Take an early morning stroll to hear the dawn chorus

A Goldfinch perching on a small twig by Gideon Knight

A Goldfinch perching on a small twig by Gideon Knight - Credit: Archant

Wildlife expert Bob Gilbert says shaking up your lockdown routine with an early walk will reap dividends in hearing the diversity of urban birdsong

Greenfinch eating peanuts from a feeder.
must credit Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Greenfinch eating peanuts from a feeder. must credit Andy Hay (rspb-images.com) - Credit: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Here’s another idea for your permitted period of exercise in these straitened times: do the same local walk as usual, but at an unusual time of day.

Being married to a Vicar, I am accustomed to getting up at an unearthly hour on Easter Day to attend the dawn vigil; a remarkable piece of liturgical drama which starts around a fire outside the church door and processes inside by candlelight.

This Easter there were, of course, no church services, except for the virtual kind, but we got up before dawn anyway, just the two of us, and went for a walk around our area.

Despite the inconvenience of this early rising, it has some obvious advantages; not least the fact that in the empty streets there is no problem with social distancing. And even more, there is the joy of the morning birdsong.

Someone rang me recently to say that they thought the birds this year, were singing louder than usual. Others have commented that because the roads are much quieter, we are hearing the birds more clearly. I disagree with both contentions. I believe that birdsong is much as it always has been, but that with fewer distractions we are allowing ourselves to listen. It is a matter of time and attention.

There is no better time to hear it than in the early morning.

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We had not even left the house that morning, before I was noting down the first contributors to the chorus; a mistle thrush which regularly sings outside our window long before first light, and the clear, bell-like repetitive calling of a great tit. One of the things to be aware of at this time of day is the sequence in which the various species join in. There are the early risers, as well as those which have no intention of stirring themselves until it is properly light. Among the former is the trickling song of the robin along with the mechanical whirrings and churrings of the wren. It seemed that Easter morning to be coming from all directions, revealing the fact that this is a much commoner bird than we sometimes realise. There were blue tits too, with a thinner and wheezier call than that of the great tit; but all of these seemed just the background singers to the blackbird’s full-throated aria.

There had been a large, waning half-moon when we started, but it very soon set. The darkness seemed to leak out rather than the light arrive, and to the east, above the silhouettes of tower blocks, the sky turned first a pale sandy orange and, later, rose-pink.

Crows began to provide some bass notes, a magpie called raucously and gulls had been making themselves heard for some time. Their pale forms overhead had added a ghostly element to the scene, an element that was only enhanced by the melancholy of their wailing in the semi-dark.

When it was almost fully light, though still before sunrise, the wood pigeons could be heard. They may not be the most popular birds but I love their soft, repetitive, five-syllabled calling. The ‘chanting ring doves’, Sylvia Plath called them, suggesting they, too, had an ‘other-worldliness’ about them.

As the sun emerged from behind a thin veil of cloud on the horizon, so the final voices joined the chorus. The finches are always latecomers; the greenfinch with its long drawn-out, budgerigar-like trill and the goldfinches with their incessant chattering. There is always something of the teenager about them and, frankly, I would not expect them to be up and about early.

There was another bird I was hoping to hear and it came in last - the rich and rapidly delivered phrasing of the blackcap. These warblers have become more common as an urban bird in the last few years, but I still get a thrill every time I hear one. The wonderful energy and variety of their song makes a fitting climax to the concert.

There has been much advice given on how we should sustain ourselves during the lockdown, stressing the importance of establishing a routine, with which I fully concur. But as the period of confinement seems set to continue, there is also a virtue in breaking the established routine now and again. So do something unexpected. Get up at a ridiculously early hour and walk with the family or the dog, or by yourself, to watch the sunrise and the night drain away, and to experience the surprising diversity of urban bird song.