All photos in the blog below were (of course) taken by me, but not on the morning I describe.
Bill Oddie states that he hears 90% of birds before he sees them.
Now anyone who knows me personally might also know what I generally think about Bill Oddie, but I do know what I think he meant by that assertion. Either that or his hair (I’m just jealous of course) gets in his little eyes.
But what with “Dawn Chorus Day” falling on Sunday morning (just gone), I thought I’d write a blog post on the subject of birds and sound.
This (and certainly my previous) blogging forum concentrates almost entirely on vision – “Where I’ve been. What I’ve seen” and I’m always banging on to people about using their eyes properly. LOOKING at things, rather than just SEEING.
But what about listening too? Rather than just hearing.
There are a few birds I’ll hear almost invariably before I see them. A list of obvious examples might include:
· Redwing (“tseeping” overhead in the night sky before appearing as if by magic on fields and in gardens the following morning)
· Kingfishers (often surprisingly-well-camouflaged in their azure and orange garb, until they take off and fly low and quickly down a river, announcing their flight as they go, like a tiny intercity train with a high-pitched and short-lasting “eeep”! This is for me the most obvious example of a bird I’ll almost always hear before I see them. There are very few kingfishers I’ve seen in my life without hearing them first – in fact I’ve often surprised people I’ve walked with along rivers by suddenly stopping and announcing: “there’s a kingfisher coming soon.... watch”..... and a few seconds later, one flies by. If I was deaf, I’d have great trouble seeing even a fraction of the kingfishers I see with normal hearing.
· Great spotted and Green woodpeckers – the green woodpecker’s laughing “yaffle” is very well known, but the great spotted woodpecker’s abrupt “CHIP! CHIP!” is equally as telling there’s a woodpecker around.
· Long tailed tits and goldfinches constantly seem to talk to each other in the air (and on perches) and I’ll often hear them before I see them
· Almost ALL warblers (from Chiffchaffs to Nightingales) have marvellous, very distinctive songs (especially the glorious nightingale of course) and will be heard sometimes at the complete expense of seeing them, hidden within a thick patch of brambles perhaps.
· Swifts (I can’t write a blog post without mentioning these birds eh?). From the last week of April into early May I’ve regularly heard small parties of swifts announce their British arrival overhead with their screaming before I see them. I rush outside (if I’m not outside already) and scream my joy back to them! THEY’RE BACK!!!
There will be plenty of other examples and it’s probably fair to say that I hear many birds before I see them. But one can also often tell what birds are up to by listening to the type of call.
At this point I should point out that there is a difference between the call of a bird and its song. Song is often a long-winded melodious series of notes, used for attracting mates, courtship and announcing a territory. Calls are MUCH shorter in length and can be for a number of purposes – staying in contact with others, (redwing migrating in the dark, long-tailed tit feeding parties, geese in flight) or perhaps alarm calls (the fast “TIKTIKTIKTIK!” of robins and wrens when a cat or predator gets near).
We often think of songbirds as producing very pleasant, somewhat tuneful and certainly melodic sounds. Of course in reality, these birds are not striving for “beautiful” or pleasant sounds. They’re all shouting at each other. It’s a risk singing, especially when you’re potential prey to any number of things. The song birds are shouting to prospective mates that they’re strong and fit – and will mate the feathers off any interested hen birds (and thus produce strong fit young too). They’re also shouting to other males that this is their territory – so back off. It’s actually quite aggressive behaviour really – nothing “beautiful” or “melodic” about it – that’s just a human concept. Even the eye-popping clarity of the nightingales’ songs are pretty aggressive, shouty vocalisations really.
There are very few birds with no obvious audible “voices”. Storks, pelicans, some vultures and that’s about that. Almost all other birds can and do speak to each other. Sometimes constantly it seems.
I think this is another reason why I find birds of prey so special. Unless breeding or courting (or growing up in the nest), they often tend to be quiet. Very quiet. They need to be. Particularly the ambush predators – it’s no good announcing your presence to your prey if you’re an owl or a hawk. These birds one sees before one hears. And if you’re a mouse or a small passerine, if you see the owl or hawk at close range, before your fellow potential prey items have had a chance to shriek an alarm call – you’re too late.
