Char­lie Portlock re­veals the se­crets of the day’s end

Air Gunner - - Contents -

Char­lie takes us into a twi­light world. Shoot­ing at dusk can be re­ward­ing

Dusk (aka ‘the dim­met’) is spe­cial time of the day. It rep­re­sents a tran­si­tional point for all species that re­quire sun­light to see, but it’s also beau­ti­ful, quiet and slightly men­ac­ing. For our an­ces­tors, the dark­ness would have held many dan­gers and few op­por­tu­ni­ties and there’s still some­thing very com­fort­ing in com­ing home to a warm fire and the smell of stew cook­ing af­ter a long, damp stalk along the gloam­ing hedgerows. It’s a time when roost­ing birds wisely choose their perch, and when foxes be­gin to prowl in search of those mam­mals feed­ing in the rel­a­tive safety of fail­ing light. At this time of year, I can al­most set my watch by the mice who emerge at night­fall from the lux­u­ri­ous warmth of my wall cav­i­ties. Dusk is both a time of change and of op­por­tu­nity.


For the air­gun­ner, it’s use­ful to note the time of dusk be­cause it can max­imise our field time and en­sure that we’re not ven­tur­ing out too early, or stay­ing in one place too long. When we head out, we nor­mally have an ob­jec­tive in mind; a place where we know our quarry will be ac­tive. Whether we’re try­ing to reach a bait point, a hedgerow, a barn or a cer­tain patch of wood­land, we want to ar­rive in good time to shoot. If the wind changes di­rec­tion upon us, or if coun­try­side users di­vert us, then we can some­times ar­rive too late to see and thus to shoot, so tim­ing is cru­cial.

Con­versely, it’s easy to al­low en­thu­si­asm to get the bet­ter of us and to head out too early. We all have a thresh­old for con­cen­tra­tion, pa­tience and dis­com­fort, and if we’re go­ing to be ef­fec­tive in the field, we need to be self- aware enough to know that we’re at our best for a cer­tain amount of time. There’s lit­tle point in ar­riv­ing at a war­ren too early and then mov­ing po­si­tion from bore­dom just as the light reaches the per­fect level. Squir­rels be­have in much the op­po­site way and re­quire cer­tain lev­els of light to be ac­tive, so it’s ex­cep­tional for them to be out around dawn and dusk un­less the weather has made feed­ing dif­fi­cult for them. Squir­rels, like all mam­mals, are drawn to the sun and on bright morn­ings af­ter rain, late rab­bits and early squir­rels can be seen side by side even if, gen­er­ally speak­ing, their cross- over time is min­i­mal.


There are three kinds of twi­light and dusk. De­pend­ing on the time of year, you’ll have a set amount of shootable light ev­ery day. This will vary de­pend­ing on your ge­og­ra­phy be­cause some of your per­mis­sions might be north- or east-fac­ing, mean­ing that they’ll be darker ear­lier.

Civil Twi­light and Dusk - Fad­ing

Civil twi­light is the time be­tween sun­set and the mo­ment that the

sun sits ex­actly 6 de­grees below the hori­zon. At that point you have civil dusk. Dur­ing this pe­riod you be­gin to no­tice that the light is clearly fad­ing, but there’s still plenty of light to see by. Nau­ti­cal Twi­light and Dusk - Fail­ing Nau­ti­cal twi­light is the pe­riod when the sun is be­tween 6 and 12 de­grees below the hori­zon. Nau­ti­cal dusk is the mo­ment that the sun reaches the 12- de­gree mark. As­tro­nom­i­cal Twi­light and Dusk - For­got­ten This is when the sun sits be­tween 12 and 18 de­grees below the hori­zon. There will still be a whisper of light in the sky, but your eyes may well be wa­ter­ing with the ef­fort to see. The most ex­pen­sive op­tics can be murky, even on low mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, and you’ll ei­ther be reach­ing for the lamp or the head­torch.

For plot­ting ex­act times through­out the cal­en­dar year, you can use the web­site uk­weath­er­ From civil to nau­ti­cal dusk you prob­a­bly have a max­i­mum of around one and a half hours of us­able light de­pend­ing on the sea­son.


For low- light shoot­ing I use a scope with a large ob­jec­tive for ex­tra light gather­ing, and an il­lu­mi­nated ret­i­cle. As I of­ten stalk much closer to rab­bits in fail­ing light, I can also af­ford to dial down the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion to ‘John Dar­ling’ (x4). This is the con­text where more ex­pen­sive op­tics re­ally shine and al­though my rangefinder is al­most use­less af­ter sun­set, my mid- level binoculars ( Hawke En­durance) are sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than my en­try- level ones ( Hawke Van­tage). I’d es­ti­mate that good op­tics will add 20 min­utes or even more to your ef­fec­tive shoot­ing time over cheaper op­tions. I’m also sure that wear­ing my glasses – I have an astig­ma­tism – ex­tends my shoot­ing time fur­ther. It cer­tainly stops me from spend­ing 20 min­utes stalk­ing logs, which hap­pens more of­ten than I’d care to ad­mit.


