Archive for Birdsong

In twilight

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 27, 2017 by cliffdean

I was quite relieved the other evening, to pick out a fragment of Nightingale song to one side of the birds on which we were focusing. By late May they tend to have quietened down but I’d been away or too occupied with other things to lead a walk any earlier in the month. Earlier in the month, indeed, in places where the idea of actually leading a walk to hear this ubiquitous songster would have seemed absurd – like mounting an expedition to hear a Blackbird.

But this is England, where the hope of hearing a Nightingale – south-eastern and getting scarcer – makes a good core objective around which can be wrapped the many other delights of a woodland dusk like songs, scents, stars and silhouettes.

Starting among tall trees, we were surrounded by the rich song of Blackcap, Blackbird, Song Thrush & Wren, with the tiny sound of a Goldcrest high up in Scots Pines. Then a nervous GS Woodpecker which eventually led us to its nest of cheeping chicks, and out onto the north end of Sedlescombe Heath with its burbling Garden Warblers, distant Cuckoo and the 2 Nightingales. As usual, the loudest of these, though just a couple of metres from us remained resolutely hidden in bramble but, as I keep saying, with these birds it’s not the visual that makes them remarkable.

Everyone had plenty of opportunity to savour the unique resonance of this celebrated song, together with interlocution from another one not far off. Following the headline act the chorus tailed off more quickly than I expected and further on at “Nightingale Alley” not a bird was to be heard other than a Tawny Owl. In pines though we had been surprised by loud calls moving across the treetops – a protesting Hobby!


Birdsong in BHW

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on May 22, 2017 by cliffdean

An unexpected heavy shower ceased before the walk began but left scents in the air and drops rattling down in the breeze. After that, alternating cloud and sunshine sent pulses of light through darker coppice.

From the start, the principal songs were Chiffchaf, Wren & Blackcap, the first simply onomatopoeic, so easy to learn, the second distinctively shrill  but the third sharing warbles and fluty notes with some other woodland birds.

Management by the Woodland Trust has resulted in a kaleidoscope of variation, be it of tree species, structure or intensity of light, these variables reflected in the birds present therefore in the songs emerging, often  from an invisible source. Moving away from the car park area and past denser bramble,we began to encounter more Robins and a single desultory  Nightingale.

Besides learning songs, we were looking for breeding evidence, following the BTO guidelines. At first the Blackcaps were no more than Singing Males (S) but soon we encountered a madly ticking and scolding bird – definitely Agitated (A) though at what we could not see. There was also a GS Woodpecker feeding very busily to suggest it had young in a nearby nest but if it did, we couldn’t hear them.

Round the corner,with opened up heath to the left and tall Scots Pines to the right, we heard two new birds: a Common Whitethroat (S), and some Siskins which maybe bred here earlier in the year  but now were not really doing anything special and were too high and quick  to check for youngsters, so just (H) –present in suitable breeding habitat.  More conclusive evidence was provided by a family procession of Long-tailed Tits,which gave us not only FL – recently fledged young – but great views of the brownish coloration compared with their busy parents’ pink & black.

Sadly there was no sign of Tree Pipit at the clearing but an area of tall scrub in the middle gave us Garden Warbler – an allegedly “difficult” song and the much easier Willow Warbler in the light birch fringes. The former – most considerately – was singing not 20m from a Blackcap, whose song is most easily confused with it. They share similar habitat and I’d just been reading in the BTO Volunteer magazine that Blackcaps will sometimes mimic Garden Warbler to deter incomers, but these two were very distinctive, adhering to the classic structures.

There were  a couple  of interesting moments of cognitive dissonance, where songs could be heard quite at odds with the habitats were looking at. The first was as we searched a very bare chestnut coppice, littered with dead diagonals of branches windthrown back in 1987. Small noises in the tops suggested Spotted Flycatcher but we just couldn’t see it/them. Then a Garden Warbler sang – completely wrong: no scrub, no cover. A short distance ahead however, passes a pylon line, the wood beneath it cleared ever five years and obviously coming up for another trashing since the scrub had grown up to Garden Warbler level.

The second occurred while we were in dark and creepy Hornbeam coppice, surrounded by flattened bluebells and ancient bell-pits, having just paid our respects to the Big Wild Service tree. Typical was a pair of Marsh Tits,scolding in typical fashion Through the wriggling branches came the chatter of a Reed Warbler. No cover, definitely no reeds, except that just downhill, out of the  coppice and through a dense screen of willows, is the reservoir.A shallow projection where an old road drops below the surface permits the growth of a stand of phragmites. Hence the Reed Warbler. Other wetland species were calling unseen from the lake: Coot & Little Grebe.

