Other April pages: Intro and woodland flowers • Verge and field flowers • Blossom and shrubs • The greening of the trees • Butterflies, insects and farm animals • Weather
Put your cursor over any photo on this page to see its caption, or click here to see more April bird photos. For pictures, more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.
April is another great month for birdsong, but the reappearance of leaves on bushes and trees means it is a lot harder to see them. Early in the month is perhaps best for the sheer intensity of song as many species are still trying to find a mate or establish territories. Once there are young to feed males have less time for singing, but in the second half of the month migrant species take their place, so there is still a rich variety of song to be heard. In general, birds continue to sing until their young are fledged.
The easiest bird to spot is the blackbird, which sits on high perches and sends out its wonderful melodic song, often in competion with a nearby rival. They can sing all day but there is a kind of "blackbird time", about 3-4pm in the afternoon, when they tend to pipe up, their unhurried song conjuring up the impression that the day's labour is over and it is time to relax. Near houses they dominate the soundscape in the late afternoon and early evening and you can often hear multiple layers of blackbird song. They sometimes resort to tup-tup-tupping competitions with rivals instead, however.
Song thrushes are also especially vocal towards evening and are often the last bird to stop singing as darkness falls, though they perhaps a little less common in the second half of the month. Their song is identifiable by the way it they repeat a variety of phrases. Song thrush populations seem to be quite patchy these days, however - in some places there are lots and in others none. Even less common is the mistle thrush, which sounds like a very clipped version of the blackbird and can occasionally be heard all month.
Robins are already feeding their young by the second half (as are blackbirds), and so their twittering song is less frequently heard than it was earlier in the year and during the day comes in short hurried snatches: at dusk there can still be quite a lot of it and it becomes more prolonged, however. Common throughout the month are the various calls of the nuthatch, whose sharp "wee-wee-wee" call, rapid trills and "de-dit, de-dit, de-dit" ring out over woodland. It is a very characteristic April sound, as the bird lays its eggs at the start of the month and falls silent by its end.
Chaffinches don't lay till early May, so they are still in full mating mode in April and can be heard singing everywhere. Their song is an accelerating riff which seems to trip over itself at its end, but they also make a metronomic tseep!... tseep!....tseep!... that can go on for ages. There are two versions of this - a rather harsh, raspy one (clip: known as a "rain call") and a softer toned one (clip). The latter can sound very much like a similarly repetitive call of the chiffchaff (clip): I have observed both birds making the call at this time of year, and both can engage in duels with other birds where they swop "tseeps" for prolonged periods.
Otherwise chiffchaffs are easily identified by their ponderous three note song (chuff-CHIFF-chaff), which for a time in the first half of April can be so common it drives one crazy. This is because the birds have only arrived from southern Europe or Africa in late March (though not until 10 April in 2013) and are still competing for territories. Later in the month the excitement dies down but chiffchaff song is still regularly heard.
Other migrants are also arriving. Blackcaps turn up quite early in the month and issue a rather random stream of notes that sound devilishly similar to the song of the dunnock, which continues to be heard from time to time throughout the month. The blackcap song is more emphatic and is preceded by some mumbling notes, as if the bird is still working out what riff to sing: it is quite a dominant song during April. Whitethroats, which can arrive later in the month, though sometimes not till May, have a scratchier and much shorter version of the riff. They like low shrubs and are quite easily seen perched on top of them. They sometimes fly up into the air in a display flight.
Just to make life extra confusing late April also sees the arrival of the garden warbler, whose song is like a faster, more demented version of the blackcap's, with something of the scratchiness of the whitethroat. They are not the commonest of birds, and also hard to see, remaining hidden in trees and scrub. If you do catch sight of them they could be mistaken for a chiffchaff, being quite non-descript in appearance with a lighter belly. Despite their name they are not a garden bird.
Female dunnocks are laying eggs during April, a fact that traditionally has been exploited by the parasitic cuckoo. This African migrant is now sadly rare in the south east, but you might hear one from mid month onwards. The area around Haslemere seemed to be a good place to hear them in 2016 and they are also apparently regularly heard in the highlands of Scotland. Even rarer is the purring of the turtle dove, which used to be a common sign of spring. This bird has declined 88 percent since 1970, but I did hear one near Ightham Mote in Kent on 23 April 2016.
