Tweet Tuesday

My name is Gill Thompson and I’m the Ecologist at the Northumberland National Park.  Spring is full of bird song and this year more than most lots of people are listening to it and appreciating it. I am always asked to identify birds at this time of year from their song and try to give people ways of remembering them.

Although I can’t do any dawn chorus walks at the moment we are planning to do a series of blogs, social media posts and recordings to help you identify things you may be hearing in your gardens and in your local area.  I have been out early in the morning recording some of my local sounds and will share them with you.

Northumberland National Park Ecologist Gill Thompson holding a pair of binoculars

Why do birds sing? In general male birds (and it is mainly males that sing although females call and make sounds too) sing to either attract a mate or defend a territory –  in effect ‘Come here’ or ‘Get lost’!

This is at its most intense at this time of year as birds are pairing up for the breeding season and feeding to get in good condition.  Birds sing more in the morning as it gets light and sometimes in the evening.  This is the time of day when the wind is often lightest so sound travels well and they can do it before it gets fully light for feeding (and avoiding predators).

Getting up early really is worth it at this time of year as you can hear and see so many more birds.  I often find it hard to get out of bed, but then am really glad I did, wandering around when there is no-one there, the sound is amazing and the light really different – oh and often a great way of having two breakfasts as well!

Dunnock

So let’s start with a ‘little brown job’: the dunnock.  If you have been getting out on walks around your local area you may have heard a sweet song coming from a hedge or bush.  Sometimes a small brown bird pops up and sits on the top of the hedge and sings away.

This is a dunnock, and at the moment they seem to be everywhere around me.  I love this time of year as migrant birds are starting to arrive from warmer climes, but some of our residents (birds that stay through the winter) can be very tuneful and worth looking at too.

Dunnock Song

Listen here

Dunnock

Dunnocks can often be seen in the garden on the ground, under feeders and hedge bottoms, sometimes moving almost mouse-like. They can appear drab brown, but on closer inspection streaks can be seen and they have a greyish head, I think sometimes looking slightly purple. When about a year old their eye turns a red/brown – if you get a chance to have a look through binoculars you can see this.

Although it will be the male singing on top of the hedge (leading to their old name, hedge sparrow) research has shown they don’t form traditional pairs of males and females but can raise young with a various combinations of the sexes in polygamous arrangements.  Have a look and listen for these little brown birds next time you are outside – they might surprise you!

 

Song Thrush

The song thrush is one of 6 thrushes we regularly see in Britain and one you are most likely to see in the garden at this time of year, together with the blackbird.

Song Thrush

It has a warm chestnut brown back and wings, and a cream breast with black spots or upward pointing arrows. The call is very loud and can start early in the morning and carry on late into the evening. It is always a series of repeated phrases and can carry quite far. Song thrushes forage on the ground eating worms and other invertebrates.

They are known to use stones as anvils to smash snail shells to get to the meat inside. It could be mistaken for the mistle thrush, but this is larger and more grey/brown with rounder spots continuing up on to the neck. The mistle thrush song is more like a short blackbird song.

A Mistle Thrush

Mistle Thrush by Ray Browning

Wren

More often heard than seen, the wren is one of our smallest birds and the most numerous in Britain (an estimated 11 million pairs).

Wren

Their song is very loud and explodes out of dense cover. It is a long, sweet phrase with trills often heard from low in a hedge or bush, but sometimes the bird perches up and you can see the orange inside its beak.

They are brown all over but this varies with lots of fine barring across the feathers and a pale stripe over the eye. They have a slim, sharp beak for eating insects and the upward cocked tail is very distinctive.

They live in a wide variety of habitats across the country from gardens, woodlands, moorlands and mountains. It is thought that birds living in the north are a hardy sub-species able to cope with our cold winters.

Blue Tit

Bright blue and yellow, acrobatic blue tits can be seen on feeders and their shrill calls heard in the garden.

Blue Tit

A common sight in gardens, parks and woodlands the blue tit is one of Britain’s most colourful and charismatic birds. Adults have a blue head and dark eye stripe with white cheeks, underneath they are yellow with blue wings.

Adults can raise the feathers on their heads in a small crest. Young often look more yellow on the face. They have a variety of calls which are often quite repetitive and shrill and they make a cross scolding sound when agitated.
Listening to one in the garden the other day it sounded like (a high pitched version of)the beginning of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – duh duh duh duuuurh!

They nest in holes and will use nest boxes to raise large broods of chicks. They can be acrobatic on bird feeders and on the ends of branches looking for caterpillars and other insects.

Great Tit

Have you got a squeaky wheelbarrow in your garden?! Listen out for the great tit.

