A morning's birdsong
Just after three on a spring Sunday morning I awoke to the chirping of my phone. There are few reasons I set the alarm for anytime before dawn, the most likely being to queue up in the 100mL hell of airport security before hopping a budget airline flight to somewhere warmer than Bristol. But this morning was not such a day; there were no ticket checks, no perfumed duty frees, no pre-boarding calls. Today it would be me, a camping chair, a flask of tea and a pair of binoculars. It was time to go in search of the dawn chorus.
In truth I have heard the dawn chorus before, usually from the other side of a window on my way to find a glass of water. Like watching the sun rise or listening to Farming Today, the dawn chorus is usually a bleary, happy but accidental surprise. Today was different. This particular Sunday, I dragged myself out of bed for the second part of a birdsong identification workshop I had attended the day before. The dawn chorus walk was our opportunity to put our newfound skills into action. Either that, or we’d just embarrass ourselves like I had on the Saturday, when I mistook a partridge’s call for the uber-rare corncrake. I have a lot to learn.
Part of the near (let's not get carried away) ease with which I pulled myself from under the duvet stemmed from knowing other people would be waiting for me; guilt is one of life’s great motivators. Without showering I climbed into the car wondering how many of yesterday’s birdsong identifiers would, like me, curse but cave to their alarms at such an early hour. The group mix the previous day had been unexpected, constituting a mix of millennials and forty-somethings; not quite the older crowd I had anticipated.
Twelve of us gathered (more than half yesterday's group) at the meeting point, with folding chairs slung over shoulders and blankets wrapped around bodies like kilts. At four in the morning one thing was certain: it was cold, and pitch dark. Without torchlight we shuffled blind into the dim wood, the trees above blackening the inky sky until we reached a clearing.
Our twitching spot.
First up - or perhaps last to bed - was a tawny owl. This is a call I am familiar with; we have lots of tawny owls (or maybe a handful of very communicative ones) in the forest behind our house as they call to each other as soon as dusk hits. I have a fondness for owls partially because they have been so maligned in folklore and tradition, and for tawnys in particular because we’re essentially neighbours, and they help keep our rat population under control.
After the tawny’s last call it was precisely three sips of tea before the forest awoke. First up - no surprise here - was a robin, then two. A blackbird follows. I love the blackbird for its easily identifiable song which trails off like a disappointing indie film. Next to join in is a blackcap, which has a song similar to the robin (to my untrained ear) but sounds in comparison like said robin has either had an overdose of caffeine or been placed in a jar and shaken vigorously. (I doubt the RSPB will ever invite me to write about birdsong identification.)
When the darkness begins to fade, we abandon our position to have a listen for other birds around the clearing. A great tit begins a repetitive bicycle pump refrain (some hear it say “teacher, teacher”), then another. For the first time I am able to recognise the songthrush’s tune by an oft-repeated line that sounds to my ear like “pick me, pick me, pick me.”
In truth, while some of the birds we hear may be singing in hopes they’ll be chosen as a mate, others are doing it to remind their counterparts to keep their space. Night is a time of jostling disorganisation: migratory birds arrive overnight, nightingales and other nocturnal birds wake to feed on insects; a male may chance into new territory under the cover of darkness to find a mate. By the time morning rolls around, things are not as they were.
A chiffchaff joins in. For such a common garden bird, I only recently discovered what they look and sound like. My inappropriate aide-memoire for the bird is that it sounds like a child which has been taught precisely two piano chords and then bangs them out furiously, seemingly in no particular order. The bird chiffs and chaffs in different pitches and seemingly independent directions as the sunlight begins to peek through thick oak trunks.
Another blackbird begins singing, serenading a mate perhaps, or possibly to stake out territory. In that way in which animals almost always seem to have things worked out better than humans, avian arguments over territory happen almost entirely without violence. Birds may travel up and down invisible boundaries to stake their claim, but rarely will the dispute turn physical. Both contenders know there’s too much to lose in the run-up to the breeding season with the stress of raising children soon to come and the cold winter to follow. Birdsong is a replacement for fighting, and the dawn chorus is a way for birds to reclaim their territory and re-establish feathery equilibrium.
I think we could learn a thing or two from our avian friends.
The dawn chorus is also the time for a male to remind his partner that he is still there, crucial as egg laying happens in the early morning. Females rarely sing, except for robins, which is confusing given that male and female robins look alike. I’m not the only one to find this bewildering - apparently robins can’t tell the difference between sexes, either.
When birds hatch they have a rudimentary ability to sing, and a varying window - approximately eighteen months - to learn how to get to grips with their voice and song. A lot rests on this: research has found that for some species, birds with the biggest repertoires are the most successful breeders. Singing demonstrates to females that a male is in good health, and that he’ll keep the family fed. In autumn, young birds rehearse their song quietly to themselves, a jumbled version of an adult’s song.
The forest has awoken. The sun has slid higher into the sky, backlighting fresh spring leaves like stained glass in a woodland cathedral.
“Is that...?” our fearless leader, the RSPB’s Peter Holden, looks quizzical as we make our way deeper into the forest for a final listen of wrens staking their claim. Before I can realise what’s happening, he and a Spanish member of our group burst out “Golden Oriole!” synchronously.
The Eurasian Golden Oriole is not a bird that is meant to be in Bristol. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had already met the Golden Oriole on the pages of my bird identification guide, wondering at the pinprick on the map that marked its tiny summer habitat in the UK. The last breeding pair was recorded a few years ago in East Anglia; since then it appears to have vanished entirely. Finding one here was a rare occurrence indeed, but there he was, singing a short, tropical sounding song, presumably looking for a mate.
We followed the melody around the trees, eventually spotting him, painted a yellow more vivid than buttercups and with a set of black wings. Golden Orioles prefer the top of the tree canopy which makes them a relatively secretive migratory visitor but this one was not getting away unseen. We watched as he changed location periodically, provoked by squirrels and a blackbird, before disappearing into the top of the canopy. Peter surmised that he’d likely overshot his migration route; whether the bird knew this or not, he was singing passionately for a mate. It was unlikely he’d find one in these woods unless a female had similarly overrun her target. To us novice birders though, he was in exactly the right place.
I have a lot to learn about birds, but there’s something addictive about getting up before the world starts to move to observe an entirely different world. If the first step to enter this place is as easy as setting the alarm for quarter past three, I’m in.