I’ve been banging on for years about how the dawn chorus in the UK is one of the great natural wonders of the world, generally to members of my family, who generally ignore me. Although I think they’re coming round to it.
This year the nation seems to have caught on, with the single ‘Let Nature Sing’ consisting entirely of birdsong, getting to number 11 in the charts. That’s higher than the Buzzcocks ever got!
The current RSPB magazine states: ‘tuning into birdsong has been shown to be a brilliant mindfulness tool, a way of bringing yourself back into the present moment away from the worries of life’.
The simplicity is what I like. No cost and you don’t have to download anything or worry about a Wifi password. You just have to open a window or step outside and listen. At this time of year there’s a good chance you will hear the world’s greatest songster, the Blackbird, doing its thing. Just about every garden has one.
This Spring I am making a specific effort to experience and hopefully record the best of the Dawn Chorus from the kayak seat. As I glide along absolutely silently up (and down) a local estuary flanked by oak woods, I have been listening hard.
And it’s been pretty extraordinary. The birdsong seems to get better every year just as the new leaves on the trees seem to be even greener, but this is probably just my perception, because bird numbers are falling fast (down 40 million in 50 years).
In three early morning trips, five miles up and five miles down, I have heard twenty-three species of bird which you could say were actually singing, and a further ten which are sort-of singing….calling, cooing, crowing or drumming.
Most of the songsters I didn’t actually see as they were well concealed in the foliage.
In this video (audio) you can hear some familiar garden-type birds: Song Thrush followed by Blackbird and then a Robin.
Here’s the tumbling song of a Willow Warbler and the trill of a Wren, being sound-bombed by a pheasant. It’s good to here the Willow Warbler because they are noticeably less common, having been abundant only a few years ago.
I heard a total of seven species of Warbler, all of which are migratory (although a handful now overwinter in the UK). Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler.
The song of the Chiffchaff is a nice easy one to recognise:
I only saw a handful of them…one was this female Blackcap, sporting a chestnut beret, creeping amongst the foliage. Having said that, the female Blackcap doesn’t actually sing. I’m pleased with the pic, though.
Its mate was singing his heart out from above. Its performance was supported by the melancholy verse of a Mistle Thrush (aka Stormcock) in the background.
All these videos, incidentally, are taken from the kayak seat.
Even the country’s smallest bird, the Goldcrest, was joining in with the chorus with its impossibly high-pitched short song .
Getting as far as the semi-final Songbird Champion’s League today was enormously challenging given the quality of the participants. I thought the winner would be a foregone conclusion but I took into account my individual experience of that bird in terms of whether I saw the singer, how close I was and, most importantly, how impressive was the song. Easy to eliminate was this very attractive, and very waggy, but not very vocal, Grey Wagtail.
Also relegated was this rather sheepish pheasant…
and this charming and constantly calling, but not technically singing, Long-tailed Tit:
The Blackcap came head to head with the clear favourite, the Blackbird in semifinal number one, with the Blackbird just edging it with sheer lucidity and originality of song, although I didn’t see it.
This particular Blackbird would NOT have won, looking a bit scruffy and with a half-hearted song, but it would certainly have won the award for perch of the day.
Semi-final number two was between one of my absolute favourite birds, the swallow, which was checking out a waterside barn for a nest site, and a Reed Warbler which was a rank outsider (because I never expected to see one).
Because my view of the swallow was so brief the Reed Warbler went through to meet the Blackbird in the final, and emerged triumphant. Although the song of the Blackbird is unquestionably the best, this little warbler was singing with every muscle, sinew and feather in its body. And I managed to get a front row seat to experience its performance at its best, by wedging my kayak into the riverside bushes.
A bit of a blurry video but I was very pleased to be able to see the bird at all, because they are frequently impossible to observe in the middle of a mass of reeds. And not a species I have seen very often.
So here it is, the surprise champ. Amazing to think that only a few weeks ago it was probably in tropical Africa, preparing for its trip to the UK.
Here’s the summary of the few days of ornithological audio overload.
Champions League Songsters: Blackbird, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Robin, Wren, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Garden warbler, Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler, Swallow, Goldfinch, Chaffinch.
League 2 Songsters: Dunnock, Goldcrest, Reed Bunting, Lesser Whitethroat, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Marsh Tit, Grey Wagtail.
Vanarama League ‘Songsters’: Nuthatch, Woodpigeon, Stock Dove, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker.
Just a call only: Kingfisher, Dipper, Buzzard, Kestrel, Heron, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Raven.
I have spent many decades feeling guilty that I should have been concentrating on the more important things in life rather than listening to birdsong drifting in through the open window.
It now turns out that it IS one of the important things in life. I wish someone had told me sooner.
Update: I think I have changed my tune, how can this Blackbird not be the winner by a considerable margin…..?