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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading...

MBDA UK Ltd: Electronic Sub-System Design Verification engineer

Flexible working, annual bonus, pension & more.: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the oppor...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Architect

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? MBDA has e...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Design Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor