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April birds

Other April pages: Intro and woodland flowersVerge and field flowersBlossom and shrubsThe greening of the treesButterflies and insects 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 a peak time for birdsong, with many of the native species in full voice early in the month and migrants arriving and in a hurry to mate. The loudest and most frequent song comes when males are still trying to find a mate or establish territories, which means they have to project their song over a long distance. Once territories are set, singing only needs to remind neighbours not to trespass and so is of a lower volume but often still quite intense. Once there are young to feed - later in April or early in May - males have less time for singing and some species stop singing altogether. But other birds continue to sing until their young are fledged and independent.

Singing is at its most intense at and just after dawn, but most of us are not awake to hear it. Partly this is the males' way of reminding rivals that they are still there but this is also a time when it is too dark to feed, so there is little else to do. There is then a pause as the birds breakfast, but song resumes again mid morning and some species are vocal all day. Towards evening there is then a renewed burst, and blackbirds and song thrushes tend to dominate as the light fades.

Blackbirds are one of the easier birds to spot, as they tend to sit on high perches as they send out their wonderful melodic song, often in competion with a nearby rival. They can sing at any time of 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. In ancient woodland as well as 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 - a call that can also be used to ward off predators.

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 frequent in the second half of the month. Their song is identifiable by the way they repeat a variety of phrases. Much less common is the mistle thrush, which sounds like a very clipped version of the blackbird and may occasionally be heard right up to the end of April.

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" (sometimes more like "twit...twit...twit") ring out over woodland. It is a very characteristic April sound, but it falls silent once there are young to rear, usually by the end of the month, since this is a bird that only sings when setting up a territory and attracting a mate.

Chaffinches lay eggs in late April or early May, so they are still in full mating mode earlier 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 and mates. 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 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.

Dunnocks lay 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, having declined 75 percent in the last twenty years, 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 on 23 April 2016 near Ightham Mote in Kent and again on 28 April 2018 in the same place. Both cuckoos and turtles doves are also supposed to be common at the RSPB Otmoor Reserve north east of Oxford.

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 close look 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, however, 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 they are laying eggs during April and by mid month their song is much more occasional - maybe one or two snatches in a day's walk. Now and then you might hear the slightly different see-saw songs of coal tits, particularly near conifers, which are their favourite habitat.

Blue tits continue to sing their thin piping mating song while building nests prior to laying eggs early in May. 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 near houses. 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, skylarks 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. Northerly or easterly winds can shut up all but the hardier species - blackbirds, song thrushes, great tits, blue tits, wrens and dunnocks, which start singing in the winter and so are more used to variable temperatures. In 2013 an icy March caused all birdsong to cease and it was not until the second week of April in that year that things returned to anything like normal. In 2018 cold weather in early and mid March seemed to shut chaffinches up and they did not resume singing to any great degree till the second half of April.

More April pages:

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