The dark night shrouded the countryside like a cloak. A faint glow from the distant town the only chink in the nights armour. Rain pattered against the car windows, which was slowly starting to steam up from the warm bodies within.
It is a waiting game. Watching the inky black beyond the windscreen. Waiting. It is the waiting that is always the hardest especially for a 5 year old.
Abruptly a bright beam of light slices through the black. It stretches, then focusses, converges on a spot and then disappears. Darkness again and we return to waiting once more.
Finally there is movement beyond the car, a silhouette of deeper black against the night appears, and the familiar shape of Lee materialises beyond the window. ‘Click’ and the door opens flooding him with light, revealing a large landing net in one hand, a sleek black case around his neck and a bird bag, lumpy with its content and a grin on his face.
The rain has stopped but a cutting wind slices through the layers of clothing. Bathed in torch and interior car lights it is down to me to pull the bird out of the bag. What appears slowly is a beautiful mottled brown and black head with a large liquid black eye, followed by a long bill, chunky body and relatively short legs. A Woodcock.
With the fall of night it has ventured onto the field to feed having spent the day roosting in the nearby forest. Under the cover of darkness it feeds, probing the damp soil with its long, sensitive bill, searching for worms, beetles, spiders.
The bird is ringed and processed, before being placed back on the field. It takes a moment to let its eyes readjust to the dark before fluttering off, swallowed by the night. It may well be a resident bird, living here year round. But then again it could also be a one of those that arrives here in the autumn from Finland or Russia, spending the relatively mild winter here on our muddy fields and damp forests, escaping the harsh, bitterly cold winters further north.
With the Woodcock released we repeat the process. Myself, the 5 year old and the now awake baby, retreating to the warm car, and Lee heading back out onto the cold, damp, dark field. With the 5 year old’s patience wearing thin we watch as the beam of light appears and disappears numerous times, before he reappears at the car door once more.
This time the bag has a smaller lump in it. The bird I bring out is no wader, but a passerine. An archetypal farm and grassland song bird, whose melodious song, delivered in a vertical display, climbing higher and higher into blue skies is quintessential of long summer days. The Skylark.
In the hand it is beautifully, streaky, beige, yellowish, brown, with a hint of that wonderfully expressive crest.
A bird of open field and grasslands they are rarely, if ever caught in the traditional way with mist nets. Tonight with the technique of using a bright torch and a hand net we catch and process three.
And yet the above is only half of the story. This technique for catching birds is known as dazzling, using the bright light to get close enough to put the hand net over the bird. Even then small birds such as Skylark are still hard to catch, often flying off before you can get close enough.
There is however a new method revolutionising the world of bird ringing and surveying. Thermal Imagery Technology. With the technology becoming cheaper (note cheaper not cheap!) more and more groups and surveyors are investing in tech and utilising it to catch birds in open habitats particularly at night.
Walking the field looking through the view finder, the cold landscape shows up black, any heat shows up light. The hotter it is the brighter it glows. Against the dark vegetation it is easy to pick out heat spots from birds and mammals. With the camera it is possible to spot birds sooner and from further away, before they fly off. It also means you can detect birds that do not have eye shine, something that is relied on when searching with a torch. This includes birds like Skylark.
With the advances in this technology and the price tags coming down (relatively) and with more ringers investing and utilising such equipment we can only hope that reporting and recovery rates of species such as Skylark increase, providing key information on movement and survival. With Skylarks Red Listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern due to steep population decline, such data may be one more element in the fight to save this cornerstone of the British Countryside.