a place to sit: it’s not acoustically perfect, just a patch of bare earth by a fence that I will later find borders onto a pool of water. I unzip my case, taking out my guitar and my field recorder.
I feel for the recorder’s power switch in the dark. Its red light winks: it’s ready. I set it on the ground at a fair distance from where I am going to sit, not wanting to be too much in the foreground.
I sit. I wait.
I’m not even sure what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to join in. The chorus feels closed to me at present. I cannot sense any space into which a guitar could slip.
I close my eyes and listen to it build. I try to identify the birds as their songs bubble in and out of the chorus. I hear a blackbird wake and reel out a brief, emotive series of notes, stretching its throat as I would I stretch my arms and back as I get out of bed. It works on its song for a minute, and then wraps up prematurely. Then a wren starts, trilling a refrain like an alarm call, dominating the show. Underneath its line, collared doves call softly to each other. A cuckoo, deeper in the wood, clears its throat.
Sitting amidst a dawn chorus is a completely different experience to hearing it from bed. It’s so loud, for a start. And it is far more fluid than I thought it would be. There is not so much of a climax, but more of a slipping in and out of different songs, as birds announce their presence and leave a hole, an absence as they disappear. Not being able to see anything around me makes this musical presence/absence far more striking.
Just as my ears grow accustomed to the lead refrain of the wren, a cockerel, far off in the distance, crows a repeated series of notes with a rhythm that awakens the musician in me. And I know exactly what I will play and sing, too, as I experience a timely flashback of a moment when I was twenty, leaning on a windowsill, listening to a bird break the morning in. I’d written a song about that moment, about wanting to escape with the bird and its song. I’d not played it for years.
The lyrics become oddly prophetic as I roll them around in my mouth; I place my fingers in positions on the fretboard that they have not assumed for a very long time.
The cockerel continues to crow, counting me in. It is as if I am standing on a platform as a train rolls slowly by, spotting the approach of an open carriage door, waiting for the right moment to leap.
I would burr strings, fluff notes, and overshoot the vocals with a voice rigid from the cold, but it felt right on this enchanted island thirty miles from the UK mainland, a world full of overshoots and vagrant chorus members. And when I stopped, I would hear the space of my song’s absence for a fraction of a second, before the rest of the chorus rushed in.
– taken from ‘Songs About Birds’, a recent piece of writing about reawakening song-writing through ornithology and birdsong,