I say one tends to see the avian ambush predators before one hears them but if you learn to recognise alarm calls of various birds (and various types of alarm calls of the same bird) you can hear the predator’s presence (as announced by its prey) before you see it.
Rather like announcing “there’ll be a kingfisher along in a second”, I’ve often delighted (and annoyed in equal measure.... especially if I’m involved in a serious conversation outside) people by suddenly stopping, looking around and announcing “hawk”! Very often a few seconds later a hawk will dash by and people wonder how I can predict something like that.
It’s surprisingly easy to do – you just have to have one ear on your surroundings – after a while you’ll learn to immediately recognise the specific alarm call of (for example) a few starlings as they spy a hawk and mob it.
Around Reading and now a few miles further east, I’ll hear other birds’ “hawk” calls before I announce and then see a hawk and as far as red kites are concerned, even though they’re not ambush predators and common in our neck of the woods, the local jackdaws and carrion crows have very specific “KITE!” alarm and mobbing calls which are a dead giveaway
I remember when I lived in the centre of Reading for a few months, the local pigeons (woodpigeons, town pigeons and collared doves) fed in numbers on the small recreation ground behind our terraced house. These relatively large birds tended to ignore the hawks and kites flying over the town – but they ALL quickly spotted the town peregrines flying overhead and shrieked at them and leaped into the air when a big falcon (not the male (tiercel) generally) flew over.
I think the peregrines seemed to enjoy “buzzing” the columbines on the ground and on leaving their town centre perch (on the brown Thames tower opposite the station) and invariably heading west to the lakes at Theale for lunch, they stooped over our small recreation ground and the pigeons below all reacted accordingly as one.
That was the only reason why I first realised there was a peregrine presence in the town centre and a peregrine presence in the recreation ground behind our house – it was obvious that the pigeons were reacting to something that presented a threat – something other than kites, buzzards and the small hawks and falcons. It could only be a peregrine. And so it was.
So I guess it pays to “open your ears” as well as your eyes when out and about. Especially where birds are concerned.
What about “Dawn Chorus Day” then?
Often I regard my unavoidable consistency of getting up before 05:30am as a curse, inflicted on me after a couple of decades of varying shift (including nights) work, bakery hours and a seeming inability to stop my brain annoyingly clicking into gear the very second I wake up.
Sometimes I think of it as a blessing though. I love the dawn, I am very comfortable in my own company, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get lonely and if I’m outside I’m never bored – plus invariably I get the first few hours (or last few hours I guess) of wildlife and birds all to myself. Most humans tend to go to bed late rather than get up early. I’ve always been a little.... er..... “different”.
So I guess it tickles me when “birders” (“birdwatchers”) set their alarms for, sayyyyy 4am to get up once each year for “Dawn Chorus Day” to listen to the incredible sound of song birds in full voice, belting out their mating calls before the sun comes up. I can’t remember when I last set my alarm. Years ago I guess.
You can imagine then, I OFTEN get to hear the dawn chorus. One might expect perhaps I get a bit blasé about it all. But would be a false assumption. I am often and still blown away; overwhelmed by a good dawn chorus.
I think one of the best places to experience a truly unforgettable dawn chorus is in a large wood, at the edge of a clearing or a ride. The cacophony of song before 0530 a.m. on an early May morning, before the wakening humans have drowned it out with their cars and activity is one of those things that I think must be experienced. And not just once in your life – each year if possible – at least once!
Local bird watching groups (often affiliated to the RSPB) have cottoned on to this and very helpfully set up “dawn chorus walks” before dawn on each “dawn chorus day” these days – a mate of mine went on one such walk on Sunday gone and thoroughly enjoyed it – being shown a garden warbler singing for the first time in his life is something I doubt he’ll forget in a hurry.
