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March birds

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For pictures, more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

March is a good month to identify common countryside birds and their songs. Most native woodland and countryside birds are now in full voice. They are loudest when trying to establish territories and attract mates, when they need to make themselves heard at a distance. Once territories are established, they only have to sing loud enough to defend their territory against their immediate neighbours. The lack of foliage also makes them (relatively) easy to see. However if a cold wind blows from the north or east the amount of birdsong falls off markedly (see Exceptions at the bottom of this page for some extreme examples).

You can still hear lots of robins during the month, especially at dusk, as well as great tits, whose see-saw song ("teacher teacher") is accompanied by a range of other calls, including one that sounds like "see-choo-choo" and a single or rapid series of strident "tseeps". (The more different sounds a great tit can make, the more mating success it has, apparently.) Being used to singing in January, both birds are less likely than other birds to fall silent in cold weather.

The diminutive coal tit produces a similar song - "too-twee too-twee too-twee" - while the mating call of the blue tit (another cold weather stalwart) is a soft repeated note. If you hear this, make sure it is not coming from a nuthatch, however. It has four different calls, one of which sounds a bit like the blue tit, only with more emphasis, and another of which has a halting 'de-wit de-wit' rhythm. They can be heard throughout the month but increasingly so towards its end.

Chaffinches continue their cascading song, though they are not quite up to their full intensity yet. You maybe only hear them once or twice a day though more if the weather is warmer. They also occasionally make "chink chink" calls (similar to ones also made by great tits) and a sort of metronomic repeated tseep (about one tseep per second). Sometimes this repeated call (known as a "rain call", though it doesn't necessarily or even usually happen when rain is due) has a raspy quality while sometimes the tone is softer. Sometimes two males exchange tseeps monotonously from opposing perches. Late in the month you may just be hearing a chiffchaff, which has a similar call (see below).

The nasal "squeezh" which is the mating call of the greenfinch is also in evidence near human habitation throughout the month (though sadly it seems to be getting less common as the years go by) and they also make a range of trilling sounds. They are fairly easy to see as they tend to perch on the top of trees or bushes. In addition you can see (or more usually hear) the twittering of goldfinches. Though this sounds communal, often the source turns out to be a lone male, particularly later in the month. This is also true of sparrows. They live communally near human habitation and often can be heard cheeping from inside a bush. But again the source of the noise often turns out to be just one male.

Other birds in full voice include song thrushes – identifiable because they repeat a whole range of different phrases. They are particularly prominent at dusk, when they are usually the last bird to stop singing, though can be heard during the day too. You may also hear the much less common mistle thrush, which makes a kind of clipped blackbird song with phrases of just four or five notes, and which always sounds as if it is a long way away even when it is not.

Not often noticed but very widely heard are dunnocks, whose song is like a squeaky supermarket trolley wheel and who are often confused with sparrows due to their dull brown plumage. They are at their most vocal in March, though this can tail off later in the month. This is also an excellent time of year to hear the loud trilling riff of a wren. They can make this at any time of the year, but in March it reaches its greatest intensity, with some birds making a whole series of them in a row.

You continue to sometimes hear wood pigeons ("hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo") and collared doves ("hoo-hooo hoo"), the latter generally near houses, the former both near houses and in woodland, as well as the throaty "woo" of the stock dove (only in woodland, though this can be suburban woodland). Listen out too for for the laughing call of the green woodpecker (known as a "yaffle"), a regular sound in March, and the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker: it also has a chik...chik call which is easy to confuse with one of the calls made by blackbirds.

Above grassland and arable fields skylarks can be heard twittering – a summer sound that rather seems out of place at this time of year. Much more rarely you may hear the strange cry of a lapwing over arable fields (watch out for their amazing display flight, in which they suddenly tumble downwards - the reason for their name). Equally elusive these days is the soft shy whistling song of the bullfinch, which is found near wood edges.

In contrast, very prominent in the soundscape - and very evocative of spring - are the measured and melodious phrases of blackbirds, which can still be somewhat tentative early in the month but are in their full stride by its end, as more experienced males join the newbies who are the ones generally singing in February. Blackbirds can be heard at any time of day, but mid afternoon onwards seems to be their favourite time for piping up. By mid month there can be several singing at once at dusk, either near habitation or in woodland, creating a wonderful layered effect. Blackbirds should be laying their eggs during March, and the same is true of robins, dunnocks, song thrushes, and long-tailed tits. Nuthatches follow in early April, but great tits and blue tits do not lay till late April, and chaffinches not till May.

Beautiful though blackbird song is, however, the most exciting moment in March is when you hear your first chiffchaff, the first summer migrant bird to arrive (in this case from the Mediterranean). Its ponderous three note song can be heard in the last ten days of the month (as early as the 12th in 2014). Once you have heard one, they are soon everywhere.

Leaving the UK at the same time are fieldfares and redwings - flocks of Scandinavian thrushes which winter here and can still be seen on arable fields and in suburban parks in early March, but unobtrusively set off for home as the month progresses. The same is true of siskins from the continent - a bird more common in Scotland and Wales than in the south east, but still occasionally seen. Enormous flocks of siskins can fill trees with lively chatter, and some stay here year round to breed.

In the last few days of March 2017 and 2019 blackcaps also arrived from the continent - their song is a more confident version of the dunnock's, with a characteristic mumble at the beginning when they seem to be struggling to find the beat. But more normally blackcaps arrive in early April.

Exceptions to the above include March 2013, when intensely cold easterly winds set in from the 10th and lasted into April. The effect was to take birdsong back to early January levels, and by the end of the month to silence it almost entirely. Blackbirds did not really start singing, except in very isolated cases, and the song thrushes, mistle thrushes and chaffinches stopped by mid month. Dunnocks kept going till the end of third week, as did wrens, but great tits and blue tits were only occasionally heard. Many days the only song was from a robin or two, with perhaps the occasional greenfinch or goldfinch. Chiffchaffs did not appear until 10 April, and fieldfares and redwings were still stranded in the UK until at least the end of March.

In 2018 a week of snow and intensely cold easterly winds hit at the end of February just as chaffinches, wrens and greenfinches were starting to sing: there was a three day repeat of this weather two weeks later. The effect was to reduce birdsong to winter species for much of March - robin, great tit, blue tit and dunnock, with blue tits even singing in the snow. Blackbirds remained relatively subdued all month and not till its very end was there the effect of several singing at once. Song thrushes, chaffinches and greenfinches were largely silent and only started singing tentatively at the month's end. Wrens did not sing in any persistent manner until mid March, and chiffchaffs did not appear until 31 March. Other bird activity was as described above.

More March pages:

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