As winter gives way to spring, our wildlife starts to switch gears. With the longer days and the warmer weather comes a hive of activity – migrating, territory defending and, of course, breeding.
And with all this action comes a tidal wave of sound. Every morning, the air is filled with the sound of birdsong – this is the dawn chorus.
Tiny wrens are known for their impressive sound, and are an iconic part of the dawn chorus. Photo: Paul Chesterfield (rspb-images.com)
Birds sing to find a mate, they also sing to protect their territories and let all other birds around know that they have survived the night. What they’re basically saying is “this is my patch and I am so robust and healthy that I’ve got time to sing rather than feed, so keep your distance”.
Technically it is only songbirds that sing, such as warblers, thrushes and finches. These are the only species with the mental capacity to learn a repertoire of song, but there are lots of other bird sounds going on at dawn, too. These are bird calls – advertising calls, display calls and alarm calls.
You can read all about birdsong in your Summer 2019 issue of Nature's Home magazine. Then, wrap up warm and head out before the sun comes up to listen to the incredible cacophony of sound, unblemished by the din of human activity. You can listen in your garden, in a local green space, or at an RSPB reserve.
Here are our top 10 reserves for experiencing the day chorus:
1. Balranald, North Uist, Outer Hebrides
Corncrakes make a distinctive "crex crex" call. It is repetitive, loud and rasping. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
One of the best places to hear the amazing display calls of breeding waders, from the “tu-lu tu-lu tu-lu” calls of redshank to the full-volume piping of oystercatchers, set against the bizarre “crex crex” of the corncrake.
2. Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire
Around half a million seabirds gather at RSPB Bempton Cliffs between March and October. Photo: Michael Harvey (rspb-images.com)
The sound experience here is all about the seabirds on the cliff faces, with the “brrro brrro” of gannets and excited gargling of guillemots mixed with the raucous “kittiwayyyk” calls of, you guessed, kittiwakes. You may hear a drawn-out creaking sound beneath your feet like a distant chainsaw – a puffin calling to its mate.
3. Ham Wall, Somerset
The booming of bitterns can sound like distant drums. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
The reedbeds and pools reverberate to the boom of the bittern, but your attention will also be grabbed by the “chip, chip-shop, chippy-chip-shop” blasts of Cetti's warblers, steady-Eddie reed warbler song and the Barbara Windsor titter of little grebes.
4. Leighton Moss, Lancashire
Sweet and melodic, the blackcaps song is similar to that of the garden warbler. Photo: Paul Chesterfield (rspb-images.com)
It can be warbler heaven here, with the lilting cascades of willow warblers and the shy start but confident ending of blackcap song, mixed with the chuntering of reed warblers and jazzier rhythms of sedge warblers. You have a good chance, too, of hearing the fairy-typewriter 'ping' calls of bearded tits.
5. Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire
The reed buntings simple and repetitive song is a collection of a few metallic notes. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The chorus includes the strange reeling insect song of the grasshopper warbler, the rat-a-tat drumming of great spotted woodpeckers and the simple note-by-note “beginner's song” of reed buntings.
6. Minsmere, Suffolk
At dawn, RSPB Minsmere comes alive with the calls of waterbirds. Photo: Mike Read (rspb-images.com)
The cacophony of massed waterbirds on the Scrape is overwhelming, with black-headed gulls in full rasp, while the rich habitats on your walks will take you from booming bitterns in the reedbeds to varied woodland birds, and even the dusk wails of the “heath chicken” – stone-curlews.
7. Portmore Lough, Co. Antrim
Common terns give a loud and rasping "kee-yaah". Photo: David Tipling (rspb-images.com)
The “eeer-yarr” calls from the common tern colony combine with the excited peewit calls of lapwing and the growl of great crested grebes, plus a wide range of warblers and other song birds.
8. Pulborough Brooks, West Sussex
The rich and powerful song of the nightingale is becoming increasingly rare. Photo: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
From mid-April to mid-May, this is one of the best sites in the country to hear (and see) nightingales. They sing through the day, along with a wide choir of other birds, but as darkness falls have the stage to themselves.
9. Sandwell Valley, West Midlands
The song of the whitethroat is a jumble of unmusical phrases, but it can become more so in breeding season. Photo: John Bridges (rspb-images.com)
Proof that urban habitats can be full of song, with a wide array of common songbirds to listen to, including whitethroat and lesser whitethroat, plus wetland birds such as lapwing and oystercatcher.
10. Ynys Hir, Powys
Tree pipits prefer high perches, and often sing as they rise. Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
The UK’s western oak woodlands of have a very special suite of species, epitomised by the “spinning coin” song of the wood warbler, the up-and-down song of the pied flycatcher and the exuberant trills of tree pipits, all against a background of cuckoos.
Did you know that the dawn chorus is falling silent? Many of the main choristers we know and love are in decline. Help protect the dawn chorus by downloading the RSPB’s single of birdsong on 26 April, and help get birdsong in the charts!
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