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Why I'll be up with the lark tomorrow

By Frances Burscough

Published 02/05/2015

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

I think it’s fair to say that I was a strange child. A proper nerd, in fact, before the term had even been invented.

On the whole I didn’t “do” a lot of the things that little girls are supposed to do, like pushing dolls prams around and playing Mummies and Daddies. I was far too industrious to waste my time with any of that make-believe nonsense. From the age of about six until ... err ... well now actually, my favourite pastime and greatest fascination has been investigating and uncovering wildlife in general and birds in particular. In the early days it was actually more of an obsession than a pastime. If you think I’m exaggerating, then read on.

I used to really look forward to Friday nights during the spring in particular. Not because it was High Chaparral followed by the Invisible Man on the telly. And not because I could enjoy a lie-in the following morning either. Quite the opposite in fact. My plan was to be up with the lark, quite literally, to listen to and record the dawn chorus. Yes, I told you I was a nerd.

In order to make sure I didn’t miss a single tweet, on Friday nights I would check the evening paper to see what time the sun would be rising the following day and then I’d set my alarm clock accordingly, for about half an hour earlier, to allow myself time to get my recording equipment ready and sound-checked. I called it “recording equipment” but in reality it was just an old cassette tape recorder with a plug-in, hand-held microphone. Then I’d make myself a flask of tea and pack a few biscuits, get my notebook and pen ready; lay out a coat, scarf and gloves and then off to bed I’d go, bright and early before anyone else in the house.

Invariably, when my sister Marie came up to bed (we shared bunk beds) she would notice everything neatly laid out on the chair by the window and groan. “Not the bloody dawn chorus again?! It’s like sharing a room with David bloody Attenborough!”

So as 5.30am or thereabouts came round I’d leap out of bed excitedly, put my coat on over my jammies, pour myself a cup of tea, open the bedroom window wide and wait. Then as soon as I heard the first notes I would switch on the trusty tape recorder holding the microphone out of the window with my left hand whilst scribbling away in my notebook with the right.

See, I told you I was a nerd. But there was a point to all this. After a few weeks I was able to recognise every bird that came into or around my garden — plus lots more besides — and anticipate the sequence of their riotous and joyful choir. And that knowledge has remained with me all my life, so that a walk in the park, or a stroll on the beach takes on a whole new resonance as I can identify every bird in the vicinity before I even see them. To me, the dawn chorus is the greatest open-air concert on earth and what’s more it’s free, it’s as regular as clockwork and going on right outside your window.  

Now it just so happens that tomorrow, Sunday May 3, is International Dawn Chorus Day and the RSPB NI is hoping to encourage everyone to embrace their inner nerd and go outside to listen. I predict that the first bird you will hear will be a blackbird, after all the song was right:

“Morning has broken, like the first morning;

Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.”

But if you can’t quite manage to get out of bed to listen to your local dawn chorus, or are suffering from a bit of a hangover, don’t worry. BBC Radio Ulster is joining forces with RTE in the Republic and NRK in Norway to broadcast the dawn chorus live on air from midnight tonight until 7am in the morning so all you have to do is set your own trusty recorder and enjoy it at your leisure.

No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing tonight then! I might just make myself a flask, just like the old days, although I’m thinking vodka instead of tea ... for medicinal purposes you understand!

Online Editors

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