Above the heather of Holman Field, Buzzards (P) pair in suitable habitat, were circling quietly, then from the tall Scots Pines calls of Coal Tit & Goldcrests.




An unexpected warbler

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 23, 2016 by cliffdean


Edward Blyth (1810-1873)

Around lunch-time last Friday Barry Yates forwarded me a video made early that morning by Mike Russell. I couldn’t play it on my phone but once home I could see that it showed a singing, unstreaked Acrocephalus warbler, which Mike thought could be Marsh. Since our broadband was very slow at the time the video rolled out erratically, the colour was quite bleached and I agreed that it looked good for Marsh Warbler. The song contained some mimicry though it lacked the usual hell-for-leather pace; the flight feathers seemed to have pale edging and though the wing looked short, the scrubby habitat seemed right. Marsh Warblers are always worth listening to but it was raining hard at that point so I determined to have a look the next morning.

By early evening however, more astute observers (Barry, Phil Jones & Paul James) had looked and listened more critically and were suggesting it could be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler– a bird that winters in India and migrates NW as far as Finland. Those few that make it as far as the UK are mostly autumn migrants in the north and are very difficult to identify. There was only one previous record in Sussex. I kicked myself for not having recognised that the song structure was wrong for Marsh Warbler and then again for not having paid more attention.

(On our last morning in Poland I had awoken to find a hand-drawn map pushed under our bedroom door: during the night our guide had heard a Blyth’s Reed Warbler singing on the very edge of the village, so I rushed down there (“turn right at the Cyrillic cross…”) but there was no sign. And now…right here…)

Though I knew they are night-singers, an immediate departure was precluded by rain + recreational use of amber vodka, so I spent a while checking ID features and listening to sound-files on Xeno-canto before getting an early night.

Road access to the site is not convenient. The last time I’d crossed the intervening fields the grass was short but this morning it was calf height and soaked from the night’s rain. So I arrived at 04.30 rather wet but cheered to find the bird immediately, singing strongly from a skeletal Elder in a tangled patch of low reed, nettle and bramble. It was only about 3m from me and although the sky was overcast the light was pretty good.

The colours looked different from the video, uniformly dull grey-brown but for warmer brown on the tail and secondary edges (but subtle – not the contrast in the video). The tail was noticeably abraded. Its underparts were paler, the breast a rather dirty grey (this because it was wet from the soaking foliage – they looked a cleaner off-white in dry conditions next day) this contrasting with a whiter throat & long undertail coverts. The primary projection was much shorter than undertail coverts.

The markings on the head were not symmetrical. While the supercilium on the left side extended clearly behind the eye, that on the right (as seen in Mike’s video) does not, explained perhaps by a vertical dark mark behind the eye. While there was a darker stripe through the eye, it was not as dark as books suggest. There was an eye-ring though I didn’t find it as obvious as Mike has said.
On the bill, the upper mandible was darker, but yellow at the base while the lower was mostly clear yellow – hard to tell if the tip is darker. Significantly, its legs were pinkish grey – not the straw colour of Marsh.

The bird was not at all difficult to see since much of the time it sang out on dead branches, on occasions flying up to a higher (3m) perch in a hawthorn. When it dropped into the scrub it only disappeared from views for short periods, returning to sing from a reed stem.

As much as the visual clues were subtle, the song was plainly and consistently different from the streaming mimicry of Marsh Warbler, clearly structured with a wide variety of discrete phrases divided by pauses of up to 4 seconds. It often starts with a very Chaffinch-like “creep creep” and Chaffinch was suggested too by “pink!” notes. Other mimicry suggests Blue/Great Tit, Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Greenfinch (trill), Fieldfare & Green Sandpiper.
What’s more there were several very distinctive phrases which seem to be all its own: a rising “didid du dee!” (in tone a bit like a Common Rosefinch) a rising “tutt-tit!” and a very characteristic fluting glissando.

It was a really interesting song. As much as I like Reed Warbler song, the one chugging along in the ditch behind me sounded rather unenterprising in comparison. I would however have appreciated a look at it, just to compare the plumage tones but it kept resolutely undercover.

As I stood there, many other birds were singing – you can hear them in the background – and a pair of Cuckoos were dashing back and forth. All this going on, this extraordinary and unexpected warbler, but still early in the morning and nobody else around.