Two other exciting summer visitors to look out for are the swallow and the house martin, which arrive around the middle of the month, the swallow having migrated all the way from South Africa. Telling these two apart is also difficult, simply because they fly so fast you rarely get a chance to look closely at them. If you get a proper view, a clear giveaway is the long forked tail of the swallow and the fact that it has a dark throat and back. House martins, by contrast, have a white patch on their rump (the bottom of their back) and a white throat.
Swallows also fly closer to the ground and have a smoother, less undulating flight than house martins. They can twist and turn with incredible dexterity and are often seen flying low over pasture or arable fields. They nest in pairs while house martins live in great colonies and like to sit in groups on telegraph wires or walls to watch the world go by, though individual swallows also do that. If you see more than two birds together it does not necessarily mean they are house martins, as swallows may also concentrate over a particularly good feeding site. But if you see a dozen or more birds in the sky above or near a farmhouse, they are quite likely to be house martins.
You can still hear the songs of great tits which so filled the woodland in February and March, but by mid month it is a much more occasional event - maybe one or two snatches in a day's walk. By the end of the month the birds are nest building prior to laying eggs. You can also hear the slightly different see-saw songs of coal tits in April, particularly near conifers, which are their favourite habitat.
Blue tits continue to sing their thin piping mating song too, while building nests prior to laying eggs in late April. But if you hear this song in fields with hedgerows later in the month, pay attention as it might just be that of the yellowhammer instead. The full song of this bird, with its bright yellow head plummage, is very distinctive - a rapid series of notes ending in a prolonged "cheese" sound, though it often doesn't bother with the cheese bit, which is where confusion with a blue tit may arise. It normally starts to sing in May, but may start early if April is warm (eg in 2011).
Other birdsong in April includes wrens, who make a sudden loud outburst of notes with a trill in its centre from some nearby bush. Although they can make do this at any time of year, this month and March are when they are most vocal. You can still hear male greenfinches making heavy "squeezh" noises from high perches (nearly always near houses) and you can also hear lone goldfinch males twittering from a tree top, as well as twittering communal groups of them in flight. (Be careful when identifying goldfinch song because it shares a certain squeaky toy quality with the sound swallows make when flying overhead).
Sparrows continue to cheep away in places near houses, though they are sadly not very common these days. If you get to see the singer, it is often a lone male on a perch, though they seem always to remain a communal bird. Another bird associated with habitation is the wood pigeon, whose hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo call is often heard near houses but also sometimes in wilder woods. Collared doves (hoo-hooo hoo) are always heard near houses, however. The throaty "woo" of the stock dove sometimes rings out in the woods.
Birds that are sadly now much rarer but which might be lucky enough to hear in April include the bullfinch, which has a soft sighing song that is quite distinctive but has declined massively along with traditional apple orchards which were one of its favourite homes, or the willow warbler, a migrant with a song that is a gently descening cascade of notes and which might be confused with the superficially similar song of the chaffinch, and which is found in more open country such as downland. Over farmland, the lapwing, a bird with a very distinctive crest on its head, can be identified by its extraordinary mewing cries and its habit of dropping out of the air as part of its display.
You might also still hear the odd greater spotted woodpecker drumming on a tree to attract a mate, though usually this stops by the end of the third week or so. The hysterical laugh (known as a "yaffle") of the green woodpecker can be heard all month. As in previous months, larks can be heard trilling over grassland or - surprisingly - arable fields (one wonders how successful their breeding efforts are in the latter habitat).
Colder than usual weather can make a difference to how much birdsong there is. In 2013 an arctic March caused all birdsong to cease, and for the first week of April almost none was heard. It took until the second week of the month for it to return to anything like normal. A cold week in late April 2016 did nothing to deter blackbirds, great tits, wrens or dunnocks, however, either because they are used to the winter cold or because they had already started breeding by this point.
More April pages:
- Intro and woodland flowers
- Verge and field flowers
- Blossom and shrubs
- The greening of the trees
- Butterflies, insects and farm animals
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