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Discovering nocturnal nature

The RSPB’s Steve Blain shares his passion for discovering the secret world of nature at night.

Solving a mystery

While you sleep, safe and snug in your toasty warm bed at night, a mysterious world is coming alive outside your window.

Knowing that birds were soaring over my house every night, flying towards far-away destinations, was tantalising to me, so I decided to start monitoring nocturnal migration or “nocmig”. This developing new practice offers a glimpse into another realm, where migrating birds travel under cover of darkness to escape predators.

New discoveries

Two years ago I heard how a pioneering band of birders were recording bird calls over their homes at night and getting surprising and exciting results. The idea of exploring a side of nature many of us are oblivious to struck a chord with me. I already had a small digital recorder, so I had no excuses not to get started straight away. It was only a tiny amount of effort to leave it outside at night and then listen to the calls I’d recorded.

One of my favourite nocmig experiences so far happened just a few weeks after taking up my new hobby in 2017. It was a real “wow” moment when new technology shook up what we thought we knew about a species. I read that ortolan buntings, tiny endangered songbirds which migrate through southwestern France, had been picked up migrating over Dorset by “nocmiggers” (as nocturnal migration investigators are affectionately known) in the previous autumn. In England, they are almost exclusively spotted migrating over the southern and eastern coasts. A normal year would see just three to nine sightings, but nocmiggers recorded 31 of the little birds between August and September 2016 alone.

Just a couple of weeks later I was scanning through my recordings and played a call through my headphones. With a jolt of excitement, I realised it sounded rather like an ortolan bunting – never before recorded in Bedfordshire. A quick post on Twitter confirmed I was right. That was a good moment!

And it’s not only birds that I’m discovering – the number of bats I record is perhaps the most amazing thing. Some nights they are constantly making noise, especially if I have a moth trap alight in my garden. You can often hear the wingbeats of bats as they fly low in search of their prey.

But just as nocmig gives you a better understanding of what is around you, it also opens up even more questions. Sometimes you catch only the whirring of wings or struggle to recognise a bird call. And of course, the sounds your recorder picks up will only be the tip of the iceberg. 

Connecting with nature

Nature is remarkable, fascinating, inspiring and relaxing. But it’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity for human life to exist. People seem to be disconnected from this simple fact. Neglecting nature as the world’s population grows, and with it our insatiable appetite, is not a long-term survival strategy. Our planet is really struggling to sustain consumerist lifestyles. Each of us needs to leave a lighter footprint – before it’s too late.

How to get started

Nogmig is incredibly beginner friendly. All you need to embark on your night-time investigations is a cheap USB microphone to hang outside your window during the night while your computer records nature’s nocturnal travellers.

There is free audio software available called Audacity to process your recordings and a visual spectogram tool which will help you spot the distinctive squiggles of calling birds. Before long you will learn the shape of bird calls and will be able to swiftly pick them out from among the noises of cats, dogs and cars.

There are also lots of other options. Audiomoth devices were created by conservationists and engineers for wildlife research projects and can tap into ultrasonic frequencies. The market offers lots of portable sound recorders too, which will also give you a better quality sound and will help you pick up more night-time visitors to your neighbourhood.

Caught the bug?

Nocmig.com is packed with information and advice about identifying bird calls, equipment reviews and bird migration guides. If you’d like to share your new hobby with other nature enthusiasts following #nocmig on Twitter and searching for groups on Facebook will help connect you with like-minded wildlife lovers. 

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