Bird song: The dawn chorus

PUBLISHED: 06:00 30 March 2016

Chaffinch singing the dawn chorus by Joan Burton

Chaffinch singing the dawn chorus by Joan Burton

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International Dawn Chorus Day falls on Sunday, May 1 this year. On this day, as well as May 8 and 15, RSPB South Essex will be hosting a dawn chorus walk at the Bowers Marsh reserve. Here we learn all about the dawn chorus

Wren perched on small branch singing by Paul ChesterfieldWren perched on small branch singing by Paul Chesterfield

Despite early hints of spring from as far back as December, we are now ready for the real thing. Throughout Essex you’ll see signs of the sleepy natural world awakening from its slumber. Soon a magnificent carpet of bluebells will sprout from woodland floors, jellied frog spawn will be laid in our ponds and queen bumblebees will be on the hunt for nectar.

One of the most distinctive features of a British spring morning is the dawn chorus. Listening to the magical cacophony from a variety of bird species is an enchanting way to start your day. Our songbirds time their breeding season to the warmest part of the year, when there is plenty of food and lots of daylight in which to find it. As winter turns to spring, the lengthening daylight switches male songbirds into breeding mode. The purpose of song can be both to attract females and to define territory. It is fascinating that the representation of highly competitive elements of bird life manifests into something we find so enjoyable and moving. The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the dawn chorus.

The first birds begin to sing about an hour before sunrise. If you listen carefully, you may notice that there is a regular sequence, with some species habitually starting before others. Among the earliest to rise are skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds, and as they do eat worms, there may be some truth to the old saying! A more relaxed approach is taken by wrens and warblers, which typically appear later. These smaller birds, who are perhaps more sensitive to the coldness of dawn, feed on insects that themselves appear later in the morning.

If you want to listen to a dawn chorus, then the best days to choose are those with fine, clear weather and little wind. It can be cold early in the day, so remember to take warm clothes. Late April through to early June is the best period, when most species are singing well. Dawn chorus peaks half an hour before to half an hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can prove too confusing at that time, so why not get into position a good hour before sunrise, and enjoy the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage?

Song thrush singing whilst perched on a branch against a blue sky by Chris GomersallSong thrush singing whilst perched on a branch against a blue sky by Chris Gomersall

International Dawn Chorus Day falls on Sunday, May 1 this year. On this day, as well as May 8 and 15, RSPB South Essex will be hosting a dawn chorus walk at the Bowers Marsh reserve. This is an ideal event for someone who wants not only to appreciate delightful birdsong, but also wishes to learn a little. Friendly and knowledgeable volunteers will lend you their ears and help you identify who is singing what song. Spaces will be limited, so booking is essential. Call 01268 498620 or email southessex@rspb.org.uk for more information. Alternatively find another guided dawn chorus walk near you at www.rspb.org.uk

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