It wasn't until I'd been standing there for nearly an hour that I realised it was dark. And it had turned cold. March 20th 2015 as everyone knows, was a day of a solar eclipse. The first since the full solar eclipse in 1999. I remember that event well and having a day off I ventured out early to the Somerset Levels in anticipation. I took with me a sound recording kit as astronomical events like this are often accompanied by odd behaviour in animals.
Today was no exception. I got into position about 8.45am and after firing up the recorder, I walked some little way off to watch the event from a distance. At 08.45 although the eclipse had begun the Somerset Levels were as one would expect. Weak sunshine lifting the overnight mist, foraging wigeon whistling like asthmatic sheep on the wet reserve. Nothing unusual, but then I noticed. As if an unseen switch had been pulled just before 9am I noticed the light levels drop dramatically. I realised the wigeon, pintail, shoveler and other birds on the reserve had stopped foraging, stopped calling and returned to roost positions, heads tucked under wings. The reserve had fallen silent and what activity there was mostly involved small flotilla of wigeon drifting slowly across the water, asleep.
It had gone silent save for a lone male reed bunting which took up position by the microphone to sing. And sing he did all through the time of the eclipse. The only real birdsong for nearly 20 minutes. By 9.15am it was noticeably darker. A strange yellow light crossed the landscape. Oblique light but not as one would see say at dusk, when it had a reddish hue. This light was more Naples Yellow, strong but not overly so. I'd not seen that before and it fascinated me. Reeds and a passing great white egret were bathed in an aura of deep yellow, set against a dull darkened landscape.
The light wasn't the only thing I'd noticed. I say noticed but it suddenly hit me how cold I was. I'd arrived to a glorious spring morning, early mist was rapidly lifting, strong sunshine in a blue sky greeted me as I drove across the Levels to my destination. So engrossed in the event, I hadn't noticed that around 9.15 am, close to the eclipse maxima time, I started to feel cold and uncomfortable; that cold feeling at dusk when the chill of a frosty night to come eats into your bones. The light had dropped but the temperature had dropped considerably too, my guess is 4 or 5 degrees back to pre dawn levels. The mist was rolling back across the Levels too, the landscape was returning to evening. Such a spiritual experience and it fascinated me. Something I have never witnessed before. And then the dogs barked.
Half a mile or so away was a farmhouse. Not long before the eclipse maxima two dogs began barking continuously. I became angry at first. My attempts to record the changing soundscape during an eclipse were being hampered by barking dogs. Inwardly I barked back - SHUT UP!!! Then it struck me. They were possibly barking because of the eclipse. I can only guess this was the reason, but they barked continuously for 5 minutes, until that is, the sun began to re-emerge and then they stopped as suddenly as they'd started. I'd read that domestic animals can act strangely when an eclipse is in full swing. Had I witnessed this today? I think so, as in the whole 90 minutes on the Levels those two dogs only barked for 5 minutes around the 9.30am maxima.
It was coming to an end, seemingly quicker than it arrived. The sun returned, sunlight streaked across the landscape, mist rolled back, blue skies returned and all in less than 15 minutes. As I stood watching this change I could hear cracks, cracks from the wood of the bird hide beside me expanding. It really had become a lot colder for a few minutes then. Then the wigeon woke up, began moving around more purposefully and calling. Soon the reserve was alive with birdsong, not just the wigeon, wren, dunnock, geese, mallard and numerous tits. It had been quiet after all.... a silent spring day!
By 10am when I'd switched off the sound recording equipment a warm spring day filled the landscape. Hard to believe less than half an hour earlier I'd been engrossed by a deeply moving, spiritual and fascinating event. I'm not that interested in the science behind an eclipse, but I am fascinated in the effect it has on every living thing that witnesses it. Including me. No wonder Ancient cultures worshiped these celestial events, they are truly breath-taking.
As a postscript to this as I packed up the local farmer, Colin drove into the carpark to check the water levels over his land. Leaning against his pick up truck, two portly gentleman in checked shirts and green coats chatted in the warm sunshine for an hour on all things wildlife and farming. Mid conversation about the Dexta tractor and a pied wagtail nest, I heard a chittering high up.
"Colin house martins!".
We peered into the sky. There, 6 black dots, white underbellies, way up high buzzing like flies against the blue sky. The first I've seen this spring.
"Bugger oi theys early and no mistake" exclaimed Colin "ahh blooming lovely, my swallows will be back afore long, I has 17 nests you know in they stables, knows them all by name, I loves them swooping in and out ".
Lone voice in the landscape - the reed bunting
By 9am the eclipse was visible
Great white egret fishing in a Naples yellow dusk
9.10 am and the eclipse gathered pace
Catcott Levels at 9.30am around the time of the full eclipse.
Reeds bathed in strange light
The eclipse reaching its Maxima in Somerset
An artistic view of the eclipse.... followed by the obligatory selfie...... I was there!