The In­ter­net is a great re­source for cal­cu­lat­ing light lev­els for each cal­en­dar day, by con­sult­ing an on­line database, but it’s not re­ally field­craft. Our quarry, like many other species, very likely mon­i­tor the ac­tiv­ity of the wider ecosys­tem and use this in­for­ma­tion to in­form their own be­haviour. For ex­am­ple, when wood­pi­geon are roost­ing and sound­ing their coo­ing call, this is a sig­nal that an area is set­tled and not alarmed. Most species will find this re­as­sur­ing. Pay­ing at­ten­tion to other an­i­mal ac­tiv­ity will also re­veal the ways in which light lev­els af­fect be­haviour.

Pheas­ants are a use­ful species here. If they’re down on the ground

and feed­ing it’s prob­a­bly be­cause they deem it safe enough to do so. If the pheas­ants are out then the squir­rels won’t be long to fol­low. Sim­i­larly, when roost­ing time be­gins, it’s likely that greys will be head­ing back to their dreys. If squir­rels are your goal then you should prob­a­bly have been head­ing home a while ago. The best time for spot­ting wary dusk rab­bits be­gins when pheas­ants be­gin their roost­ing/ter­ri­to­rial calls up to the point when there are none left on the ground. In sum­mer, bats tend to emerge at nau­ti­cal or as­tro­nom­i­cal twi­light, and you should aim to be in po­si­tion for rab­bits long be­fore th­ese winged preda­tors be­gin their noc­tur­nal hunt.


It al­ways use­ful to try to place our­selves into the sen­sory world of our quarry. It’s a place where dark­ness con­ceals great dan­ger and where cover and shadow are at once refuge and death­trap. Once we un­der­stand this, it be­comes much eas­ier to ex­plain why cer­tain ar­eas are more ac­tive at key times and places. Prey species have evolved through nat­u­ral se­lec­tion to evade cer­tain kinds of pre­da­tion. This means that their cam­ou­flage is most ef­fec­tive at cer­tain times of day and un­der cer­tain light con­di­tions. It also means that their vi­sion is most ef­fec­tive for de­tect­ing preda­tors at par­tic­u­lar light lev­els. Both rab­bits and squir­rels have monoc­u­lar vi­sion which yields a wide – al­most 360 de­gree – but murky field of per­cep­tion. Rap­tors, foxes, cats and hu­mans have binoc­u­lar vi­sion. We see a com­bi­na­tion of two sight pic­tures in com­bi­na­tion and this gives us a nar­row field, but bet­ter depth per­cep­tion and visual clar­ity. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween th­ese re­spec­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics is un­der­pinned by senses of smell and hear­ing as well as weather, learn­ing and light. Th­ese are all fac­tors af­fect­ing sur­vival, and hav­ing them in our minds when in the field will make us all the more ef­fec­tive be­cause we’ll con­tin­u­ally be ap­prais­ing how we’re be­ing per­ceived, based upon ev­er­chang­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors.


There are many vari­ables at work when try­ing to pre­dict quarry be­haviour. It’s pos­si­ble to see rab­bits graz­ing in the mid­dle of the day and squir­rels for­ag­ing deep into the dusk, and there are no stonecarved rules for when or where to go in order to make the best use of our time afield. How­ever, light af­fects all of the nat­u­ral world, from the small­est mush­room to the most ven­er­a­ble oak, and it very likely pro­vides the base­line from which all other nat­u­ral ac­tiv­ity is de­rived.

There’s al­ways a tip­ping point when watch­ing a war­ren at dusk. There’ll be one or two in­di­vid­u­als about be­fore sun­set – per­haps a long time be­fore – but there’s a mo­ment when the com­mu­nity sud­denly feels that it’s safe to come out, to risk a ven­ture from cover and into ar­eas of im­proved graz­ing, and this is when our op­por­tu­ni­ties re­ally be­gin to present them­selves. If we can take the time to ob­serve how and ex­actly when the dark­ness rises, then we can pre­dict when that piv­otal mo­ment will come. Even if we’re left ly­ing in a cold, dark field with a growl­ing stom­ach, at least we’ll know ex­actly what time we’ll be back for din­ner. Best wishes, Char­lie.

ABOVE LEFT: The up­grade was well worth the money I spent

LEFT: Pheas­ants can help you if you watch their be­haviour

ABOVE RIGHT: A 50mm ob­jec­tive is worth its weight at dusk

RIGHT: Rab­bits have monoc­u­lar vi­sion

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