JANUARY brings the first signs of spring – and along with the early snowdrops and primroses, that also means the first echoes of the dawn chorus.
You have to be up early to catch it, but from now until July, the volume is steadily growing, from those first wintry warbles early in the New Year to the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.
As the first snowdrops start to peek through the frosty January soil and the birds swarm to the birdtable to squabble over scraps of food, the slow increase in daylight means that love will soon be in the air, which means staking out your territory and trying to attract a mate.
During the dark days of winter, life has been all about survival, trying to find enough food during those bleak chilly days to get through the long night to come.
But as the days start to slowly lengthen, songbirds start to switch into breeding mode, timed to coincide with the warmest part of the year when food is plentiful and days are long.
The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the chorus.
But listen out early in January and you can already hear them, with the noise growing day by day and more than an hour of daylight being added between New Year and the end of the month.
The collective chirps and tweetings start to grow in volume as the year progresses, starting about an hour before dawn with a few songs from the robins, blackbirds and thrushes before the rest of the gang join in and the chorus gets into full swing.
As with an orchestra, there’s a set sequence. Skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are among the earliest risers and their songs are complex and detailed, full of meaning and uttered from high perches.
Then the pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.
The most formidable defenders of territory, the robin and wren, are well into their flow by the turn of the year, soon to be joined by the blue, great and coal tits, dunnocks and chattering starlings.
Stars of the show are the loquacious song thrushes and glorious blackbirds, their music a clear signal that winter is giving way to spring.
If you’re prepared to get up early and head into the woods with a picnic, the singing lasts right through until July, but reaches its peak during May and June.
Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing, and because there’s less background noise and the air is still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day – an important consideration when you are looking for a mate.
Singing is hard work on an empty stomach and after a chilly night, so it will be the strongest, best-fed males who will produce the loudest songs. As the light strengthens food becomes easier to find, so hungry birds begin to move off and the chorus gradually diminishes.
There is another chorus at dusk, which is considered quieter, though some birds – like tree sparrows and blue tits – seem to prefer to sing at this time of day.
The best days to listen are fine, clear mornings with little wind. Dawn chorus peaks half-an-hour before to half-an-hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can be confusing by then so why not get into position early to savour the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage…
Sunday May 2 is International Dawn Chorus Day 2021. Many thanks to local photographer Graham Parkinson for permission to use his photographs with this article.
He worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in 2011 to go freelance and was the wildlife charity’s conservation director for nearly 13 years.
He’s also an author and blogger living in rural Northamptonshire, not to mention a tireless environmental campaigner, pictured above at Chris Packham’s 2018 People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.
Back in February 2020 his casual blog post about birdsong was meant to be a timely reminder about the wonders of the dawn chorus.
He wasn’t to know, of course, that within weeks the country would be in lockdown – and more people than ever before would be finding the sound of their local birds more reassuring and important than ever before.
In the first post he wrote about making his first cup of tea of the day at around 6am, taking a step outside the back door and hearing birdsong: a robin or two, a bunch of song thrushes and the occasional blackbird.
“Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing,” he wrote. “I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.”
February is the time to start learning bird songs, he suggested, because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. “Start now. Start today,” he urged.
“Try it and see – it’s fun,” he added. “All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that his first choice of bird to focus on (and one to which he repeatedly returned in subsequent blogs) was the great tit. As a junior research assistant in the zoology department in Oxford he produced scientific papers about the two-note tee-cher, tee-cher phrases that make this one of the easiest birds for novice ears to identify.
Song thrushes, dunnocks and blackbirds followed, and by March 20 it was the turn of the chiffchaff to take centre stage, just days before lockdown.
“Whenever I hear that first chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for spring, what could be better than the song of the chiffchaff?” Mark wrote.
A lifetime of listening has helped him accumulate a recognition of a range of different songs, and his blog entries encourage newcomers to make a start, ideally in February before the chorus grows, swelled by less familiar migrants.
To help the uninitiated, his posts link to recordings on xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.
Mark advises newcomers to try to spot the songster first: then listening to some songs on the website can help to identify the most common species.
His blog introduces birds one by one, including the sparky robin – “lovely eyes but they are vicious little b*ggers” – along with the greenfinch, chaffinch, wren, skylark, willow warbler and cuckoo.
Accompanied by some glorious photographs from Tim Melling, “a naturalist who happens to take photographs of wildlife rather than a proper wildlife photographer”, Mark’s guides started taking on a life of their own, growing to more than 20 by the middle of April.
Follow the links below to the first dozen of Mark’s blogs:
The positive feedback might have been due in part to the fact that lockdown encouraged many families to take a new look at the world around them, exploring local lanes close to their homes and discovering some of the small delights of nature perhaps for the first time.
It’s the same kind of explosion of interest in the natural world that made the Self-Isolating Bird Club such a success, with as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show hosted by Chris Packham and stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.
Back on Mark’s blog, the entries grew rapidly during April and May, boosted by early morning walks in the countryside near his home and by the enthusiastic exchanges with followers.
Accompanied by more evocative pictures from Tim Melling, the April and May entries extend the scope into much less familiar territory, featuring yellowhammers and whitethroats, curlews, turtle doves and wood warblers: “This bird’s song is sublimely evocative for me. Hearing it, anywhere, even sitting here at my computer, takes me immediately back to the Welsh oakwood on the RSPB Dinas nature reserve.”
By May, Mark had reached his half-century of posts about birdsong, a singular achievement and a project that has brought a great of pleasure to so many.
With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, he signed off with a message to subscribers which read: “It’s summer. I wonder what summer will bing in terms of wildlife to my garden and to my locality, and where we will all be in terms of coronavirus in another three months. It’s a bit difficult to tell isn’t it?
“But nature is a source of solace in these times of uncertainty. I just hope that the last few weeks and the coming few months will embed the importance of nature around us in more minds, in more actions and in more government policies. That is one way that we can try to build a better world after this period of reflection.”
His followers probably share the same emotions. As one, Bimbling, put it: “I think the series has been wonderful and a great idea. Some of the blogs have prompted nostalgia, others desire. All have been interesting while some have been fascinating. So thank you so much for both the inspiration and effort to put them together. Much appreciated.”
Now we just need to wait until February each year for the dawn chorus to start again in earnest for a chance to make the most of Mark’s labour of love: but his extraordinary 50-part audio-visual journey through our heaths, hedgerows and woodlands might mean listening to the birds outside on a spring morning is never quite the same again.