As we have just passed International Dawn Chorus Day (always the first Sunday in May), it is high time to introduce you to another set of birds. This time, it is the chiffchaff, the song thrush and the skylark; just as the birds in the previous posts (https://into-nature.org/2020/03/23/get-to-know-your-birds/ and https://into-nature.org/2020/04/06/get-to-know-your-birds-2/) they are really easy to identify by their song.
The chiffchaff is one of those birds, like the cuckoo, that are named after the sound they make (which is called onomatopoeia) – perfect for us learners of bird calls! It is rarely seen but often heard and literally just goes ‘chiff, chiff, chaff, chaff, chiff, chiff, chaff’ or a variation of this. Interestingly, in German the bird is called a Zilpzalp for the same reason, although I fail to hear how it would say this, plus it is quite a tongue twister.
The chiffchaff can be found in woodlands, parks and sometimes gardens. It is mainly a migratory bird, arriving in March from Southern Europe or Western Africa, but with climate change, it seems more of them are overwintering in Britain. It always fills my heart with joy when I hear the first chiffchaff of the year. The willow warbler looks almost identical to the chiffchaff but has a very different sound.
Oh, I do love hearing a song thrush. Being related to the blackbird, which is one of my favourites, the song thrush’s notes have quite a similar quality. It is very easily recognised by the fact that it repeats phrases, of which it has many (I read one source quoting 100, another 200), mostly two, three or four times.
The song thrush can often be seen perching high up on tree tops, singing its heart out, and is striking with its dark brown dots on a pale chest. It is, however, very similar to the mistle thrush which is bigger and looks more grey than brown.
One of the favourite foods of song thrushes (after earth worms) are snails. They pick them up with their beaks and smash them onto rocks, just like an anvil, to break open the shells and reach the snails. If you come across a rock with broken shells all over, you know who has been at work!
Sadly, the song thrush is in decline and on the red list for conservation, most likely down to the loss of habitats like hedgerows, wet ditches and pasture.
Walk over grassland commons or short cropped farmland and if you are lucky you will hear the high pitched, seemingly never-ending song of the skylark. These birds do not deliver their song perched from a branch, no, they shoot almost vertically high up into the sky (up to 300 m!) where they stay and sing – mostly not visible to us – for several minutes up to an hour (!!) before parachuting back down to the ground. A-m-a-z-i-n-g!
I always find hearing a skylark incredibly uplifting. Maybe it is the fact that I can mostly hear but rarely see them, giving them a slightly mysterious quality, the thought that there might be a nest hidden somewhere, anywhere, in the grass or the sad fact that the skylark, like the song thrush, is on the red list which makes it a rather special encounter.
You are very likely to hear them on Rodborough and Minchinhampton Common. Where else do you normally encounter them? Please let me know.
If you would like to support the conservation of birds, please consider donating to or becoming a member of a local or national conservation charity like the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts or the National Trust. They do a fantastic job managing reserves, working with farmers and lobbying for wildlife in Westminster and beyond.