Great Tit

The great tit can be seen often in gardens and woodlands and will regularly come to bird feeders. It is a large tit, bigger than blue tit and coal tit.

It has a large glossy black cap (no white on the back of the neck) white cheek and a yellow belly. Its back is green and the wings blue/grey with a white bar. The males and females are similar but can be told apart as the male often has a bigger, unbroken black strip down the front, particularly obvious at this time of year.

They make a variety of calls and songs, even mimicking other birds, but the most recognisable is the ‘squeaky wheelbarrow’ song, which can be very piercing or ringing.

Coal Tit

The coal tit is small and agile, identify it by the white patch on the back of its neck.

Coal Tit

The coal tit is a small, agile bird often seen hanging upside down on the ends of branches and feeders.  It is the smaller relation to the great tit and has a similar black cap and white cheek, but its most recognisable feature is a white patch on the back of the neck.

It has no yellow on the belly and only a slight green tinge to its back making it look much less colourful overall. The song of the coal tit, often given from the top of a tree, is similar to a great tit and can be confusing, but it is faster and it slides between the notes – less shrill and squeaky, more smooth.

Greenfinch

The wheezing song of a greenfinch is an easy sound for beginners to learn.

Greenfinch

It sounds a bit like a grass strimmer; grass is green and so is the finch! Greenfinches are chunky finches with a pale, heavy beak which they use to open seeds.  The males have a yellowy green breast and darker green back with slightly grey head.

They have yellow edges to their wings and show yellow on the wings and tail in flight.  Females are more grey/brown but also have a yellow edge to the wing visible when perched. They sing from the tops of trees or bushes and as well as the wheezy song they have a totally different trilling, tinkling song heard at the end of the recording.

Chaffinch

The slightly harsh song of the chaffinch is a familiar sound in gardens and the wider countryside.

Chaffinch

The slightly harsh song of the chaffinch is a familiar sound in gardens and the wider countryside. The song is not very melodic, but a repeated descending scale which can sound a bit like a machine gun at the end.  Males and females look quite different; males have blue/grey heads, pink breasts and cheeks and a distinctive white wing bar whereas females are buff brown with a smaller white wing bar. A pale nape and no streaks on the back, together with the white wing bar will help you tell females from female house sparrows.

Goldfinch

One of our most colourful birds, the goldfinch also has a beautiful liquid bubbling song.

Goldfinch

The bubbling flight call of the goldfinch as they bob up and down overhead is a lovely sound.

Their song is a liquid mixture of these bubbling notes, with trills and twittering. The goldfinch is one of the most colourful British birds with a red face, white cheek and black and yellow wings seen in flight.

The black tail and wing ends have white spots which can be seen when perched. Its beak is narrower than other finches to enable it to extract seeds from thistles and teasels.

They breed in woodland, gardens and scrub where they build a small cup-shaped nest in a tree or bush. Some birds are resident all year, but other migrate to France and Spain in the winter.

Yellowhammer song

A bright yellow head and chest and a catchy song make male yellowhammers unmistakeable birds of open country.

Yellowhammer

A bright yellow head and chest and a catchy song make male yellowhammers unmistakeable birds of open country. The yellowhammer song is repeatedly sung from the top of a bush, tree or hedge and is probably one of the most well-known bird phrases – ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ . This starts with a series of jingling notes with the long wheezing ‘cheese’ at the end.

Yellowhammers are sparrow-sized buntings and can be seen all year in hedges, gorse scrub and, particularly in winter, in gardens where they come to feeders looking for seed on the ground. Males look the brightest in spring and summer, some with amazingly bright yellow extending all down their breasts, with a chestnut streaky back.

They continue singing all through the day time and all summer long. Females are streaky brown, sometimes with some yellow streaks in the breast. Their name is thought to originate from the old English ‘amer’ or German for bunting ‘ammer’, rather than anything to do with the tool.

Migrant Birds

Now we will look at some of the birds that migrate to Northumberland for the spring and summer.

Chiff Chaff Song

The chiff chaff is a tiny bird that sings its name loudly

Chiff Chaff

Arriving in Northumberland from the Mediterranean and west Africa around the third week in March, it is one of the earliest migrant species you will hear.

The constant ‘chiff-chaff’ song announces their presence in woodlands and scrub. Look up to see a small, delicate grey/brown bird with a green tinge and a thin beak.

Dark legs as well as the distinctive song tell them apart from their close relative the willow warbler. They flit about in the canopy taking invertebrates from the leaves and buds.

Willow Warbler

The cascading song of the willow warbler can be heard from the beginning of April through the summer.

Willow Warbler

These tiny birds weighing little more than a £1 coin fly from sub-Saharan Africa and back every year. They look very similar to chiff chaffs; small, grey/brown with a greeny yellow tinge and a light eye stripe, but their legs are pale brown or pink rather than dark.

