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As we celebrate Dawn Chorus Day this month, Susy Smith tunes into nature’s early-morning choir
To celebrate International Dawn Chorus Day, Susy Smith embarks on an early morning stroll to enjoy birdsong at its best
Four-thirty on a still morning in May and I am padding along by the river near my home. A brisk walk to get here has shaken the sleep from my eyes and the bleariness from my head. As the mist rises off the water and the first stirrings of light start to show in the East, I feel like the only person in the world. And then it begins: a song thrush, high in a huge oak, breaks into song, romancing me by repeating each of his phrases several times (he has a repertoire of more than 100 to choose from). I scan the treetops with my binoculars until I find him silhouetted against the lightening sky on the uppermost branch, his speckled breast swelling as he sings his heart out.
Nearby, the familiar, fluted notes of a robin drift down to me, while in the distance, the sublimely beautiful song of a blackbird floats across the quiet air. To my left, in a blackthorn thicket, the astonishingly noisy churring of a wren suddenly hits the air and I see it, flitting in and out of the tangled branches. It’s unbelievable that such a tiny creature can summon up anything so sonorous.
The song of these first birds will soon be joined by many others – the migrant blackcaps, chiffchaffs and whitethroats that have flown hundreds, or indeed thousands, of miles from Africa and the Mediterranean will all begin to add their melodic notes to the choir and the performance will swell to a crescendo as the sun rises.
I became a birder by accident. Growing up in the suburbs of Belfast, I enjoyed the acrobatics of blue tits hanging from the bacon rind and coconut halves my mother hung outside our dining-room window. I laughed at the brash behaviour of the starlings that strutted around on our lawn. But it was as an adult, when dogwalking got me out early in the morning and again in the evenings, that I began to notice birdsong and wantedto know more. I bought my first pair of binoculars, started searching for the source of the songs I heard, and gradually learned to identify many species.
These days, it’s easier – a quick internet search offers plenty of recordings of song: indeed, last year the RSPB released a track of birdsong as part of a campaign to draw attention to the demise of many of our once-common birds such as the sparrow, starling and song-thrush. For those keen to get out and about, the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust run guided walks for committed (and would-be) birders. The first Sunday in May is International Dawn Chorus Day (this year it’s on 3 May) and it is celebrated all over the world with live broadcasts from wildlife reserves across Europe and as far afield as India and Canada.
May also heralds the arrival of the swifts, swallows and martins as they fly in from their African wintering grounds to breed. They are only here for a short time, so we must catch them while we can. I love to scan the skies and watch as they slice, dip and soar through the air, scooping up the insects. Several years ago, I rescued a fledgling swift that had fallen from its nest. (I wrote a piece about it in my early days as editor of Country Living.) They are remarkable birds: within weeks of fledging, the young will fly the thousands of miles to Africa – eating, sleeping and mating on the wing – and will not land again until mature enough to breed.
But for me, the most exquisite of all avian performances in May is the song of the skylark. They nest in rough grass on farmland and moorland, nature reserves and parkland. Often inconspicuous on the ground, it is when they take to the air and rise to heights of 200ft that you will hear their continuous, glorious song. I was inspired to seek them out, many years ago, by a BBC Radio 4 programme about Ralph Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece, Lark Ascending. I listen to it from time to time on BBC Sounds. Next to a walk where it’s just me, my binoculars and my walking boots, it is the quickest and most lovely route to calm that I know.