As we cel­e­brate Dawn Cho­rus Day this month, Susy Smith tunes into na­ture’s early-morn­ing choir

Country Living (UK) - - CONTENTS - NEXT MONTH Susy Smith cel­e­brates the lo­cal shops at the heart of Bri­tish life. Mean­while, find more about dawn cho­rus walks and how you can sup­port our song­birds on page 82.

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.

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