Get Back Great Britain: Listen out for the real twitterati

A monthly series following Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley as they reconnect with the simple things in life.

Rob Cowen,Leo Critchley
Friday 23 March 2012 13:00

Learning to identify the melodies bursting into life around us at this time of year can turn a simple walk into a tuning-in experience, connecting us to our surroundings. Recent research confirms that birdsong has a positive impact on our mood and cognitive abilities. So, with the arrival of spring heralding a burgeoning dawn chorus in our trees, hedgerows and even in the heart of our towns and cities, there's no better time to get up early and take in the wonder of nature's sunrise symphony.

Start by learning something easy, such as the collared dove. Listen out for its unmistakably warm "coo-COO-coo". It's not a pretty melody, but it is a good practice tune and peacefully repetitive, which is ironic considering it mirrors the football chant "u-NI-ted".

Next, try to memorise the robin's song, which often is the first in the dawn chorus. It is bright and short, a few seconds of "twiddle-oo, twiddle-eedee, twiddle" or a variation on that theme. You should also be able to see its tell-tale red breast.

The blackbird is similarly easy to spot (all black; orange beak) and another early starter. Its smooth, rounded, liquid-honey notes are beautiful, the very sound of pastoral England. Its song begins lower in register than the robin but finishes in a flashy, inquisitive flurry, reminiscent of R2D2's squeaking and whistling noises in Star Wars.

The chiff-chaff's name is onomatopoeic and has unfairly been compared to a rusty wheel, with its two, leisurely sung notes. However, it sometimes sings one or the other a number of times before swapping. This is opposed to the great tit, which always swaps between its distinct two notes, very much like it is singing the word "teacher" repetitively and quickly.

King of the singers, however, is the song thrush. Browning recorded its tendency to repeat its phrases, "That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over", which is odd considering its vast repertoire; it has more than 100. If you hear what sounds like a virtuoso flautist running through their back catalogue, the odds are that it's a song thrush.

The more lines you memorise, the more you want to learn – and knowing even a few phrases is akin to tuning a radio and hearing a favourite song through the static.

We were taking a break from building a traditional Native American "wiki-up" shelter from hazel saplings in the balmy spring sunshine. Sitting close to a field boundary, the slants of light through the West Sussex wood threw hovering yellow motes against the green of the budding branches and dog's mercury to give the glade a magical quality. Here and there along the nearby path a pale yellow primrose stood in contrast to the thicker, egg-yolk coloured daffodils and occasional purple crocus.

Having spent the night before sleeping in the woods, our ears had been filled since dawn with the swelling melodies of the birds in the canopy. But it was only now, as we both stilled and listened, cups of tea in hand, that we shut our eyes and let the musical lines wash over us. A robin and pair of blue tits were closest, almost above us, but back further into the trees; a blackbird and wren were also competing for attention.

It was a worthy duel and the blackbird's notes rose majestically, only to be pipped by the wren's effortless, soaring solo: 740 different notes in a minute that can carry nearly half a mile. It sounded like jazz musicians riffing off each other.

Ours were the best seats in the house, and the 10-minute break stretched into an hour. The warm sun prickled our skin; our minds drifted off through the echoing birch, hazel and oak.

The sound of birds singing speaks to our instincts. Where birds thrive and choose to settle is dependent on vegetation and water. Hearing them is a gentle balm to our soul, one we should all pause to enjoy whenever and wherever we hear it.

Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild by Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley is out now (Hodder/Coronet, £14.99).

Find the dawn chorus line

Parks, gardens, rural countryside, marshes, woods, or a busy street with birch trees planted for decoration. Birds use any territory they can get. You will hear their song everywhere, but here are a few good places to start:

Runnymede, Windsor, Berkshire

The historic landscape includes ancient forest, verdant meadows and pathways alongside the Thames, all providing the perfect habitat for birds. Expect a cross-section of residents and migrants at this peaceful site with the sounds of skylarks famously filling the air.

Harlow Carr, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

You don't have to go into the beautiful RHS gardens to savour the selection of birdsong (although it's well worth a visit too). Footpaths opposite the entrance take you deep into Harrogate's "Pinewoods", where song thrushes, blackbirds, owls, and all manner of British birdlife reside.

Hampstead Heath, London

Bill Oddie's hot spot is rife with British birds, from siskins to sparrowhawks, as well an exotic invader – the squawking ring-tailed parakeet. The hedging and trees are perfect sites for nesting and dawn and dusk on the misty heath heralds vocal battles for territory and mates.

The Lodge RSPB Reserve, Bedfordshire

Nuthatches, green woodpeckers, long-tailed tits as well as red kites and kestrels abound in this fantastic bird reserve. The lodge also organises guided walks and bird identification trips so you can polish up your twitching and listening skills.

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