Blyth's Reed Warbler Rye 180616 8024

Photo by David Walker

Sam Smith called in briefly to take some photos. While I went for a walk to stretch my legs, an email came in from David Walker at Dungeness (to whom Barry had sent Mike’s video), saying that he thought it was a Marsh Warbler, even though the song was odd. I felt a bit deflated since he is someone very much more experienced and knowledgeable than I am, someone to whom I would defer, but by now I was certain that the song was objectively different. so I urged him to come and have a look & listen, while wondering who else might confirm this bird’s identity one way or the other.

Blyth's Reed Warbler Rye 180616 8028

Photo by David Walker

Recalling that helpful map slid under my hotel door, I sent a message to Pawel Malczyk in Poland, attaching one of my videos…. which was too big to send. Standing out in the Fairy Ring Field (the same field in which I had once got a text from Andrew G that he’d found a Red-flanked Bluetail), I embarked on the steep learning curve of How to Reduce a Video. Having stupidly left my glasses at home, I stabbed hopefully at the screen until the message went….

…….Ten minutes, and one Little Owl, later the reply came “Hi! It sounds very good in fact! But I expected a little bit longer record to be sure it’s a BRW. Send me longer one on my email please.” ….More stabbing…sending….

……………“Yes, yes, yes!!! It’s Blyth’s! Congrat!”

By this time, Barry had taken photos and recorded the song, then later David came over and agreed that it was indeed Blyth’s Reed.

(But who was Blyth? Read about him here.)

It was still there first thing on Sunday morning but was not found subsequently. Although a lot of people would have enjoyed seeing and hearing this bird, news of its presence was not broadcast more widely because poor access to the site (on private land) meant that an arrival of large numbers of well-wishers would have been likely to cause problems with local residents and landowners.


Keeping busy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 7, 2016 by cliffdean


This is the kind of May I dream about, the kind I look towards during the long haul of early spring: dawn chorus, long sheep-shadows at sunrise, fragrant bluebells and breakfast-time dog-walkers in heroic shorts. My memory is terrible but I can’t recall such a prolonged period of ideal May weather for years. So I’ve been out every morning but upon my return disinclined to sit at the computer. A rapid summary is required:


Relics of Easter: A children’s camp built of driftwood beneath a wind-blasted thorn.

Tuesday 3rd: Slow But Sure Coastal Walk (Pett – Castle Water, 11 miles) 89 species but not much out of the ordinary. That’s the kind of place we live in, full of birds, so rather than celebrate the richness of variety, to which we’re far too accustomed, we lament the missing Birds of Shame, the common species that didn’t appear (like the migrant waders which just turned up yesterday). A drake Garganey, though scarce was to be expected but a Pied Flycatcher – the very last species before the bus home – was not. I rarely see them in autumn and only once before in spring (a singing male in Winchelsea as I climbed the hill at New Gate).


Thurs 5th: PLPT bird survey: We had a lot of blackthorn scrub ripped out during the winter so it seems a good time to repeat the mapping I did in 2013 in order to monitor the onward development of the site. While areas we cleared in previous winters are rapidly greening up, the lately opened parts look harsh. However, once I compared this week’s map with that of 3 years ago I found much less difference than I expected, suggesting that the dark domes of thorn had indeed hosted few birds. This was of no relevance though to a lady who accosted me with the accusation “that there aren’t half the birds there were before they ruined the place”. Though I bore in my hand the evidence to the contrary, she was not interested in facts, declaring that Kingfishers had been driven out by the removal of blackthorn.


Still on 5th: Garden birds: There are loads of Whitethroats singing : more in the usual places (e.g. the maligned PLPT where there might otherwise be 1-3 there are now 5) and others in unusual sites including our back garden, where House Martins have suddenly reappeared to reoccupy the nest-boxes, 6 Buzzards are circling overhead and a Mistle Thrush is carrying food to an unseen nest (I haven’t heard the song; I had no idea they were there).


Friday 6th: Cadborough Cliff – just a little level walk was amazing: 49 species including 57 Linnets, 34 Whitethroats, 33 Skylarks, 14 Yellow Wagtails, 9 Cetti’s Warblers, 2 each of Cuckoo, Nightingale & Turtle Dove… I think I shall change next week’s walk from HCPNR to here.

Still on 6th: 40th anniversary of the memorable Friuli Earthquake. I lived to tell the tale since I was far from the epicentre, suffering only wobbling buildings but up in the north-east it was a different story and the following days dramatic. Not a May 6th goes by when I do not recall it.


