It's pitch black. The moon is hidden behind cloud and you are at least two miles away from the nearest road. Light pollution is certainly not a problem here. The day's warmth is still hanging on and the odd dip in the ground seems to have held onto the heat all the more - it's a bit like stepping into a warm bath. The heathland all around is quiet, save for the odd Tawny Owl and roding Woodcock, that grunts and squeaks its way overhead. As good as it is to hear them, that is not the reason that you are here. Your quarry is that bit more special and seems to know it - it is not playing ball so far tonight. Another half-hour passes but with each minute your sense levels increase. Visually you may be compromised, but aurally you've never been more alert.
Was that it? A vague sound from way beyond a distant line of birches... and again! Then, much closer, the unmistakable mechanical churring of a Nightjar, fading and then increasing in volume. You cannot see it, but it must be close. A female 'chucks' and the sound of wing clapping sounds crisp in the still air. Before you can quite register it, that flash of white in the dark morphs into a male as it fly across the path in front of you. Within ten minutes there are at least three bird churring away, out of sight but most certainly not out of mind.
It isn't just owls and nightjars that can perform when the light of the day has gone. A most underrated time of 'birding by dark' are the early hours of the morning. I've heard Savi's Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler singing at 02.00hrs at Westbere; a Quail going at full throttle on Walland Marsh at 03.00hrs; a Golden Oriole start up its fluty song in a poplar plantation at Lakenheath an hour before dawn; on many occasions I have had a host of overflying waders, with one particularly memorable time at Dungeness when I was 'sleeping' in my car close to the lighthouse but was kept awake by Whimbrels, Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlins passing overhead.
Although not actively birding, those times spent driving to your destination in the dark can be special. Many was the time when an overnight trip to Cornwall or Norfolk was interrupted by a Barn or Tawny Owl. With a car full of expectant birders, one by one falling asleep, until just the driver is left awake (hopefully!), this scene is mirrored across the country. The dark takes on magical properties then, the empty roads and heightened state of hope giving this time a charged atmosphere.
On arrival, still in the dark, still at night, you could stay in the car and try to catch up on some sleep. But don't! Get out and smell the air! Flocks of thrushes call from the murky skies, Robins tick from the darkened bushes - it's going to be a good day - in fact, it's already a good day and it hasn't even begun yet!
My favourite time of the birding day - the hour before light. Full of hope and expectation. Anything is possible. And on some days, the impossible seems to happen...