Nature Quest: Listening to the Dawn Chorus

Kings Weston Estate at dawn‘Why do birds have to wake up so early?’ I thought, groaning as my alarm went off at what surely was not a time of the morning at which humans should be awake. After a busy week of work, a 4:30am start on a Saturday morning was not quite what I wanted, but it was the only way I was going to complete my latest Nature Quest challenge. And despite my weariness I knew it would be worth sacrificing my beauty sleep for.

Trying to drag myself out of bedGreeting the dawn

As we left the house just before 5am, the first robins had already started singing, despite the fact it was still dark outside. I was on my way to join one of my fiance Ed’s guided Dawn Chorus walks, which this morning was at Kings Weston Estate in Bristol, for the Kings Weston Action Group.

As we arrived at the car park, there was a bit of squinting through the darkness to find the rest of the group, but once we had gathered together and the first hints of light were just beginning to show in the sky the birds suddenly began to sing. It was as if a switch had been turned on – one minute it was more or less silent, the next the rich, varied melody of a song thrush rang out in the clear morning air.

Entering the woods, Kings Weston Estate Dim light of dawn, Kings Weston Estate

As we entered the still-dark woodland, the song thrush was soon joined by others, and gradually the chorus of different species began to build: blackbirds, then a great tit, the loud trilling song of a wren, then a blue tit. Ed explained that the first birds to sing, like the thrushes and robins, were generally those with larger eyes which are able to see better in the dim light. As we walked on and the sky began to lighten further, even more birds joined the chorus, including blackcaps, a chiffchaff and later on nuthatches, a green woodpecker, goldfinches, stock doves and goldcrests. Even a willow warbler, probably newly arrived from Africa on its spring migration, put in a welcome appearance with its beautifully sweet, cheerful song.

Why do birds sing at dawn?

There are various theories as to why birds sing at dawn. Some think it could be to do with energetics – the birds have stores of energy left over having survived the cold night, and perhaps are advertising to rival birds that they are still alive, still in charge of their territory. It could also be that at that time of the morning it’s still too dark to forage, so it makes sense to use that time to sing instead. It could be a combination of factors, but personally I think the main reason is just that sound travels so much better in the still, cool air at dawn.

Ed explaining bird song to the group

But why sing in the first place? As Ed explained to the group, the birds are not just singing for the fun of it; it’s their way of laying claim to a territory, where many of them may already have a mate on a nest of eggs or chicks (in virtually all species, it’s the male that sings). What they’re saying, in effect, is ‘This is my patch – get out!’ What we were listening to was a full-on vocal battle!

Full-on chorus

If you’ve never listened to a dawn chorus, it’s well worth experiencing at least once. It’s not just a case of listening to some pretty bird song – it’s a loud, all-encompassing chorus that can really take your breath away. As we walked on through the wood and more and more birds began to sing, it became increasingly difficult to pick out the different species, and Ed had to play their calls on his nifty “bird pen” to help the group identify what was singing.

Female blackbird in the trees - only the males would be singing Ed using a 'bird pen' to play bird sounds, helping the group to ID species

The volume got louder and louder until only around 15 minutes in it reached a crescendo. Then, as the sun finally came up and the first rays reached through the trees, the chorus began to die away again – it was perhaps made all the more magical by its ephemeral nature, the way the sound and stillness of the air combined to make a unique, almost haunting atmosphere.

All agreeing that it had been an amazing experience and well worth the early start, the group gradually dispersed again (for me, it was back to bed!) and we left the birds to get on with their day.

Have a listen for yourself…

Below is a small, edited-together clip of some of the highlights of my dawn chorus experience. I highly recommend getting up early one morning and listening to it yourself, as a sound clip really can’t do the whole atmosphere justice.

The best time to listen to the dawn chorus is from about mid-March to June, but bear in mind that as the days get longer you’ll have to get up earlier and earlier if you want to catch it! If you plan to visit a woodland or other site to listen to it, you really want to get there while it’s still dark. If you’re not sure where to go or want to know more about what you’re listening to, it’s also a good idea to join an organised walk, such as the ones Ed runs.

The group listening to the dawn chorus Cupping your hands round your ears is an effective way to pinpoint a sound!

If you want to brush up on your species identification, the RSPB website gives short sound clips of various UK species. Enjoy!

Kings Weston Estate at sunrise

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