Their song is however completely different, it is a sweet, descending scale sounding, I think, like water running down a stone.  Numbers of these birds have declined in the south of England, but in Scotland and Northumberland they still seem to be doing OK.  Listen out for them on the edge of woodland, new plantings and around bushes.

Blackcap

Blackcaps are early migrant warblers arriving by the end of March in Northumberland.

Blackcap

Their song is a sweet phrase, varying in pitch and from bird to bird and within the song.  Some can sound quite flutey and almost blackbird like and others higher and more squeaky.  They can be confused with garden warblers, a close relative that arrives a few weeks later, which has a lower but similar song.  They can however mimic each other!

As the name suggests the male blackcap has a black head, with greyish body and is about the size of a chaffinch. Females have a chestnut head and browner body and wings. Both become hard to see as the trees get their leaves, but males continue to sing their beautiful song through June and July.

 

Whitethroat

The common whitethroat is a vocal summer visitor arriving in Northumberland from sub-Saharan Africa around the third week in April.

Whitethroat

The males sing a scratchy song from the tops of hedges and bushes showing their obvious bright white throats. They sometimes fly up to wires or up from the hedge in an aerial display with a slightly longer phrase of their song, which I think sounds a bit like a budgie!

They are quite chunky warblers with a thicker beak than relatives such as the blackcap and have a long tail and yellow legs. Adult males in breeding plumage have grey heads contrasting with their white throats and eye ring with rusty brown on their wings.

Females, juveniles and males out of season have brown heads and backs and a creamy white throat. 

Sedge Warbler

Sedge warblers have a loud and very variable song, which is sung from dense cover, perched in shrubs, and on aerial displays.

Sedge Warbler

They incorporate different phrases in different orders so the song is never the same and they can also mimic other birds, but there is usually a creaky, scratchy section. Sedge warblers are streaked brown on the back and pale below, with a pale eye stripe the best feature to note. In Northumberland they arrive by the beginning of May and although more common in reed and sedge beds along the coast they can be found inland in fens and damp areas with long grass, sedge and meadowsweet.

This one was recorded near Brocolitia car park on Hadrian’s Wall and liked performing his aerial displays! They will start to migrate back to sub-Saharan Africa via Italy and Iberia around August.

Grasshopper Warbler

What an amazing sound - is it an insect? a fishing reel? no it’s a bird!

Image - Stefan Hage, Birds.se / CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper warblers sing this continuous reeling song from dense cover, such as a hedge base, tussocky grass or rushes, often in wet places. They build their nests and run around at ground level in this thick vegetation so are really tricky to see.

The best way to detect them is to listen for the distinctive song. The male sings his song with a continuously open beak moving his head around broadcasting the sound so it sometimes gets slightly louder as it is directed towards you. This one was recorded in the Tyne valley at the end of April, but others were singing just last week (mid-July) near Greenlee lough on Hadrian’s Wall.

If you are lucky enough to see one they are a similar size to a chaffinch, have a pale throat and belly, and a streaky olive-brown back and wings.

Meadow Pipit

Meadow pipits are the most common birds seen and heard on moorland in Northumberland. The male displays by flying up into the air and then descending on stiff wings – often called parachuting accompanied by a spiralling song.

Meadow Pipit

Meadow pipits are the most common birds seen and heard on moorland in Northumberland.

Their squeak, squeak call is a familiar sound as they are flushed from tussocky grass and heather.  The male displays by flying up into the air and then descending on stiff wings – often called parachuting – accompanied by a spiralling song.

They usually land on the ground but look out for them on fence posts too; this one was actually recorded singing from a post. They are a little bit smaller than the skylark you may see in a similar habitat and have a slender yellow beak.

They have streaked breasts and flanks and are brown with streaks on the back. Birds in Northumberland will leave the moors in autumn to winter in France and Iberia.

Curlew

Hear the ‘cur-lee’ sound that gives the bird its name.

Curlew

Curlews and other wading birds have mainly left the moorlands and are heading for lower ground. Ringing studies suggest the birds that breed in Northumberland National Park travel west to the Solway and Ireland and perhaps down into France for the winter. Birds that winter on the Northumberland coast are probably from Scandinavia and further east.

The rising call so evocative of spring is heard less now, but you can still hear the ‘cur-lee’ sound that gives the bird its name. This recording was made in the spring on the moor with skylarks in the background. Can’t wait for them to return…

#OutdoorsIndoors

Every Tuesday we will be sharing a new bird song from Gill on our social media channels. You can follow along using the hashtag #OutdoorsIndoors.

Feel free to tag us in any recordings you make for us to share with our audience.