Country Diary: Up with the larks to hear the dawn chorus

It was International Dawn Chorus Day and we were at Loch Insh by 6am for an RSPB guided walk. The birds in the car park were putting on a good show, and already we hit the challenge of the morning. Our guide would point and say: “That’s a chaffinch!” No sooner had everyone turned their heads and tuned their ears, a pesky band of tits, warblers and robins would pipe up and confuse things. Which one was which? How do you describe birdsong? So walking, we collectively tried to capture elusive bird language in human tongue.

Willow warbler on a branch
‘The willow warbler has a pure and silvery tumble of notes, with a bright lift at the end.’ Photograph: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy

To remember and imitate the songs, the rhythm and emphasis are as important as the pitch. The willow warbler has a pure and silvery tumble of notes, with a bright lift at the end, so we tried “willow-willow-willow-willow WARbler!” The great tit’s rusty-wheel two notes are often captioned “teacher-teacher” but don’t sound a bit like that to me. I scribbled down “du-WIT du-WIT”. But that’s what an owl says, isn’t it? With a “woo” thrown in? Bother. Not as easy as it looks.

The singing birds are mostly males marking territory and attracting females, which is why they strike up with such gusto in the spring and all talk at the same time. The tiny wrens are invariably surprising with their volume and velocity, and I found a swift roll of tongue against teeth was a close approximation of their churring.

A blackcap pierced the foliage with its clear, sweet whistle, bouncing across many notes like a piccolo soloist on speed, while oystercatchers piped across the loch, sounding like miniature trucks backing up. And then the curlew lifted from the rushes with its lovely bubbling song. One bird book renders its call as “oo-ot, oo-ot oo-eet trru-ee trrru-eel trrrru-eel trrru-eel trrru-uhl”. The song thrush took the prize for operatic range and chutzpah, while the mistle thrush, someone reported, sounds like Adele.

‘A blackcap pierced the foliage with its clear, sweet whistle.’ Photograph: Mike Lane/Getty

Our guide said the robin’s song has a melancholy feel and was astonished when others in the group assured him it was upbeat. To think, all these years when her singing made him sad, she had been trying to cheer him up. Clearly, there’s more to bird talk than meets the ear.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.