Saturday, 28 April 2012

Trade secrets

I was up at four today to lead a birdsong workshop for Norfolk Wildlife Trust at Reffley Wood, where the Woodland Trust is coaxing broad-leaved trees and an ancient woodland under-storey to take back what had become a plantation of non-native conifers. They’re doing a great job.

At this time of year I do lots of early birdsong walks (two next weekend plus a workshop on bumblebees; very soggy bumblebees at this rate). What I hope participants will take from these workshops is the understanding that nature gets more and more enjoyable – dare I say more life-enhancing? – the more you invest your energies and interest in it; and that, in the case of birdsong, it doesn’t matter what the experts say or the books say – it doesn’t even matter whether you know what bird you're listening to – as long as the experience is valuable to you. I don’t give a stuff whether participants go home certain they can identify blackcap song from garden warbler song (believe me, they never can), as long as they’re fascinated by bird sounds and want to let birds and bird noises further into their lives.

(Have I started to sound like a self-help manual? The dunnock piping in my garden seems to agree with me at least.)

To me the most important thing when learning birdsong is grasping the personalities of the songs. The best way to learn is to pinpoint what the sound makes you think or feel. Once you can say, ‘That’s the trickly one that makes me feel wistful,’ you can easily move to, ‘It makes me feel wistful so it must be a robin.’

Or that’s the theory.

Here then are a few of my feelings on birds' songs, as we discussed them yesterday morning, a cold, bleak day on which relatively little was to be heard. Participants on my workshops don’t have to agree with them. Certainly not! In fact the moment a participant challenges one of my descriptions my little ornithological heart leaps for joy; for it’s then that he or she is starting his or her own relationship with birdsong. And I become irrelevant, which is what it’s all about.

Yesterday’s cast in order of appearance:

Chiffchaff: Does exactly what it says on the tin. A couple of other birds have rocking two-note songs but a chiffchaff’s is heavy and is slightly off the beat, slightly syncopated, giving a mild feeling of sea-sickness. Lifejackets recommended. A chiffchaff also generally introduces his loud song with a series of quiet, understated chirps.

Coal tit: In some loopy parallel universe it would be possible to confuse chiffchaff, great tit and coal tit songs, but each has a distinct personality. Coal tit song, like the little bird making it, is small and bright and pretty, much more delicate in tone than great tit. Coal tits habitually put all their emphasis on one of their two notes so, to me, it sounds like tsiWEEE tsiWEEE tsiWEEE or itsy witsy teeny weeny.

Chaffinch: Chaffinch song is easy, really, really easy. It sounds like Tom Daley standing on the edge of a diving board and losing his nerve (I am sure Tom Daley never loses his nerve on the edge of a diving board but you get my image). Someone gives him a jab in the small of the back and he falls off, finally hitting the water with a big splash. To me the whole thing sounds like dig dig dig dig (hesitates) diddly diddly diddly diddly (falls) CHINK (hits water). That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Wren: Succintly put, wrens sound like Rossini. Fast, bright, confident, rapidly-changing and cheerful. Unlike Rossini they often put in a loud dry drilling sequence which, even if you’re not familiar with the rest of the song, is a giveaway.

Robin: Some people confuse robin song and wren song. How? How is that possible? Wren is confidence and attitude while robin is wistfulness and introspection. Wren is Rossini to robin’s Debussy. Robins sound to me like water trickling over the pebbly bottom of a stream. Their song is heart-breakingly sad but at the same time you yearn for more. I have heard thousands of bird species vocalise all over the world and I have heard almost nothing equal in beauty to a robin.

Goldcrest: Goldcrest song is the ultimate in fine and high, and it’s sadly inaudible to many, especially older, listeners. Like coal tit song, it’s most often heard from conifers or, in the absence of these, from dense ivy. To me a goldcrest says diddlydee diddlydee diddlydee diddlydee chirrup in the finest most silvery voice imaginable.

