OK, a stupid question – but why does a dawn chorus walk have to be so damn early?
People are being asked to meet at 5am at the gates of Belfast Castle next month (Saturday May 18) where Black Mountain champion Aaron Kelly will lead the Dawn Chorus Dander on Cave Hill. 

Dúlra wouldn’t miss it – it’s set to be a magical, even a spiritual occasion. There are plenty of spectacular Intragram posts taken by people on Cave Hill of the sun rising – it’s a spectacular sight as it emerges out of Belfast Lough. As bucket lists go, it’s a special one. 

But how do these brave people do it? To get those shots, you’d have to climb Cave Hill in darkness – or stay on the hill overnight – and those two things are well out of Dúlra’s comfort zone. Daytime nature is wonderful and uplifting, but nighttime nature is, well, terrifying!

Dúlra used to walk through Colin Glen in the pitch dark after fishing on the mountain. Thankfully, with other people – or he would never have made it. The last time was decades ago, but just remembering it makes him jumpy and edgy.

Humans were never made for the night – unfortunately our eyes don’t work, but our ears do. So we can hear every movement, but don’t know what it is! Our ancestors built forts not just to keep their enemies out, but so they could lock the doors at night while dangerous animals roamed outside. 

In Colin Glen, we’d stick close together in single file and keep to the paths, occasionally using a torch. The forest canopy blocked out the sky, while on either side of you was the deepest darkness, so dark that you felt that if you stepped into it, you’d be lost forever. The only thing you could see were the outlines of crooked branches that reached out like limbs as if they were trying to pull you in.

And Dúlra remembers one feeling above all others: of being aware he was being watched. We couldn’t see any animals – except the odd badger which would scuttle across in front of us – but it was clear the whole forest was looking at us. People aren’t the quietest of animals as we crunch our way across old branches and acorns. There were countless eyes watching our every step.

There was never any messing about – it was too serious a journey, with too much potential danger. We just wanted out of there as quickly as possible!
Dúlra felt like he held his breath the whole way through Colin Glen, only breathing again when he finally emerged from the forest and on to the Glen Road. Never was a star-filled sky so welcome.

After those experiences, Dúlra decided to leave nighttime to the animals. As soon as the sun begins to set, it’s time to follow the example of our ancestors and head home.
But there’s safety in numbers, of course. And so Aaron’s Cave Hill Dander will be the perfect opportunity to visit the Belfast Hills safely at an ungodly hour.

And as the sun rises, so will those wonderful singing birds. In just a month, the forest around Cave Hill will be full of migrant birds like willow warblers and blackcaps, as well as the resident ones like goldcrests and thrushes. And they all greet the new day in song.

It’s going to be a great event which finishes at 7.30am, just in time to go back to bed! 
This week Dúlra went in search of one of our earliest migrant visitors, the sand martin, gabhlán gainimh in Irish. There were plenty of sightings of them locally, and there’s one famous place you can definitely see this wee brown bird – Thompson Dock where Titanic was built. 

Here they nest in holes in the walls which were made to run floodlight cables through. As far as Dúlra is concerned, the public information around the massive dock, telling tourists about Titanic, should also include information on the sand martins. 

And official recognition of them would ensure that nothing is done to disturb their nests – at present, the floodlights could be worked on in summertime because it seems no one is aware of the rare birds nesting there.

Dúlra spent an hour there on Tuesday afternoon, scanning the skies – but the birds must be still on the journey from Africa. He did find a nest – of a crow which managed to build a scraggy home in a young birch tree at the side of the dock. The mum’s tail was clearly visible sticking out of the nest as she incubated the eggs as tourists walked just a few feet below.

It’s an exposed concrete jungle down at the docks, but somehow nature always gets a foothold. Maybe someday we can have a dawn chorus walk down here!
* If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.