The magic of the dawn chorus

Our resident birdwatching expert, Paul Stancliffe, explains which birds to look out for this spring and where.

It's February and dawn is just breaking as I write. Outside I can hear the glorious song of a song thrush – its repeated three-note phrases ringing out in the still air. It used to go by the colloquial name of ‘thrice cock’, a mnemonic for those three-note phrases. However, not all song thrushes can count and while some of the phrases might contain three notes, some may have four, five or even six notes, but once learned the song is unmistakeable.

While hearing this single song thrush was fantastic, it didn’t really constitute a dawn chorus. To experience this uplifting phenomenon of the natural world, we will have to wait for spring to arrive. We really start to notice more bird song during March, it builds in intensity through April and reaches a crescendo in May, the very best month to get out and listen to a full dawn chorus.

Willow Warbler by Neil Calbrade

Finding the best dawn chorus

For the most part, deciduous woodland holds the best dawn chorus. In May, the resident woodland birds – robins, blackbirds, song thrushes, dunnocks, great tits and blue tits – will be joined by a host of summer visitors that have spent the winter months in Africa and southern Europe, and twenty different species of birds is easily possible in one dawn chorus. In most woodlands, willow warblers and chiffchaffs will vie with blackcaps and garden warblers all in competition with the local residents. There are regional differences to this chorus, so depending on where in the country you are, it is well worth listening out for those local specialities, too.

Nightingale by Edmund Fellowes

Dawn chorus in the South East

The South East is the last remaining stronghold for the nightingale, and while they seem to have a new preference for scrubby habitats, they can still be found in a few woodlands. Bough Beech in Kent and Woods Mill in Sussex are just two that still hold this enigmatic bird and a dawn chorus that includes nightingale has to be heard to be believed.

Wood Warbler by Edmund Fellowes

Dawn chorus in Wales

Move west into Wales and the spring trio of woodland singers are a joy to behold. The hanging oak woodlands that adorn many a Welsh river valley hold this magical trio, namely the wood warbler, pied flycatcher and redstart. The wood warbler is arguably the star of the show with its silvery, spinning penny song. The bird itself is pure white below, has a bright lemon throat and wonderful lime-green upperparts. These colours are shown to their fullest during song bouts, as the male delivers the surprisingly far–carrying song on drooped wings and cocked tail, physically shivering with the effort, which adds to the overall silkiness of the song.

Crested tit by Lawrence G Baxter

Northern dawn chorus

Head north of the border and it is well worth giving the old Caledonian pine forest some time. It is only here that the purring song of the crested tit can be added to a dawn chorus. An early morning visit to Abernethy Forest might also add the cork-popping song of the capercaillie to your list.

Turtle Dove by Jill Pakenham

Dawn chorus in East Anglia

East Anglia is still the stronghold of the rapidly disappearing turtle dove. We have lost over 90% of our breeding turtle doves over the last 25 years. While this beautifully patterned dove isn’t a true woodland bird, it can be heard purring from the woodland edge. The woodland at Lackford Lakes, in Suffolk, still holds singing turtle doves and is a great place to hear one while you still can.

Wherever you walk this spring, enjoy the wonder that is British birdsong.

Image credits: © British Trust for Ornithology

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