Woodpigeon: Woodpigeons are very common indeed and the only song with which you could confuse theirs is a collared dove's. Collared doves, which in the UK live mostly in gardens, have a happy-sounding, albeit rather vacuous, three-note song: be CAREful be CAREful. Woodpigeons, by contrast, have a heavy, almost censorious tone. Their basic refrain is five notes in length, BE CAREFUL children, but it’s arranged into a complex and strangely beautiful whole:

Careful children
BE CAREFUL children
BE CAREFUL children

Blackcap: Blackcaps sound happy and fruity. In this respect they are like blackbirds but their song is faster and more jumbled (more on blackbirds in a moment). I was asked on yesterday’s walk how to tell blackcap song from garden warbler’s (which we didn’t hear). Garden warbler sounds a little faster-paced throughout and has a pebbly quality which is lacking from blackcap’s song. Blackcap also starts with a scratchy section, often quieter and with a hint of whitethroat about it, before bursting into unadulterated rich fruitiness (I'm making it sound a bit Marks and Spencer Christmas cake, but blackcap song really is fruity). Garden warbler starts as it means to go on (no contrast between initial scratchy notes and later fruity loveliness) and generally sings a longer song than blackcap. Both are wonderful singers.

Blackbird: Blackbird song is the sound of cucumber sandwiches in a vicarage garden in summer. Lovely, rich, languid, it could only really be confused with mistle thrush. Mistle thrush tends to start singing earlier in the year (though there’s plenty of overlap), often sings from very high in a tall tree and sounds like an opera-singer who is starting to forget the words: bursting into a loud Wagnerian melody and soon tailing off as if drifting into dementia. Blackbird song, by contrast, has a rocking quality and ends very abruptly, as though the bird had been grabbed by the neck, often with a small squawk (which helps you to visualise the hapless bird being snatched).

Yes, we were very chuffed to hear a singing firecrest extremely well and, briefly, to hear a second male responding. If you ironed the song of a goldcrest you would have the song of a firecrest. Take away the goldcrest twiddle and you end up with a very high song that’s flat, fast and lisping, a sort of pseee pseee pseee pseee pseee psEEE psEEE. Firecrest gets more insistent towards the end of its song and sounds somehow more urgent than goldcrest.

Song thrush: Up there with chaffinch where mastering-it-on-your-first-birdsong-workshop is concerned. A song thrush is a one-trick horse. He shouts a short phrase very loudly in a high bright tone around five or six times. He then shouts another short phrase half a dozen times. Then another. The effect is something like Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob… Jennifer Jennifer Jennifer Jennifer Jennifer… Nigel Nigel Nigel Nigel… Bob Bob Bob.

Great tit: The great tit is the politician of the birdsong world. He never says anything of significance but he always says it with tremendous confidence and with a conviction that it’s his voice, above all others, which ought to be heard. The tone is bright and strong (unlike coal tit which can say some of the same things) and the phrases, like so many of our politicians, are simple. The classic great tit song is a rocking great tit great tit great tit great tit but it’s common to hear repetitive one note chimes, lopsided two note chimes (strongly reminiscent of coal tit), even three-note or more complex phrases, all delivered with the same look-me-in-the-eye-I’m-telling-the-truth absolute conviction. I love great tits but to me they will always be the politicians of our woods in spring. Noise, conviction, light on substance.

Blue tit: Blue tit song is lovely. It has a bright silvery tone and one or two long, accented notes before a string of faster notes. The effect to me is something like P diddy diddy diddy or P P P diddy diddy diddy.

Marsh tit: In Spring Wood, nearby, we heard a single singing marsh tit (how appropriate to this blog). Marsh tit song is a fast series of very strident, bright chips. Though simple in structure, it’s almost wren-like in its confidence and tone.

Pheasant: Everyone in Norfolk knows the rough two-note crowing of a cock pheasant. Since, according to good old Google Earth, we were only three-and-a-half miles from Wolferton, we compared and contrasted it with the rarely-heard song of the golden pheasant. The latter also has a two-note crow but, unlike common pheasant in which the two notes are at the same pitch and the accent falls on the first note, the accent of a golden pheasant’s crow falls on the second note, which rises sharply and has the explosively fizzy tone of a shaken drinks can being opened.

Next weekend I’m leading a dawn chorus walk for the Hawk and Owl Trust at Sculthorpe Moor and another for Norfolk Wildlife Trust in the Walks in King’s Lynn. Tune in again for corny descriptions of the songs of reed and sedge warblers, nuthatches and, who knows, even the odd cuckoo.

Early summer days are a jubilee time for birds. In the fields, around the house, in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp – everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs. From the edge of the woods, the white-throated sparrow (which must come all the way from Boston) calls, “Oh, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” On an apple bough, the phoebe teeters and wags its tail and says, “Phoebe, phoe-bee!” The song sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is, says “Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude.” If you enter the barn, the swallow swoop down from their nests and scold. “Cheeky, cheeky!” they say.

E. B. White
Charlotte’s Web

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