A revelation in Kew: these gardens are not just a landscape – but a soundscape, too

What does birdsong mean? On a trip to Kew with naturalist and writer Mark Cocker, our writer found out

A A A

To be shown something new in a familiar landscape is an exhilarating experience, and it happened to me at the weekend with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

You go to Kew, generally speaking, to see plants, thousands of them from crocuses the size of your little finger to redwood trees 120ft high; its 300 acres house the world’s most fascinating plant collection, both of the wild and the cultivated, set in a series of striking leafy vistas all the more remarkable for being located at the edge of London’s South Circular Road.

But such a substantial green island in the urban sea is also interesting for its birds. The most evident these days are the ring-necked parakeets, screaming green flashes in the air which have become as typical of the place as its seasonal flower displays. Carrion crows and woodpigeons also abound, accompanied by magpies, jays and jackdaws, and the common garden songbirds: robins, wrens, blackbirds and blue tits, with the occasional song thrush.

It’s agreeable, the bird life of Kew, but you wouldn’t say it was special; at least, I wouldn’t have done, until last Saturday, when I took Mark Cocker there. Mark is a naturalist and writer familiar to many people as the author of Birds Britannica, the riveting encyclopaedia of the cultural aspects of our avifauna; he is also, on a more basic level, one of Britain’s leading birders, able to look at a dot two hundred yards away and tell you it’s a black redstart. Yet his visual skills are if anything exceeded by his aural skills; Mark has head-turning expertise with birdsong.

What Mark does is unlock the soundscape: he decodes the complex, surrounding birdsong mix of a given place. Twice before I’ve witnessed him do it – that is, separate out every single tweet, chirrup and whistle of the local birds and reveal how rich the avifauna really was.

Once was on the River Wye in Derbyshire, once in the Norfolk Broads; and on Saturday he did it with Kew, on his first visit. He picked up and identified the subtle and often-faint calls of a dozen species I had never seen there – besides picking up all the familiar ones – and sure enough, once he had located them by song, there they were in the binoculars (usually dots in the treetops).

He began with siskins, those charming glowing-green finches, and then picked up the calls of their cousins, goldfinches, and the much less familiar redpolls; then it was the turn of goldcrests, and coal tits, and long-tailed tits and great spotted woodpeckers, and then redwings and mistle thrushes, and a teal on the nearby Thames, while all the time the parakeets were screaming their heads off all around us. In Queen Charlotte’s Cottage Gardens, the wooded area, he suddenly said to me “There’s a predator about”, because the blue tits had begun giving alarm calls; sure enough, a few seconds later, a sparrowhawk flashed past.

I was astounded: I live around the corner from Kew and have been visiting regularly for 20 years. I thought I knew the place well, but it felt as if Mark was revealing a whole new dimension to it. It suddenly felt much richer in widlife, and even more to be cherished, and I said to him once again “I don’t know how you do it”, and he laughed and said: “Just 10,000 hours.”

That’s the fashionable sociological rule about how long it takes to be a success at anything. Mark said: “I should be good at it. I’ve been doing it for 40 years.”

Birdwatching books of 2013

Mark Cocker’s next book is a mammoth version of Birds Britannica for the whole world: Birds and People comes out this year from Random House, and it will be a significant event in a summer rich in ornithological publishing. Also eagerly awaited in 2013: Bird Atlas 2007-11: the Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland, by Dawn Balmer and others, from the British Trust for Ornithology, and Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, from Princeton University Press.

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there