Guest blog by Brad Robson, RSPB NI Site Manager


The dawn chorus is a spring phenomenon created by the onset of the breeding season for many of our birds, including both our resident, year-round species including robins, wrens, blackbirds and blue tits, and the migrants that breed here but spend the northern winter in warmer climates - including chiffchaffs, blackcaps, spotted flycatchers and cuckoos.

The chorus is the result of the need to establish a breeding territory and to attract a mate, so the vast majority of singing birds in our gardens, parks and woodlands are males. However, research shows that of a thousand species assessed worldwide 64% have female singers. Migrant songbirds have fewer singing females possibly because the breeding season is short and time is of the essence, so males defend territories and sing to attract mates whilst females build nests and lay eggs.

The daily chorus from April to the end of May often follows a pattern. Birds sing first when they emerge from the night-time roost as they warm up and before heading out to feed. The robin is usually the first to start, up before the sun to sing in the dark anticipating the day ahead.

Here’s a typical dawn chorus morning as heard from my own garden in Co Fermanagh:
 
5:15am sees first robin beginning it all off, quickly joined by a cacophony of thrushes; blackbirds and song thrushes - the loud songsters that deliver the rich melodic backdrop to all that is to come.

5:25am and a wren explodes into life, the notes too quick for our ears to separate, but held on a soft blanket of woodpigeons cooing from the trees. Deep in dense cover, a magpie chuckles and in the distance a donkey brays - a typical dawn chorus sound where I live! More robins an wrens have joined in, filling the air with a complex soundscape.

5:33am brings another harsh announcement, this time a male pheasant and at last the cockerel offers a domestic wake-up call – 30 minutes after the first robin - a lazy soul now trying to catch up.

5:35am and the thin and fast song of a dunnock. This is easily overlooked or mistaken for a wren without the rattling finish. A moment later, the first migrant joins in, a male blackcap, confident and beautiful.

5:37am sees the first chaffinch runs up to bowl and the first bird flies; robin, first again.

5:40am and a great tit stirs, hesitantly joining in as the tight-throat tones of a mistle thrush drifting in from a distance over the far fields

5:42am and three jackdaws leave the roost, bringing a harsher sound to the garden.  Coal tit and goldcrest join at the same time from a spruce tree, the goldcrest’s squeaky bicycle peddling faster though the branches. This is one of my favourites.

5:45am and an entirely different sound and not members of the chorus as a flock of lesser black-backed gulls flies in from the lough en route to the dump and breakfast; they are loud, like a gang laughing after some mischief. The clouds now have a rosy base and the cold air is sharp.

5:48am sees chirruping house sparrows emerging from nests in the roof, creepers and nest boxes, endless chatter ensues about the day ahead. At 5:50am, extraordinary high-pitched notes barely audible to me are coming from the roof as the starlings get ready to head to the fields in search of caterpillars, worms and spiders.

5:55am and there’s another migrant, as a swallow zips across the sky - not singing, but chattering to itself or others out of view. At 5:58am, a blue tit is reluctant to start and a black raven cronks as it drifts overhead.

6:17am sees a migrant chiffchaff saying its name again and again then its close cousin the willow warbler provides a falling refrain. I walk out to the fields behind the house where gorse and birch grow on some steeper ground and I’m stopped by the subtle reeling of a grasshopper warbler and the overhead rattle of a redpoll. The garden is now full of sound as all species make themselves heard; they compete with their neighbours and the air is filled with the most rich ensemble that our nature provides.

And some species are still arriving, I am yet to hear a cuckoo and I’ll soon be hearing whitethroats. Garden warblers will confuse people about whether they are blackcaps or not and finally the spotted flycatchers will return.

It’s 6:49am, so now it’s time for breakfast both for birds and the people out relishing the concert.

Visit www.rspb.org.uk/dawnchorus to make the most of International Dawn Chorus Day



Pic credits: Goldcrest at top by Hazel Watson; song thrush, starling and goldcrest at bottom by Brad Robson

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