Saturday 7th (today! I’ve caught up!): Ashburnham Place: a fabulous setting; scent of streamside Wild Garlic & song of Grey Wagtail. A very short birdsong walk listening in to entry-level Pheasant, Canada Goose & Chiffchaff, moving on to contrasting Robin, Song Thrush, Goldcrest, Reed Warbler. Two off-stage surprises were Willow Warbler & Firecrest, either side of the neo-classical bridge. When I stopped on my way home to listen to the latter, it was accompanied by songs of praise from the house. How often do you hear the sound of human song in the landscape?


Clapped-out Vehicle by Anny Evason

PLPT birdsong walk

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 4, 2016 by cliffdean


Chaffinch (all photos by Stuart Barnes)

The weather was perfect for this morning’s birdsong walk during which we heard and saw 32 species on or immediately adjacent to the Trust land and another 8 flying over or in the distance.


Jackdaw carrying nest material

The great majority of the song came from Dunnock, Robin, Wren, Song Thrush, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch, Greenfinch & Collared Dove.


Cetti’s Warbler

2 Cetti’s Warblers delivered explosive performances from the canal-side vegetation, with one singing out in the open, permitting unusually good views for a normally skulking species.

A great surprise was a Mistle Thrush visiting its nest in a spot I’ve never seen them before. (PS: the local Jackdaws have seen it though, so I don’t give much for its chances.)


Colonna sonora

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 26, 2016 by cliffdean

It was the truth when I wrote in a review of our B&B in Rome that we awoke to the sound of birds rather than traffic noise. I failed to specify, however, that the birds in question were Yellow-legged Gulls which went KOKOKOKOKOKOKyeeOOWW! from the rooftops at break of day.


I had been impressed by the inclusion of these birds’ calls in the dawn rooftop scene of La Grande Bellezza because I had not understood their predominance in the city’s everyday soundtrack.


The second species to fire up at dawn, subtle by comparison, was the similarly ubiquitous Hooded Crow, then some time later Great Tits and crooning Blackbirds.


Though I heard none of the Robins which feature frequently in the film – their early-morning innocence serenading the homebound playboy – mellifluous Blackcap song backed up by chattering of Wrens issued from evergreen courtyards along with the throbbing of amorous Feral Rock Doves.




As we waited for the tram, silvery Firecrest song and the sizzling of invisible Serins came down from Holm Oaks overhanging the busy street.


In the pine-shaded parks they were joined by Short-toed Treecreepers & Greenfinches though it was the shrieking bands of dazzling green Ring-necked & Monk Parakeets that caught tourists’ attention.


Black Redstarts quivered from broken columns and fallen arches while high above the waving selfie-sticks Kestrels cackled from the ancient brickwork.



Considering the vast numbers of wild beasts slaughtered at the Colosseum, few of their bones have been recovered. Nor does there seem to be any evidence for the martyrdom of Christians there.




Jeb, the film’s protagonist shows little interest in, but perhaps some appreciation of, the bird song (Song Thrush, Blackcap, Robin) that accompanies him, as fresh as the water he splashes from a wayside fountain.


He fails to register Peregrines wickering from a crumbling aqueduct, no doubt distracted by the naked performance artist about to bash her head against it.


 Nonetheless he scores a remarkable Roof-garden Tick when he discovers a flock of migrant Flamingos roosting on his city-centre balcony.




Signs of Spring

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 22, 2016 by cliffdean

At this time of year, journeys down the garden to the compost bin are combined with a scan of the strutting gull flock – a scan this morning brought to an abrupt halt at the sight of the dense black hood of the first Mediterranean Gull. This one was feeding quietly but later, once the rain had ceased and we walked along the seawall, there came the comic cry of one sailing along the beach. As the tide ebbed and more waves of gulls glided in to roost, there were more distinctive calls and more black hoods showing among the (not very) Black-headed & pearly-backed Common Gulls along the low tide mark.

On the roadside pool, no sign of the ibis but a pair of GC Grebes symmetrically displaying.

Round white wings which I took to be those of an egret passed behind Blackthorn on the PLPT land and emerged as attached to a Barn Owl. Although they regularly hunt over Carter’s Flood, just a few hundred metres away, this is the first I’ve seen on Trust land. It fluttered back & forth just behind a group of jumping new lambs.

From the garden of an empty sea-front house, I could hear a Chiffchaff calling. I couldn’t get much of a view but then realised there were two other little birds: brilliant Firecrests right by the path.