But being the grumpy old sod that I am, I often avoid walks like this (I hear and see a lot more when I’m alone – always have... always will) and don’t often find organised days and walks fit in with my life. So I made a little time free for my own “dawn chorus day” the day before the official day this year.
I didn’t go anywhere particularly special. Didn’t head off to woodland clearing. I just went up to the local farm, to check on the little owls (as normal) and made an effort to listen rather than just look.
It was a beautiful dawn on Saturday. The farm is less than three miles from our house and the drive along a couple of single track country roads only lasts a few minutes.
Rabbits scattered into the thick cow parsley-lined verges as I drove by, the omnipresent magpies, jackdaws and cock pheasants leaped from the tarmac and head-bobbing woodpigeons walked along the battered fence posts, nodding at each other over the dark banks of hedge-side bluebells.
I parked the car in “my” lay-by and got out. In the distance I could see the familiar shape of our male little owl silhouetted on top of the cow shed gutter a few hundred yards away from where I stood.
Then I put the lights out.
I closed my eyes.
And stood there.
I could hear at least two whitethroats scratching out their noisy warble in the bramble hedge alongside me, like little DJs.
A great tit shouted “TEACHER. ER TEACH. ER TEACH. ER TEACH!” from high up behind me (in an old gnarled oak tree).
The smallest wee bird with the voice of an opera singer drowned out the other birds for a few seconds with its inbuilt amp set to 11 – I’m always amazed by the vocal prowess of wrens.
As I stood there I could hear the chattering of the rookery in the large oaks half a mile away and a pair of jackdaws flew over my head in the cold air, “CHACKING” as they went.
A cock blackbird must have realised I presented no threat and began its deep, fruity song on top of a bush further up the country track and I could hear a robin “tictictictic” its disapproval from beneath. Maybe it had spotted a weasel near its nest – or maybe it just was sulking at the richness of the blackbird’s voice above?!
Two jays started screeching from a small copse a little way away. Perhaps they’d spotted a fox slinking around the copse, or even a stoat. As their voices rose, deep within the little owl (or cow) field ahead of me, a cock pheasant croaked its abrupt “COUGH”. There’s always a pheasant or two in this field – often red-legged partridges too, but their voices are far more subtle and hard to hear.
I could also hear a cock chaffinch belting out its particular song. Bill Oddie was spot on here, when he likened this birds’ call to a fast bowler coming in to bowl. That’s how I always remember it. In fact I could hear two chaffinches trying to out-sing each other.
Above all of this though, more uplifting than everything was the constant singing of parachuting skylarks, belting their little chests out from a height in the sky – way above the crop fields surrounding me.
Time was (when I was a lad, just beginning to “get into wildlife”) that this beautiful noise meant spring was here – and although it’s still not a rare sound, it’s certainly getting less common.
I opened my eyes – and there were the whitethroats, the great tit, the wren, the blackbird, the robin, and the jays in the distance, with the rooks on the horizon. I could see one of the chaffinches perched on top of a hawthorn bush. I turned around and caught a glimpse of the pair of disappearing, wheeling jackdaws, and peering into the sparkling (lit by the orange sun trapped on the horizon) field ahead of me, I could just about make out a cock pheasant’s head, surrounded by sparkling, dew-covered dandelion clock heads.
But I couldn’t see the skylarks. They were too high in the sky. I could still hear them though. Little belters.
OK. So it wasn’t a brilliant dawn chorus. I was in the wrong spot for that. But it was more than good enough for me. A lovely start to the day.
I needed to warm the car up a bit (it’s an ancient diesel with a pretty poor battery charge rate) so I glanced over at the little owl again one final time and got back in the car. She needed a battery-charging drive around the countryside of the Thames valley.
So I turned on i-pod shuffle (connected to the car tape deck (no CD player in my car!)) and selected Whitesnake’s “Here I go again” to begin the drive.
I would belt out my own dawn chorus on the drive by accompanying Mr. David Coverdale on lead vocals!
I smiled. There’s no accounting for taste I thought, drove off and started to sing ...
“Well I don’t know where I’m going. But I sure know where I’ve bin....”