There is an overwhelming quiet that comes with winter; a hush descends over the landscape that only adds to the bracing chill. As the season turns, the first few tentative voices break the spell of silence and before long there is an overpowering variety of diverse voices filling the air. While in the height of spring there can be hundreds of songs reverberating through the trees, there are a select few who can be heard again and again, reliable as the seasons. I took it upon myself to begin to tune in to this soundscape, a treat for the ears. Learning to birdlisten not only unlocks the ability to distinguish birds by song, but is also very useful as advanced warning for the reveal of the bird itself.
Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Perhaps the most significant voice is that of the robin, mainly because he never left the scene when other, less hardy birds took off for warmer climes. Even through the dark, bitter winter the robin endures, his lone song often the only consistent sound during the colder months. In spring males and females pair up and defend their breeding territory, often the first to start singing and the last to finish.
The robin’s song is a delightful melody; a high, twittering burble heard from all around. Although varied in its range and tempo, the robin’s voice is almost unmistakable – high, thin and soft but still richly diverse. Hear the robin and he won’t be far away, perching in plain sight and puffing up his red breast as he fills it with air. He is a proud bird, often chasing other robins from his patch, but with a voice as pretty as his, who can blame him?
Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Another commonly heard voice belongs to a rowdy bird that makes up for small size by belting out a piercing song for everyone to hear. The wren can often be seen speeding bullet-like through knee-high bushes. The wren sings like it’s scolding somebody; a furious round of high, loud chirrups with a distinctive trill at the end of some phrases that sounds like a miniscule machine gun. If you hear a very loud song wait for the trill, as it will inevitably come sooner or later and you’ll know you have your wren. Scan the lower branches and before long a stout brown bird holding its tail up like a stiff flag will appear, giving you a fierce reprimanding for something or other.
Great Tit (Parus major)
If robins and wrens are violins in the avian orchestra, the great tit is percussion; not quite as dazzling but just as important. In early spring, a two-toned call can be heard among the other singers, with emphasis on the first syllable. I like to think of it as the sound of a saw – effort on the forward stroke, then quieter on the draw back. After a few strokes of the squeaky saw there is a pause, and then the great tit sings it again, very resiliently as if rousing the troops to join in.
The great tit has other songs in its repertoire, including a “churr” call that reminds me of the chatter of a magpie, but a little faster and far gentler. This is the great tit’s alarm call, a sign of agitation that indicates something has disturbed it.
Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)
With a lot of birdsong, it can help to adopt a Morse code approach when it comes to deciphering the rhythms of some particular species. Take the blue tit. A common little bird with splashes of blue, green, yellow and white with a fetching black goatee. The blue tit’s song is similar in tone to the great tit but gentler. Among its quite varied repertoire is a particularly distinctive melody, consisting of two clearly separated notes followed by two or three much faster ones. In dots and dashes it would look something like this:
– – . . .
Imagine, perhaps, that the bird is saying “I’m. A. Pretty Bird”, putting particular emphasis on the first two words.
If you like this, have a read of this post and find out where my inspiration to start birdlistening began.