Get up early to catch the choir

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 survive the 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 last 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 7 May is International Dawn Chorus Day. All pictures for this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Roy Battell, whose Moorhens website chronicles an extraordinary rewilding story.