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.

Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Consultant

£50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Urgently seeking a Dynam...

Test Lead - Financial Reporting - Banking - London

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Test Lead, London, Banking, Financial Reporting, ...

Business Analyst, Retail Bank, £375-400p/d

£375 - £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Embedded Software Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + V. Competitive : Progressive Recruitment: Embedded...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game