The beauty of birdsong

Well, what a wonderful morning we had yesterday as we led an early morning walk around part of the reserve to celebrate International Dawn Chorus Day, taking members of the public out to experience one of nature’s greatest gifts in all its glory.

It was a cold start and a light dusting of frost welcomed us as we met just before 5.30am.  Thankfully temperatures increased as the sun quietly rose above the North Sea and we made our way around Tayock accompanied by a plethora of singing birds. 

One of the first birds we heard was the sad, melancholy song of the willow warbler, which sounds as though it starts to sing, then forgets what it was about to say so teeters off to a quiet ending before starting all over again!

A recent arrival from Africa, willow warblers were only one of a number of summer migrants which we saw, including several common whitethroats, blackcaps, a sedge warbler and of course, everyone’s favourite, a swallow.

Thankfully the birds were very obliging and visitors were treated to some fantastic views of yellowhammers, goldfinches, greenfinches, dunnocks, wrens and linnets.  In total, we saw (or heard!) 29 species on our dawn dander through Tayock, including several lifers for one very knowledgeable and enthusiastic young birder, who at 10 years of age certainly has a future in nature conservation.

Why do birds sing, you may ask?

Although birds may sing throughout the day, birdsong is most prevalent at first light, especially at this time of year.  The main reasons for this are that as the birds wake from their overnight slumber they sing to let any females around know that they are here and may be a potential mate.  At the same time they must ensure they lay claim to the territory in case they are successful, they need somewhere to raise a brood, so by singing they are also making sure any rival males know this spot is taken.

We (i.e. humans) produce our voice from the lumpy bit about half way down our throat, known as the larynx.  Birds, however, do not.  They produce their “voice” from a different organ which is located at the end of their windpipe known as a syrinx.

A fascinating adaptation of the syrinx is that it divides into two separate tubes, allowing birds to produce two different notes simultaneously, something we physically cannot do…..go ahead, try it.  This adaptation also enables the bird to sing while breathing, so it appears to us as though they can sing continuously without having to stop to take a breath.

Studies have shown that birds which were raised in isolation, while producing similar songs to non-isolated birds, actually make mistakes.  This indicated to researchers that while young birds have an inbuilt knowledge of what they should be singing, they need to refine their song over time by learning from older birds. 

One of the best singers in the avian world is the skylark.  This little brown bird delivers a constant, warbling song as it climbs high into the sky where it appears to hang, suspended from the clouds before descending in a gliding motion back to earth.  Skylarks will even continue to sing while being chased by a predator, such as a merlin or sparrowhawk.  It is thought they do this to show their pursuer that they are so fit and strong that they can continue singing whilst evading capture (and certain death!).

Different bird species have different songs and over time and by gaining experience it is possible to learn how to identify songbirds simply by their call.  This is a benefit for any birdwatcher as it allows you to enjoy a walk without having to spend an age looking for that tiny bird at the top of a huge tree or in the middle of a dense bush only to be frustrated as it flies off just as you raise your binoculars.  My advice to anyone interested in birds is, get out there and start learning how to tell the different birds simply by their song.  Start with the birds in your garden and over time you can build up a wealth of knowledge.

The dawn chorus is something many people have never been lucky enough to experience, so why not set your alarm clock for 5.00am, get up and have wander round your local woods?  You can always go back to bed for a couple of hours afterwards.

Go on, you won’t regret it.

Adam – Montrose Basin Ranger

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Preface

Well, what a wonderful morning we had yesterday as we led an early morning walk around part of the reserve to celebrate International Dawn Chorus Day, taking members of the public …

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