Welcome to Dawn Chorus Day. Yes, it’s a thing. It’s been a thing since the 1980s apparently, Started in Birmingham. Now it’s international. Makes me feel sort of proud and very grateful.
I was talking about birds with my friend Susan last week, We hear them so much more clearly during lockdown. We both bemoaned the fact that they’re yelling their heads off and yet we can’t identify them.
BBC Radio and the Lockdown Effect
Let me say here that I have not handled lockdown well. I’ve been grumpy and scared and my concentration has gone to hell. Probably listened to too many news bulletins.
I finally realised this on Thursday, listening to BBC Radio 4’s World At One (minute 38). With its Wodehousian twitter handle WATO, this is one of the more balanced programmes, I find.
In a slot that aims to give a bit of a lift to the Grumpy and Scared Sector, lovely author Marian Keyes read a hopeful paragraph from her latest book Grown Ups.
She also told presenter Sarah Montague, that she thought it was “not helpful to overdose on news”. Too right, I thought. She’s getting by, reading old favourites and watching them too: like Moonstruck. Gorgeous.
I, too, have been tucking myself into bed with some of my old favourite comfort reads. But by day I’m more of a radio girl. And far too much of that has been Virus-driven. But after talking to Susan I started scouring the archives for the fabulous Tweets of the Day. In what follows all the birdsong links are to BBC Radio’s Tweet of the Day. A little bit of Heaven.
And they may help us, Susan, if we listen often enough.
Dawn Chorus Memories
One of my earliest memories is of my father, a countryman at heart, telling me that the birds sang before dawn to establish their territories. He didn’t mention sex, which also features. But then he wouldn’t. Bit of a Victorian, my father.
I was maybe three, sharing sips of tea which he’d brought my mother in bed. He opened the window so we could hear better. It was lovely.
That was in suburban west London. Even though there was a farm at the top of our road, the birds didn’t really put on the show he longed for. Nothing like the New Forest. The first time I stayed there, the Dawn Chorus was stereophonic. It woke me out of a really deep sleep.
For the first time, I realised what my father meant.
Dawn Chorus Venue, Times
Venue – anywhere. You don’t even have to open a window unless you want to. Depends entirely on where you are and the habitat around you. You get a different combination of birdsong in meadows, wetlands, suburban gardens, moorland or woodland. Usually the first bird onto the stage is either a blackbird or a robin.
Time – well, Mike Dilger, the wildlife expert brought in yesterday by BBC Radio’s farming program mentioned 4.30 a.m. I’d guess you want to be out no later than 5.00 a.m. It is still dark then. There is something magical about going from silence to that first song, in the grey light of pre-dawn. His Shropshire Dawn Chorus walk is 20 minutes in, and the whole slot only lasts 5 brilliant minutes. He identifies the birdsong and talks delightfully about it.
Dawn Chorus Performers
It’s difficult to describe birdsong, especially when it’s tuneful. The blackbird seems to me like silvery soprano, powerful and effortless. Anyway, it makes me think of Margaret Price singing Mozart, say. Whereas the robin, though still soprano is quicker, brisker, a little warmer in tone. Definitely more of a soubrette.
My personal favourite – largely because I hear their flirty, frilly song, with that odd percussive crackle to give it bite, all the time these days – is the goldfinch.
Never mind the dawn, they tweedle away and scoff my sunflower seeds most of the day. Sort of chatty friends and neighbours, really.
Dawn Chorus Walks
This year I had promised myself I was going on a Dawn Chorus Walk, possibly in the grounds of a National Trust property. And this would have been the peak weekend for that.
I can identify a few birds when they sing alone. Sometimes. But I’ve never really applied myself and I wanted to go out with an expert who would help me sort out a few more.
Also I like pre-dawn, when the earth seems to hold its breath.
Well, the lockdown put paid to that scheme. Maybe next year.
But I have enjoyed two virtual walks with bird identifiers, which my readers may find as evocative (and instructive) as I do.
Nick Acheson on 29 April this year, with snippets of identified birdsong. He gives you the bluetit and the chaffinch among others. The latter’s song is said to sound like a fast bowler. Heavy grunting? I ask myself. Acheson has a more romantic, though still athletic, image in mind.
And Tom Hibbert – no soundtrack but lovely writing. You can just feel that early morning thrill.
Dawn Chorus – Birdwatcher’s Choice
When discussing this blog with the Birdwatcher in my life, I found him slightly disapproving of my choice of birds.
The words “rather suburban” may have slipped out. Inadvertently, I’m sure.
Anyway, he put in a special request for a bird seldom seen in South East England (where we both live) but a noted performer in Dorset, where we visit. And, he added, it’s all over the place in Scotland.
It is indeed a lovely song. He describes it as a “beautiful, gently descending trill.”
So here is Kate Humble presenting it on wonderful BBC Radio’s Tweet of the day.
BBC Radio, birds, dawn, music. Friends. Sod the lockdown, I have much to be grateful for.
Ladies and gentlemen, Susan, I give you, The Willow Warbler
I’ve been listening to the dawn chorus quite a bit, when I wake early. So beautiful. Usually, as they are soooo early now, they lull me back to sleep. What is lovely about lockdown is you can hear them in the day too. I can’t identify any of them except the pigeons, who come on later and frankly make a racket!
But enjoyed this a lot and will listen to the sounds when I have registered – One of the banes of internet life.
So pleased you enjoyed it, Liz. I had a lovely time researching it. Ended up feeling really cheerful, too.
Thankyou Sophie! Now we live in Scotland I will listen out for the willow warbler – our morning chorus is beautiful here so I have probably heard it and didn’t know it!
It is lovely, Sarah. We hear it when we go down to Dorset and hit the local wetlands. Always stop to listen for a while. I hadn’t realised that The Birdwatcher was so attached to it, though.
I’m hopeless at identifying birdsong, except for blackbirds. Interesting that this weekend is peak time – yesterday all three of us in our current household commented on the unusual bird activity in the garden, mostly sparrows and seagulls!
Well, the increased activity is mostly hormones, I think, Lesley. You know, the stuff my father Didn’t Talk About. That’s what Nick Acheson suggests in his lovely Virtual Walk anyway. (See link above.)
I don’t think I’ve found anyone who talks about seagulls in their Dawn Chorus musings. Possibly too creepy. The Anglo Saxons used to think they were the souls of drowned sailors. I can see (or, rather, hear) why.
Another easy one is the Great tit – Tee-cha, Tee-cha and the frankly rather unbutch mewing sound that buzzards make – we have a pair just up the road who give us a fly-over a couple of times a day
I can sometimes get the Great Tit – and I’ve heard that mewing sound, but had no idea it was a buzzard, Louise. No wonder the poor thing is a bit aggressive. As you say, more than a little Fotherington Thomasish for a bird of a prey.
I live in suburban America now so the dawn chorus had been drowned bu trucks on the freeway – until the lockdown and a more distinct song. However, nothing to compares to my early morning walks when I lived on a farm back in Sussex, UK – first light, mist rising over the river, birds of every kind coming in on cue. A magical symphony that always included the bark of a fox and the lowing of cattle.
You’ve hit the nail, on the head Roland. That strangeness of first light and the shock of another natural sound intruding – a branch cracking or, as you say, the bark of a fox. Very special.
I really need to go on a dawn chorus walk sometime. You make it sound amazing.
Well, I’ve been out in the dawn and loved it, Lydia, so I really recommend that. But I haven’t done a proper Dawn Chorus walk with someone who can name the birds yet. My Big Treat for next year, I hope.