This blog is by James Conder - regular volunteer at Greylake, Swell Wood and West Sedgemoor. 

The 2nd of May was Dawn Chorus Day, but (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) it’s been a week of cold, cold mornings and biting winds rather than the warm Spring mornings we might expect of this time of year. Not very conducive to birds singing their hearts out. But Thursday wasn’t quite as brutal as earlier in the week, so I got up early in order to enjoy the dawn chorus at RSPB Swell Wood.

I always think of a dawn chorus as an orchestra – it’s probably enjoyed best as a single wave of sound, an experience to be absorbed rather than analysed. But that would make for a very brief and uninteresting blog, so on Thursday I tried my best to make sense of ensemble and find out who my ears could identify as the day began.

The thing I found most profound was how transformed our commonplace garden birds sound removed from our backyards and placed in the leafy green surroundings of a woodland. The fluting songs of the robins and blackbirds sounded far more intense and exotic than they normally do as I padded down to the lookout and settled down at the picnic table. From this spot, you can enjoy Swell’s birdsong performance while looking out over the wet meadows of RSPB West Sedgemoor, which at this hour were still silvery with dew and hatched with the mist cloaked rhynes.

This spot between two habitats means the dawn chorus at Swell is a bit of a musical fusion. From the trees and brush the high intensity explosions of our tiny superhero singer, the wren; above the laser bolt calls of nuthatches; then tits gamely demonstrating their voices aren’t quite as exciting as their plumage; gently cooing stock doves; and the chiffchaff showing all you need are two notes so long as you can pull it off with sufficient swagger. But off the moor there interjects a different world – the soft, romantic bugling of cranes, the comical honking of greylag geese and the occasional ghostly trill of a curlew.

It’s not all worthy of a Grammy though. The Swell Wood heronry is busy as can be, with chicks of monstrous size wobbling on their surprisingly small stick nests, and its contribution to the chorus was no better than a series of cackles, grunts and retches. Some jays flew past, their grating contact calls also winning no gongs for musical merit. Deeper in the wood, the blackbirds swopped songs for chatters of alarm. I perked up – these were calls that in town I would dismiss as likely being directed at the household cat, but in Swell Wood they could indicate a more interesting predator such as a fox or a badger. Moments later the culprit floated past just a few metres away, a silent shape of chestnut curves pursued by a train of outraged smaller birds – a tawny owl! I saw the tawny owl three times over the course of the morning, the last time sighting being as late as 7.30 am, which leads me to suspect a nearby nest with a hungry chick or two pushing the parents to extend hunting time beyond their usual night time schedule.

As more birds get in to the consuming task of laying eggs and feeding chicks the dawn chorus will start to wane (although the cold weather might have delayed proceedings). An early start is small price to pay in order to enjoy nature’s orchestra in full voice, so whether it’s out in a woodland like RSPB Swell Wood or just listening from the bedroom window grab that alarm clock and set it for 5 am! 

Have a great week,